Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

Diana Athill’s Journey

The ultimate road trip

It is of course a cliché, but “the journey of life” is the ultimate road trip; and from time to time, I encounter individuals in my travels who embody humanist principles of the highest order; and who also have a very special “talent” (for want of a better word) for expressing in words and deeds a worldview that is wisdom writ large.

These are not always well-known people. As a matter of fact they are more often than not “simple people” who seem to have absorbed something from their physical and ethical environments that challenges my own penchant for skepticism — or worse — pessimism.

They are also not always or necessarily happy people.

Recently, I was walking along a beach in Mexico and fell into conversation with an older gentleman, a 72-year-old man from Ohio who seemed to have been “tested” a lot by his God. He had suffered serious physical ailments, marriage breakdown, had spent years caring for an aging mother, and (I’m not sure why I found this strange), despite his age, he was still quite conflicted about sex.

He spoke easily and without guile to me as we moved slowly along the beach next to the beautiful turquoise sea. At one point he described, without any apparent ulterior motive, about the time not too many years ago when he had “reached his limit”; and had become suicidal. He began sleeping with a revolver under his pillow waiting for his courage to give him “permission” to end his life.

Of course, he managed to survive that tipping point, and now seems relatively content, although still resigned to being simply mortal.

When we were about to go our separate ways, he took me firmly by the arm and said, “I want to tell you the most important thing I have learned in life.” Pausing for a brief moment to make sure that I had made full eye contact with him, he said, “It’s not a battle of flesh and blood.”

I suppose that what he might have been referring to is that it is a spiritual battle: of the mind, of the non-physical self, of the ephemeral self.

Whatever he meant, it is food for thought.

One person’s view of moral intelligence and other life lessons

I never met Diana Athill, but I have read her work; and very much admire her amazing facility with language — in all its forms.

I also admire her wisdom and her life’s journey with all its ups and downs.

Diana was co-founder, and editor for many years, of the publishing company André Deutsch Ltd. In her autobiography Stet, (Granta Books, London, 2000), she expresses in a few paragraphs her view of the role that “intelligence” plays in people choosing to behave in a collaborative and reciprocal fashion. It would appear to be one of the most important lessons she has learned on her life’s journey.

It is a proactive and conscious application of universal human values — in the face of what might seem insurmountable odds — that she suggests is the essence of true intelligence.

At the age of 93, she has just published another memoir, Somewhere Towards the End

In her previous memoir Stet about her life in the publishing business, she wrote:

“Years ago, in a pub near Baker Street, I heard a man say that humankind is seventy per cent brutish, thirty per cent intelligent, and though the thirty per cent is never going to win, it will always be able to leaven the mass just enough to keep us going. That rough and ready assessment of our plight has stayed with me as though it were true, given that one takes ‘intelligence’ to mean not just intellectual agility, but whatever it is in beings that makes for readiness to understand, to look for the essence in other beings and things and events, to respect that essence, to collaborate, to discover, to endure when endurance is necessary, to enjoy: briefly to co-exist. It does, alas, seem likely that sooner or later, either through our own folly or a collision with some wandering heavenly body, we will all vanish in the wake of the dinosaurs; but until that happens I believe that the yeast of intelligence will continue to operate one way or another.”

To listen to Diana Athill in conversation with the BBC click this link.

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