I spent last evening watching a series of CNN talking heads reminiscing through their shock at the death of their colleague, interspersed with clips from Parts Unknown, followed by a binge of YouTube clips until midnight. That just made things worse.
Bourdain was more than just a celebrity chef, a travel writer, a memorist, a foodie, and an almost Hemingway-esque figure of conventional masculinity who could also be a vocal advocate for #metoo. He was nothing less than the Poet Laureate of food:
"It is indeed marvelous
An irony-free zone
Where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation is welcomed.
Its warm, yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation
Inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered
All across the South
To come inside
A place of safety
It never closes
It is always...always faithful
Always there...for you."
Do you know what that's about? Well, here's your answer, about 23 seconds in:
Who else could write this about Waffle House, of all places? Those roadway food joints that beckon long distance truckers and interstate vacationers, now forever tainted by yet another angry white incel asshole.
"The Mediterranean Sea itself trembles
The ground shakes beneath the wheels
Of our heavy metal thunder
Back in Beirut after all these years
The first time I was here did not end well
But it made no difference to me
I love it here
In spite of everything
I love it here"
Who else would write this about BEIRUT, of all places?
Type in "Anthony Bourdain" into YouTube and just pick a video....any video. Every one is a gem of poetry and deliciousness and breathtaking visual beauty, as if the humdrum travelogues to which we're accustomed were suddenly being experienced on hallucinogens, our perceptions ticked up a notch. Strangers become friends, ugliness and desolation becomes art, and the food that fries and simmers and is dished up by people whose faces show the trials of their lives in the dark alleys of the world becomes the nectar of the gods.
Ask most people what they would do if they won the lottery, and they say "I'd travel the world." For most people, that means seeing the major world sites that we know about. Anthony Bourdain at the time of his death had built a career that most people can only dream about. Yes, his celebrity and the resources provided him by virtue of having a television show allowed him to be welcomed in places most of us would not dare venture, and invited into people's homes to actually share in the lives that real people live in countries all over the world. But where most people might look at the overall magnificence of some edifice somewhere in the same travel photos everyone takes, Anthony Bourdain would find the little fresco hidden in the corner that most people never would notice, of someone ancient cooking something over a fire, and then go out looking for that something in an alley in the worst part of town -- and find it.
We look at others, particularly people who have fame and money, and think their lives are charmed, that they could not possibly have any inner pain. Ordinary people, yes. My mother attempted suicide when I was nine years old, but had I been old enough to really understand it (and if we'd actually been told about it at the time, but we weren't), it would not have been surprising, given the number of times I'd seen her sprawled on the steps crying. My mother survived. Her sister, who took the same dose of the same sleeping pill four years later, didn't.
My aunt was to all outside appearances the perfect 1950s housewife. Trim, pretty, with a handsome husband and three smart, active sons, she kept a tidy home, baked cookies, and wrote down recipes in meticulous, tiny handwriting. Her suicide took place on Mother's Day, of all days. I think it was meant as a giant "Fuck you" to her own mother, rather than to her children, but I will never be sure. I am not in contact with any cousins from that side of the family, and I can't say I blame them for wanting no reminders of what their mother did.
Even Mr. Brilliant was not immune. I now believe that he battled intermittent depression for much of his life, but in 1989, after quitting his job to take a computer programming class at NYU School of Continuing Education and being told by the instructor that no one without a degree would pass the course, he went into a tailspin that resulted in me bodily stopping him from driving up to the George Washington Bridge and jumping. And when he became ill with bladder cancer, his first instinct was to go to an assisted suicide state (not that he would have passed the psych test these states require). It was really only after the first of his surgeries for moyamoya that he started to feel hopeful about the future (which makes the fact that he had a stroke a month later almost to the day that much more heartbreaking).
So yes, we get it when ordinary people are destroyed by their own thwarted dreams. My family members with depression all had broken dreams of one kind or another. Mom had been a talented violinist. My aunt had a degree in physical chemistry from Temple University. Mr. Brilliant had built a career as a computer network whiz out of nothing only to find himself aged out of it, scrambling from one short-term contract to the next. But what of someone like Anthony Bourdain, who from all outside appearances had the kind of larger-than-life life that so many dream of but never even think they can achieve?
Days before he died, Bourdain bought a John Lurie painting titled "The Sky Is Falling, I am Learning to Live With It."
Did this painting, which could be interpreted as a mind crumbling, speak to what was going on in Bourdain's mind? Does it reflect the kind of "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold" feeling of dread so many of us feel in the age of Trump, only he, this TV avatar of articulate tough-guyness, was somehow less able to deal with it than we have been (at least so far)? Had he received a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimers, or Lewy Body Dementia, or some other disease that would gradually take away his ability to travel, to eat, to taste food, to do what he was clearly born to do? Or is it simply another case of a genius unable to live in his own head?
Most of us who lose someone we love have a certain amount of anger towards the person who died: "How could you leave me?" It's irrational, and our rational mind usually deals with it fairly quickly so we can do the work of grieving. In the case of suicide, it's more difficult for that anger to dissipate. Suicide is abandonment writ large -- not only did the person leave us, but did it deliberately. And why?
And that is part of why losing Anthony Bourdain hits harder than some other celebrity suicides. Because this was a man who transcended national borders. He visited countries we're supposed to think of as enemies. He was welcomed into people's homes. He showed us that no matter what our politicians think, people are people and that cooking food, serving food, trying new foods, sharing food, brings us all just a little closer. It becomes that much more difficult to think about being at war with Iran when you've seen Anthony Bourdain share a bounteous and delicious meal with an Iranian family. None of that was enough to keep him with us. So in an age when hate and division is on the rise, being cooked up in the dark alleys of the minds of white nationalists, we are left to wonder: What did Anthony Bourdain see coming that made it all seem futile? What did he see coming that we haven't yet perceived?
And so here we are, scouring Google to find some kind of explanation -- an erotic asphyxiation experiment gone wrong, an unknown, potentially fatal neurological disease, something, anything, so that we don't have to think that someone who could navigate the rural roads and urban alleys of the world and make it just a bit kinder, a bit warmer, a bit more nourishing, was unable to navigate his own mind.