the beautiful lie
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ANTHONY BOURDAIN
ROBERT J. LEWIS
not going anywhere. I hope.
It's been an adventure. We took some
casualties over the years.
Things got broken. Things got lost.
But I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them.
But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it.
He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake . . .
The man’s crime is different from other crimes – for
it makes even crimes impossible.
G. K. Chesterton
hours following his very public death by suicide, CNN’s
lachrymose anchor, John Berman, said, “Everyone wanted to
be Anthony Bourdain.”
-- admittedly sympathy-challenged -- thought was why would we
admire, revere, want to emulate someone who ends up hanging himself
at the end of a rope? Since Mr. Berman was speaking on behalf
of millions of admirers, all of whom, presumptively, would rather
be alive than dead, we are forced to conclude that they hadn’t
figured out that Tony Bourdain’s life was the beautiful
lie that both he and the celebrity makers confectioned out of
the disparate elements of his well documented life, a lie that,
thanks to a complicit media, continues to thrive in the imagination
of his vast society of worshippers and mourners, a lie, that 18
months since his passing, has not been submitted to a post-mortem.
we shouldn’t be surprised since it is in our DNA that at
the behest of our inner groupie we seek out what is exceptional
in others as a way of dealing with the banality of our own lives.
And whether or not the person is real or a fantasy construed for
our distraction and/or entertainment is immaterial. There is an
existential void to be filled, and, like antibodies on virus alert,
our imagination reflexivley springs into action. What matters
is that we come to care about the larger-than-life person as if
s/he is someone we know. “Seen from a distance,”
Camus, “these existences seem to possess
a coherence and unity which they cannot have in reality, but which
seems evident to the spectator. He sees only the salient points
of these lives without taking into account the details of corrosion.”
ruggedly handsome, unselfconsciously virile, smart and observant,
he had it all and we all wanted it. He spoke directly from the
heart to the heart of the matter; he was refreshingly unmannered,
unedited. He once said “I’m not afraid to look like
an idiot.” If, as Arthur Koestler observes in The Act
of Creation, “a snob is someone who when reading Dostoyevsky
is moved not by what he reads but by himself reading Dostoyevsky,”
Bourdain was moved not by his confession but by himself confessing
while making direct I-contact with the camera.
appeal combined an unusual admixture of diffidence and nonchalance.
He could be simultaneously cool and empathetic. He demonstrated
that it was possible to be detached while wearing your heart on
your sleeve. He had no qualms entering his misdeeds, regrets and
all that is “foul and fair” into the public domain
in language that borrowed equally from the X-rated and Barak Obama.
As his popularity and ratings soared, Bourdain would have been
keenly aware that audiences were hugely attracted to his confessional
style, that his charisma was directly related to a willingness
to enter his flaws and foibles into the public domain, and that
his person -- the star he had become -- and not the exotic location
was the take-away destination in Parts Unknown.
hard-living journalist Hunter S. Thompson whom he greatly admired
and who, incidentally, died by his own hand, he was trademarked
as irreverent, a badge of honour that would over time alienate
Bourdain from his essential self as he began to measure himself
through the eyes and expectation of his growing fan base. Bourdain’s
apparent facility and ease in every conceivable environment --
from aristocratic France to the mosquito blighted jungles of Borneo
– became the means to the end of swelling the ranks of his
time, the attention and adoration became a drug he was unable
to refuse, and he quickly learned how to assure his supply by
becoming a work junkie. It was at this critical juncture his downward
ninth or tenth season of Parts Unknown, and not as young
as he once was (in his late 50s) Bourdain became obsessed with
looking good and fit in front of the camera. To that end he lost
weight and began to work out every day, so that when a scene called
for it, he was all too ready to remove his shirt and show us that
middle age going on old was no barrier to projecting masculinity.
That he was away from his wife and young daughter for 260 days
a year was a choice that implicated both the physical and psychological
pressures domesticity entails. Was Bourdain infatuated with his
day job or running away from the truth of himself (ageing star)
that staying at home would have obliged him to confront? Perhaps
a huge chunk of both.
became a media star, the gap between his image and real self grew
to unsustainable proportions. And he would discover the hard way
that he couldn't simultaneously be himself and untrue to himself.
Hooked on the high of celebrityhood, he chose the latter and ended
up sacrificing his personhood on the altar of audience expectation.
kind of person, when invited over by CNN’s Anderson Cooper
for a friendly dinner, sets up a camera in the kitchen? What kind
of person provides for a small film crew when, shirtless, he’s
at the gym working out with weights? How do we account for the
shots he was belting back episode after episode in contrast to
his teetotaling existence at home? Are we to believe that at the
age of 60 Bourdain decided to have his upper body tattooed for
aesthetic reasons -- and not to appear cool and hip?
Bourdain lost his wife and daughter they lost him who was lost
and that includes The Picture of Dorian Gray, is immune
to the ravages of time. In the final season of Parts Unknown,
Bourdain was 61 and clearly lacked the necessities to deal with
the hard facts of growing old, of having to live up to the demanding
masculine role that was expected of him both on and off camera.
When on June 8, 2018 the lie he had been living finally swallowed
him up whole and spit him out dead, we shouldn't have been surprised.
was a time when he should have taken his life, it was when he
was a “damage done” junkie living from one hit to
the next, doing himself and no one around him any good. But alas,
there was a significant deficiency in purchase, in public attention
his passing would have excited. It was only when he became a celebrity,
only when the camera would provide the appropriate amplification,
would suicide become at first a temptation and then an obsession
that took over his life. One can only guess how many times Bourdain
imagined his demise and its after-effects before tightening the
rope around his neck. Recreating the public mourning, the adulation
and eulogies, the obituaries must have worked on him like a powerful
drug that he required more of for the same effect -- to the final
effect that in the end it didn't matter if he weren't around to
time Bourdain slipped away he had become a star unhinged in the
vacuous glitter of fame and celebrity. The only honest moment
he showed the world was in the rendering of his final judgment
on the phony he had become -- by getting rid of it once and for
really happened in that lonely hotel room in Kayserberg, France
is that Anthony Bourdain strangled his persona in order to be
is a tragic reminder that when fame and celebrity conspire to
estrange someone from his or her essential self, in certain instances
nothing less than radical intervention is called for, and whether
or not the afflicted one survives the ordeal is almost beside
distinction between psychology and philosophy is that the former
encourages you to like yourself as you are, while the latter asks
you to make yourself into someone you like. Given the proliferation
of psychology and the virtual disappearance of philosophy from
daily life during the past century, Bourdain, in a very real sense,
didn’t have much of a chance. Everyone around him wanted
him to stay ‘as is.' Surrounded by sycophants and devotees,
there was no one to help him address his radical self-estrangement,
much less set him on the path to recover his essential self.
kind of advice could he expect from his colleagues at CNN? Both
Cooper and Don
Lemon worshipped him, they wanted to be like him.
And like the legions of his admirers, their hands, too, are on
the rope that took him away from us. Where there should have been
a helping hand (a real friend) there was only the unrelenting
din of love and adoration and applause that became deafening.
Bourdain’s afterlife has been as much of a lie as was his
actual life, the real person remains an enigma, and what was authentic
in the man and his life is still waiting to be exhumed. The blinded-by-the-light
media tried to explain away the suicide to a defective sequence
of genes, conveniently exculpating itself and the star of the
condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” (Adorno)
maybe one day, on his behalf, the people who knew Tony well will
speak the truth to the aura that continues to obscure him, to
the worship and veneration that have disfigured him beyond recognition.
again, if art is said to happen when the artwork is superior to,
more engaging than the thing itself -- Cezanne's apples more than
the bowl of apples -- we should be thankful that Anthony Bourdain
sacrificed his personhood, gave his life for his groundbreaking
Parts Unknown. We got what we wanted: entertainment and
edification. CNN scored big time on the ratings. And Tony got
what he wanted: fame, adulation and a robust afterlife.
thing we really know about Tony Bourdain is that he was not the
television personality we came to know. Which isn’t to say
he is not the good friend who is missed who is no longer around.
Dear Robert Lewis. Anthony Bourdain might have been a ckeeky
bit of a poser but you belittle his torment; you turn it into
a game or a strategy. We learn more about you than him about
an attitude that makes your conclusions very easy to ignore.
I think you're onto something but he wasn't a phony but he was
very screwed up, wasn't ground, very messed up in his head.
I think that tin foil hat might
have fused to your brain. Un-fuck yourself, sir.
That seems like a gross oversimplification of a complex lifelong
struggle with mental health dating all the way back to his childhood,
and quite frankly, is predicated on a bunch of unsupported justifications
that you just presumed to be true so you could get on with the
piece you wanted to write about fame and suicide. I would not
normally go out of my way to tear into anyone’s writing,
but this does such a disservice to his struggles with mental
health and the complexity of mental health that it’s really
tasteless and irritating.
I have no problem whatsoever with acknowledging the struggles
and difficulties that come with fame, but they're different
for everyone and he's spoken at length about these things from
his own personal perspective many times. There is nothing inherently
wrong or unhealthy with working with a camera crew (which you
have a great relationship) and inviting them into your life
in the service of telling what you hope will be interesting
stories. You've made even that out to be something entirely
of your own construction.Your willingness to bend his story
around whatever assumptions you have cast about deeply personal
and not fully knowable things connected to his work, fame, camera
crew, family, and so on and so forth is just fucking gross,
Oh, I get it. It's one of several factors that's been considered
in every article written since June 8, 2018 that dares to ask
“why?” which is pretty much all of them. I've just
never read one that focuses so intently on this one depressingly
trivial possibility so singularly.
I guess it's the tone I'm objecting to. To posit this theory
as The Reason with such moral and intellectual superiority,
without so much as a whiff of anything resembling human empathy
is just . . . what am I supposed to come away with, as a reader,
By the time I reached the end of this opinion piece, I got the
feeling that the author was trying to pettily reduce his memory
to just some celeb that couldn't hack it. Feels bad, man.
Suicide sucks for everyone left behind, because it saddles you
with this Gordian knot of “why?” forever. It could
be a hundred reasons, it could be one, but the only truth we
can know for sure is we'll never know the truth.
But this particularly superficial and ultimately meaningless
reason as the sole impetus? Nah, chief, this ain't it.
Is the author presuming that Bourdain committed suicide out
of vanity? To somehow bronze his public image?
I could un-read.
also by Robert J. Lewis:
Denying Identity and Natural Law
The Cares versus the Care-nots
Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Wilde and the Birth of Cool
Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
- Constant Craving
Broken Feather's Last Stand
Art or Artifice II
is Smarter Than the West
Divided by Two
Me With That Music
Sinking of the Friendship
The Great Escape
on a Hot Tin Roof
A Line in the Wilderness
Rooms & Infidels
Idea Will Travel
Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
The Eclectic Switch
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger
and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of
Love & Hate
Divine Right and
the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene
& Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the
Library and Archives Canada.