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Vol. 18, No. 6, 2019
 
     
 
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the beautiful lie
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ANTHONY BOURDAIN


by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

____________________________________________________

 

I'm 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.
Anthony Bourdain

The 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

 

In the hours following his very public death by suicide, CNN’s lachrymose anchor, John Berman, said, “Everyone wanted to be Anthony Bourdain.”

My first -- 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.

I suppose 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,” writes Albert 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.”

Tall, 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.

His considerable 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.

Not unlike 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 followers.

Over 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 spiral began.

In the 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.

As he 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.

What 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?

Before Bourdain lost his wife and daughter they lost him who was lost to himself.

No one, 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.

If there 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 enjoy it.

By the 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 all.

What really happened in that lonely hotel room in Kayserberg, France is that Anthony Bourdain strangled his persona in order to be free.

His suicide 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 the point.

The critical 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.

What kind of advice could he expect from his colleagues at CNN? Both Anderson 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.

Since 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 show.

If “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. Then 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.

The only 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.

 

 

YOUR COMMENTS
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COMMENTS

user-submission@feedback.com
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.

user-submission@feedback.com
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.

from citizenschnapps
I think that tin foil hat might have fused to your brain. Un-fuck yourself, sir.

from amiiboh
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, full stop.

from RuntDastardly
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, here?
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.

from RuntDastardly
Is the author presuming that Bourdain committed suicide out of vanity? To somehow bronze his public image?
Gross.0/10. Wish I could un-read.

also by Robert J. Lewis:
Denying Identity and Natural Law

The Cares versus the Care-nots

Elon Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
As the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Flirting & Consequences
Breaking Bonds
Oscar Wilde and the Birth of Cool
The Big
Deconstructing Skin Colour
To Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
Comedy - Constant Craving
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
1-800-Philosophy
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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