Down and Out and Mourning Bourdain

“Somewhere, in the darkest part of their hearts, all cooks know how different they are from everybody else and relish their apartness.”

I’m upset about Anthony Bourdain. He was a guy who had a lot to teach us about good, culture, family, community, and darkness. That darkness we always caught a glimpse of, and while it was never the focus of his work, it was always there, like a shadow, at the core of who he was as a personality.

We enjoyed the snarky, cynical commentary on human behavior. I hate to imagine the possibility that this same quality could have killed a man.

I’m not going to pretend I know exactly why a man took his own life when I never knew him. I don’t want to wag a finger either and tell everyone “this is why you would never _______.” But I’m upset that he took his life, and if there’s anything I can learn from it, then I want to know what it is. Speculation as to why he did it will not do me or anyone any good unless it can teach us something. It can’t bring him back. But it can, I hope, help us not go so soon.

imagesBourdain was always a man in touch with, as his favorite book is titled, the Heart of Darkness. But as his own first book on the life of a chef told us, the underbelly of the world of the commercial kitchen is fraught with adventure, the kind that only desperate, reckless pirates leap into. I don’t think Bourdain ever left that world, even when he was on top. Despite the terrible success, gobs of money, and millions of fans, and entrance into fatherhood, I don’t think you can just up and leave that jungle. Like the character of Marlowe in Conrad’s novel, the darkness follows you out of the jungle.

Bourdain always believed the world of food workers to be, in his words, a “dark and adrenaline-jacked culture.” He often mused that the proximity to animal carcasses being destroyed in countless ways had an effect on the human conscience, made cooks cynical and sometimes even nihilistic. In contrast with Rachel Ray, many chefs live in a world of fire and sweat and blood and intensity, shielded from the enjoyment of the guests whom they will never see enjoying their work. Other artists, on the other hand, get to at least see their audience. But then again, any artist is plagued with the reputation of self-destruction.

Chefs can be as lonely and neurotic as writers. Bourdain was both. I always appreciated his honesty. I also always feared the fringes of the psyche as he’d walked through it. In one of his last interviews he described the moral callousness he felt when he killed a pig by stabbing it in the heart as part of a village ritual. Ten years ago, he said, he felt more emotional about it. The second time around, the experience was more numbing. When you live from sensation to sensation, the deafening decrease in sensation is a threat to your sense of being alive.

I think this is part of the peril of living so long on such a fringe. Every career has its hazards. I do think we take for granted how some careers naturally create isolation, paranoia, and a desensitized relationship with life. In some way a person can be a victim of the culture around them as much as their own biology, the fallen condition of the human body that drags on us with mental and physical illness. Celebrities as well as cooks can be adored and followed by countless and yet still feel terribly alone with their troubles.

But I venture to say also that a man’s outlook can harm him also. Bourdain did not view the body as a temple so much as an amusement park. Eating, as well as drinking, smoking, shagging, and whatever else felt good, were activities meant for the body without reserve. His attitude toward limitless recreation didn’t make him the best role model for self-care. I say this because I think Bourdain was honest enough to warn people himself that searching for meaning in sensations is itself perilous.

Decades ago, in his first kitchen memoir, Bourdain wrote, “I’d been the culinary equivalent of the Flying Dutchman too long, living a half-life with no future in mind, just oozing from sensation to sensation.” There’s an exciting sense of adventure in that, but there’s also a serious danger to the human psyche. And though since that time the chef became a renowned TV host with a secure future, and even a family, the damage we allow to be dealt to us, or deal to ourselves, can still take a toll. I believe that he eventually left on a more fulfilling quest, one to find meaning in human connection. But what if he never left the Flying Dutchman?

I don’t know. I just don’t know. But I think that despite everything he gained, the man had to feel apart. And while sometimes aloneness was a source of pride and excitement, it must have also, at other times, just felt terribly, terribly lonesome. I just don’t know. It’s not for me to know another man’s heart.

Sometimes people succumb a final outlet of relief from inner turmoil because on one bad day they are losing hold and can’t get a grip. Had they made it to the next day, they would have been fine. Until the next time the floor began to slip.

For me this isn’t about solving a mystery. It’s about coming to terms with about as much of it as we can. I asked myself, after much thinking, rereading, and listening to some of the man’ work, what if he finally gave in to a long fight? He always remarked in his own snide, yet charming ways about how the world of people on earth carries a mad, apocalyptic core. Maybe there was a reason for that, and it probably wasn’t just because his favorite movie was a maddening montage of violence in Vietnam.

yambuya_rdc_congo_1890I think maybe a guy like Bourdain is going to spend his life exploring new sensations, new experiences, some of them dangerous and risky, because he is on a quest to recover the human spirit from its darkest place. Maybe every return trip he was the protagonist having rescued or slain something else, come to terms with it, though haunted. Maybe eventually the protagonist fatally became the man crying “the horror, the horror.”

And while I believe that faith can rescue us from darkness, I’m not naive enough to believe that faith always cures depression, or that no relies man ever took his own life. But what I do know is that two things seem to prey on those who are driven that far: Pain and emptiness. Both are a horror.

Was anyone around able to see the weight he must have carried? I don’t know. I hope that if I were to ever reach such a point, there would be someone to rescue me, or that I could ask for help. The human heart is dark, and when it is swallowed in darkness we can succumb to it. No matter how much we look like we had it together.

I don’t like to comment on the suicides of people like some opportunist for a lesson in morality. I’m writing about this now because I’ve always felt connected to how Bourdain’s travels always touched on the fringe of the human psyche, harkening back to the themes of Heart of Darkness. I guess when you spend so much time reading or watching someone’s work, you sometimes feel like you know them.

So when a surprise hits you, you wonder why you didn’t see it coming. It can happen to anybody. And I hate that about humanity, how it can become so distant and unrecognizable that it can destroy itself. I hate to see a man destroy himself. I would have liked to sit down and have a meal with the guy. I would have liked to have been one more person he could have connected with, if it meant he (and even I) could go on even longer. It hurts, because it says something about us. Who are we, if even after seeing the world and enjoying so many things and people, we end up in such dark places?

The world will miss Anthony Bourdain. We learned a lot from his travels, those across the world, and those into the human soul. But there’s a long tradition of advice about food that I hope we can all carry with us. No one should ever have to eat alone.

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