This week we lost Anthony Bourdain, author and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown.” I’m upset.
It’s a very un-Bourdain thing to have a “hero” or be personally broken up over the loss of a TV figure you don’t know and have never met. Sorry, this one hurts.
Anthony Bourdain fought to create a sense of authenticity in a food and travel medium dominated by feel-good bullshit. Bourdain was to the travel and food world what The Ramones were to music; honest, raw, irreverent, but most of all playful. He elevated a previously banal medium into some of the most moving art of our time. He created a way of seeing the world that did not previously exist.
In field dominated by self-promoting hacks, he didn’t take a check to endorse a scotch. He didn’t allow himself to become a spokesman, either for pay or purpose. Bourdain protected his voice from the compromises of greed and fame.
He could have had dozens of franchise restaurants around the world carrying his name. They might have even been good. He could have made millions selling guides to his “favorite places.” Food culture douchebags like Mario Batali reveled in the poseur grandeur of being onscreen with celebrities. Rachel Ray and Emeril built first-name brands which they plastered over whatever products would pay them. Ray now has her name on a line of dog food, the most artistically honest move of her career. Bourdain had no fucks to give for money and no taste for the opium of fame. As success and rewards piled up around him, he stayed angry and relentless.
Here’s a description of his work from a 2012 piece I wrote at the Huffington Post:
He had the punk-rock audacity to film a show in Paris without a visit to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre (the show was titled “Why the French Don’t Suck”). Bourdain got drunk and cussed and complained about the weather. He didn’t shirk from describing the lousy experiences amid the fantastic.
He failed at fishing and he stubbornly refused to dance. Animals were regularly slaughtered, dismembered, and eaten onscreen. No pig was safe. He ate food from street vendors and then made jokes about getting sick (except for the Liberia episode, when the bout of runny belly apparently wasn’t so funny).
He courageously confronted the Swedes about Abba.
Politically, No Reservations managed to challenge American preconceptions about the wider world without resorting to the standard condescending apologetics. In Texas he gave Ted Nugent a serious opportunity to explain himself, in his own tangled words. In Nicaragua he visited a garbage dump crawling with child laborers, pointing out that Communist era dictator and current President Daniel Ortega is now personally worth nearly $400m.
His episodes in places like Liberia and Haiti openly confronted the absurdity and moral ambiguity of what he was doing – recording travel entertainment in the midst of unfathomable horrors. He showed the darkness without schlock or exploitation. He highlighted our interconnectedness while still acknowledging the inherent voyeurism of TV.
From the perspective of a viewer, it seems like something changed in Bourdain in the wake of his trips to Iran and Russia in 2014. After the Iran show aired, authorities arrested one of his guides in the country, Jason Rezaian. He was held in prison for 18 months. In his interview with Boris Nemtsov in Russia, Bourdain joked about the risks of speaking out against Putin. Not long after the show, Nemtsov was assassinated.
After years of traveling around the world developing an ever bolder on-screen voice, he was confronted with tangible consequences. It is one thing to be harassed by dictators or mafiosi. I suspect Bourdain would have reveled in their threats. What Bourdain experienced was something much darker. Visiting other people’s homes and enticing them into exercising a kind of casualness that only an American can afford, he then had to watch from a distance as they paid the price. Though other factors clearly had a role in each mans’ experiences, Bourdain was not the kind of guy who could escape a sense of responsibility for their fates. The toll on Bourdain seemed apparent.
There was a weight and depth to his last couple of seasons that was out of character. Burdened with such a potent awareness, his sarcasm and snark were slipping toward poignancy. Most of the humor was gone. In its place came a level of artistry never available in travel media. Bourdain was learning to disappear, letting his guests and their homes and their stories become the center of his work. His later shows were not as much fun, but they were some of the most powerful art anyone is making in our time.
The last show to air before his death was set in Hong Kong. Its opening montage, filmed on the Star Ferry, featured Bourdain musing on the romance and loneliness of travel. I found it disturbing, unusually dark. Having watched the evolution of his work, you couldn’t help wondering about the toll of such a life. We don’t have to wonder anymore.
We live in a moment defined by lies, bullshit, and relentless manipulation. Losing such a militantly honest voice in center of the fake news era feels like losing a guardian, a key ally. It seems like there is less and less good to protect.
Then came the nut-punch.
Alex Jones decided to weave Bourdain’s death into one of his fantasy narratives for his sick fans. The body wasn’t even cold and a soulless hyena was already desecrating the corpse. That feeling of helplessness, as a vile creature took a shit on the grave of a better man broke something in me. I wept like a lost child, like I hadn’t wept in years. I wept for my loss, I wept for my sick country. I wept with rage and futility and fresh purpose.
One of the most powerful artistic voices of our generation is dead by his own hand, drowned beneath the weight of his burdens. And tomorrow morning, Alex Jones will get out of bed, enjoy his favorite breakfast, then get to work making the world shittier place. It is a gut-churning reminder that the wrong people are alive and well. Life may be beautiful, but it isn’t clean and it isn’t fair. There is no honest life without suffering and injustice. And there is no virtue in ignoring that injustice.
Justice is slow. Karma is slow. It is easy in the moment to be cheap, disingenuous, or vile. Pursuit of some meaning, some purpose is painful and often damaging. That’s a truth our prophets and gurus seldom reveal. Sick fucks like Alex Jones have relatively easy lives. Taking a check to put your name on dog food or a mediocre chain restaurant is easy and immediately rewarding. Pursuing something greater comes with an inescapable cost, otherwise everybody would do it. And in the end Tony Bourdain didn’t die a hero. He killed himself. He escaped. His death, like his life, was complicated.
I suspect that people close to Bourdain paid a toll as well. They didn’t choose his pursuit, but they were swept along, supporting him and sharing the consequences. Though he had a well-deserved reputation for generosity and compassion, I bet it was difficult to be close to him. There is always a price.
In a moment like this, our thoughts and best wishes go out to those who knew and depended on him, those who are impacted in a very personal way by his loss. May they find peace.