Remembering Tony Bourdain

credit: Tony Bourdain, Facebook

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.

20 Comments

  1. Chris, I maybe a little late to this conversation, but your eulogy to Bourdain had me in tears, not only for the loss of Tony, but for your loss and ours. So much is being wiped away before our eyes, that when someone with the sensibility and honesty departs this mortal coil, we are all the worse for it.

    And, when we are left with DJT and Jones, the gulf widens and the hurt is deep. When all around us bad things are happening, and happening with the approval of so many of our fellow citizens, it is disheartening. I am struggling daily with keeping my head out of the dark and looking for the light.

    This site is where I come for rational, positive discussion. Even when things are bleak, I count on Political Orphans for some hope. But I see that even here, the situation is dire and hope is no longer enough. I feel we are on the brink. And, at my age, that is not a comfortable place to be. But here we are and here we must stand and fight.

    Thank you, Chris, for your thoughts and beautiful words.

  2. Chris, I noticed that your blog posts also took on a dark, apocalyptic tone after the inauguration of our current president. I’m glad to see you’re taking an activist approach again. That’s a more positive, productive way to bring about the change you’re seeking.

      1. I believe social media is the cause of all our current ills, but unlike Dinsdale, I don’t think it should be abolished. Freedom of expression should remain intact. Instead, we should starve the beast and stay the hell away from it. No one HAS to be on social media. It’s not the equivalent of running water.

    1. My own personal grief is over the overall loss of civility in our society thanks to social media. I know we’ve always had anger and discontent, but it used to be a private matter. Now we put it out there for all to witness, not reserved for the occasional tirade that we humans are all entitled to, but outbursts and/or attacks throughout the day, every day. It’s our default position. Look at your phone hundreds of times a day (literally) and find an opportunity for outrage every single time. Now even mainstream news headlines are about the latest outrageous thing posted on Twitter or Facebook, or the latest mudslinging episode between famous people on social media.

      1. I believe social media is the cause of all our current ills, but unlike Dinsdale, I don’t think it should be abolished. Freedom of expression should remain intact. Instead, we should starve the beast and stay the hell away from it. No one HAS to be on social media. It’s not the equivalent of running water.

      2. Why blame social media for poor behavior? After all, it is merely the “means”. There is a deeper, darker shift happening culturally and it has been exploited and allowed by those who care little for decency and respect for anything or anyone who holds different values. No, if Chris is expressing his despair and anger at those who are responsible for this change in civility, he, like Bourdain, is offering truth in all its steaminess

  3. Amy

    Remarkable piece Chris and an incredible tribute to the true authenticity of Bourdain.

    We will bring our country out of this darkness. We will be the voice of reason, kindness and truth. We just have to keep fighting.

    The darkness that quickly captures people is terrifying and discouraging. Anger, rage, fear and bigotry seem to fuel with greater intensity than forgiveness, love and kindness.

    Your truth is stronger than their lies and anger.

  4. EJ

    I never knew Bourdain’s work, but having seen the outpouring of support for him that’s come from almost everyone I respect on the internet, I may have to go back and watch it. Did he visit East Germany?

    I would recommend that nobody ever read Gab.ai, but especially not right now. The comments made about Bourdain are truly reprehensible.

    (For those who have lived blameless lives, Gab.ai is a Twitter clone allegedly run by the Free Speech movement, and in actuality dominated by the alt-Right. Its discourse is always poisonous, but in the wake of the death of a prominent Left-wing person of internationalist views and Jewish religion, it has reached new depths.)

  5. I never followed Anthony Bourdain, but I have witnessed the outpouring of emotion, so I know he left a huge positive imprint on many lives. Chris, and the others here that are mourning, I am sorry for your loss, because it is clearly a great loss to you.

    As for Jones, well, I come back to my extremist ways. Would anyone here be upset to read someone finally got to him and put a bullet in him? Is it truly that repugnant a thought to want to kill someone for the greater good? I add to that group, of course, the existential threat to world economics and peace after yesterday when he declared economic war on 6 rogue nations.

    You must have read about them? That evil cabal of countries in the G7, led by the monster Justin Trudeau of Canada.

    1. Would I be upset to read about it? Not really. But it wouldn’t be a victory for the greater good either. Jones’s type is a dime a dozen and martyring someone like that really just seems counterproductive.
      Judge the consumers as much as you judge the maker, and that goes for all sorts of products, especially those which fall under a “creative” variety, and especially when the demand pre-existed the maker.

      1. Jon, you are correct that this monster is catering to a market. We can go back to McCarthyism, even further, to get a clear example of the traction that monsters can get. But conversely, I believe, that by giving them a platform increases the demand for them. If there was no Fox propaganda network, there would not be as much racism and fascism as there is today in the States. Would another media group have risen to fill that demand? Likely, but I have no doubt that without the deep pockets of murdoch, people like the puppet tyrant would not have so much support.

        So removing the monsters DOES improve the common good.

      2. Jon, that survey is so disheartening. Yet, it supports my comments earlier about abolishing social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. You can’t change human nature without great spans of time and herculean effort, but you can wipe out tools of evil like this, and remove agents of evil, like the hate-mongers we see every day.

  6. So two things, one apropos of this post and another not. First the unrelated thing, because it’s on a lighter note.

    If high school American history books mention 2018, this picture will be in that section: https://i.redd.it/js77ugp6c0311.jpg . As it is this picture might end up being the total of 45’s legacy.

    Now back to on-topic, regarding Alex Jones. The thing is, American fundamentalists and all of the people in bed with them ultimately better hope that their very own beliefs are pure fantasy, because if God, heaven, and hell even remotely resemble what they believe those phenomena to be, they have a painful, forever burning section of the worst end waiting for them. Luckily for them, God doesn’t exist, so we’re left with justice of a human order.

    And the fact is that you just can’t do what people like Alex Jones does without hurting yourself. Just look at the man. Getting that purple-y and strained at hours of a time, even with advertising breaks, hurts your body. Andrew Breitbart himself came to a premature end. 45 is probably only alive due to having access to some of the best healthcare in the world, and yet at 70 he looks like he’s been left outside too long for 30 years. You just can’t continue to flare like that without eventually burning out.

    Anthony Bourdain had an emotional disease that made his life a living hell, but he chose to make the world a better place. These other names I mention — all people I don’t like to even type out their names because I’d rather not give them the attention — have emotional diseases that are eating them and aren’t making the world a better place. It’s not really surprising that people who live in hell make it hell for others; it’s actually MORE surprising that some people who live in hell carve out a better world for others. In balance, Anthony Bourdain is more positivity in the world than the inputs would suggest. Considering any other equation, he could easily have rendered more of the same hell he lived through.

    My sympathy for the Devil can only go so far when the dumbfuck is in the G7 literally destroying my nation’s future opportunities for more generations than I’ll probably be alive. But one thing to be clear about is that narcissistic personality disorder is a constant and relentlessly painful experience. Nothing the man does will ever stop the pain. He’ll die as miserable as he was before he did anything worth televising. He’s in pain right now, as we speak.

    Same thing with Mr. Jones. This is a person clearly in need of medicine, and clearly suffering. He may be profiting from his suffering, but money isn’t medicine. He won’t die happy, or having achieved anything of value.

    Even in the writings you’ve posted, you’ve shown a sensitivity and interest in things like beauty, enjoyment, entertainment, passion, love, accomplishment, and good work that shows that even when you get in a white-hot rage over someone like Alex Jones, you have already experienced a far, far better life than he or any of his ilk can ever dream of. Because you’re capable of being happy. None of the pathetic sacks of shit that are currently in power are; that’s partially why they’re in power, because all of the people who are capable of believing and achieving levels of happiness got either disinterested or disinvested in the political process, leaving only the people who are fundamentally suffering to vote. The difference is that people capable of happiness can also manage suffering; people incapable of happiness cannot.

    And that’s why these literal mental cases can’t win in any long-term frame of reference, and why you can still believe in a humanistic level of justice. That doesn’t mean that 45 hasn’t caused damages to the international order that will outlive us and maybe our children; but it does mean better people will continue to make longer lasting achievements than these people can muster.

    I still believe the long arc bends toward justice. And even if that belief is naive, at least I’m able to spend some of my life in an enjoyment that people like Jones and 45 are literally, emotionally incapable of. They may outwardly state that they’re powerful or accomplished, but I wouldn’t trade lives with them for anything.

    1. Chris’ tributes to Bourdin are beautiful and heartfelt as are the thoughts each of you have shared. We celebrate the goodness of Bourdain’s life because we have the capacity to experience happiness. This same depth of feeling makes it more difficult to fathom the selfishness of small people. Yet, they live among us, are in positions of power, and do great harm. All we can do is fight them with every fiber of our being, in tribute to good men like Bourdain and for our own survival.

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