We lost a big one today. Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018) was a hero of mine. I never wanted to be him — a former heroin addict and fairly unhappy chef — but I wanted to be like him, if that makes any sense. I think millions of people probably felt the same way.
He was a phenomenally good nonfiction writer, with the type of authorial voice that you can’t teach somebody. As a television host, he and his team wrestled Parts Unknown to the ground and made it the best program on all of television. I really mean that. It was one of the only television programs that successfully dismantled the myth of the Ugly American — and tried to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.
You can read thousands of gorgeous remembrances of him all over the interwebz, but nonetheless let me share one more piece. My own.
In 2012, I wrote a blog post here, on this site, about Bourdain’s tortured soul. It was a short piece, and only the second time I’d ever posted anything here. Here it is again:
The Two Anthony Bourdains
He’s an astounding writer. He used to be a good cook. And he’s been making good television for almost a decade now.
But Anthony Bourdain has an inner struggle. A cleavage in his soul.
One half of him, the part born and raised in New York City, the place where people’s emotional shields are as high, hard, and glossy as the glass curtain-walls of their skyscrapers, hasn’t changed.
That’s the wisecracking part. You saw this exhibited best in the Sardinia episode, years ago, the skinny dude in the black Ramones t-shirt, crouched on a rock, unleashing his sarcasm-plated tongue on the local caper farmers — until they reamed him for using utensils. The former junkie putting his own needs above others.
Dostoevsky called this a state of “laceration”. It doesn’t translate so well into English, but I think he meant people who have been pierced, and are aching with pain. In Bourdain’s case, of course, he “pierced” himself, over and over again, with a heroin needle. And he’s still aching.
But the other half of his soul has been blooming. You may remember the Brazilian episode, in Sao Paulo, in which — confronted with a really nice woman and her stew — he finally let down his guard, shed the New York tough-guy shell. It can be seen in other episodes too, when his empathy quietly emerges, especially during segments with troubled people. Those are my favorite moments.
As a fiction writer, I’ve been advised to plate my characters with armor, and then throw them into a pool. It’s a fascinating metaphor. The main character is forced to strip herself of her psychic armor—because if she doesn’t, she’ll drown, and the mission won’t get achieved.
Bourdain has been “stripping” in public for years—not of clothing, but of his own psychic armor. And he’s still got years of television (and lots of psychic armor) to go. It’ll be exciting to see if him continuing to change, and to explore the world, at CNN.
In the meantime, it’s a big world. Go see it all.
Well, it’s still a big world. And you should still see it all. Without Bourdain, however, that task has just become a little bit harder.