Boned

A guy asked me why Anthony Bourdain’s death hit me so hard. And I considered the question.

When a man who lived with such gusto kills himself, you wonder.

You wonder about how easily seduced you can be by appearances.

You wonder if your working philosophy of using sensuality to stave off the jimjams is well founded.

You examine your own circumstances and fall into the fatal mistake of making comparisons.

You are forced to consider the fact of suicide, the question that it poses. To answer that with a simple medical diagnosis is the easy way out. Sure, it’s “depression.” But often, it’s not. And, after a certain point, most of us know someone who committed suicide or others who made an attempt. 

That’s a lot material to feed a gnawing melancholy.

There are other, less personal, reasons. He was a fine writer, and we need as many of those as we can get. Take for example, this passage from Kitchen Confidential about eating his first oyster:

My little brother recoiled in horror.

But I, in the proudest moment of my young life, stood up smartly, grinning with defiance, and volunteered to be the first.

And in that unforgettably sweet moment in my personal history, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” that followed—first pussy, first joint, first day in high school, first published book or any other thing—I attained glory. Monsieur Saint-Jour beckoned me over to the gunwale, where he leaned over, reached down until his head nearly disappeared underwater and emerged holding a single silt-encrusted oyster, huge and irregularly shaped, in his rough, clawlike fist. With a snubby, rust-covered oyster knife, he popped the thing open and handed it to me, everyone watching now, my little brother shrinking away from this glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive. 

I took it in my hand, tilted the shell back into my mouth as instructed by the by now beaming Monsieur Saint-Jour and with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater . . . of brine and flesh . . . and, somehow . . . of the future.

Everything was different now. Everything.

He also made gourmandizing look elegant. Partly because he was lean and long himself. (Those hefty dudes on the Food Channel generally work as advertisements for sticking with a diet of oatmeal and watercress.) And for sure, what you didn’t see were Bourdain’s  early morning jiujitsu workouts.

But it wasn’t mere gourmandizing. It was a hunger for what this world offers us in vivid spices and salty landscapes. It was a readiness to plunge in, to embrace, and to celebrate. How often do you see that in mass media? Everyone else looked cramped and sour by comparison.

We live in a world full of constraints, an ever-narrowing range of possibility for pleasure from the skin, the tongue, and the mind. Our overlords want us to be simple automatons, content with cubicles and dull grey highway commutes that lead us to faux cheery offices.

Our relationship with pleasure is diseased. We either sink into full-bore hog wallows, with the bellies, diabetes and overdoses to show for it. Or we live austere lives, afloat on mineral water and kale. Or, most commonly, we swerve from one extreme to the other: binge, then scourge. We feel guilty. 

Bourdain celebrated life, and the life of the senses. This included film, literature, music, and art. He used his celebrity to publish and to produce other work he admired, and to honor the people he himself respected. He was a bright spot in a media stream that mostly looks like sewage.

That a man who seemed so enamored of the raw stuff of the earth could despair so deeply makes the impact of his suicide even worse. In interviews, he often mentioned that if he slowed down, his demons would attack him. It wasn’t, sadly, hyperbole. Maybe he made the fatal mistake of wandering off, looking at some improbably picturesque peaked roofs, at the ivy and grape vines and geraniums, and dark voices started whispering soft and low.

Or maybe it went down the way Norman Mailer said it did for Hemingway’s suicide. Mailer wrote that perhaps old Papa was playing with the edge, pushing on the shotgun trigger just to the point where it would fire — but no farther. Thus renewed from his brush with close death, he could go on with his day. Maybe Bourdain flirted in a similar way, hanging just so much, close to the edge, closer, closer, closer . . . 

And suddenly past it.

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