I have just been reading an account of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, a celebrated food critic who had, I must admit, never before penetrated the fastness of my consciousness. It appears that Bourdain made a name for himself by going to exotic places and pestering the locals with questions about their food. In announcing his death, his corporate employer said,
“His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller.”
Bourdain was 61, a year older than I, and so part of my generation. Indeed, he was to all outward appearance one of its blessed elect, for he embodied many of the virtues my generation esteems as cardinal. I see that Smithsonian once called him “the original rock star” of the culinary world, and believe they intended a compliment.
Bourdain’s first virtue was that he was “a unique storyteller,” at first writing his stories and then later recording them to be broadcast by CNN. I do not doubt that he did all of this very well, but here simply note that to do such a thing is the not so secret Cinderella fantasy of a sizeable chunk of my generation. O to be a writer, and more especially a writer who is discovered! I understand the glamor because this was my not so secret Cinderella fantasy, until I learned that I had been cast to play the part of Cinderella’s ugly stepsister and looked terrible in glass slippers.
Bourdain’s second virtue was to be a “rock star” in his telling of unique stories. I think the phrase “rock star’ is meant to combine the qualities of fabulous success and free spirit. A “rock star” gets rich without growing up and “selling his soul,” and to do this is another fantasy common among my generation. David Brooks called such characters Bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, because they are able to flourish in a corporate environment (i.e. they are “organization men”), but are also, at least in their own minds, mavericks, rebels, and iconoclasts.
Bourdain’s third virtue was to be a traveller, or to have what CNN describes as a love of “great adventure” and “new friends.” I know the call of wanderlust, and do not always turn up my nose at new friends, but there is madness in compulsive hankering after new experiences. As we learned during the fad for Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, compulsive traveling is a symptom of profound spiritual and sexual malaise. But my generation does not see madness and malaise in the man who is forever hailing a cab for the airport. It sees the stigmata of a saint.
Bourdain’s fourth virtue was, of course, his love of “fine food and drink,” for gourmandizing is to my generation what poetry was to the Victorians. This gourmandizing is a natural part of our dominant “pig philosophy,” the cognoscenti of which spice their hogwash with words. A glutton really likes food; a gourmand has reasons he really likes food. A gourmand is also, as Epicurus long ago taught, a rational hedonist with the intelligence and willpower to maximize his gustatory pleasure over the course of a lifetime.
Here is a photograph of the deceased, leaning against a bar just last year, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. You can see that he has the trim form of a rational hedonist, a true Epicurean, and will discern no hint of the paunch and jowls of a vulgar trencherman. For a great many people my age, this is a picture of a man who has led the good life in the philosopher’s sense of a life well lived. He is successful, but he is not a bug-man or corporate drone. Check out those tats! Check out those jeans!
And there he is in a faraway place, leaning against an authentic local bar, obviously waiting for an authentic local—perhaps a “new friend”—to return from taking an authentic leak. What could be better (my generation thinks) than to tip a few with a friendly native while the trade winds rattle the palms!
We do not know the cause of Bourdain’s final despair. He was on assignment in France when he was “found unresponsive” in his hotel room. One might have supposed that to be on assignment in France would be the height of felicity for a man like Bourdain. But a man at the height of felicity does not take his own life. For my part, I wonder if he was not, perhaps, afflicted by the acedia I described in my last post—if he did not perish in a sudden, inexorable and appalling fit of what Chaucer called unlust.
The article reporting Bourdain’s death notes that suicides increased twenty-five percent in the last two years, and another source tells us that suicide has now risen to the tenth most common cause of death in the United States. There is, of course, great variety in the motley hoard of hideous despairs that have yielded this grim statistic, but I suspect that the despair called Unlust may be, just now, doing more than his share. My generation lived for new experiences, and so we should not be surprised that it dies when it learns that the appetite for new experiences is a lust that does not last.