Anthony Bourdain's Battle With Part X
This piece was written by guest blogger Tommy Swerdlow. To hear more about Tommy's experiences with The Tools, listen to his interview with Barry on the Coming Alive podcast.
Though this piece was not written specifically for this newsletter, the thinking and ideas in it were partially formed and deeply affected by my many years working with Barry Michels. In fact, you could say that the entire piece is really about Anthony Bourdain's (ultimately losing) battle with Part X. At the end of the first section, when I say "not even talent will protect you from yourself," the use of "yourself" could just as easily be Part X.
What is disconcerting is how effective Bourdain was in owning his shadow, until he wasn't, and how deep and diabolical Part X is in us. It can neither be eradicated nor allowed to run wild. Our only play is to enter into some kind of conscious and careful relationship with it. I think that might be the biggest takeaway from all of this, and of course one of the first things Barry discussed with me when I met him over 20 years ago—that Part X was out to get me.
Was thinking about Anthony Bourdain. Excluding toxicology reports and the like, I was thinking about him and Hemingway. Both suicides at 61, both icons of male adventure, both bad boys of a kind, gifted, searing the culture with their red-hot poker of maleness. Both macho, though perhaps in different ways, each with a cultivated image, the image of the explorer, the traveler, the badass. BUT...what the myths show us is that they are not about adventure out into the material world, but inward across the threshold of the psyche. An opening of the self to the self.
I was thinking that those epic travelers, who are always moving, are as much running from something as to something and probably more. That even deep reporting on your adventure will not spare you and is very different than exploring your own inner country…the illusion of adventure and the adventurer.
Bourdain—even with his great (seeming) openness and deep humanity and generous spirit and respect for all, and even with his big egalitarian heart in the right place and heavy authentic respect for others and the world at large—was, perhaps, unwilling to do the heavy inner unpacking that we all know is needed to be sane.
He was scared of no dark Asian alley or goat embryo stew at the end of it, but he was scared to wander down into the basement of himself. And then there's the drinking, which is its own thing with its own real brain chemistry consequences, especially when mixed with a leaning toward depression.
But that's who he was, the tattooed bad boy, organ meat eating, booze-swilling, punk rock Marco Polo, slurping dirty noodles in the streets of Bangkok—and botulism be damned. And damn if we all didn't get a lot out of it! He wasn't killing his steers in the bullring like Hemingway, or blasting big game with shotguns, but he was eating pig heads with the same manly glee, and you vegan pussies can kiss my tattooed ass.
They were both under the same illusion—the illusion that they could just be so heroically themselves that they could get around the teachings. But the teachings will not be ignored, and there will be no going around, only through.
Also, there is a violence to running the streets and saying bring me the fattiest cuts and the highest proof rum. There is a conqueror's violence to that, and that violence will eventually be turned toward the self in either the material world or the spiritual or both. And even the most generous humanist leanings will not protect you from that.
Not even authentically being yourself will protect you from yourself, and when the cameras are almost always rolling, who knows what authentic can morph into. Not even talent will protect you from yourself. In fact, as we know, it’s usually the opposite. And ambition won't do it as well. It never ceases to amaze, the vast gulf between the image we project to the world and what is really going on inside us.
But there is another side to all this (another of many). Bourdain was on a public hero’s journey, and I’m not sure both parties (him and us) really understood the terms of the deal.
Time and time again he went across the threshold with nothing but his wits, perceptions, and appetite(s), and we watched, happily asking him to hold all our wanderlust projections (which he did, and clearly not so gladly). That was part of the gig and part of his commercial genius. He was a willing, though maybe unwitting, projection holder.
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “I think Anthony Bourdain has the best life ever.” So imagine how many people said that to him. Imagine holding that big of a projection (the best life ever) for that many people. What a nightmare.
If you have the greatest life and job and career ever, then of course you should be happy every second. Combine that with a naturally addictive personality and penchant for the dark side, and you got a nice recipe for serious misery. And since you are so fucking lucky to live the life you do, then you better keep that misery a secret.
I mean, what the fuck is Anthony Bourdain complaining about? He flies all over, he eats great food, chicks love him, and he has (seems to have) friends from Uruguay to Hokkaido. He’s got loot and a sexy Italian actress girlfriend. This cat done figured the shit out. Then one night he doesn’t show up for dinner and hangs himself with the belt from a bathrobe.
I feel for him.
He must have felt he had no right to complain, so all he could do was just keep shoving fois gras down his throat, being force-fed his own good fortune like the geese whose livers he was eating. And by perceiving himself only as others saw him—maybe even buying in, which is different than having gratitude—he missed his chance to do an even deeper and more heroic service: to give voice to the disconnect between his psyche and his outer life.
As harsh as this may sound (and mental illness aside, if such a thing is possible) Bourdain ultimately crapped out on the hero's journey. He did the easy half, the fun half. He ran up a big beautiful tab at the cosmic Zabar's of excess (complete with full bar), bringing us profound and simple pleasures and deep human truths, but he didn't want to do the tough half—the brutal, unbearable half where you are forced to admit your own appalling weakness and bewilderment and mistakes and in turn are given the opportunity for transcendence.
Think of the impact he could have had. The cat who traveled the globe consuming delicious bites, having magical experience after magical experience, and holding the space for all our freedom fantasies. Imagine how powerful it would have been if that guy turned around and said, “Listen everybody, there is a shadow to everything, and I am in great pain.” Not that our culture wants to hear that, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe what we all need to hear is that even the most wonderful consumption is still consumption, and that consuming takes its toll.
He was a damn good writer. Imagine the book or article he could have written about that. Maybe it would have sounded like sour grapes or white man griping, but I got a feeling he could have made it real and powerful. But you have to be willing to fall apart. Maybe this wasn’t possible for him and mental illness and depression were a too large a bear, and he wasn’t thinking clearly.
But boys who shoot dope and then think they can get away with drinking like a fish and putting all their eggs in the basket of their image or career are not just victims. Or what they are victims of is an unwillingness to truly lose and to suck the life out of defeat, as they have out of victory. That’s a large part of the big, bad, mamba-jamba job description of an integrated self. Sucking the life, grace, and wisdom out of losing.