On September 27, 2022, The New York Times published a preview of Down and Out in Paradise, a new biography of Anthony Bourdain, famous as a charismatic, globetrotting bon vivant and humanitarian. On June 8, 2018, at age 61, Bourdain was in picturesque Kaysersberg, France, working on a TV project. In the bathroom of his quarters at the Hotel Chambard, Bourdain hung himself with the belt from his hotel bathrobe. Bourdain’s friend Eric Ripert discovered the body. Bourdain fans around the world – and no doubt Ripert – were devastated.
Many of Bourdain’s intimates refused to speak to biographer Charles Leerhsen. Leerhsen said that their silence worked to his advantage. “A lot of people were willing to talk to me because they were left behind by Tony and by the Tony train.” Anthony Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, controls his estate, including the “raw, anguished texts” retrieved from Bourdain’s phone and laptop. The Times reports that though many on Team Bourdain have criticized the new book, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain has not.
Leerhsen traces Bourdain’s life from when he was “a sullen teenager in a New Jersey suburb.” Bourdain’s father was a Columbia records executive; his mother was an editor at the New York Times. Bourdain grew up in “the leafy green bedroom community of Leonia … I did not want for love or attention. My parents loved me. Neither of them drank to excess.” Leerhsen’s bio follows Bourdain to “the end of his life [when he] was isolated, injecting steroids, drinking to the point of blackout and visiting prostitutes, and had all but vanished from his 11-year-old daughter’s life.”
The “injecting steroids” claim may be supported by a photo of Bourdain taken shortly before his death. The 61-year-old is bare-chested and displays minimal body fat and highly defined abdominal muscles; neither is normal for a man his age. In this photo Bourdain is accompanied by his much younger lover.
Bourdain had married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Putkoski, in 1985. Putkoski, Bourdain said, was “a bad girl” from a “druggy crowd.” Bourdain used heroin, cocaine, LSD, marijuana, and other drugs.
After he published the bestselling Kitchen Confidential in 2000, Bourdain told the New Yorker, “I felt like the whole world was opening up to me. I’d seen things. I’d smelled things. I desperately wanted more. And [his wife Nancy] saw the whole thing as a cancer … There were things that I wanted, and I was willing to really hurt somebody to have them.” Leaving Putkoski was, he said, “the great betrayal” of his life.” She was not alone. Bourdain “coldly dropped many of the friends he had made before Kitchen Confidential changed his life.”
After the breakup, Bourdain was “aimless and regularly suicidal.” He made “nightly attempts at suicide.” He visited brothels and drove dangerously. “I behaved in a completely irresponsible and suicidal way. I didn’t value my own life and acted accordingly. I had put myself in a very dark place and behaved recklessly in the not-too-subconscious hope that something terrible would happen. I was doing everything possible — smoking pot, drink-driving — to invite that.”
In 1987, Bourdain married Ottavia Busia, an Italian-born restaurant manager and mixed martial artist twenty-two years his junior. His absences put a strain on the marriage. They did not divorce, but they decided to see other people.
Bourdain began an affair with Asia Argento, a petite actress young enough to be his daughter. Even so, he was sending mournful texts to his wife, with whom he texted “near-daily.” “I hate my fans, too. I hate being famous. I hate my job … I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty.” About Argento, Bourdain texted his wife, “I find myself being hopelessly in love with this woman.”
Down and Out reports that Asia Argento monitored the social media pages of Anthony Bourdain and his wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain. She would become furious when she discovered images of Bourdain in a family setting, posing as husband and father. As Father’s Day approached, Bourdain asked his wife not to post such photos of him. Ottavia Busia-Bourdain responded that she was tired of pretending that she didn’t know her own husband, or that she and her husband had never been in the same place.
In early June, 2018, Argento, who practices “open relationships” and has had many lovers, was with another man; for that interlude, she chose a Rome hotel precious to Bourdain for its memories of her. Paparazzi photos of her assignation appeared in the press five days before Bourdain killed himself.
“I’m okay,” Bourdain insisted, in a text. He was anything but okay. His online search history reveals that he was obsessed with finding news of Argento. He insisted that he was neither “spiteful” nor “jealous.” He insisted that he had no ownership claims, and that Argento was “free.” Again, his frequent texts suggest that in fact he wanted constant contact and an assurance of exclusivity. “You were reckless with my heart,” he whimpered.
In response, Argento told Bourdain, “Stop busting my balls.” Shortly after the New York Times piece previewing Down and Out appeared, and Bourdain’s fans cited Argento as a possible contributor to Bourdain’s suicide, Argento posted a defiant message on Instagram: “Stop busting my balls.”
On October 1, 2022, the Daily Mail published photos of Argento with her new lover, MMA fighter Michele Martignoni, who is twenty-one years her junior. Bare-chested Martignoni displays chiseled musculature. After being photographed in a revealing swimsuit, Argento donned a t-shirt that read, “There is no limit to what we as women can accomplish.”
Asia Argento is the daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento. Dario wrote and directed the 1977 film Suspiria, one of the most influential horror films of all time. His oeuvre, critic Anthony Lane quipped, is “revered by scholars of hemoglobin.” In a nude selfie, Asia Argento displays what appear to be cobweb tattoos on her body. These Goth-themed tattoos call to mind her father’s career in horror. It was her father’s career that opened the world stage to Asia Argento.
Asia Argento’s mother, great grandfather, and great grandmother were also in show business. Argento had a troubled, lonely childhood. “I never acted out of ambition,” she has said. “I acted to gain my father’s attention … he only became my father when he was my director. I always thought it was sick to choose looking at yourself on a big screen as your job. There has to be something crooked in your mind to want to be loved by everybody. It’s like being a prostitute, to share that intimacy with all those people.”
In 2017, Argento made a very complicated rape allegation against Harvey Weinstein. She alleged that Weinstein forcibly performed oral sex on her. After that, she acknowledges, she had consensual sex with him. She socialized with Weinstein’s mother. Argento was a single mother and Weinstein offered to pay for her nanny.
In 2018, allegations arose that Asia Argento herself had sexually assaulted child actor Jimmy Bennett when he was 17 or 18 and she was 37. Argento had first met Bennett when he was 7 years old and playing her son in the 2004 film, The Heart is Deceitful above All Things.
The plot of The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things is a carnival of outlandish abuse and lurid dysfunction. Viewers report, given its graphic depictions of many different kinds of child abuse, that the film is irresponsible. One viewer remarked, “Making the film gave Argento an opportunity, in the name of art, to experiment with destroying a child … 97 minutes of film show how coarse, cruel and slutty Argento can be. It boggles the mind to think Anthony Bourdain ever watched it and found it impressive work.”
Argento didn’t just exploit Bennett in the making of the film. In the Chateau Marmont wrap party, Jimmy Bennett, a child, was placed, as a decorative object – a “passive centerpiece” on a bed with alleged sex criminal Marilyn Manson. Ironically, the guests at that very party included A-List celebrities who supported the film because they care about child abuse.
The book The Heart is Deceitful above All Things was marketed as a true account of child abuse, written by the survivor of that abuse. Abusers include the boy’s grandparents, evil Southern Christians who enjoy quoting the Bible and torturing their children and grandchildren. The book’s participation in a long trend of demonizing Southern Christians, along with its graphic sex, may have contributed to its stratospheric success.
The author was said to be a traumatized, transgender teen prostitute named Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, a.k.a. J.T. LeRoy. A-list celebrities from the literary world, film, and music, including Bono, Winona Ryder, Tom Waits, Mary Karr, Dennis Cooper, and Courtney Love rushed to extend their compassion to the tragic survivor of abuse by evil Southern Christians. Eventually it was revealed that the ironically named Deceitful abuse memoir was a fiction concocted by female porn writer and phone sex worker Laura Albert. Albert was not a Christian from the South, but a Jewish girl from Brooklyn Heights.
In her own defense, Albert said, “I meet a lot of young people and they’re shocked that it was an issue to even have an avatar. Because they’ve grown up where you have multiple fully formed avatars.” In other words, young people, accustomed to role-playing on the internet, are used to presenting fictional personae to the public. “I never really thought of it in terms of right or wrong, truth or lie,” Albert said.
Argento played along with the hoax. She reported in 2002 that she was pregnant with the baby of non-existent male author J.T. LeRoy. When Albert was exposed as a hoaxer, Argento, in impassioned public statements, moaned that she had been duped by Laura Albert. Argento claimed, “I couldn’t do movies as a director for 10 years … I’m a fool! … It made me feel worthless to be honest … Forgiveness … it’s a beautiful thing, of saints and martyrs, but I can’t let it go. I was f—ing manipulated.” It is remarkable that Argento would release such melodramatic claims of victimization when in fact she was in on the hoax, claiming to have been impregnated by an author she knew did not exist.
After Asia Argento accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her, former child actor Jimmy Bennett alleged that Asia Argento gave him alcohol, performed oral sex on him, and then had sexual intercourse with him. Anthony Bourdain paid Bennett $380,000 in the hopes that Bennett would keep quiet about the allegation. Argento vehemently denied ever having had sex with Bennett and says Bourdain paid him in order to avoid negative publicity.
After Argento denied sexual contact with an underage Bennett, a photo emerged of topless Argento in bed with Bennett, and also texts in which she acknowledged sex with Bennett. After this, Argento’s attorney accused Bennett, saying he “sexually attacked” Argento.
Argento had shocked Cannes with her stint as a crusading feminist. She said that seeking intimacy with audiences is a distasteful form of prostitution. She later posted nude selfies in doggy-style position, reducing her body to an object. Anthony Bourdain claimed that he had “the best job in the world” and that he could “do whatever the f— I want.” He was so miserable that he killed himself.
I don’t care about Anthony Bourdain or Asia Argento. I care about my friend Rick. Rick was one of those who cried tears when Bourdain died. I wanted to take those tears away from him.
If you passed Rick on the street, you wouldn’t notice him. Though he makes a six-figure salary, though he’s been involved in military and industry projects that have had a direct affect on your life, Rick wears stained and ripped t-shirts and jeans and a cap in the colors of his favorite baseball team. Rick doesn’t look his age. He looks older. He has the paunch of a man past midlife. His arthritic shoulders hunch. He looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is.
Many would dismiss Rick’s current salary and address as “white, hetero, Christian, male privilege.” In fact he rose through relentless hard work to owning a home in one of America’s most expensive suburbs. He did this in spite of childhood abuse and poverty so severe it almost killed him, and scarred his young body for life.
Rick takes care of his aged parents. Rick takes care of his children. Rick takes great care of his dog and the wild creatures, large and small, who visit his backyard sanctuary. Rick’s money goes to his loved ones. He makes sure that his kids drive better cars than he does. He buys almost nothing for himself, except books. Reading is his great luxury, a luxury difficult to attain, because he works insane hours for a preening peacock of a boss and unreliable underlings. During those moments he can salvage for reading, Rick often surrenders to that most precious of rare commodities: deep sleep.
Given workaholism and self-neglect, Rick will probably be one of those men who dies well before his wife. International fans will not mourn his passing.
Back in the day, English majors learned reliable themes in literature. One of those themes was “appearance versus reality.” I wish I could stand on a street corner and hand out cards with just those three words on them. “Appearance versus reality.” In our media saturated age, they have never been more pertinent.
Anthony Bourdain “is approaching secular sainthood,” reports the New York Times. I say, to empty space, “Celebrity is a manufactured product. You do not know this celebrity. This celebrity does not care about you. This celebrity’s feet stink just like yours.”
I practically screamed these words when Elizabeth died. I totally understand my English friend Sue. Elizabeth was queen for as long as Sue can remember. When a celebrity like that dies, it brings on the same “life review” phenomenon near-death experiences generate. “My life passed before my eyes.” The death of a celebrity is a memento mori. Celebrity deaths say to us: “Younger people will have completely different memories than I and others of my generation. They will laugh at different jokes, swoon over different heartthrobs, sing different songs. I am aging and I will die.”
All that, I understand. But when I saw mourners lining up for five miles, and waiting up to thirty hours for the chance to be shuffled rapidly in front of an opaque coffin containing nothing but a corpse, I kept shouting into the abyss, “Celebrity is a manufactured product.”
I can see why those who manufacture and market celebrities tapped Bourdain with their magic wands. Bourdain had the granite face of a Jeff-Chandler-style 1950s manly movie star. Big, square jaw and chin, well-defined lips, square forehead, full head of hair. Bourdain was six foot four, with broad shoulders and long, thin, straight legs. I’m surprised no one ran him as a presidential candidate. He’s pre-approved for the face on paper money and a Mount Rushmore profile. The taller guy wins the presidential race, taller men get paid more, and women, as a group, prefer tall men as sexual partners. We – and I include myself here – like the celebrities we like for an entirely shallow reason. Appearance rules.
I belong to a small, private social media group expressly dedicated to civil discussion of controversial matters. “Celebrity is a manufactured product,” I dared say. Two friends, “Bob” and “Elaine,” expressed shock. Bob insisted that Anthony Bourdain was a virtuous hero who campaigned against sexual harassment!
In fact Bourdain accused himself of perpetuating sexual harassment in the workplace. “I am ashamed that I was clearly not the kind of person that women friends who knew — and had stories to tell — felt comfortable confiding in … my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about,” he wrote, shortly before his death. Argento’s accusation against Harvey Weinstein inspired him to write this, as he himself acknowledged, “late in life.”
Bourdain penned a self-flagellating essay. His acolytes applauded him as a hero. “Billions of women thank you,” one reader responded. Me? I’d rather thank the guy who actually stood up for a woman in a workplace when there were no cameras trained on him and he knew he’d invite retaliatory harassment himself, and maybe even termination.
Elaine advanced Anthony Bourdain the humanitarian who kindly traveled to foreign lands and “highlighted” other cultures and was “real.”
Trying to understand, I watched my first Bourdain episodes. One took place in Japan. Bourdain was at the best sushi restaurant in the world with the best chefs with the best slice, the best knife, the best fish.
The best of everything sushi place was all male. So much for Bourdain the “ally.” Why can’t women prepare Bourdain-worthy sushi? A master explains. “Women menstruate … that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs.”
I don’t eat fish. Watching men slice and eat raw fish, I was on the verge of vomiting. I said to Elaine, “Don’t you see that taste is subjective? The best food to you and to me is going to be two different things.”
The episode merchandised envy; it commodified a sense of regret and failure; it inculcated FOMO into its viewers. FOMO: Fear of missing out. “I am not Anthony Bourdain; I have never been to the best place; I have never eaten the best X.” Selling envy and regret as products is spiritually corrosive and cruel. Yearning that you are in Japan divorces you from where you are: here. Wishing you were with Bourdain divorces you from the person sitting next to you, the real person with whom you could be cultivating real intimacy.
Elaine referenced an episode taking place in Beirut. Bourdain’s comments about this episode are similar to his comments about sexual harassment. In his Beirut comments, he acknowledged, again, late in life, to his brand’s “obscene” “relentless” focus on food while traveling a world in pain. Bourdain said that watching Israel bomb Beirut changed his life and made him realize that many people’s lives are perilous and difficult. It astounds me that a Jewish man from New Jersey figured out in his fifties – after booking a production trip there – that the Middle East is a violent place. I can imagine a world traveler from a New Jersey suburb and a white collar family making such a clueless and narcissistic statement. I can’t imagine putting that dilettantish poseur on a pedestal.
Conde Nast Traveler published an article in 2021 entitled, “How Anthony Bourdain is Giving Us Hope Amid a Pandemic: As We Approach the Death Anniversary of the Late Rockstar of the Culinary World, A Look at His Latest and Last Book.” Accompanying the article is a photo of Bourdain eating noodles in Vietnam. His large body occupies an undersize plastic chair; the Vietnamese across from him are tiny in comparison. Unlike Elaine, who perhaps believes that Bourdain blessed Beirut and Vietnam by deigning to travel there, I do not see a saint who conveys sanctity by reducing a place, through the lens of a camera, to an image of himself at that place.
I said to Elaine, “My mother used to cook a Slovak specialty from cow lung. If Anthony Bourdain and camera crew showed up in my mother’s tiny, low rent kitchen to film her cooking cow lung, and to collect stories from her about Old Country and coalfield life, to reduce it to a quaint televised episode proving how “real” and “authentic,” “open-minded” and “open to experience” Bourdain is, I can’t imagine that experience feeling like anything except exploitation and a form of hipster colonialism, a social justice warrior version of the white man’s burden.” Elaine did not respond.
To my mother, her cow lung recipe was not quaint. It was not “undiscovered” or “on the fringe.” It did not exist to prove a rich white man’s “authenticity.” It was food. The people who would watch that episode, and congratulate themselves on how “open-minded” and “open to experience” they were, when the cameras were pointed in some other direction, would still treat my mother, short, stocky, with varicose veins and dressed in a house dress, like the cleaning woman she was.
In a video, Bourdain challenges and disgusts Anderson Cooper, scion of the Vanderbilt family, by inviting him to eat blood sausage and tripe. “If it’s really good it’s kinda squirty,” Bourdain teases. Blood sausage and tripe are staples of Eastern European kitchens. I love kaszanka. It does not endear me to Bourdain that he tormented Cooper with my people’s food.
Memory # 1. We are poor and there is nothing to eat. My stomach gnaws itself and I am the innocent bystander wracked with pain. My father is sick. There are too many of us. I’m surrounded by stories of World War Two and what the Depression and the Nazis did to our ancestral homelands. My father, uncle, and older brothers tutor me in foraging for wild food. I develop a lifelong terror of starving to death. Check my cabinet, now, when I am an adult. Enough canned and dehydrated food to last the initial phase of the various Apocalypses I’ve been prepping for since I was five.
Memory # 2. Easter or Christmas or Thanksgiving. My mother invites me into the kitchen. She is suddenly kind. There is kielbasa, ham, poppy seeds, oskvarky. My mother, my sister, and I will be in this kitchen for days, preparing foods for dozens of people. We will not fight; no one will hit me or make fun of me. I will knead, grind, saute, fold, fry, whip, broil, boil, bake well past the point when sleep mists my vision. I will feel masterful and warm with food and in kitchens for the rest of my life. If I want to know something about cooking, I don’t, first, look it up in a book; I first remember back to my sister, my mother, and my own competent hands.
Memory # 3. I am a child; my uncle is an old man; we are in a Slovak village. He once served time for shooting another man to death, but he is also a beekeeper and forest guide for hunters and naturalists. We eat, largely, from his cellar, containing pig fat hanging from the rafters, and his backyard: greens, rabbits, chickens, pigs. A meal occurs once a day, and is cooked over a wood stove in the evening. But it is midday, and my stomach is growling, a universally intelligible sound. My uncle boils white rice, and roasts a hot dog, and feeds me. It is the best meal I ever eat.
Memory # 4. When John and I were overseas in the Peace Corps, the differences between us evaporated. Back in the United States, I am again working class and he is again a golden boy. He invites me to his family’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. I am served lobster. It doesn’t taste like other food I’ve eaten. And that’s my only reaction to this luxury food. It doesn’t taste better, just different. To freshen up, I enter the guest bedroom assigned to me. I am clearly within earshot of the living room. One of John’s relatives, a cousin or an aunt, begins to harangue John for inviting me. I am clearly not their type. I am clearly inappropriate. I am clearly low class. To this day, I have no idea what I did or said that prompted this assessment. It’s what I think of when I think of lobster, a luxury food I ate once in my life.
I think an MRI would clearly show that foodies and those of us who are allergic to foodies produce completely different brain patterns. In my mind, food is not about envy or competition or televised entertainment; it’s not about elevating the self, putting on a performance, or making people say, “Wow.” It’s not about wishing I were someone else or that I were somewhere else. It’s not about a doomed, foolish hunt for the “best.” In my mind, food is the opposite of FOMO.
When I re-enter the house after a long walk on a cold, wet day, the first thing I put in my mouth, a slice of rye bread with supermarket butter, say, will be the most delicious thing I’ll eat all day. The second bite will never be as good. I like Bob, Elaine and Rick, but I can’t imagine watching televised images of other people eating.
America used to be a confidently Judeo-Christian country. Pew polls confirm that religious adherence is plummeting. Americans aren’t just rejecting the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are bashing it. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, on the right and the left. Christophobia, a hatred of Christianity, is mainstream in American popular entertainment, social and mainstream media, and academia.
We aren’t just becoming a less religious culture. We are becoming a lonelier one. Robert Putnam’s research shows how we socialize and organize less with our fellow citizens than Americans did generations ago. We are less likely than past Americans to belong to church-related social groups, to amateur sports leagues, to fraternal organizations. Working from home increases isolation. Many argue that America is suffering from a loneliness epidemic.
What are we worshipping, and whom are we befriending now? Many of us are worshipping and “friending” – as Facebook puts it – celebrities. Celebrities take the place formerly taken by clergy and saints, next-door-neighbors and family. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Kim Kardashian, Oprah, athletes, become the images we place on our walls, on our clothing, on our bookshelves. What would my favorite celebrity do replaces what would Jesus do. Those who manufacture celebrities instinctively recognize this, and celebrity brands are as carefully calculated as weapons systems. If we purchase a self-help book recommended by Oprah or a yoga mat from Gwyneth Paltrow or earrings from a marketer selling Third World handicrafts, we have performed a religious rite.
Religious practice used to provide intimacy with the infinite. Committed, sacral contact with flesh and blood humans used to provide intimacy with others.
Catholicism is frank about saints’ flaws. Thomas Aquinas was overweight. Jerome was verbally abusive. Numerous exposes have been written about John Paul II and Mother Teresa. The amazing thing about both of them is that even after these exposes, their full biographies reveal them to be formidable, heroic, human beings.
St. Francis was prejudiced against lepers. St. Christopher was arrogant about his strength. Saint Teresa of Avila said snotty things to God in her prayers. These stories existed for the very opposite of FOMO or envy or a push to purchase something. These stories didn’t say, “These saints are better than you; they have the best job and the best life and they eat the best sushi.” These stories said, “These saints are you. Human. Flawed. Just like you. You can be as loving, even of lepers, as St. Francis learned to be. You can be stronger even than you think you are, as was Saint Christopher. You can endure, even when your wagon gets stuck in the mud, as did St. Teresa. John Paul II suffered under Nazism and Communism. Mother Teresa lost any sense of the presence of God. These humans were imperfect, and they did all these things through Jesus Christ. So can you.”
If celebrities are to be secular saints, they will teach lessons and provide role models. Religious people are accused of being judgmental. I certainly am. I think that abstaining from heroin, cocaine, LSD and pot is better than using them. It’s better for the mind, soul, and body and better for society; these drugs support a network as sadistic and murderous as, though certainly smaller than, the Nazis. Men who frequent prostitutes turn women into objects. Fathers of little girls should soldier through their pain and not kill themselves. Assigning your close friend to discovering your hanging corpse is a cruel and irresponsible final gesture. Extracting any moral judgment from the decision of a father to kill himself when his daughter is 11 years old bleeds meaning from life and from ethics. “We must forgive Bourdain because he was in pain.” News flash: we are all in pain.
My religion demands something that Bourdain did not. Bourdain said, “Travel isn’t always pretty … The journey … leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Travel as a spiritual experience is okay as far as that goes. But “leaving something good behind” is the product, not of fast movement through exciting stimuli, but of commitment to something that might eventually become boring: a marriage, parenthood, a project.
Committing to something that eventually becomes boring applies to our own lives. Bourdain said of his childhood, “God was never mentioned so I was annoyed by neither church nor any notion of sin or damnation … I’ve never been in a synagogue. I don’t believe in a higher power.”
In Catholicism, suicide is a grave sin. Catholic ethics demands that we commit to ourselves, right here, right now. We are to commit not just to ourselves when eating the best sushi. We are to commit to ourselves when we are broken, sobbing, agonized, even when we are bored. Not to drug those emotions into numbness, not to rent a woman’s body in an attempt to escape from our own feelings, but to feel our own feelings, even the ugly ones, and to say, this too is life; this too, is me; I must commit to myself when I feel myself to be garbage; I must aspire to better for myself.
Celebrity spirituality tells us that we must commit to our passing appetites and to our momentary pleasure. I commit to myself as long as I am granting my five senses whatever pleasure they demand; my sacrament is to purchase anything that feels good and promises prestige. The Judeo-Christian tradition demands that we commit to our lowest selves, and also to our highest selves, regardless of whether or not we have just purchased a new, pleasing toy.
As I write this, Jews are fasting on Yom Kippur. Catholics fast during Lent and Advent. Denying the flesh prepares us for those moments when inhabiting a body is not fun, when pleasure and even meaning have fled. Denying the flesh prepares us for joy. “The attitude of gratitude” is the best sauce for every dish, metaphorical or literal, that life serves us. Proverbs 15:17 “Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.” Proverbs 27:7 “One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” That sub-par Soviet-era rice and hot dog my uncle fed me tasted fantastic because I was hungry and because I loved my uncle and he loved me. An attitude of gratitude must be cultivated, and that kind of self-discipline thrives in cultures that teach us that our passing appetites are not the high road to spiritual enlightenment.
A prayer I pray daily describes humanity “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Non-Catholics mock such rhetoric. “Catholics are so morose.” Prayers like that prepared me for the pain of this world. What spiritual discipline, in his pleasant, leafy suburb, raised by two loving atheist parents, prepared Anthony Bourdain to commit himself to a body that would age, and go to flab, and be publicly rejected by a younger lover for a younger man?
Secular America appends mass-market hope, in the form of the medicalization of reality, to Bourdain articles. “If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line.” Bourdain was seeing a therapist. Medicalization of reality has its limitations. For many, suicide is not a symptom of mental illness, but rather of acute awareness. “Life is painful. I will die, anyway.” The solution is not an anonymous, rote encounter via text, but a salvific mythos.
Bourdain and Argento made noise about their “open relationship,” their “freedom,” their lack of “ownership.” In his final texts, we meet a man who craves commitment and real intimacy. Bourdain was so “real,” Elaine claimed. Bourdain churned out grandiloquent, self-exposing rhetoric offering a simulacrum of intimacy. Someone announcing to the ether, “Here is my unprotected heart; I am a caring, sensitive person” is someone with boundary issues, and someone begging for ego affirmation. When Bourdain was throwing his dignity and sanity away on his pursuit of Argento, he sent self-exposing messages to his wife, talking about how much in love he was with Argento. That’s not intimacy. It’s narcissistic, unself-aware, manipulative abuse of his interlocutor.
When encountering Bourdain’s naked prose, naïve and lonely people unconsciously expected that a reciprocal intimacy would result. It never would. “I hate my fans,” he said. Bourdain crafted displays of honesty and compassion as an amulet that glowed in the dark and drew the vulnerable as porch lights draw moths to confusion and incineration. The adulation that Bourdain milked from his fans could never save him or them. Real intimacy requires exclusivity. “I am speaking my heart to you” spoken one-way, in the plural, is a performance. “I am speaking my heart to you,” said in the singular, is different. When combined with “I’ll still be here when things get rough,” and followed by the speaker listening to, and caring about, the other’s response, can result in intimacy. Real saints never invited us to worship them. They invited us to get closer to our own best selves, and, thereby, to worship a God who loves us.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.