It was only when he became a celebrity, only when the camera would provide the appropriate amplification, would suicide become at first a temptation and then an obsession that took over his life. One can only guess how many times Bourdain had imagined his demise and its after-effects before tightening the rope around his neck. Recreating the public mourning, the adulation and eulogies, the obituaries must have worked on him like a powerful drug that he required more of for the same effect — to the final effect that in the end it didn’t matter if he weren’t around to enjoy it.
By the time Bourdain slipped away he had become a star unhinged in the vacuous glitter of fame and celebrity. The only honest moment he showed the world was in the rendering of his final judgment on the phony he had become — by getting rid of it once and for all.
What really happened in that lonely hotel room in Kayserberg, France is that Anthony Bourdain strangled his persona in order to be free.
His suicide is a tragic reminder that when fame and celebrity conspire to estrange someone from his or her essential self, in certain instances nothing less than radical intervention is called for, and whether or not the afflicted one survives the ordeal is almost beside the point.
The critical distinction between psychology and philosophy is that the former encourages you to like yourself as you are, while the latter asks you to make yourself into someone you like. Given the proliferation of psychology and the virtual disappearance of philosophy from daily life during the past century, Bourdain, in a very real sense, didn’t have much of a chance. Everyone around him wanted him to stay ‘as is.’ Surrounded by sycophants and devotees, there was no one to help him address his radical self-estrangement, much less set him on the path to recover his essential self.
What kind of advice could he expect from his colleagues at CNN? Both Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon worshipped him, they wanted to be like him. And like the legions of his admirers, their hands, too, are on the rope that took him away from us. Where there should have been a helping hand (a real friend) there was only the unrelenting din of love and adoration and applause that became deafening.
Since Bourdain’s after life has been as much of a lie as was his actual life, the real person remains an enigma, and what was authentic in the man and his life is still waiting to be exhumed. The blinded-by-the-light media tried to explain away the suicide to a defective sequence of genes, conveniently exculpating itself and the star of the show.
If “the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” (Adorno) maybe one day, on his behalf, the people who knew Tony well will speak the truth to the aura that obscures him, to the worship and veneration that have disfigured him beyond recognition. Then again, if art is said to happen when the image is superior to the thing itself, we should be thankful that Anthony Bourdain sacrificed his personhood, gave his life for his groundbreaking Parts Unknown. We got what we wanted: entertainment and edification. CNN scored big time on the ratings. And Tony got what he wanted: fame, adulation and a robust afterlife.
The only thing we really know about Tony Bourdain is that he was not the television personality we came to know. Which isn’t to say he is not the good friend who is missed who is no longer around.