I was saddened by news of the death of Anthony Bourdain, reported as an apparent suicide. While I’m always surprised and saddened by news that a person has opted out of life, unfortunately our collective shock has perhaps been lessened by other high profile suicides among pop stars, and by our intuitive recognition that a darker, hidden side often dwells under the shadow cast by the façade of entertainers. I write this without any specific knowledge as to the details of Mr. Bourdain’s death, or as to his mental illness, or whether or not he had any diagnosed record of illness, had sought any treatment, or given any warning signs.
Regardless of the presence or absence of any documented symptoms of illness, suicide is always evidence of disease. The notion of suicide does not compel a mind that is “at ease.” His denial of a belief in a higher power several years ago suggests a man spiritually adrift. Yet, despite this incomplete picture, Mr. Bourdain’s death is certainly tragic, and, though all deaths are eventually expected, his death and others that don’t appear to occur in God’s time and according to God’s ways, strike us with particular impact and are worth some reflection.
In this case my surprise and sadness was piqued for several reasons. Though even a casual and infrequent observer could detect in Mr. Bourdain a certain depth of personality, which could easily hide layers of suffering that lie below the surface, he seemed like a moderately happy person. (I’m using the term moderate not to suggest a relative paucity of happiness, but instead happiness in proper proportion.) He didn’t exude a sham of false positivity or excitement for the camera, as actors tend to do, sometimes by necessity of the roles they play. Mr. Bourdain didn’t seem to suffer as acutely as some entertainers from the duplicity of a public personality separated from a private personality. Though I did not know Mr. Bourdain personally, his public personality seemed genuine and uncensored—not in a purposefully irreverent way, but in an authentically raw way. My limited experience of Mr. Bourdain’s work gave me the impression of a humble man. Not that he hesitated to give criticism, or that he wasn’t prone to arrogance, as we all are. But he was humble in the sense that he knew who he was, seemingly at least, and presented that person to his audience, unabashedly; sharing with his readers and viewers his unique expertise and talents, as well as his flaws.
Another reason that Mr. Bourdain didn’t appear to be a man struggling with depression or despair is that he seemed to be truly in touch with goodness, in several concrete ways. He appreciated good food, good drink, good music, good scenery, good friends. He appreciated good culture, and thought it worth preserving and celebrating. He seemed to have a friend in each location he visited, and he appeared to truly relish the opportunity to sit with them, eat together, and talk. Maybe it was all a show, and they were just actors following a script, but it sure didn’t seem that way. Though sarcastic and critical, Bourdain left the impression of a man who placed value on the good things that the world had to offer. He seemed to advocate time and money being well spent on good and enjoyable things. There is still a big step left to be taken, however, between experiencing good things and experiencing goodness itself, and a supernatural bridge is needed to span the gap.
St. Augustine gives us insight into the delicate balance in which beauty must be held by the human mind. His own interior battle with carnality and his resulting distrustful, questioning disposition towards the senses allow Augustine to guide us through a detailed description of how experiences of natural beauty and sensible goodness work upon a person’s intellect and will. His Confessions present us with a nuanced discussion of how things like food, art, and music are interpreted, and how they can move us (either towards or away from God), or, in other cases, appear to do nothing at all. Augustine considers, for example, the different affect which beauty has on the one who merely sees, and the one who sees and inquires: “Beauty appears in the same way to both beholders,” says Augustine, “but to one it is dumb, and to the other it speaks. Or rather, it speaks to all, but only they understand who test the voice heard outwardly against the truth within.”
In a reflection on the potential for creation to participate in the sole divinity of God, Augustine relates to his reader a vision he had of himself encountering a host of created things, and inquiring of each of them whether or not they were the rightful recipients of his love: “They denied me: ‘We are not the God you seek.’ And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said, ‘Tell me of my God. You are not he, but tell me something of him.’ Then they lifted up their mighty voices and cried, ‘He made us.’ My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.”
Anthony Bourdain’s death was a reminder that good food is not enough. Good atmosphere, good conversation, and good meals can take us a long way towards joy. But they are never substitutes for joy. Those things only give us true joy if they are accompanied, or, perhaps more accurately, preceded by a relationship with the Lord who gives us all these good things, and provides them with their significance. Our God ought not be our stomachs, as St. Paul reminds us, as does Dante in his description of the poor souls in his Inferno. Chaucer’s Pardoner goes so far as to claim that gluttony is the root of all other sins. Our food might help us to be joyful and can lead us towards the higher goods, but only if we recognize that it is food for the journey—a mysterious foretaste of milk and honey like that of the Israelites in the desert—and not an end in itself.
Augustine recognized that our desire for food is good in that we need it for the healthy functioning of our bodies, but that we often use health as an excuse to eat food simply because we like the taste. He warns his reader about the tendency towards gluttony, for example, noting that the very necessity of food is what makes gluttony such a dangerous sin. While other sinful desires can be choked out, so to speak, by simple abstinence, our sinful desire for food is not so easily remedied. “Beset by these temptations I struggle every day against gluttony,” wrote Augustine, “for eating and drinking are not something I can decide to cut away once and for all, and never touch again … the reins that control the throat must therefore be relaxed or tightened judiciously.”
Augustine writes a great deal about sins of “sensuality,” and recognizes their ramifications and pervasiveness more than any other author of his time. But he also writes about the sin of curiosity, which for him is characterized by a “lust to experience and find out.” All food has a shelf life, of course, but the new and exotic expire much more rapidly than familiar fare. The “foodie” subculture lends itself to a sort of hedonism, latently breeding a deceptively benign-seeming sort of greedy indulgence. There isn’t much that separates a gourmet from a glutton.
The good things of the world: food, drink, natural beauty, and friendship—are only significant when seen in light of the One who made them. They can only be considered good, in fact, if their dependent relationship to the One who alone is good is recognized—and we can only enjoy them insofar as we are enjoying a relationship with him. That relationship must be primary in time, nature, and degree. Without that essential relationship, all the good things in the world become paltry. They lose their taste. Sadly, those things that we find pleasurable for a time—i.e., sensual delights, human relationships, even life itself—can become what we despise.