“Parts Unknown”: Thoughts on Anthony Bourdain’s Journey to the Heart of Darkness


David Seelow, Ph.D.©

Rarely do I watch anything other than sports on non-streaming television these days. I don’t expect much from TV, but I generally get nothing, so I use Netflix, Amazon and so on. However, “Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown,” I watched religiously and even recorded when I could not see the scheduled show. Like much good art, “Parts Unknown” eludes classification. One could imagine the show on The Food Network or Travel Channel, (where his previous three shows, “A Cook’s Tour”, “Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and “The Layover”

Anthony Bourdain

By Neeta Lind – IMG_0519, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69812864

resided), even National Geographic, but those channels would not do justice to the sum of the parts. The internet Movie Database classifies the show as documentary.  CNN, the show’s actual home, makes some, though not total sense. Bourdain takes the role of a journalist, not the traditional, dispassionate reporter of “facts,” but rather the creative journalist, a wordsmith, poet and speaker of truths deeper than facts. Like the recently deceased Tom Wolfe writing about the space program, or Normal Mailer reporting on a heavy weight fight or most apt, Hunter Thompson on the campaign trail or Hell’s Angels road trip, Bourdain immersed himself in what he wrote about. His travelogue/food journal/cultural commentary ended up a good bit of cultural anthropology with a clear unapologetic point of view. Yes, Armenia suffered genocide at the hands of the Turks (Season 11, Episode 5, May 20, 2018). Why report facts and not what the facts speak to? Bourdain told his truth forthright without fear, uncoddled or sullied by the political correctness that permeates so much writing today.1

Cable TV has made chefs and cooks super stars. We have Gordan Ramsey, Emeril Largesse, Rocco DiSpirito, Rachel Ray, Nigella Lawson, Bobby Flay and many more. Moreover, the explosion of Reality TV has produced all too many food wanna be chef super stars shows from Hell’s Kitchen to Top Chef Junior. Anthony Bourdain turned this pop cultural fascination with preparing food on its head and focused instead on consuming food. No longer was the chef star. Now the food itself took center stage, and food as Marvin Harris (Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture, Waveland Press, 1998), and others have shown, offers a carnal guide to a culture’s flesh and bones. Bourdain served as our ferryman in the guise of pirate to the treasures of food most of us will never discover, from fear of the unknown, and gastronomical confinement-the prison of our comfort in the known. Bourdain simply relished in exotic foods, regional specialties, dishes passed from great grandparents on down like an oral tale that carries a way of life and its history with it.

Many years ago, just before enrolling in a graduate program at Columbia University, I took a course as a nonmatriculated student called “Culture and Communication” taught by the great pioneering anthropologist Margaret Meade. I vividly recall Dr. Meade walking out on stage with her cane, slow but confident, still passionate about what she taught. She would preface a video clip of a cultural ritual- probably from Papua New Guinea, though that specific escapes me, by warning the privileged Ivy League students in front of her that they might find the ritual they were about to watch abhorrent, distasteful, disgusting- not sure of her exact words, but they were strong. She emphatically explained forthrightly that such rituals were normal; a necessary and essential part of the culture. Professor Meade steadfastly maintained that communication could only occur once we put our western value system and our frequent assumption of its normalcy aside and respected the “other” as other, but not inferior.  I had the same feeling watching Bourdain when in the last episode shown before his death he enthusiastically relished a dish of tea-smoked pigeon and pig’s brain with burnt peach vinaigrette. No, I would not partake in such a dish should I ever meet May Chou in Honk Kong, but I appreciated and accepted the dish in my mind as I would a hamburger and french fries. Bourdain allowed us a vicariously taste of the exotic, but exotic only to us, and his greatness resided precisely in letting “the other” remain “other” without being exotic.  His friend, the noted film director Darren Aronofsky traveled twice with Bourdain. The first trip to Madagascar (Season 5, Episode 4, May 17, 2015) and the last, shown after the chef’s death, to Bhutan (Season 11, Episode 8, June 24, 2018). Writing about his experience for CNN Travel, Aronofsky perfectly captures Bourdain’s story telling mastery, “Thank you for letting me tag along and witness a master storyteller shape the unexpected into relatable and unforgettable.” That’s a rare talent, turning the unknown into a relatable experience without domesticating it.

Bourdain let people speak from within their culture. The show’s camera a witness to a culture Bourdain genuinely opened himself to and filmed as “direct cinema”- that’s the documentary aspect of the show. A long time liberal, living in Manhattan, Bourdain; nonetheless, could approach even the perceived redneck coal country of West Virginia, Trump territory (Bourdain a severe critic of the president), as far removed rom the upper east side as one could imagine, and yet, Bourdain remained open to its difference. In writing about Bourdain as a hidden filmmaker Eric Kohn uses the West Virginia episode as an occasion to distill Bourdain’s skill as a passionate, intimate, but also objective participant observer, inside and outside the culture, opinionated, but ultimately not judgmental, and open to a new way of thinking about a place where he would bring a skyscraper’s worth of preconceptions,

Rather than constructing a bland plea for partisanship, Bourdain allows the men to simply exist within the specific parameters of their surroundings. It’s thrilling to watch this kind of level-headed because so little of it exists in popular culture, which tends to regard others as either exotic objects or clueless products of less-enlightened circumstances. Bourdain worked to rewire those binary instincts and embrace the potential for experiencing new people and conditions. That’s true movie magic.”

In this sense, he used/managed the camera like an ethnographic filmmaker (Kohn compares him to the great French filmmaker Jean Rouce), but through a reflective lens. For instance, Bourdain, draws an immediate comparison between rural McDowell County and counties like the Bronx, in New York, “The inner-city communities, largely black, and how people have been treated here over the last 20 or 30 years are so very, very similar. Underserved schools, all of the social problems like neglect and scorn, higher levels of incarceration, higher levels of diabetes, all of that.”

The television show as cinema came across to me most powerfully in re-watching an episode from Seattle on the just passed July 4th holiday. Most of us now think of Seattle as home of the world’s wealthiest men, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, high tech titans, but Bourdain gives a panoramic of the city, including its cannabis business (he shows viewers how to expertly roll a joint, some Bourdain calls an “essential life skill”). The closing montage of the city’s diverse inhabitants rolls to the soundtrack of a local musician, Mark Lanegan’s “Strange Religion,” (2004) and I naturally recall Seattle as the birthplace of ‘90s alternative rock- Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, etc., a Seattle, not if high tech geeks, but grungy, alternative rockers, anti-mainstream, original voices.  The ending is pure lyricism, poetry in motion, the sounds of Seattle, but I pause, and remember the recent suicide of Chris Cornell as well, the decades earlier suicide of Kurt Cobain, and think, Mark Lanegan’s raspy, blues voice sounds like a dirge, the poetry like an elegy for a Seattle now gone forever. Lanegan, like Bourdain, a person, addicted to heroin for times, lost at times, but serving- and Bourdain, sadly, did not survive. “Strange Religion” takes on a kind of allegorical significance speaking to Bourdain’s endless travels around the globe, struggles, and darkness-beautiful, but as a dark nocturnal OWL’s hoot to hidden pain.

Bourdain moved effortlessly and with equal joy from the extraordinary haute cuisine of Norma in Copenhagen; voted the world’s best restaurant from 2010-2012, (Season 2 Episode 5, October 6, 2013) to Hiram’s fried hot dogs in New Jersey (Season 5, Episode 6, May 31, 2015). He had a truly democratic taste. Whenever I would watch and listen to Bourdain pull up a chair and dine with a local host I felt transported back to the great Louis Malle film, My Dinner with Andre (1982), with its understated conversation as art, the film’s only action eating and talking. I think of Bourdain’s close friend, the great French chef Eric Ripert as Andre, erudite, artistic- as in high art, and Tony, as his friends called Mr. Bourdain, more as the sometimes coarse, connoisseur of the more common pleasures spoken by Wallace Shawn, but both chefs travelled happily between all manner of cuisine and watching them milk cows in the French Alps (Season Ten, Episode 2, October 8, 2017) made wonderful television.

What about the “unknown” of “parts unknown”? Let me take that final aired show before his death, “Hong Kong” (Season 11, Episode 5, June 3, 2018), five days before his death as my springboard. Unknown was geographic, only in part.  Most of us will never travel to the geographic “parts” of the world Bourdain visited (the Andes in search of cocoa being one of my favorites, Season 1, Episode 7, June 2, 2013). In visiting Hong Kong though Bourdain shows how the unknown is not so much what we have not seen, but what we may never see again. The shrinking world shrinks not in happy ways. The wonderful dai pai dong or open-air food courts are shrinking because licenses are denied by the government, and a way of life evaporates in a version of Asian gentrification, the cozy, intimacy of strangers dining, replaced by glittering sky scrapers. Commerce and greed shrink the world into a commonality in the worst sense of the word; the food courts of a dull suburban shopping mall.  When Bourdain uses the wonderful cinematographer and Honk Kong resident Christopher Doyle as a guide, we witness a filming the beauty of a city fading into a memory, like the Honk Kong of Doyle’s collaboration with Wong Kar-wai on In the Mood for Love (2000).

The physical unknown is always in art a metaphor for the psychological, the interior, unknown part of the self. Way back in the first season, Bourdain visited the Congo (Episode 8, June 9, 2011), the locale of one of his and mine favorite stories, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1899). Marlow, Conrad’s British narrator, learns the unknown is both the heart of the jungle which he slowly navigates up the Congo River toward, and the heart of the self, the savagery not of the natives, but the colonizers, who render the unknown known through such things as the ivory trade, and its consequent destruction of the “unknown”. The character Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror? The horror!” We all have moments of such disfiguring horror and its attendant loss of hope.

Suicide must always be a part unknown. Many commentators have commented on how we should not be so befuddled or shocked by the self-destruction of a famous, successful, creative person. That’s true. After all, the outer self, the self we see on television or film, on stage or playing field, does not always or even often represent the interior life or the part unknown. We can never know the “whips and scorns of time” the fully lived life has secretly suffered. Yet, I think our shock is less at the sudden fall of greatness by the person so far removed from us, but more that the person so far removed, so unknown is somehow actually so really close to us. I believe many, perhaps most people, myself included, have at some point asked Hamlet’s ultimate question, “To be or not to be,” and thankfully most of us have responded like Hamlet at that moment to “suffer/The slings and arrows of/outrageous fortune,” and not succumb to our “sea of troubles,” but far too many of us have “by opposing end them.” Someone suffering from clinical depression does not just feel blue because of a broken relationship or lost job, he or she feels an unfathomable pain, tormenting the psyche, a part unknown to all us outside that individual’s psychological torture chamber. The best we can do is be friends, be attentive, listen, observe and suggest help when we sense “something is rotten” and if we feel “the time is out of joint,” reach out to a friend, call a hotline, a crisis unit, call someone, immediately. Collectively we must assert, maintain and demand that mental illness be treated with the same vigilance, policies, coverage, and compassion as any “physical” disease. Health without mental health is not health. It is the heart of darkness, the part unknown.

 

Your contacts should include The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at:

1-800-273-8255

 

Notes

“Anthony Bourdain shares his experience in McDowell County,” Bluefield Daily Telegraph, September 20, 2017. http://www.bdtonline.com/news/anthony-bourdain-shares-his-experience-in-mcdowell-county/article_b1f10120-9e0e-11e7-95c8-87243b1cb19a.html

Eric Kohn, “Anthony Bourdain was a Brilliant Filmmaker in Disguise,” IndieWire, June 10, 2018, https://www.indiewire.com/2018/06/anthony-bourdain-last-interview-food-movies-legacy-1201973230/

Mark Langegan, “Bad Religion” is song number 7 on the album Bubblegum, Beggars Banquet, 2004. The album’s title is clearly ironic.

 

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