Bourdain describes a man, in one of the more delightful episodes of Parts Unknown who led a project, in the late 19th century, to build a railway up an unspeakably steep mountain in Punjab, India. It’s a job that would be near impossible with the most advanced 21st century equipment. It beggars the imagination how it was ever accomplished. The foreman of this project set about to bore through a portion of the mountain to create a tunnel. He had two contingents on either side of the tunnel working in opposing directions. The man realized at one terrible point that the two sides did not, and could never, meet — and he killed himself. “The kind of accountability I’d like to see more of, frankly,” says Bourdain. That was season 3, I believe. When he died, the show was in it’s 11th season.
I get it. As you get older you see people in increasing positions of power whose main job it seems is to offload responsibility for theirs or their company’s poor performance onto all those around them. But what Bourdain demands is super-human. His brief expression of this, said somewhat in jest, still hits the ear in a menacing way, even if you don’t know the end of his story.
Bourdain, himself, was a creative. And a perfectionist. He preferred to be around competence, yes, but admitted that his own life was a constant struggle not to stay in bed and smoke weed. What does this tell us?
He did love his job as he often said. Felt immensely lucky. He looked at the complaints of others and perhaps felt queasy, borderline violent. You know there are people ACTUALLY suffering in this world. This was always his attitude toward “complainers.” He could never allow himself to become one of them. And yet his drivenness did not resemble a Jeff Bezos. For a Bezos-type, it’s not a job. It’s just who he is. It’s a compulsion — perhaps a welcome one, but it requires no self-prodding. His kind don’t pull themselves out of a deep trench each morning. Bourdain did.
But how could he complain? I know I’m imposing my own ideas on a man I never knew personally, but some of these issues were transparent, explicit. He had everything he ever dreamed and so much more. The day might consist — as it did at the end of his life — of running through the shooting schedule with a few people he appreciated and then eating exquisite food with a brilliant cook who he loved — a dear friend —in front of an adoring crowd in Strasbourg, France. Gee, what a punishment!
But a show like his IS work. And the main work, though by no means the only work, is performance. You have to be ON. You have to be interesting. You have to provide a great experience for those on camera with you as well as your audience. You cannot phone it in. You can’t hide behind your desk for a few hours. You can’t take the day off. You can’t stay in your deep trench. You can’t quit the show while it is still popular. Your friends will all be out of work (he actually cared about people in his orbit; he cared about people outside of his orbit as well).
Bourdain was talented, hyper-competent, interested and interesting. He was even neurotically driven, but he was not naturally driven. He drove himself because it was, as he said,“the greatest job in the world” — which he ALSO described as being “sentenced to.” He drove himself because what in the world do I have to complain about!
It’s too bad he didn’t complain because now he’s dead. He was too proud to face his people and say, “I can’t keep doing it.” Scan his body of work and keep your ears pricked for the number of times he jokingly references entrapment, death, suicide, despair, and inner lack.
I loved Bourdain to the degree that it’s possible for a fan to actually love a public figure. I loved his toughness and the flashes of vulnerability that he quickly papered over with more judgement and ever harsher judgement — of himself, his peers, everyone who did not meet his impossible standard.
I wish he had called several of his friends that evening and said to them, “I need you to cover for me. I can’t keep going. And I can’t manage the consequences right now. Just get me out of here. And let me rest.”