Anthony Bourdain and the Irrelevance of Philosophy

Aditya Balakrishnan
15 min readJun 1, 2023
Cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche (1883–85)

Every day I wage a war with myself. It begins as most great wars do, with a man awakening at 2pm on a designated work day, feeling incontrovertibly hungover and generally useless. A Marlboro Red will ease any of the existential weariness I might be facing at having missed that important meeting or that lunch with my friends. But is it actually okay that nicotine eases the paranoia of participation in a normal life? Is it acceptable to continue a degenerate lifestyle at the expense of smooth integration into high society, with its Polaroid-perfect laughter, its airbrushed pathways to professional and academic achievement, its calm and collected tuck-ins to a warm bed at 9pm on Friday night in anticipation of fresh avocado toast the next morning?

In the middle of all this, a continuous refrain — Am I making this too deep?

And a subtler one echoing below the refrain, forcing me to continue my infinite mental war: Who said this shouldn’t be deep?

One day, watching an old animated Soviet short film, I started to think about a mental armistice; I wanted, no, I needed, peace. I don’t remember much from the cartoon apart from that it involved a supremely annoying cat and a wiseass tree, and the cat wanted to be more like the tree, unfeeling and unaffected by the mundane quandaries of the world. What bothered me was that I didn’t give a shit; I watched the short to find some kind of answer to my problems; but the answer was trite, a rehashed version of all the faux Western Buddhists on my Instagram reels telling me to eliminate all desire while they ingested psilocybin beside Joshua Tree.

The tweed-wearing Orwellian Marxist in me would be proud; I had escaped the curse of consumption. I was the commie that Marx would have hated; I cared little for the societal class struggle since I thought I could escape it, and only decried consumption because it ate away at me, or my self-actualised idea of myself as some brave Beowulfesque warrior. In my attempt to escape the highly addicting end-products of a free market that I had facilitated, I was the scapegoat for every Shapiro-esque attack on the modern political left: a selfish socialist, and by extension the most selfish of all capitalists.

But I realise now all too well that the cure against capitalist realism is not a cessation of consumption. After all, a low-budget Soviet cartoon was far from a battle cry to the brain-dead troops of Uncle Sam. Which self-loving man would deny himself an opportunity to consume his own propaganda? Maybe one who has consumed the same propaganda long enough; to whom the aesthetics of fiction are subsumed by an imposed obligation to strive for deeper meaning in everything he consumes.

Enter the era of ideologues, of political speakerphones of supposed purpose, of the Intellectual Dark Web, of Slavoj Zizek and his ineffably irritable nose, of the Bronze Age Pervert, of Cenk Uygur’s Young Turks and Gavin McInnes’ Proud Boys. Enter the age of hyper-hyper-consciousness, where we are aware of our self-awareness and searching every second for a way to escape it. The average Gen-Z kid with an internet connection can find a cohesive framework with which to map all of reality in a 15 second YouTube video. When you’re a 14 year old nerd getting bullied at school and you discover that big biceps = big respect, you take the keys and run. What’s more, once you uncover the treasure of chiselled pecs and sexual attention, the voice who taught you these principles becomes your God.

The ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, a behemoth of self-improvement social media punditry

This is not a rant about the perils of social media and how it has sent consumption into overdrive, although that would be a fun aside. The more interesting question is, what has this consumption substituted? The rose-tinted spectacles of a suburban tree-hugging conservative would suggest that in the absence of technology and modern media, our dads were probably critically reading existential Russian literature, our moms engaging in non-violent protest for the pursuit of something greater than the individual, and our grandparents, god love them, were off painting the Sistine Chapel. Me? I’d like to think my ancestors were spectating public executions, and poking their cousins with sticks on prohibited farmland. Elizabethan executions were often cathartic, and I don’t need to tell you the simple pleasures of simulated warfare with your family. The old folks still made it for the most part. It was a rough ride, with the plagues and the wars and the powdered aristocrats, but at least they weren’t systematically depressed lifelong vagabonds under some yuppie veil of positivity.

Yes you are happy and have a purpose and are well settled in a nice beach villa in Kokomo, but think about meaninglessness for a second. I am the 14 year old nerd with a TikTok fitness guru as my proxy for Jesus, and when it isn’t the fitness guru, it’s a 5’7’’ gamer telling me that women are feral; it’s an Indian sage in a conference room in Prague give me deliberate and non-intuitive guidelines to suppress my anger when it arises; it’s a 90-year old billionaire listing off his life’s regrets while a Hans Zimmer score plays in the background, almost compelling me not to regret the same way even though he is a billionaire and probably did okay despite the pain of that regret; it’s a deadbeat 50Cent wannabe vigorously commanding me to take it easy as he rolls a blunt in his condo; and more often than not it’s a dear friend in his Dickie’s cargos in a beautiful alley in a foreign country whose very existence reminds me of my own inadequacy. On corners of the internet there exist all these examples, often counterintuitive to one another and non-intuitive to our own nature, and we subconsciously obligate ourselves to follow their well-intentioned guidelines, switching from one to the next robotically, almost as if it were trial and error, until we find the philosophy that clicks, the ethos that gives us some semblance of happiness. Until it doesn’t. On-y-vas.

Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will. At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.

- Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

I do not condone God, or at least I did not until Morgan Freeman set the trend. Rather I am now deeply, some would say spiritually, attracted to the notion that we set our own example. Not the million voices we hear on the internet, not our family or friends, not the movies or the books or the songs or the art galleries, but our own goddamn thoughts and actions when we wipe the slate of external consumption clean. This is, of course, an impossible feat — Adult Swim and family dinners make us who we are, but it is, I find, incredibly easy to understand early on who we really are. The great lie the Buddhists sold us was that this requires a life of self-introspection and meditative dormancy; they were salesmen who wanted us to add more miserable layers to our miserable lives so we could eventually understand in our dying breath how miserable all those layers were. In the perpetual attempt to become more authentic, we lose our true authenticity. We age and the ‘organic’ self becomes gradually fluid and unknowable, intermixed with our mature consumption, with our increased self-awareness, and eventually we turn to TikTok ideologues and rabbis and investment banks as a final salvo — tell me who I should be because I cannot be assed to keep figuring this out — and we reduce to ashes, still trying to piece life’s grand purpose together, listening to everyone but ourselves. Why am I so afraid of the power of my own free will but still so doubtful that a God dictates my actions? In this denial of God, albeit rational, why do I turn instead to other humans for consent, and yet believe I am acting independently anyway? The true endeavour of a well-lived life, as I see it now, is to stop being validated by that which we consume; to add less and less smoke to the flame, to know yourself only enough to know that your thoughts and actions have credence and worth in themselves, that you can be informed by your own real experience, that you can play solo at this game of life and come out of it okay. A bit bruised, heartbroken, maybe even pissed off, but always okay.

The only ideologue we should really follow is Anthony Bourdain. I kid, of course. Pete Manni, a minister at the Goshen Baptist Church and professed foodie, writes on his blog the day Bourdain hung himself of how the acclaimed celebrity chef-turned world traveler brought him closer to Jesus. Bourdain made Pete realise how Christ blessed humanity with great food instead of ‘giving us a piece of cardboard to eat every day’. A bit too kumbaya for my tastes but Pete is a Baptist after all.

His premise, however, is infallible. To most of his viewers, Anthony Bourdain was the prodigal son of authentic experience; an everyday line cook, helplessly cool and endearingly rustic, travelling the world and trying the best meals it had to offer. Personally I didn’t give a shit where Bourdain was going or what he was eating. I wanted him; his POV, his one-liners, his rhapsodes about omelettes-after-sex interspersed with gangster movie references. His show was an Epicurean’s paradise, and yet amidst the nirvana of French vineyards and Cambodian temples there was Bourdain, this immovable chaos. Here was a dude who refused to toast the Queen’s passing because he ‘hated aristocracy’; who upon visiting Cambodia felt a moral obligation to tell the world that Henry Kissinger was the antichrist; who devoted a chapter of his book to mudslinging revered GQ food critic Alan Richman (‘Alan Richman is a Douchebag’).

Bourdain in the 70s, Provincetown, MA (UPPA/Photoshot/Newscom)

Bourdain had a strong and contrarian opinion about everything; he allowed the world to change him but remained ruthlessly original. In many ways he appeared original because he allowed that change. His experience seemed to merely inform him. He did not seek anything from it but he allowed it to transform him if he was so compelled. And in achieving authenticity, a by-the-book travel show became his journal, often causing me to refrain in moments of critical doubt — what would Bourdain do? He would have hated being put on that pedestal, but I revered the guy — I looked up to him as the ideal of man, effortlessly human and humanely erudite. It was only after he ended it all that I realised Anthony Bourdain was, just like the rest of us, a victim of obligations.

They were really ’60s parents, and I don’t think — there was if anything a conscious attempt to not give overt direction. Although of course you end up becoming yourself.

- David Foster Wallace, A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky

I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks ― the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world ― and I wanted the world to be just like the movies.

- Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

Of course Bourdain ended up becoming himself. The most authentic and daring of 21st century adventurers was an inevitable product of consumption. No wonder he was such a great storyteller. In a posthumous documentary, a camerawoman in his crew describes Bourdain as a hopeless romantic, and the themes echo through its 2-hour runtime. He imagined an ideal reality for himself: the most passionate of lovers, the most ballsy of explorers, the most dad of all dads. And here was a man who seemingly had it all, but didn’t himself believe that he had it. Comfort, fame, family, respect, and perpetual access to high culture and an international immersive culinary experience. But life happens — you get a divorce, you fall for the wrong girl, you relapse your heroin addiction, you spend less time with your kid, you lose energy and time and boom, the Mediterranean or South East Asia just aren’t as interesting anymore. Does the paradise of reality ever really live up to the movies? I wondered if Bourdain never fully experienced his highest moments because they were often so imperfect and lame and evil. So much of the journey is. How could he be happy if he was always searching? He had obligated himself to go down Campbell’s hero’s journey, to muster his way through the world’s deepest and darkest corners and emerge victorious, to come out of all experiences with some perfect resolution that never arrived.

I now secretly believe that in many ways Bourdain fetishised travel. A lanky teen heartthrob raised in a modest Manhattan household with well-adjusted and protective parents would intuitively (perhaps upon watching his first Werner Herzog film) crave a ticket out of his normalcy. More often than not this ticket is a few quick lines or a syringe up your arm; but a select few ubermenschen get bored of the dope too, and attempt quite vigorously to get high on life. But LSD can only be substituted by the most extreme of experiences, and so they push themselves to the most extrasensory and beautiful fringes of human activity, still perpetually chasing a high; desperate to avoid relapsing, but eventually relapsing to avoid the ordinary lives of their past. To a junkie, being ordinary is a curse far worse than any addiction.

This is the arc of the average 21st century bohemian pop culture icon: they visualised themselves in the shoes of the icons they consumed, icons who offered them an escape from a mundane, stable life — that most boring and despicable of things. But there is a deeper truth in this — all arcs come full circle. David Foster Wallace presciently mapped the timeline of postmodernism, starting off as a grand hedonistic house party with no rules, and eventually ending with you and your friends coked out on your couch, butted cigarettes and beer cups strewn over the floor, and puke flooding the hallway. It is at this point, Wallace claims, that ‘we’re kind of wishing some parents would come back’. While he is speaking about how the laissez-faire experimental postmodernists inevitably institutionalised themselves, there is a greater argument here for how rebellious folks, en masse, eventually come to papa. Reductively understood, a rich kid will lunge at any enlightened hippie dogma he consumes as inspiration to escape a life of comfort and stillness. And when you force inspiration, you simulate rebellion. And when rabid inspiration is accessible anywhere you look, you often fight for the wrong side. Even worse, you presume there are sides to begin with. There is little truth in the rebellion of Anthony Bourdain, or in the adventures of most 21st century icons, because the invisible hand of modern society that provides you with everything you need while deceiving you out of everything you truly want secretly dulls you; it deprives you of the early starvation, pain, and necessity that makes your act of artistic expression meaningful and true. And I think this is what Bourdain and David Foster Wallace and Mark Fisher and all those trailblazers who took their own lives eventually understood. The identities they had devoted to outlandish adventures and provocative art often led them nowhere because they were identities that were enacted; performed to serve some unknown need that could never truly be known because they had never truly felt it. And you realize that you forced yourself to follow too many old Westerns, too many Terence McKenna diatribes, too many rogue academics-turned conspiracy theorists, too many establishment bureaucrats, too many fake activists, too many Gods. You spent so much time chasing the dreams of your idols that you never even considered what your own dreams were. And by the time you realise your idols were either pixels on a screen, or terribly unsatisfied people with heroin addictions, you are too old and too broken to know what happiness is. Then you scour through the annals of your past for the last time you remembered peace — we turn to peace when we fail our dreams — and peace is often found in the most boring and braindead period of human life. And so quietly, desperately, the man who tried to taste rebellion fails to achieve any actual upheaval, and returns to his true authentic state: intoxicated and obese, tanning on a Barcalounger beside the hot tub in your suburban mansion’s backyard, while your kids play tag and your partner pores over old tabloids. So fucking normal, so at peace with your warring mind. I think Anthony Bourdain discovered that his chaotic life was not satisfying him, and his last refuge was the contentment of being a present father and a loving husband. It wasn’t his dream, it was Plan B. And when Plan B became increasingly unattainable, he plunged into the deepest chaos of it all, in turn plunging us all into the grief that lay in its aftermath.

A shot of Colonel Kurtz’ compound in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now (1970)

Bourdain’s favourite movie was Apocalypse Now, and it source novel, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was emblematic of the kind of adventure he romanticised — this initially narcissistic journey by a group of ‘civilised’ men into the unknown trenches of the Earth to discover their more tribalistic counterparts, only to realise it was the world that civilised them and not they who civilised the world. But I suspect that in his vain attempt not to falsely dichotomise foreign lands as hearts of darkness, Bourdain became Kurtz. War was theory for Kurtz before Vietnam; he unquestioningly imbibed theories from his commanders about the dynamics of power and the nationalistic duty of soldiers, and in doing so constructed an identity that would map his ‘method’, his routine through life. His superiors encouraged this blind belief from their soldiers, for collective hysteria can only be enacted through befehl-ist-befehl henchmen who subsume their thoughts into the collective beating heart of the State, an illusory drug of its own. Then Kurtz saw Vietnam and understood the depth of human tragedy and lawlessness, a people that could not be as neatly subjugated as he had envisioned back in West Point. But instead of receding from the pain he saw, Kurtz made himself the cult leader of animalistic brutality against the Viet Cong, disobeying his superiors and killing mercilessly. Human life, to Kurtz, was now like everything else: a means to the ultimate end of winning the war. No other moral consideration could come in the way of his principle. Kurtz turned off his subjective emotions; they were for the weak-of-heart. He was ruled by the order that had been brought upon him, so much so that he cared little for the voices that so ordered him because he knew there was no other option. This was Anthony Bourdain, a human who deeply fantasised about the life of a romantic adventurer. The more he was convinced that the dream was falling out of his grasp, the more he latched onto it with every ounce of consideration left in his body. And in holding onto his false principle, he lost everything that made him whole. He became the madman he had been trying to escape. And in turn, his fans and loved ones, myself included, are the Montagnards; captivated by the ideology of a false prophet, and in his passing we are left to our own devices, wanderlust and leaderless. To my fellow Montagnards, the choice now falls upon us: do we choose a new prophet, a new code, a new philosophy? Or do we live and fight, with all our lives, against the next monster that emerges out of the swamp? I suggest the latter, but do not heed my word.

You revere me, but what if your reverence falls down some day? Beware that you are not killed by a statue! You say you believe in Zarathustra? But what matters Zarathustra! You are my believers, but what matter all believers! You had not yet sought yourselves, then you found me. All believers do this; that’s why all faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.

- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

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Aditya Balakrishnan

writing about political polarisation and the evolution of ideology.