A Frustration We All Know

By Troy Headrick

This past Christmas, I received an Amazon gift card.  I used it to buy three books, including Anthony Bourdain’s The Tasty Bits.

I’ll never forget the morning I learned that Anthony Bourdain—famed chef, travel writer, television personality, recovered junkie, and hipster guru—had committed suicide.  I was sitting on my butt, watching TV, and suddenly there was breaking news:  ANTHONY BOURDAIN FOUND DEAD OF AN APPARENT SUICIDE.  I immediately went into mourning.

I’ve always felt a kinship with Bourdain.  That’s because I, too, traveled to many of the places featured on his two long-running shows, No Reservations and Parts Unknown.  Unlike him, though, I am not famous, nor were my adventures televised.  There was another significant difference between us.  He was mostly a tourist, albeit an extraordinarily well-traveled one; whereas, I lived the life, for nearly two decades, of an expatriated American.  Thus, his visits to places were short-lived.  Mine, on the other hand, were long forays into far-flung spots.  Thus, to use a food metaphor—an apt one given the person we’re talking about—Bourdain mostly nibbled when he went to other places.  My years-long forays into Europe, Asia, and Africa were more like festivals of food consumption.

The Tasty Bits is a collection of Bourdain’s essays on all sorts of subjects.  In the “Preface,” I ran into the following passage:

“Words fail me.  Again and again.  Or maybe it’s me that fails the English language.  My depiction of the day’s rather extraordinary events is workmanlike enough, I guess…but, typically, I fall short.  How to describe the feeling of closeness and intimacy…?”

Bourdain goes on to confess, at some length, about how impotent he feels when trying to recreate experiences and the feelings associated with such, using mere words as his medium.

Being human means that one has been given the tool of language, but like all tools, language has its limitations.  Language helps us fulfill the desire to communicate and be creative, but this ambition, like all ambitions, can leave us frustrated, as desire frequently outpaces ability.  Writers, perhaps more than others, acutely feel how limited (and limiting) words are.  For example, does using the word “love” really capture all that is meant by the idea of love? 

I’ve often wondered why Bourdain, with all that was going for him, decided to kill himself.  Perhaps—and this is pure speculation—he finally felt that language had completely failed him, as he said in the above excerpt?  Maybe he came to believe he’d said everything that needed saying and it was now time to shut up once and for all?  Or, maybe, at the time he ended his life, he was having an experience (or living through a period) that he couldn’t write about?  Perhaps, I’m using the wrong metaphor?  It’s quite possible, as a traveler, he felt that it was time to leave the well-worn path and cut through the unknown and unknowable wilderness—into the impenetrably dark forest?

I look forward to reading your comments and responding to them.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

35 thoughts on “A Frustration We All Know

    1. Hi. No, I haven’t. Was it good? I’ve read his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and I’m currently working on The Nasty Bits. I used to watch his TV programs during the summer, when I was back in the US on summer vacation. He would have been a really cool guy to know. Thanks for your comment.

      1. No problem. I found his take on Mary Mallon to be slightly sympathetic given she relied on food as her livelihood. However, I don’t think he excused her negligence.

      2. This is little off topic but what the heck. Not long after the Coronavirus got going, I picked up Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and found it fascinating. It sounds like you might find the Defoe book interesting.

  1. Anthony Bourdain, RIP.

    And Kate Spade too. She had everything a person could ask for. A loving spouse, children, fame, beauty, and financial success.

    There’s something about the depression demon that makes it particularly nasty. Intractable. You don’t seek help because you know in your heart there is no help for it. that’s a part of it. The absence of hope. The good things in your life don’t matter and the bad things are magnified. I liken it to wearing blue glasses. The golden yellow things and the rosy red things turn black and the blue things are unnaturally bright.

    I’ve been there, I’ve been inches from dead. Of course, I had none of the benefits of being affluent and admired. But I don’t believe those are very strong against demon depression. Probably what saved me was a different demon, my FTW demon. I think I mentioned it in another blog.

    1. Hi, Fred (Au Natural). I truly appreciate you sharing your story. I’ve never had any issues with depression, but I’ve got my crosses to bear. Sometimes those crosses weight me down, nearly to the ground. Other times, I’m up and carrying them like they are weightless. You know, when I heard the news about Bourdain, a part of me was shocked, but a part of me wasn’t. You could see that there was a deep sadness there, something that lurked just below the surface. Of course, he had a wicked sense of humor. But many sad people are funny. They use humor as a kind of mask. I appreciate you stopping by…

    1. Yes, and there was Hunter Thompson, a guy I loved to read. If I remember correctly, he shot himself in the head in his kitchen. I think he was suffering from cancer, though, if my memory hasn’t failed me (and that’s a big if). For some of the really great ones, life is a heavy carry…

  2. So many suicide cases in this world. Mental illness is real. Depression is more dangerous than we think. Talking about a situation no matter how shameful or impossible can go a long way to help. It’s sad before they end it they feel like there is no way out…that there is nothing can do to help them.

    1. Experts have been saying that things are getting worse too, given the pandemic. I totally agree. Therapy is based on the notion that getting things out–speaking about the outspoken–is so liberating. Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Maybe he lost the words he so desperately wanted to say and his inner demons held them captive? What he once was, in his own mind, could no longer be achieved. It’s from a dark place that a person decides the world is better off without them in it. Heart breaking, always.

  4. I also went into mourning when I found out – it doesn’t happen to me often with celebrities but Bourdain was a massive idol of mine. He was perhaps the biggest influence with regards to how I travel. The reason almost all my layovers are spent exploring new neighbourhoods to find somewhere obscure and exciting to eat. Why I often choose the item on a menu I’ve never tried or even heard of. I believe his inspiration made my travels and life (along with countless others) far richer than they otherwise would have been. May he rest in peace.

    It occurs to me maybe Bourdain went out as he wanted to – on his terms – free from suffering? Perhaps he felt he had gotten everything out of life he wanted and decided it was time to let go forever? Whatever the reason – I, for one, miss him immeasurably.

    1. I think it’s possible we might be brothers who were separated at birth. I refuse to use guidebooks when I travel. (In fact, I’ve never owned one.) I want to be surprised when I travel. I wander into back alleyways and avoid the usual tourist spots. A guy like Rick Steves–though his heart’s in the right place–bothers me to no end. I think you might be right about Bourdain. He always did it his way. Always. Like you, I miss him. I miss his wicked humor. In fact, there was always a dark edge to his humor. There always seemed a bit of sadness there, even when he was in his element. Lately, I’ve been thinking about going back and rewatching some old episodes of his travel shows.

  5. Lacking the words to express one’s self is not new. But the repercussions of that become new and different as we evolve culturally, or even just as humans.
    I wonder if it’s as simple as a desire to be quiet when one finds one’s self lacking the appropriate words?
    I won’t speak to ending one’s life, but I do know we become quiet when we lack the appropriate words. We call it writers block, or conversations taper off.
    A beautiful and thought provoking post, Troy. Thank you!

    1. You raise a very interesting point. I am a mostly quiet (and introverted) person, but I have chosen to write and publish my thoughts. At a deep level, this must make me somewhat conflicted. There are times when I ask myself, “Troy, who cares what you have to say and why are you being so public anyway?” And yet I keep doing it. When I was younger, I’d often feel embarassed seeing my articles appear in print. It’s like I’d said too much, had exposed myself to too much scrutiny. I wonder to what extent other writers feel this. How about you? Thanks so much for your comment.

      1. So when you feel exposed does that make you more inclined to become ‘quiet’? Less writing?
        I find myself wondering if that can equate to ending one’s life…? When one feels (for whatever reason) that words aren’t adequate does one choose to become quiet permanently?

        I tend to write things that I might not actually talk about. I always have.
        For me, it’s easier to organize my thoughts and present them in a somewhat efficient and coherent way by writing than by speaking.
        Sometimes it feels like certain things can never be spoken, but by writing them I can make more sense of them. And if that helps someone else, or creates dialogue, that’s wonderful.

  6. Interesting ideas, Troy. There are probably as many reasons for suicide as there are people choosing that short path. I suspect in our wonderment of their reasons, we might have a brief question as to whether that might be a good idea for ourselves? Not so much for the non-existence part, but the bit about control, since one of the most disturbing things about death is that it’s utterly unknown in every way. Just a guess. My superhot imaginary boyfriend the (current) Dalai Lama said once or twice, that the best way to get over your fear of death was to worry about somebody else. He reckoned that would take your mind off of the immediate situation, and put you into a better state of mind, a useful distraction. I reckon he reckoned right. 🙂

    1. Hi. You’ve given me a lot to think about here. I actually try to think about my own death on a regular basis. I think the greatest challenge any of us will face will be our own demise and ultimate disappearance. I ran across the Stoics when I was a younger person and immediately found their philosophy very attractive. Have you read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius? Aurelius wrote the book toward the end of his life, and a good portion of it is him reflecting on growing old, losing his abilities, and how natural all that is. We should do spiritual work taking notice of those changes going on in us and not lamenting them but owning and embracing them (or, at least getting comfortable with them). I know I didn’t respond very well to the substance of your comment. And for that, I apologize. Thank you for being such a nice reader and thoughtful person.

  7. Suicide is indeed still a baffling phenomenon even for the best trained psychologists. There was a time it was believed to a “poor man disease”. Until Norma Jean and Avicii throw a spanner into the works.

    Those of us who wrestle with words have our work cut out for us.

    You leave me with a seriously philosophical question: Does the word ‘love’ capture the idea of love?

    Great work, Troy!

    1. Hi, A. B. Does any word really capture any idea perfectly? I guess that’s why they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Seeing an image can trigger all sorts of things in us, but words are abstractions. They have to be intellectually processed before any sort of emotional (or deeper or holistic) response can come. As someone who makes visual art too, I know that art is a very forgiving medium; whereas, writing requires extraordinary precision and is therefore very unforgiving. I think Bourdain must have felt this in some form or fashion. Thanks for your response.

  8. Hi,
    I enjoyed reading this piece. I think people commit suicide when they have lost all control of themselves physically, emotionally, spiritually and all other aspect. The will to die becomes greater than the will to live and more so I believe that when you have lost control of your mind & body it no longer belongs to you. It’s been controlled. Keep up the good work!

    1. I think you are right. I think we popularly assume that suicide is the ultimately foolish and emotional reaction; whereas, you make it sound very rational. A person does a cost-benefit analysis of what’s going on and decides to end it all. This is also the ultimate way to take control. One simply doesn’t go on living because there’s no other choice. The person committing suicide decides–decides, that’s the key word. Life doesn’t continue because it has to. Life never has to continue. We’ve both gotten a little philosophical. but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  9. Oof… I’m not really sure where I’m going to go with this, so bear with me. Yes, I was shocked and saddened by Bourdain’s choice. (I also felt terribly for the person who found him.) I wasn’t surprised, when I look at the number of times he was, err… self medicating with alcohol on his show. He was brilliant, and dark, and witty, with an understanding of food and a beautiful curiosity that was compelling. I still miss him, as much as I can miss someone I never met.

    Suicide – oh, there’s a mixed bag of hell thoughts. From personal thoughts, attempts, ideations, it boils down to it being the only “logical” option. There’s this “Well, these people won’t miss me, these will move on, it doesn’t really matter because I don’t matter…” and so on. Stupid brain chemistry gone all awry. Being in the public eye likely adds to that. Not having the privacy to use a public loo, or make a run to the store without someone eyeing you has got to trigger some issues and add to the negativity of the thoughts that are swimming in someone who is hurting’s brain. And yes, we need to recognize, and not stigmatize mental illness. It’s not a choice and it is deeply misunderstood and undertreated.

    Word meaning – mmm – that can get dicey. Placement of a word in a sentence or a thought makes for a lot of it’s weight. Written words are more challenging in so many ways – the whole not having a tone of voice to go with them. I honestly dream of a sarcasm font. It’s not easy to convey emotions in their entirety via words or even actions. We try though, and hope to make ourselves as well understood as we intended. Maybe that’s why we write?

  10. I think the way words can never completely capture a moment is one reason music is such a great companion. There is something about music that really hits all the spots the lyrics themselves (if there are any) could never quite say on their own. I have not watched or read many of Anthony Bourdain’s works, but maybe there’s something in the idea that food also transcends the inadequacy of words? I’m not sure I put this as well as I would like, but I’m seeing connection between people through mediums based around more than words (the band Extreme, anyone?)

  11. I believe that language is limited in expressive qualities, some feelings and emotions remain indescribable and unspoken for this reason.

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