In the age-old image of the ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. –Carl Jung
In 2005, on his hit TV show, “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain travels to Vietnam and gets a tattoo.
To the untrained eye the tattoo is a snake eating itself in a cheesy tribal aesthetic - almost trashy. Those studied in mythology, however, might recognize what the Greeks called the ouroboros. This was the first time I saw this symbol that would one day be inked onto my own chest.
But before I get into that, a few words about Tony.
This eclectic, vulgar, and vibrant man meant so much to so many people. His motley life contained a cornucopia of themes and stories making it easy to identify with him. In his six decades on this earth he played many roles: bad boy chef, heroin addict, prolific author, and beloved television personality to name a few. It is even easier for people with proclivities towards substance abuse or depression - or anyone with an adventurous spirit who loves food - to see themselves in him. As a young, rebellious foodie New Yorker, I’d found my king.
In my teenage years, I would spend entire days with my dear friend Paul traversing the innards of Flushing Main Street’s shopping centers. Exuberant and young, we sought to emulate our idol by going on our own culinary explorations. We would order noodles with exotic and unknown (often pungent) ingredients by pointing to blurry photos on menus and a recent immigrant who barely spoke English would know what to do. In our estimation, this was the perfect preface to a spicy, tangy, fatty meal on a Saturday - navigating unknown languages, terrains, and flavors.
I have no doubt that Bourdain’s attitude towards life and food helped me appreciate my environment in those earlier years. He also contributed something a bit deeper.
I grew up lower-middle class in New York City while attending an elite private school where whiteness seemed to be a precondition for familial financial success. This made me feel animosity towards my Colombian roots. My legal status, which barred me from going back for most of my life, prevented my parents from an oft-used trick in the Latin Family handbook of shipping your kids back to the third world for the summers. In any case, the “No Reservations” episode where Tony goes to Colombia was essential to my getting some pride back. Seeing my hero enjoy things that were so common to my surroundings (like sancocho and aguardiente) gave me a real hunger to know my homeland. If Tony saw the value in it, surely, so could I.
While my reasons for loving him felt unique, the love wasn’t. Truly, many people who loved food or rock n' roll or drugs or felt like fuck-ups shared the conviction that he was one of us - and that a life was good as his was possible on the other side of the darkness.
Which brings us to the ouroboros.
While footnotes and references always add a little credibility to an essay, I’ll just direct you to the Wikipedia and give you the following summary: many cultures and mythologies have some figure similar to this, a snake, dragon, fox, whatever, eating its own tail. The meanings are equally varied. Some interpretations focus on rebirth, others on individuals' power to recreate themselves, and so on. But one reading that I stumbled upon years ago has a subtle contrast to the rest and touches on something familiar:
Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. –Plato
I had never heard a more apt metaphor for depression in my life - causing your own misery in an infinite cycle.
My mental model of what the ouroboros is and what it represents is an ouroboros itself. The “depression is a self-contained process” interpretation is the tail and the “self recreation” interpretation is the head that eats it. Recreation kills suffering - and you alone are the one responsible for both.
And for precisely all these reasons I decided to get an ouroborous tattoo at the very center of my chest.
The day after I got it done, I called up my old friend Paul and gave him the update. The disbelief in his response seemed a little out of place - “Paul, why are you saying it’s so crazy? I have other tattoos - we’d always talked about me getting this one…”
“Ricky, he killed himself yesterday…”
So many thoughts and feelings poured out of my head and reverberated in my body. Bourdain - the very person who inspired this tattoo about destruction and rebirth - took his own life as I got it.
Did I kill him? Is he really dead? How did he die? And then my thoughts devolved rather quickly into the same doubts I imagine many others had: if Anthony Bourdain, a man living his dreams and traveling the world making friends and having the most delicious and meaningful meals couldn’t stomach life, what hope was there for everyone else with depression?
The more I found out, the more confusing the situation became. The news alleged that he hanged himself with the belt from a hotel robe. What? The man was 6' 4" and at least 190lbs… that makes no sense.. I chose to simply ignore this situation and refrain from thinking about it rather than veering off into paranoid conspiratorial musings.
The Forbidden Nut
At a party several months later, my tattoo was in full display behind a minimally buttoned shirt and someone asked me what the it meant. I began recollecting some of what you’ve read here. As I concluded, another friend who had joined us to listen made a remarkable claim which goes as follows.
A women they had dated is affiliated with the Bourdain family’s PR agency. She reports that the public story is actually inaccurate. The family didn’t want people knowing that Anthony was actually participating the age-old tradition of auto-erotic asphyxiation and just went a little too hard one night and died like many others before him.
This was great fucking news.
If you choose to believe it, this story makes more sense. Of course this dirty old man wanked himself to death. Anthony Bourdain didn’t commit suicide even if he did accidentally take his own life.
While I am still sad that this magnificent human is no longer on this earth to give us food for thought, I no longer feel the weight of that sadness. The man not only gave me pride in my home and my origins, but also this amazing story. Tony is truly an ouroboros himself - constantly remaking himself and ultimately ending himself. The stories we now tell of him and how we remember him (as well as the recent documentary) will continue his legacy and let him inspire others.
Thanks for everything, Tony, can’t wait to see what you do in your reincarnated state.
2021-08-11 00:00 -0400