Thoughts on Anthony Bourdain Roadrunner Documentary, Fungi, Viruses, ETC.

Aug. 15, 2021

Neurons shiver, synapses touching, as input from varied sources connect, and ideas emerge. There’s an electrical tingling, as thoughts are generated, brought to life, like Frankenstein’s monster, by a mish mash of parts. Such is the case with my ragged patchwork of ideas regarding the Roadrunner documentary about Anthony Bourdain, the continuing Covid pandemic, and concepts regarding physical and metaphorical parasites.

Watching the Bourdain documentary a few nights ago, I was sadly reminded of a friend and former therapist, Dr. H, who died about a year after Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. Dr. H and I both liked watching Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series, and we were both distressed about Bourdain’s sudden, unexpected passing.

Despite the upsetting depictions of war and animal slaughter sometimes included in his series, I loved the way Bourdain showed us how humans, despite their conflicts, prejudices, and at times agonizing hardships can find joy, unity, and meaning that enables them to survive what may seem insurmountable obstacles.

As someone who, from childhood on, have experienced depression and anxiety, Bourdain’s series offered glimmers of hope that in spite of the wars humans can maybe someday learn to more peacefully coexist. In some of his later episodes he also poignantly explored the devastation of climate change, demonstrating the urgency of protecting the planet, source of life and nurturance for all beings. Bourdain’s death seemed to dim these hopes for human and planetary healing, for as Roadrunner pointed out, Bourdain did not have the wonderful, enviable life many of us imagined. The allure of visiting exotic and thrilling locales, like Dorian Gray’s beautiful portrait, concealed a festering sickness of the soul–Bourdain’s battle with depression and addiction. I wonder if the travel, though hiding the symptoms of the sickness, may have even partly contributed to his depression because of the upsetting things he may have witnessed, the horrors of war, hunger, poverty, and human cruelty.

My sadness over Bourdain’s death was similar in some ways to the feelings I experienced after Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen died. Although I did not feel as closely connected with Bourdain as with those musicians I loved, I did feel a sense of personal loss, as if he was an embodied symbol of qualities precious and rapidly declining in our society–creativity, integrity, and eloquent passion.

Dr. H also embodied those qualities. He was not only my therapist; he was also a friend and muse, offering feedback and encouragement on my writings, even sharing many of my interests–William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Twin Peaks, supernatural and psychological horror movies, etc. Before Anthony Bourdain died, I had noticed that Dr. H seemed a bit less energetic, somewhat tired. Then, about a year after Bourdain’s death, Dr. H told me that he had some kind of fungal infection, but he did not think it was fatal. A day or so before our weekly session, he called me to say he wasn’t feeling well and would have to cancel that week’s appointment. I told him that I would give him a copy of my new book the next session, and he said he was looking forward to that. The next week, when I arrived at the session, one of his colleagues informed me that Doctor H. had died in his sleep the night before.

The loss of Dr. H. was devastating. It seemed to me that almost all of my muses and people I felt a creative bond with had died. Also troubling was the mysterious nature of Dr. H’s death–a fungal infection.

Fungi had always reminded me of aliens, powerful, magical, sometimes deadly beings that lived on decaying matter and transmuted it. I was reminded of movies about invasive parasites (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and real-life ones (Cordyceps invading insects and turning them into zombies), as well as invasive parasites of other kinds, such as viruses (rabies, Covid, etc.), and metaphorical viruses (Burroughs’ concept of language as a virus, the addictive, contagious aspect of Internet memes and conspiracy theories), the ways we are shaped by invisible entities within us and outside of us.

In 2020, near the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, I posted about a dream I had involving viral or fungal parasites:

“I am in a boardroom with several people, and someone tells me there is a tiny, yellow crab-like creature on my head. I then look down and see the creature, along with many other similar things, their numbers multiplying, their shapes mutating. I start to gag and something comes up from my throat that feels and looks like cooked pasta. Other people start experiencing the same thing. We are surrounded and invaded by these creatures, some larger and more gruesome, including one that resembles a centipede. Some are in fluorescent colors and fanciful shapes, such as a two-headed one that looks like two cats playing with a toy. A man next to me exclaims that he wants the cat-head one.The dream is, no doubt, inspired by the coronavirus, our fears and sense of helplessness surrounding this indifferent, alien entity of contagion.A lack of connection with Nature and the worry about being infected by other people intensifies the mesmerizing power of the virus, the invader within, the cryptic tenant living invading us, living within our chromosomes, in a sense, trying to become one with us. Like everything in Nature, it is neither good nor evil; it just exists and seeks to perpetuate itself. It is a competitor, an enigma, a threat to our concepts of human dominion over the planet.”

I am again reminded of fungal and parasitic invasions as I watch the sci fi series Legion, which deals with mental parasites, evil entities that possess the mind and body There is a scene in Legion that chillingly describes how a real-life fungus , Ophiocordyceps unilateralis,  invades an insect’s body, transforming it into a self-destructive zombie, dying fodder for the fungal spores, which, then spread and infect other ants.

Other fungal, viral, and bacterial, such as rabies, follow similar protocols, controlling body and mind as they use the host to transmit infection. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example, controls a mouse’s mind so that the mouse, naturally fearful of cats, begins to be attracted to cat urine, and, thus, becomes likely prey to cats. The Toxo then again continues its cycle inside the cat, since Toxoplasma can only reproduce in the feline gut. Toxoplasmosis has even been suspected to cause mental disorders, such as recklessness and schizophrenia in humans. In fact, it is theorized that schizophrenic cat artist Louis Wain may have been infected with Toxoplasmosis  (In case anyone is interested, my novel Toxicosis explores aspects of Toxoplasma with vampiric cat characters.)

Coronavirus, likewise, has been suspected of contributing to dementia in older people infected by it. Even those not directly infected by it, however, are psychologically impacted by the pandemic and the depression, mental instability, and hostility that often results from isolation. Making matters even worse is the spread of viral Internet conspiracy theories that spawn paranoia, divisiveness, and violence. People are being manipulated by these theories, becoming in a sense slaves to them.

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Writings by Alison Armstrong

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