"Really?" the guy at the Alamo Rental Car place said, when I'd told him about Burning Man. "I heard it was just a lot of naked people running around on drugs."
Coated in gypsum dust, and still high not on drugs but on the altered consciousness of radical creativity and community, I had just tried to describe what Burning Man is, somehow. I think I'd said something like, "It's a temporary city of 50,000 people, devoted to radical self-expression. So you'll find anything you'd find in a regular city -- art museums, dance clubs, yoga studios -- only in the middle of the desert, with no money, and with more creativity than you've ever seen."
Of the two descriptions, surely Rental Car Guy's is the more familiar. When Adam Lambert revealed that he'd gotten the idea to go on American Idol while on mushrooms at Burning Man, America groaned. The image, I assume, was of a drugged-out weirdo coming up with a loopy idea in the middle of wild, crazy party.
The truth, though, is that Burning Man is an ideal place for self-reflection and self-transformation, whether substance-aided or not, and as someone who's just gotten back from his 8th Burn, Lambert's revelation didn't surprise me a bit. Friends of mine have changed their names, their professions, and their entire lives at Burning Man. And not because they were stoned or tripping, but because Black Rock City -- the temporary city (built and erased within a month) where the event goes on every year, the week before Labor Day -- has a tendency to expand horizons, reveal possibilities, and question the assumptions most of us make about how we're supposed to live our lives.
Burning Man does this, I think, because of a combination of factors. One of them is the sheer size and scope of the thing. 50,000 people. Hundreds of cars and trucks modified to look like dragons, whales, radios, and steamboats; many breathing fire; most with dozens of revelers dancing on them. It's like "Mad Max" meets "Blade Runner" meets "The Ten Commandments," and it's real, it's actually happening.
And it's happening without capitalism. There's no vending at Burning Man -- it's a gift economy. Entire "theme camps" exist just to give away spaghetti, to serve people free margaritas, to make pancakes. Yes, it does cost a lot to get in (between $150-350), but that mostly pays for the rental of the land from the government, the porta-potties and other infrastructure, and grants made to large-scale art projects. No one -- not the celebrity DJs who were there this year, like Armin van Buuren and Carl Cox, and not the people who build the solar electrical grid -- gets paid. No one is making a buck.
This is incredibly liberating. It's not sustainable, but it is a temporary autonomous zone of bullshit-free living. And just being there, just participating in the creation of an entire city devoted to what we want to do, rather than what we have to do to make money, has the tendency to invite self-reflection like Lampert's. Who am I? What do I really want to be doing? If people can create a twelve-ton sculpture of a bird's nest made entirely out of plumbing pipe, what are the limits on my own creativity? "Once you are free," said Baudrillard, "you are forced to ask who you are."
The freedom is more than just freedom from conventional economic life, though. Yes, there are some naked people running around on drugs, because the culture of Black Rock City is a very, very liberal one. (It's not free of law enforcement -- this year in particular, I heard many stories of people being busted for drugs, and for giving alcohol to minor-aged-looking undercover cops.) Of course, how people choose to exercise that freedom is up to them. For every NPRAOD, I'd guess there are two people wishing they had the courage to do so, one person playing the violin on a sofabed in the middle of a desert, two people cooking pumpkin ravioli, and another person writing the name of her beloved on the wooden walls of the Temple -- this year a three-story, Lotus-shaped construction just north of the center of the city, that was burned last Sunday night.
Of course, we don't hear about these other people, which, to me, says more about the puerility of the default world than the sexuality of Black Rock City. It's as if radical self expression is boring, but if it means naked people on drugs, then it's titillating, easy to condemn -- and also comprehensible. Oh, I get it.
You don't get it. You don't get what it's like to have 50,000 people circle around a wooden effigy, with 1000 people spinning fire and 500 more playing drums, all encircled by 200 art cars -- and then all roaring in unison as the effigy is set afire. You might think you get it, and it may scare or tempt or delight you, but I assure you, you don't get it. None of us do, because it's not about any one thing in particular; "it" can be an orgiastic celebration, or the sad mourning of a lost loved one. Or a warm, hippie-like community. Or a mean, Mad-Max-like apocalypse. "It" is chiefly a space in which all these things are possible.
The temporary erasure of societal, social, and personal boundaries is, for most of us, terrifying. Such boundaries help build the structures of society and self; they give form to human life, which is often chaotic and unpredictable. Thus they have been the bedrock of religious and civil life for millennia, even before the Furies were imprisoned under Athens, and Moses descended from Sinai.
But if religion creates boundaries, mysticism and spirituality efface them. In the transcendence of ordinary distinctions, peak experiences such as those encouraged at Burning Man give a glimpse of the ultimate, the infinite. It may seem absurd to suggest that Burning Man is a mystical event. But then, if it's just a big party, why is there a temple in the middle of it?