Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Every year, as they have done for millenia, the Blackfeet gather in early summer when there is lots of grass and the spring thunderstorms that bring it (and sometimes burn it) are pretty much over. They put up their lodges (which once were buffalo hide and now are canvas) in a circle so they can build a bonfire in the middle and dance around it, wearing their best clothes. The old-timers visit, the young ones “tipi-creep” while the even younger ones run wild in a pack, eating whereever there is food and sleeping where they finally wear out. Families reunite and there are religious ceremonies meant to encourage the grass and the buffalo that meant life. Over the centuries this annual convocation has dwindled, been forbidden, then expanded, become not quite so religious, and finally today is a pretty good money-maker. Because it attracts tourists.

The Burning Man Festival is quite a lot like that. There’s a new book about it: “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man” by Lee Gilmore. She calls it “an extraordinary cultural petri dish in which people were consciously playing with art, symbol, and ritual in order to explore, expand, and reinvent the boundaries of late modern culture.” At a website called “Religion Dispatches” info@religiondispatches.org she asks herself ten questions about the book. Somebody has to do it. Literary commentators are thin on the ground these days.

“Burning Man started as an impromptu gathering among a handful of friends on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and was moved to an obscure corner of Nevada called the Black Rock Desert in 1990, where it eventually grew into an internationally renowned event that draws close to 50,000 participants annually.“ The Rainbow Family is a more “low-rent” version of this, less of a head-trip and more idealistic, less self-consciously ceremonial. There are motorcycle rallies and black powder re-enactments with some of the same impulse to gather and celebrate. Renaissance Faires are not all that different. And in a few days the Unitarian Universalist Association members will join in Minneapolis for their General Assembly, just as other denominations do in the summer -- partly to do business, partly to network, and partly just to see what they look like in one place at one time. And, oh yes, the ceremonies. The revival.

Burning Man is partly a reference to "The Wicker Man,” which was laid out in movie narrative twice, once with with considerable force and then again rather clumsily. They are interesting to watch together so one can speculate about what cultural changes confused the moral questions between versions. The reference is to pre-Christian ceremonies of sacrifice -- scape-goating, really -- on the British Isles. In more recent times the wicker man is an effigy who is burned at the climax of the proceedings the way our enemies burn dummies labeled with the names of US presidents. In earlier times there was a real man trapped inside. The movies play with that idea.

The modern American event is even farther from actual immolation. “At the center of the Black Rock City is the Burning Man icon itself: a towering wooden sculpture that is lit with multi-colored shafts of neon and ultimately filled with fireworks and other incendiaries that detonate at the festival’s climax. Even more intriguing is the incredible array of art and ritual contributed by participants that often creatively appropriates symbols and motifs from the infinite well of humanity’s cultural and historical experiences—temples, labyrinths, demons, angels, gods, goddesses, priests, corporate logos, and more—almost anything imaginable is cobbled together in an incredible display of bricolage.”

Thanks to Joe Campbell and other Jungian collaborators, religion has become a kind of pinata full of goodies. Hit it hard -- see what falls out. Gather what you can. In the years I was in seminary (78-82) there was a kind of club among the UU ministers called “Abraxas,” which focused on organizing mosaics of religious bits: a prayer from the Navajo, a song from the Black South, a quote from an ancient Egyptian text. All carefully arranged along a spine from Anglican vespers which is, of course, descended from Roman Catholicism which unfolded from the Jewish synagogue dependent on reading the Book. These guys (no women) were pretty bookish. They gave each other made-up names and pretended they were monks. There wasn’t much harm in it. It’s wasn’t until I took a class from Robert Schreiter, a priest and a real monk, that I realized that they were stuck on surface appearances and not going to the human core of experience that Jung was trying to get at.

What does it REALLY mean to burn a man alive? What emotion prompts it in the first place and is satisfied by it in the end? You won’t find out by attending the Burning Man Festival. In fact, you probably won’t find out at Indian Days or at Rainbow Family or at the UUA General Assembly. Maybe there are no answers in any intellectual sense. Lee says: “. . . ultimately I hope to challenge comfortable assumptions about the nature and location of religious practice. . . .The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of ‘religion.’ “

She asserts: “Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.” In other words, community without either suppression of identity or loss of contact with the universal transcendent. There’s a DVD. It’s a spectacle.

There is no priesthood for religious bricolage. One must be one’s own priest as one must be one’s own literary critic. Solipsistic it is. Reflexivity is the more usual term right now. The whole culture (cultures) is watching itself, critiquing itself. Are we doing the right thing in Afghanistan? Shouldn’t the president be more emotional about BP? Is it good or bad to have a Tea Party? But that’s the morality side of things, the need to punish someone, to put someone in that Wicker Man. On the other hand, if there is no one in that cage, can we drive into the heart of spirituality? Is it more than pretty angels?

The author references “Ninian Smart’s phrase ‘religion on the ground’.” Like the Blackfeet, I take that literally and find it in the grass. So I’d better write a book about what that means, what the author calls “the personal and the analytical in ethnographic narratives” What a very useful ten questions!


Anonymous said...

Hilaire Belloc somewhere states that modern man cannot comprehend that medieval man objected to being burned at the stake NOT because it was painful, but because it dishonored the body...

Whisky Prajer said...

I very much like the Belloc reference. So much of what is (at least) photographed and broadcast from Burning Man are the body transformations, of which being clothed in tattoos is just the beginning. If the final Wicker Man ceremony (which, so far as I know, is still part of the schedule) is so distant as to be superficial, a great many of the participants literally take it upon themselves to make it personal.

These ceremonies rely on earnestness and a great deal of good faith on the participants. I suspect that part of what makes Burning Man a popular option is its very deliberate non-interloper status. Of the two festivals you mention, I am more empathetic to the local and the intimate. But if I were to get in my car and attend one of these festivals, it would be Burning Man, where everyone starts by acknowledging their satus as tourist.