(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries, including the previous post on Chapter 2.)
Does Burning Man have a problem of evil?
In one of the recent posts in this series I suggested that while Burning Man cannot substitute for religion, it may very well be able to substitute for God – at least “God” as understood by the German Idealists.
But anyone who takes seriously the idea that Burning Man is a healthy experience or progressive social force has to contend with the fact that it can be a serious kick in the teeth – and that’s if it doesn’t kill you. If one of the questions that haunts religion is “why does God let bad things happen to good people,” what is the Burning Man equivalent? The people who think of Burning Man only as a giant party or EDM festival have no problem with the idea that bad things can happen to good people at Burning Man … obviously they didn’t hydrate. But the rest of us have to justify the existence of an experience of harsh experimentation in a deadly environment with limited organization not just as a thing that exists, but as a positive moral force in the universe.
This is what I see as one of the key applicable differences between the “German Idealist” perspective on the world and the “Romantic” perspective on the source of life’s mystery and passion.
The German Idealist view suggests that the source of our experience is, at heart, benign. That Burning Man must be a good little boy. The Romantic view is not so accommodating – either to Burning Man or to Burners.
“Idealist thought was too dewy-eyed about humanity, in the manner of young, ebullient social movements,” Eagleton writes. (Still in Chapter 2) “It was too callow into acknowledge how much in human nature stood in need of repair.”
The very act of coming up with a theodicy (a justification of evil), he says, is itself “a sure index of moral callowness. Discord and affliction in the present will be shown in the fullness of time to have played their part in the flourishing of humanity as a whole. Suffering can be justified by being cast in narrative form. … Fables of a past Fall from paradise, a current state of division and disaffection, and a future kingdom of peace and unity weave their way through the fabric of Idealist and Romantic thought like an unbroken thread.”
But here I have to part company with Eagleton: it does not suggest that *all* suffering is redemptive to note that *some* of it has been, and can be. I am deeply fond of the Romantics, and for what might be described as a “Romantic” (in the historical sense) take on Burning Man: that part of the reason it is redemptive is precisely that it is not benign.
The very first post I ever wrote on this blog (“Burning Man isn’t the Happiest Therapist’s Office on Earth”) made this point explicitly:
The notion that Burning Man is some kind of modern Dionysian mystery ritual isn’t wrong, but it misses the point that actual Dionysian mystery rituals were pretty bloody affairs. People got hurt, sometimes killed. Confronting the divine is as likely to be a brutal process as it is joyous one: we dare not look at the burning bush, or forget that Kali wears a necklace of skulls. Wander out into the playa at night and you won’t just find beautiful bodies dancing in a ring of fire: you’ll find lonely souls, lost and confused, wandering through the desert as they crawl through an existential crisis. In those long dark nights, they’re much less happy than they would have been staying home to catch Simpsons re-runs.
That’s because the psychological effect of Burning Man isn’t to solve our issues automatically, as though the Man were Jesus touching lepers, it is to *bring them up.* Carl Jung said that those who don’t confront their demons within will confront them without: Burning Man is a process whereby both happen at once. That’s an opportunity, but it’s also a crisis. What we do with our issues when they’re staring us in the face is never “automatically” healing.
To me the Romantic sensibility of both the beautiful and the sublime speaks closely to this experience: that when we come to Burning Man we are seeking possibility, not outcome.
To re-enchant the universe is *not* to make it safe. It is to recognize, as Eagleton notes in Chapter 3: “it is thus the adventure of poetry, not the closure of philosophy, that most truly reflects the human condition.”
We do not come to Burning Man for closure, closure does not come naturally to it, and to expect closure – either in experience or intellectually – is to misunderstand what Burning Man is and what it does. At the risk of spoiling the end of this book club, it would astonish me if we came out the other side with a definitive explanation for either Burning Man or its place in the world. I suggest that poetics and myth explain Burning Man better than formal logic ever can. Burning Man can be lived far better than it can be understood, because the point of Burning Man is to live and not to explain. As explanations codify, they will be overtaken by new possibilities as lived by participants.
“It is feeling, not thought, that constitutes our primary relation to reality,” Eagleton notes. “The affections which for some Enlightenment thinkers posed an obstacle to our knowledge of things are for the Romantics a vital mode of access to them. ‘Feeling’s a kind of knowledge,’ as George Eliot’s Adam Bede remarks.”
That’s part of the reason this works.
To “believe in” Burning Man, then, is not to believe in any particular thing, but rather to believe in the possibility of poetry-in-things: to accept the possibility that there are yet new frontiers in which to live. Is this the “negative theology” Eagleton attributes to some of the Romantics? “(S)tranded somewhere between an assured faith on one hand and the death of God on the other”? Sounds kind of like it to me. Perhaps not the same thing, but with a striking family resemblance.
There are therapeutic aspects to a frontier. There is freedom, a less mediated relationship with one’s own humanity, and with the experience of living. One can put oneself against a frontier in a way one can rarely do in a civilized culture, and can change more easily; the frontier does not care about your degree or family troubles.
But the frontier is not benign. It is dangerous; it can kill you. Even its therapeutic affects are themselves potentially the source of neurosis. As Eagleton says of poetry: “(it) stems from a primal rent in our being which it also seeks to repair, and as such is both sickness and cure.”
To look to the frontier for the answer to your problems is foolish – but to look to it for another chance, another possibility, is exactly right.
The kind of relationship Burning Man offers with possibility, and an ever evolving frontier, may very well be for our era what Eagleton describes the imagination as for the Romantics: “A secular form of grace, one which seizes upon the self from some unfathomable depth beyond it, but which in doing so allows it to flourish in its own inimitable way. Men and women can subdue the earth and transform their conditions without the sin of hubris, since the power which allows them to do so springs from a region beyond themselves. The subject does not fundamentally belong to itself.”
But yes, “this life-giving spirit can be cursed as well as blessed, demonic as well as angelic.” It has to be. A Burning Man that is made “fit for gentlemen” and civilized society no longer evokes a frontier, or endless possibilities. Such a Burning Man would only be fit to be yoked to the way things are. Such a Burning Man would be dead. The only way to solve the problem of evil for Burning Man would be to kill it.
Re-enchanting the world is not for the faint of heart.
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is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com