Laughing our way to Tomorrow

Yes, I know what this picture is, and yes I am aware of the irony in using it here.

You’ve probably never heard of Stefan Zweig.

I only discovered him recently.  He wrote this book, you see, back in 1942.  An autobiography.  It’s called The World of Yesterday.

All of a sudden, people out of nowhere were recommending it to me.  An old college professor.  A friend’s wife.  My mom.  My freaking mom asks me on the phone “Have you ever read Stefan Zweig’s autobiography?”

So I call up a local independent bookstore.

“Green Arcade books,” says the man on the other end of the phone.  “How can I help you?”

“Yes, hi.  I’m wondering if you have Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday?”

He responds immediately.  “You’re JOKING!”

I give this some thought.  “No, I’m pretty sure I’m not.”

“Okay,” he says.  “Yes.  I have The World of Yesterday.”

“Great.  How late are you open?”

He considers.  “I don’t know.”

“Well, you’ve been a great help.”

“There’s a poetry reading tonight,” he explains.  “I don’t know how long it’s going to go.”

Stefan Zweig would have loved Burning Man

The thing about Zweig is, he was once a world famous author.  You’ve probably never heard of him … I’d never heard of him … but he was published in all the big literary journals for almost half a century.  He was friends with Rilke and Rodin.  He knew Freud.  He knew Borgese.  He knew Yeats and Pirandello and Gorky and Ravel and Joyce and Anatole France.  He was kind of the pre-WWII Johnny Carson.  He was a big deal, is what I’m saying.  I kind of want to be him.

The thing is, he saw that whole world wiped away by the Nazis.  Gone.  Obliterated.

This had actually happened to him before.  (Yes, yes, I know:  I’ll get to Burning Man eventually.  Stay with me.)  He grew up as a wealthy literary kid in turn of the century Vienna, in what he calls “The Age of Security.”  A time when western civilization really believed there could never be another war.  When they really believed that reason was about to overcome all obstacles.  When it seemed like (people actually said this) science had discovered everything important that there was to know.  The world was predictable, safe, and secure.

Then Freud announced that there was an unconscious, and that women orgasmed.  Then Einstein proved that the speed of light is the only constant in the universe (have we ever come to terms with that?  I mean …really?).  Then World War I happened.  Trench warfare.  Mustard gas.  A whole generation of kids wiped out.  The world went from a blanket of security the likes of which we can never imagine to a world where security of that kind would never be possible again.

But in the ashes of that “world of security,” came a new and fantastically exciting world.  Think of it:  women had orgasms!  We were charting the unconscious mind!  Global travel was possible on a scale never before imagined;  a new, exciting, intellectual culture sprang up in the coffee houses of Vienna and Paris.  It was a world in which (Andrei Codrescu says this happened) Tristan Tzara, the founder of DaDa-ism, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin  could meet in a Swiss coffee house to play chess.   The quantum physicists drank whiskey with the avant-garde poets and made out in alleys with the evolutionary biologists.  Theater became fast and aggressive, cabaret got wild.  There was no security, but what a time to be alive!

Then the Nazis came, and wiped it all away.  Gone.  Done.  Only ashes remained.

The first time, Zweig was taken by surprise.  The second time, he saw it coming.  He fled Europe in time.  He got out of Austria before Hitler could grab him.  Only his books were burned.  He fled to Brazil (I don’t know why) and, watching the world he had known scorch from far away, wrote his memoir.

He wrote this book, about how he’d seen two whole world cultures vanish before his eyes.  And then, at age 60, he decided he didn’t have it in him to start in a new world again.  In 1942 he killed himself.

As if overnight, his fame somehow disappeared too.

He became just one more obscure figure from a nearly forgotten past.


We, too, seem to live in a world very much on the brink.  New technologies have changed the way we work and play and cheat on our spouses at the most mundane levels.  The global political order is trembling: the Arab world is rising up while the U.S. is fighting three wars at once.  Global economic collapse?  We either have just done that or are still in the process of doing it.

Our country looks like it’s shrinking around us.  All the amazing changes that have happened seem to represent decline:  we’re talking about closing schools and shuttering libraries and shrinking services, ending the space shuttle program, cancelling the Webb space telescope, pulling back our exploration of the oceans.  Yes, there is better civic planning and an emphasis on renewable resources, but most of this seems to be a rearguard action – defending what we have rather than expanding our capacity.  The public’s mood (survey’s show) is one of depression and decline.  (Rates of depression, by the way, keep going up).

Sometimes it seems like we, too, are staring at the world turning itself to ashes.

And in the middle of this … all this … some guy spends an absurd amount of his own money and devotes a ridiculous amount of his own time to building an art car and taking it to the Nevada desert to haul complete strangers around FOR NO GOOD REASON!

This guy is my hero.

Some guy turned down for an arts grant builds a 40 foot statue of a woman dancing and hauls it out to the desert and shines lights on it for a week anyway.  A group of friends build a cowboy bar out of driftwood.  A collection of unsavory characters builds a geodesic replica of Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello that serves absolutely no purpose.  WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE!!!

Seriously, you’re my heroes.

For all the talk about Burning Man’s capacity to create a spiritual renewal … and I have had what I can only call profoundly spiritual experiences there … it is its ability to inspire whimsy and a sense of sheer play that is most valuable to personal and cultural renewal.

We are tired.  We, as individuals and a culture, are exhausted.  We not only live in an age without security, we’re actively anticipating global catastrophe.  It weighs us down like the chains of Marley’s ghost.  Of all the dehumanizing aspects of modern life, the drive for efficiency-over-everything is the most insidious because it punishes us for being playful for its own sake, until eventually we forget how.  No wonder we’re fatigued.  No wonder we drag.  No wonder we believe it’s all downhill from here.

And then a pirate ship filled with Jedis drives by with a woman in a Cookie Monster costume at the steering wheel … and none of that matters.  We laugh, we are reborn.

On or off the playa, whimsy for its own sake is a cure for the malaise of our deeply insecure age.

Whatever else it may be, Burning Man culture is an incubator for pure play.  Don’t think for a minute that the art cars, the midnight pancake breakfasts, and the human car wash, aren’t important.  They’re essential.  Not because they’re “art,” because they’re whimsy.  There are times – many times – when whimsy is better than art.

There are times is life when no amount of wisdom, no amount of accomplishment, no amount of talent will see us through.  Deep down we all know that, and poor Stefan Zweig is proof.

But being playful frees us, every time.

We can’t always get there on our own … and we don’t need to.  You amazing people who do such colossally stupid things:  you have no idea how many skins you’ve helped me shed.  How many times you’ve been my bridge to the next new world.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at)


About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

23 Comments on “Laughing our way to Tomorrow

  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Thanks, Caveat. I sure did need that.

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  • Ett says:

    Beautiful. Playful Beautiful people. Whimsey playful beautiful. These are my heroes, you are my hero Caveat. This article is a profound awakening into the transformation which I endured last year (my first burn). I am ecstatic to belong to this community. Thank you Caveat and thank you to all who contribute to this playful renewal of stag energy.

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  • Kate says:

    Three cheers for grown ups at play!

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  • Eric Schwarz says:

    I really enjoyed reading this, thanks.

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  • Gil says:

    You inspired me, as a first time burner – I say YES

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  • Mary Jean says:

    Thank you. I needed that too, and may we all remember to play every day!

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  • Erika Moreno says:

    I would love to be at Burning man please invited me!!!!

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  • Istvan Toth says:

    sometimes it just happens, I mean it happens exactly in the perfect moment: I found your thoughts about Stefan Zweig NOW, when I needed them.

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  • Dart says:

    Thank you so much Caveat! I love how your words start with discussing a pre-world war one author and changer of the times, and circle back to the necessity of play as an adult in these times. Having retained my sense of imagination for much longer than most, I thought I new how to play. I have only just realised though that I need to learn to carry what I know from the Burn every year back into the default world.

    I too am honoured to be a part of this community. Again, thanks for sharing!

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  • Jess says:

    Made me smile!

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  • Janet says:

    Dear, dear Caveat,

    Wiping the tears from my cheeks, I realize how tired I am today and how urgently I need to play. Whimsy is hard for me but there is a core of my soul that carries all the joy and freedom of pointless fun. Your words fired up that core. I’m at work and my BM 2011 tickets are at home, but in my minds eye I am holding them, admiring them, and hearing ‘Welcome Home’. Crap, tears again.

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  • Dusty Rusty says:

    it was a tough day of family problems. And then I remembered your blog post. I headed to the backyard and worked on my mutant vehicle. There’s nothing like power tools to relax a gurl. Play is good. Thanks for reminding me…my mutant vehicle isn’t another item on my to-do list, it’s fun.

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  • sigma squared says:

    I was shocked when I read your opening sentence. When I was a senior in high school almost twenty years ago, my philosophy teacher recommended a book by Stefan Zweig. I can’t remember the title but it dealt with a WWII prisoner who learns how to play chess from a book while incarcerated then becomes a master of the game in his solitude. He later obsesses over it and goes a little crazy. This book fascinated me. Thanks for bringing that memory back :)

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  • Leo says:

    Absolutely! Nearly cried here at work. Thank you for this. <3

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  • Kanizzle says:



    AND JOY!!!!!!!!!

    and LOVE for you my man! Caveat, three posts in a day of yours I’ve read and been blown away by. Please do us all a favor and stop being so awesome…. ;-)

    Off to Transformus tonight, where I will play play play and ritualize absurdity until the sun comes up!

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  • Thimble says:

    I need to go to Burning Man this year for nothing more than the whimsy. For no good reason, or at least not one I could explain to the people around here. Because I have been shaking my head everyday for the last year and rolling my eyes and excusing the place I live for being what it is. Because I live in a country where I do not belong. Where creativity is not taught or valued, where the idea of art is nearly forgotten, where doing anything that doesn’t save money or make money doesn’t make sense. And where I hardly understand a word that’s said… For the record, that place is Macau, China, not the United States.

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  • ShamansJourney says:

    Thank you for this post Caveat. Thanks to those who are posting afterwards. Although the idea of burning man has been silently burning in the back of my mind for years – it was only two days ago that the fire became all consuming. I will journey as an orphan virgin to Black Rock for the first time this year. I do not believe in coincidence and find great joy in discovering a relevant theme – Rites of Passage.

    A journey begins when we say yes. Since saying yes to this adventure ahead and starting the process of discovery to Burning man…all i can say is – I CANT WAIT TO MEET YOU WHO EVER YOU ARE!

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  • simon of the playa says:

    i will return the gift, as i did not know of him either. Thank you.

    have you heard of harry crosby?…Poet, Bon Vivant, Madman….founded Black Sun Press.

    another forgotten trailblazer.

    another burner as well i suspect.

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  • Lorena says:

    Whimsical is nice. Refreshing. Sobering even. Yes.

    I still wonder though, how is charging $250 for a ticket ever able to be considered radical inclusion?

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  • Dusty Bacon says:

    What Zweig experienced in his “world of yesterday” and what we can relate to as first-world citizens/burners is the idea of living in the bubble or microcosm of a limited and limiting world-view that allows for an illusion of security only experienced by a relatively small and privileged population. It’s our own suspension of disbelief (aka whimsy) that allows us to consider ourselves “safe” in Black Rock City and/or our daily lives.
    Burning Man and it’s nonsensical opportunities are framed almost as necessary escapism in the above post. I’d like to propose a differently skewed take on Zweig and )'(: What’s great about the worlds of yesterday and today is that beauty does get destroyed, and that we haven’t made all the important discoveries yet.
    The only way to change our crisis-prone world situation is to discover or realize something that doesn’t yet exist. That’s the only reason why I don’t go the ultimate route of Zweig right now. Because despite the fact that it ultimately does not matter, I know a good portion of humanity is just a couple generations away from utilizing communications technology to integrate in a way that will produce a most unexpected tomorrow ;D

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  • Ben Coe says:

    Fuck yeah!

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  • Finch says:

    Love this blog post. Thank you Caveat xx

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