Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 – Why do bad things happen to good Burners? (SPOILER ALERT!)

Book Burning(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.

Don’t we?

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.

Everyone is welcome to comment in this space, though only comments germane to the topic at hand will be kept.  To join the Burning Book Club, just say you want to join in the comments section and leave an accurate email in the “email” field.

Caveat 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

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

5 Comments on “Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 – Why do bad things happen to good Burners? (SPOILER ALERT!)

  • Air Freshener says:

    Sorry for being absent from the book club.

    Perhaps appropriately, I’ve just come back from the first ever unofficial Latvian regional burn. Appropriate, because the Romantics were all about nature, and that was certainly omnipresent in Latvia. It was lush and green, so different from the playa. It was a Burning Man experiment, conducted in a vastly different environment.

    Dante Giura, the Latvia regional contact who organised the event, has a personal quote which I love: “Accepted beliefs can limit our experiences . . . therefore, choose to experience first and then formulate your beliefs.” That feels like a Romantic statement to me.

    The irony is that the Latvian event was very much seeded with the 10 Principles. I met a lot of Latvians and Lithuanians who had never been to Burning Man, and yet they understood what the 10 Principles was about, and they came with the mindset of actively pursuing those principles. It was quite impressive how this first-time Burn was very much a Leave No Trace event, with tons of Self-Reliance and Communal Effort and Gifting thrown in.

    So I have a hard time figuring out which came first — belief or experience?

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  • Lentil says:

    I couldn’t agree more with all of your thoughts here. And because of how much I agree with you, I’m often concerned that Burning Man is becoming less and less of a frontier. Obviously since the early days the event has become much physically safer: no guns, no drunk driving, hospitals, fire marshals. But also, while admitting this might be biased by my own experience, I get the sense that each year the playa gets slightly less psychologically dangerous.

    My first year was terrifying and exhilarating, and challenging and disappointing, and inspiring and depressing. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but I had no idea until I lived it. Everything seemed shrouded in mystery and possibility.

    Maybe this has always been the case, but I feel like I’ve been noticing an increasing number of people who go to Burning Man and don’t return feeling even a fraction of the intensity I did. They enjoyed themselves, yes, but they weren’t challenged. It’s more “good vibes” than existential crisis.

    Is that just the nature of things? As the event grows (both on the playa and globally) it becomes a bit diluted? Is there anything the org could do or not do to slow or turn around the dilution? Am I just grumpy that the burn doesn’t inspire me the way it used to?

    As a veteran participant, it seems like the most noble action is to ensure your participation is contributing to making the playa a bit more dark and mysterious. Making people do things they wouldn’t otherwise. Confusing people. Etc.

    Does the burn need re-enchanting?

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  • Larry Harvey says:

    This post is a reply to Air Freshener, who asks, “Which came first — belief or experience?” I would say that experience quite clearly comes first. The Ten Principles were authored in 2004 — a full 18 years into this collective adventure we call Burning Man — and they describe a preexisting ethos that derived from lived experience. The very last line of the last principle emphatically underscores this: “No idea can substitute for this [immediate] experience”.

    Whether this evocation of values accurately describes a way of life that’s summoned up by Burning Man is entirely up to every individual to decide, but I have never believed that the Principles, abstracted from their roots in experience, or seen as separate from compelling narratives, can really have much power to engender culture. I know, for example, that Lithuanian participants have been creating art at Burning Man for many years, and I assume that they principally employ the Principles as a convenient tool, a sort of lingua franca, that allows them to construe their efforts.

    This doesn’t mean that the Principles cannot themselves be a subject of philosophic discourse or cannot afford us glimpse into the heart of what we do. But they should not be reified, held up as an authority that reigns outside of our experience. The motto of the Philosophical Center, an institution that is now installed at the center of the Burning Man Project, is a quote from William James: “Belief is thought at rest”.

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  • Kailey says:

    I oft lack the words to carry on with the potential e-conversation in the commentary section, but nearly always enjoy what you have to share.

    I appreciate your writing lots.

    Hear hear, thank you and cheers!

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  • The Grue says:

    “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…”

    So, I read tarot. It’s kind of funny, seeing as I’m an atheist and all, but I’m not cynical about it. It’s sincere, and very real, and meaningful to me, even though I do not believe in magic or any of the pseudoscience bullshit that people sometimes talk about when what they’re too embarrassed to admit they believe in magic. I read tarot because I grew up with it, and I see the beautiful way a good (“good”) reading can open up a person’s head. Tarot applies mythical thinking to the quagmire of mortal life; it invites you to step outside yourself and look back. It can be astonishing. There’s poetry in it.

    I could go on at length about this, but here is not the place. What I’m trying to say is that I “believe in” tarot the way Caveat says one can “believe in” Burning Man. For the former, my belief absolutely follows experience. For the latter…I would call my state one of hope, rather than belief. I am not a veteran burner (although I threw myself off the edge this year and will be running a brand new theme camp, and we’ve just been placed, so I’ll be calling myself Veteran soon enough). I have only been once before, and…kind of got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Again, details aren’t meaningful here, but I had nothing even approaching a transformative experience, I was just lonely and overstimulated and miserable.

    And yet…

    It’s a funny thing, believing in possibilities. It has a the sparkly sweet tingle of optimism. I posit that to believe in the possibility of poetry-in-things is what it means to be a Burner, and that “being a Burner” is only tangentially attached to attending Burning Man. So I think the pattern is something like hope >> experience >> belief. Which is both similar to and very different from hypothesis >> experiment >> conclusion.

    Post-script: Caveat’s article on why it’s okay to be miserable at Burning Man was both the first article I ever read on the Burning Blog, and played a major role in convincing me to try again. My apologies for not being more active in the comments — I highly value this discussion, and I continue to read them even as I’ve fallen behind on the Eagleton text. If only there was an audiobook! Then I could hold up my end of the conversation while building, rather than having to choose!

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