Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
Our art theme in 2017 is Radical Ritual. This leads to an obvious question: Just what is so radical about ritual? The word radical occurs three times in the Ten Principles, and most people regard this as referring to a breaking of boundaries and a shedding of restrictions. But radical has a second meaning: It refers to all that is fixed and fundamental in human nature.
I will begin this examination of meaning and experience in ritual with a simple rubric: spirit flies abroad and soul remains at home.
Spirit Flies Abroad
The experience of spirit is identified with breath. The word inspiration has a pedigree that extends back to the middle of 16th century, deriving from the even more ancient Latin word inspirare, which means to breath into, to draw air into the lungs. In this sense, we encounter spirit constantly in daily life in the form of sighs and sobs, snorts and gasps, any involuntary intake or expiration of breath. We speak of high spirits, low sprits, and spirited actions. We also know that spirit is highly contagious — it can spread with lightning speed through great assemblies — and it is identified with states of exaltation, as when we feel we rise above ourselves. Very often an excess of this feeling can produce an upthrusting of the arms.
One example of this aspect of spirit is revealed by an occurrence at the Temple Burn in 2016. For nearly a year prior to this annual ritual, a very lively debate smoldered like a creeping fire on Burning Man’s discussion lists. The dispute involved community members who viewed this burn as taking place on hallowed ground, as at a wedding or a funeral. Many were particularly impressed by the profound periods of silence that had come to punctuate the ceremony. Their adversaries countered this by advancing the principle of Radical Self-Expression, contending that everyone has an individual right to express his or herself, which in extreme cases might include yelling profanities.
As with many such disputes, this ideological conflict belied a difference in sensibility; both arguments were tied to strong emotions, and after one long summer of intermittent sniping and shouting on the Internet, a breakthrough occurred. The spark that originally ignited this controversy involved the loud playing of “Free Bird” and a fair amount of profanity, and one day a discussant directly addressed what had actually happened. The offending group was made up of members of the DPW, our Department of Public Works, he explained, and they were commemorating the death of a friend whose favorite song was “Free Bird”. The raucous bellowing was of a piece with how this group sang birthday songs to one another. The contending parties did not exactly kiss and make up, but with this empathic insight they established an apparent truce.
This set the stage for the Temple Burn in 2016. This temple, choked with hundreds of remembrances of the dead, was being quietly readied for burning, when a series of unrehearsed actions occurred. The crowd, numbering in the thousands, had gathered around the burn perimeter, when suddenly a sound arose, a sort of treble yipping, like the keening of coyotes; it traveled twice around the circle in a wave. Then a second wave of sound arose, this time pitched in a more dulcet tone, and rippled round the Temple three full times before subsiding into silence.
The crowd then paused, as if in contemplation of itself, when suddenly a single person tossed out a profanity; it hung there in the air, as if it posed a question. Everyone appeared to wonder what might happen next, and then another shout was heard, but this was not a word, more like a stifled proto-word that stuck in someone’s throat. Instantly it felt as if a spell was lifted, and moments later the Temple erupted in flames. One could hear the fire soughing, as a great billowing wind rushed upward. It felt like a long and continuous sigh, a vast exhalation of breath. I was there to witness this, and it occurred to me: If this is not the action of spirit, alive and on the hoof, voiced and freely circulating, what else can it be?
Soul Remains at Home
Soul relates to experience embedded deep in our bodies. It is traditionally regarded as the source of human vitality and is associated with passionate promptings to action: it is muscular, emotional and visceral. In our daily lives we speak of gut feelings, soulful looks, broken hearts, a catching of the throat, a shiver down the spine, and nearly everybody understands that the Soul Train is soulful. Perhaps most fundamentally, this process we call soul seeks always to attach itself to things, as when we love someone.
The founding ritual of Burning Man on Baker Beach expressed this sense of soulfulness in action. The group of carpenters that built the Man had hovered over every inch of it, and they had borne its weight on their shoulders. Carrying its dismembered parts down to the shore, they would assemble it, uniting legs and torso, arms and head. When it came time to raise the Man, they had so bonded with it that it felt like an extension of their bodies. These were people who had devoted their working lives to building balloon-frame houses — a wooden effigy built like a house required little explanation, and during these years on the beach no one ever thought to ask me what it meant.
We would raise the Man with a stout hawser, the sort of rope that’s used for mooring ships, and we would attach it to the figure’s solar plexus, since this was its center of gravity. This also meant we had to form a line along the rope that precisely aligned with Burning Man’s spine. Dan Miler, who came to be known as the Man’s man, would coach our effort. “Baby steps, take baby steps”, he’d chant, as thirty pairs of legs edged backwards. Viewing this from the sidelines, I saw tension sing along the tautened line, as if the Man transmitted energy.
When Burning Man approached the apex of its arc, it triggered very powerful emotions made up in equal parts of awe and fear, since at that time the statue had no brakes. I watched their tense, vigilant faces fasten onto the Man, and as the massive figure teetered upward, it was clear that their entire nervous systems were entrained in one great effort; the straining of their limbs, the beating of their hearts, and feelings roiling up from deep inside the solar plexus had united them, as if they shared a common spinal cord — confronted by the Man they’d made, they had become him.
Is Burning Man a Religion?
“The practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.”
—William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
There are two basic views of divinity. The first sees the divine as transcendent; the other views the divine as immanent. Transcendence is from the Latin word transcendentem: it means surmounting, rising above, as if to step up on a ladder. Immanence derives from the Latin immanere and evokes the feeling of an indwelling presence. It refers to all that is inherent in our being. For all practical purposes, the rituals I have described support these feelings and perceptions — they are very nearly textbook examples of religious experience.
The only thing that this leaves out is supernatural agency, an external power that is said to hover over us and inform our deepest feeling of reality. William James has said that, “All the facts require is that this power be both other and larger that our conscious selves. Anything larger will do”, he adds, “if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.” The Man we’ve made, of course, is not a god, nor is the burning of the Temple evidence of supernaturalism. Energy did not flow from the Man into a group of followers. Rather it was their energy, their full-hearted participation that created the Man. When people joined in chorus round the Temple, it was their voiced spirit, and not divine afflatus, that united them.
Were we to remove all soul and all spirit from experience, we would be left with little more than what William James once called, “a cold and a neutral state of intellectual perception.” In such an arid landscape, there would be no urgent meanings, no riveting purposes, and the juice of reality would be squeezed out of the world.
Sometimes I am asked to speak in churches. Many people in religious communities seem to feel we might be onto something. I approach them with a proposition. “What if we gathered people of all faiths,” I say, “and, placing them in a locked room, demanded they settle a question: Which Supreme Being, of all the millions of supremely potent beings mankind has worshiped, is really real?” I pause for a moment to let this sink in, and then continue, “Were we to leave and come back a day later, I am willing to wager that we’d find only hanks of hair and pieces of bone — so fierce would be the force of contradiction. Yet what if we here, now, were to reverse this word order and agree to simply say that being is supreme?” Then I see their eyes begin to faintly glint, their shoulders soften, and some people heave a little sigh of relief.
Top photo: Lamplighters approach the Temple of Transition by International Arts Megacrew (2011), photo by Philip Safarik