“… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
— Charles Darwin, from the end of The Origin of Species, and the beginning of the 2009 Burning Man Art Theme: Evolution
“This is just like my home. This is just like where I grew up,” said Larry, over and over as if in reverie, while we ambled down a mountain path on the outskirts of Taipei, Taiwan, in the spring of 2015. We had just bathed in a sulfur springs below a waterfall, an outlaw Eden tended by an emergent collective that formed around this hybrid wonder of human/nature, not entirely unlike Burning Man or the Fly Ranch of the future. Larry seemed awestruck by how at home he felt in his first trip to Asia, by how the rugged and leafy landscape evoked the wild sense of possibility he’d felt when dreaming his youth through the open spaces of Oregon.
We’d spent much of the way up the mountain talking about the challenges of translating not only the Ten Principles into Chinese, but of interpreting the experience and interpellating the communitas of the playa into a wholly new domain, something I’d applied myself towards for years. This has been no easy task, but it is no doubt more straightforward than the ones Larry undertook when he sat down to conjure the “Principles,” to direct Burning Man, and to become a father.
Prior to his trip to Taiwan for the Asian Burner Leadership Summit, which I had the honor of assembling and hosting, I had encountered Larry a few times on the playa and in San Francisco. He first astonished me at a Regionals mixer in First Camp, circa 2003, when he asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion — this is still the million dollar question and one that few Americans would even know how to ask — but his first and last journey to the East was the first time we’d ever really had a chance to talk. Our post-soak stroll came a day after we’d spent most of the night talking animatedly in the alleyway in front of our guesthouse in a former Japanese red light district, promiscuously weaving Freud and William James (him) and Foucault and Marx (me) to make (non)sense of the myths and antinomies of Burning Man. Larry was an autodidact, not a trained philosopher, but he was no less vain than any other self-made intellectual. He seemed pleased to meet an academic who had not only frolicked in his “scene,” but had read and savored nearly all of his published words and given some thought towards re-articulating them into another world. We couldn’t stop punning and pontificating, even knowing we’d have another full day ahead.
Larry’s writings demonstrate a wide-ranging, voracious, and syncretic yet original mind that was even sharper in person — at least, when he willed it to be. These qualities did not emerge entirely ex nihilo, but were cultivated through extended practice. Despite, or more likely precisely because of his own propensity to rationalize just about anything, Larry felt that human intelligence was based not on logical processes of cognition, but rather emerged from the irrational impulses and conflicting passions of which most of us are barely aware. The chance to meld minds with such a person was thrilling, precious and occasionally terrifying.
Although Larry maintained that he was an atheist, never mind his and the event’s mystical bent, his yearning for transcendence moved him towards the realm of “religious genius” in the classical sense described by William James: “exceptional and eccentric,” “subject to abnormal psychical visitations… a creature of exalted emotional sensibility… [who has] led a discordant inner life… known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas… frequently… fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions… [whose] ‘pathological’ features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.”
Larry’s visions were driven by insatiable curiosity, restless anxiety, and deep sensitivity– traits that may well have made him a towering scholar in an only slightly less singular life, but his “exalted emotional sensibility” drove him in a different direction, complemented by a personal engagement with the now-obscure “Self psychology” of Heinz Kohut. This sustained practice lent him an uncommon compassion and a piercing sense of humor. Larry not only an outsized capacity to watch and listen patiently, to reject received wisdom and disdain “thought leaders”, to make unexpected, even apophenic connections, to mercilessly make fun of himself and the worlds he moved in, but also to accept the foibles of the human condition and to face the unknown as it pushed him down paths of great danger and greater reward.
Before parting ways in Taipei, we realized we would both be crossing paths just a few weeks later on another continent, when his speech for the opening of artist David Normal’s Crossroads of Curiosity show at the British Library would coincide with my participation in the World Congress of Taiwan Studies at SOAS University of London. We made plans to meet for drinks before the opening and to later take a field trip to the home of Charles Darwin, one of Larry’s heroes and the inspiration for several of his art themes. Larry particularly loved the last two pages of The Origin of Species, with its image of the ‘tangled bank’, a metaphor he materialized for his 2009 Man base design. Shortly before we said goodbye, he recited its final line by heart: “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This conversation with Larry was our last before I unexpectedly conceived my son in Hong Kong a week later on the way from Taiwan to a summer fellowship in Europe. A month after that, a day before the opening at the British Library, at a bar in Islington, I told Larry that I was set to become a father under circumstances and conditions not of my own choosing. His eyes twinkled knowingly, with empathy, as he spoke of his own not dissimilar transition into fatherhood, of which he seemed at least as proud as he was of building Burning Man. His retrospective delight in taking responsibility for his descendants — his embrace of the essential unknowability of his own evolutionary potential — gave me more courage to do it, too. As we plotted possible trajectories for the future, he declared with a mischievous grin, “Maybe this will be the best thing that could have ever happened.”
This moment made him as much a friend and father figure as the founder of an event and the center of community I loved. We talked many more times through the sunset of his life, on the phone, in Black Rock City, at Esalen, in Golden Gate Park, and at his home by Alamo Square, where I was fortunate to bring my son, Asher Zeno, and his mother for a final visit this January, just in time. Larry made us iced tea and introduced Asher to the robotic toy dog he’d rescued from the street outside his flat–a finder, not a founder, indeed!
My son is growing up in a much more beautiful and wonderful world thanks in no small part to Uncle Larry, and for this I will always be deeply grateful. His homes look increasingly like Larry’s in San Francisco, Black Rock City, and the regions beyond: places in which a simple, participatory, immediate act — a fraught and felicitous collaboration with a friend, a birth, a smile, a crawl, a first step, the formation of personal language and a shared grammar, the raising of a man, and a commitment to stewardship — can light up a life.
Larry passed away during the first night of Dragon Burn, China’s regional event, now in its 5th year. As much as Larry’s loss was being felt around the world, the fact that the event went off all the same in an utterly other setting, in which many new “Burners” had never heard of “The Founder” nor registered his absence, served as a considerable testament to his focus on articulating a cultural (and not cultish) ethos both spatially modular and radically D.I.Y., a subtle and uneasy balance that no formal training could prepare someone for.
Two nights later, the dragon burned even more incandescently under a full moon, as strangers became friends and family, as Larry and his Man and his memory cycled on in a world in which from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Godspeed, Larry, you atheist mystic devil of a saint.
Top photo from Dragon Burn 2018