Why has Burning Man changed you?
Bear with me. This post is about Transformational Experiences, but I’m going to take the long way around to get there.
This is part 1 of a series on the theme of Metamorphoses, looking at what causes change and transformation through the lens of pioneering humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Why would Caveat do that? It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Read all entries in this series here.
I haven’t written anything publicly about Larry Harvey since his death, in part because I have been too distraught, and in part because I didn’t want to contribute to the Church of St. Larry. During the period when he was in his coma, I saw all the tributes rolling in to the legendary “man in the hat” and thought, “wow, if Larry survives he’s going to HATE his renewed mythic status.” I was really looking forward to joking with him about it. Reading him Facebook tributes about his kindness and wisdom in which he would not have recognized himself at all. It would have been hilarious.
But he died, so it’s less funny. Although I would like to point out that I was literally the first person to publicly say “Larry Harvey died better last year.”
That sounds glib – probably because it is – but in the early days after Larry’s death, when ideas for the 2019 theme were first being bounced around, phoenix and rebirth imagery was a heavy early contender. “Rising from the ashes,” shit like that.
Eventually, however, a decision was made to go with “Metamorphoses.” Which I think was a good decision: a phoenix/rebirth kind of theme would have been about Larry, implying that Burning Man had been too. When we all know perfectly well it wasn’t. “Metamorphoses,” on the other hand, is broader. Ironically, the kind of theme he would have been more likely to do.
And I’ve been feeling that keenly recently, because if Larry were alive, I would now be in the middle of writing and producing a web series on the theme of Metamorphoses: we would have spent weeks sitting around talking through what it is we’d want to look at, how we’d want to approach it, where it might go (we never, ever, knew where it would go at the beginning – the whole point of these series was discovery), what we were trying to achieve, what we might be missing, who we wanted to try to wrangle into writing it.
And it would have been so much fun. Oh my God, those theme series were such pains in my ass, and so, so, much fun.
And Metamorphoses – for all that it is the first Burning Man theme Larry never wrote – is such fertile ground for a treatment like that. There’s so much of relevance, so much that is key to what Burning Man is and why, to unearth in this theme.
But every time I’ve thought about trying to put something like that together, without Larry … I can’t. I just can’t. That kind of work is stuff I love to do … and it sounds miserable. Much of the fun was bouncing things off Larry, talking over what we’d discovered so far, as we tried to think deeply without a net.
And to be clear, that’s what we were doing. None of our writing was submitted to a committee to make sure it was “safe” or “appropriate” or “on message” – we were giving this the best thinking we had, out loud and in public, to see what developed. Because that’s where the most interesting thoughts come from, and how they grow. Burning Man’s best philosophy has always been produced without a net.
Metamorphoses deserves that kind of treatment. But I can’t imagine doing it without Larry.
Of course, there are a lot of things people couldn’t imagine doing without him. And they’re getting done. But sometimes differently. You know, as if they’d undergone a metamorphoses.
In that vein, I’ve decided to think out loud, in a very limited way, about one small aspect of the Metamorphoses theme – how people change. What is personal transformation? How does it occur? Why?
And I’ve decided to do this in an extremely idiosyncratic way – by writing reflections on legendary American psychologist Carl Rogers 1961 book “On Becoming a Person.”
Let’s be honest here: this small series may be more about my needs than yours.
But it’s an odd yet sincere attempt to stay in dialogue with Larry. Larry – this isn’t well known – was very much a Freudian. Not obsessively, but definitely. He thought of the human psyche in Freudian terms: a series of competing impulses and complexes, all shaped by material conditions, many of the most important operating below the level of consciousness.
I, by contrast, am strongly in the existential-humanistic camp of psychology. And where, in a very broad (and over-generalized) nutshell, Freudian psychology is fundamentally about finding ways to reconcile our social selves to our biological impulses, creating insights so that we can accept our neuroses and get on with our lives … psychodynamic theories of psychology believe that we are searching for meaning, for self-actualization, and that there is no end point: health comes from an ongoing process of growth and becoming, rather than functioning within ideal parameters. You don’t get comfortable with your neuroses, you grow into a person who doesn’t need them any more.
We would discuss these differences a lot. And I don’t expect this to necessarily mean anything to you, but Carl Rogers was one of the founders of Humanistic psychology, and so by looking at “Metamorphoses” explicitly through this lens, I’m kind of (sort of) continuing an ongoing and endless debate with Larry.
Except … except … and here’s the thing that’s really surprised me … the more I (re)read the book, the more I realized, Larry and I wouldn’t have argued at all.
Because while Larry would have been off-put by some of Roger’s less than cynical language (which, as a cynic, I am too), it seems to me now that there was a gaping distance between Larry’s theory of human nature (Freudian) and his practical understanding of what brings out the best in people, and how they change – which I now see as being deeply humanistic. As I think about describing the key points in this book to Larry, I envision him nodding in agreement, because (when he was at his best) that’s how he behaved, and the kind of environment he tried to create.
At which point the connection with Burning Man seems obvious.
So I’m going to be posting several essays about the theme of Metamorphoses, how people change and why, in response to the “person centered” theories of Carl Rogers, occasionally bouncing it off of a five-year discussion about psychology that Larry and I were having up until his death.
Yeah, that sounds like a good use of everyone’s time. Right? Right?
Well … if you’re interested enough in Burning Man to be reading this essay, I think the odds are good that you’ll be up for this detailed look at what “transformative experiences” could be.
But I could be wrong. This might, in fact, be a terrible idea, and I might fall flat on my face. But, if I do, you’ll at least have the pleasure of seeing me fall flat on my face in a theme series. Which, let’s be honest, SOMEBODY out there has been waiting for.
Larry hated that joke. “You say that too much,” he once told me about a very similar joke.
Maybe he was right. He usually was. But things change.