Burning Man in the Age of Rick Perry: Revelation, Pluralism, and Moral Imperative

We cannot know his legendary head 
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso 
is still suffused with brilliance from inside, 
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power… You must change your life.
      —Excerpt from Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” 

At this moment, over 50,000 people from around the world are gathered, again, in a temporary city in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. By now, I suspect most RD readers have heard of Burning Man, though the nature of this temporary city—please don’t call it a festival—remains elusive. Some call it a Temporary Autonomous Zone devoted to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. Others call it a utopian experiment in commerce-free living. Others, well, others call it a festival.

Like any pilgrimage site, Burning Man is less a destination than a pretext for the journey. These days, of course, flying into Reno isn’t so hard—but actually opening up to whatever Black Rock City has to offer… that journey can be arduous. If you go looking for a festival with sex and drugs and dance music, that is all you will find. But if you pause to wonder why there’s a temple in the middle of it, why people come back year after year even if they don’t do drugs, or, for that matter, how it is that the art, community, and culture of Black Rock City is constructed without a Them putting on entertainments for Us, much more can be received.   

Generally speaking, those who intend to be open in this way come away changed by the experience. I’ve been to dozens of “festivals,” and some of them have been very cool. But they didn’t inspire me to change my life. Burning Man did, when I first went to it in 2001. What it presents are ways of being that most of us never imagine. It’s possible to be like this, it says, to live so richly and creatively and expressively and sensuously, to be this in love with life. And once one has really seen that such a life is possible, one cannot go back to how one was.

There is no “they” in Black Rock City. Most of what goes on is participant-created. So what you are seeing is not a spectacle constructed for your amusement, but real life. This is actually happening. This is what human beings are capable of.

It’s not that every Burner comes back, quits her job, and takes up fire spinning full-time. Many longtime Burners are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Many others are wandering artists. Many of us are somewhere in between. But I would venture to say that every Burner who, at some point during the week stops being a spectator and starts being a participant, does come back a little more inspired, a little more aware of the possibilities of being human.

Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (a portion of which is quoted above) relates a similar kind of secular revelation. Rilke, remember, had written a number of more intellectual, more idea-oriented poems, but he grew tired of their disembodied conceptualizations. He wanted to write like Rodin sculpted: materially, physically. “Archaic Torso” has only a whiff of metaphysics in it. The last, sudden, surprising line—“you must change your life”—emerges from the aesthetic encounter with the “power” of the sculpture. After encountering the forms of the sculpture, the poet knows that he cannot live life asleep, or according to convention. Something must change, not because it is wrong in its current state necessarily, but because change is growth, change is life.   

This is how I understand revelation, whether religious or secular: one encounters the numinous, and one senses an imperative to act in accordance with it. This conception is not my own; it is the foundation of the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great religious/spiritual progressives of the past century. For Heschel, while the senses of mysterium tremendum and fascinans were important, the phenomenology of the mystical/revelatory experience was less important than the imperative it brings about in the human heart. After revelation, you must change your life. What that change is may be inchoate at first, but that there must be a change is crystal clear.

Powerful religious and spiritual experiences are available to everyone, including people enmeshed in highly regressive religious ideologies. I go to Burning Man and am inspired to express myself more poetically, someone else goes to a religious revival and is inspired to persecute gays. What I think has to separate positive, expansive experiences from constricting ones is the degree of openness and pluralism involved. A dogmatic religionist cannot abide the inspiration of another. Unless it is within the same religious system, it is damned, or confused, or pagan, or worse. Thus the dogmatist is only left with data which confirm her existing categories of thought. All contradictory data is removed from consideration.

Whereas, any religious/spiritual progressive must be inspired precisely by the plurality of revelatory experiences. It matters that I have mine, and you have yours, and they are not the same. We can have different experiences, and both may be of value. This is not relativism—the point is not that every experience has equal value. That is ridiculous. Rather, the point is that precisely because value, meaning, inspiration, and moral imperative can be experienced in different ways, one of the first lessons we take from peak experiences is radical respect for difference.       

There is no single meaning to Burning Man. The group ritual toward the end of the week which gives the event its name is left symbolically undetermined. For some, it may just be cool fireworks. For others, it is an ecstatic pagan ritual. And for others still, it may have personal meanings, communal meanings, or no meaning at all. Likewise the entire week. That there is no single meaning imposed upon this city is a big part of the point. You are responsible for your meaning-making, and you have no authority over anyone else’s. Feel your inspiration deeply. Believe in your sacred scriptures. But know that they are but one of many fingers pointing at the moon. Or the Man. 

JayMichaelson&ltjay@nehirim.orggt'

Dr. Jay Michaelson [@jaymichaelson] is Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches and the author of five books, most recently "Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment" (North Atlantic, 2013). He holds a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.