"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, August 31, 2007

Re-Burning Man

The big news so far from the annual Burning Man festival taking place this week in the Nevada desert is that the Man was a bit early at his own party. During the height of Tuesday night's lunar eclipse, someone managed to set the iconic 40-foot tall wooden and neon figure ablaze, an event that had been scheduled for the dramatic conclusion of the festival tomorrow night. Remarkably, however, the giant effigy was rebuilt and raised Phoenix-like from the ashes in only two days, and will burn (again) as scheduled.

The perpetrator of this deed was 35-year old Paul Addis, a playwright, artist, and self-described "prankster" from San Francisco. He was arrested on charges of arson and destruction of property, among other things, and before lawyering up in preparation to face the charges against him, called the action a form of protest -- a justified "reality check" for the event which Addis and many others say has become too commercialized over its 21-year history.

The legalities of his actions aside, he's got a point, and talk of the premature burn and what it says about the nature of the festival has dominated conversation among this year's participants as well as outside observers. Many debate whether increased public awareness of the event over the years is a positive thing, spreading the principles on which the festival is based -- self expression and self-reliance mixed with community, social, and environmental responsibility -- to a wider audience, or whether Burning Man has become a sort of "Alterna-Disney", where poseurs, frat boys, cyber-geeks, hippie-wanna-be's and other spectators come to the playa for a week expressly to get high and get laid.

Indeed, the very fact that I -- someone who has never actually attended the event -- am writing about it on this blog is evidence that Burning Man has grown far beyond its subversive, anarchistic beginnings. But is this a Good Thing or not?

This debate has been going on for years, and "The Man", as Burning Man's namesake, has been targeted as a symbol of protest before. In 1997, a group of pranksters attached a set of giant testicles to the figure, suggesting that the festival needed to "grow some balls" and return to its roots. Every year there has been talk of torching The Man prematurely, but this is the first time anyone has actually managed to do it.

For his part, Addis, who is out on bond awaiting arraignment on September 25th, is defiant. In an interview with Wired Magazine, he says:
"Burning Man has become just as nefarious a cultural programmer as General Electric or Disney ... you only need to look as far as Burning Man's media team to see it's like the Bush media team except with a different purpose. They exercise the same tactics to achieve the same results: to portray themselves in the best lights and to avoid negative media attention. To people who would say they are pissed off because the Man got torched, I say, "Why are you really out there?" If the burning of the Man means something, if it brings them some sort of cathartic connection, then build your own thing and burn it down. Don't be a passive audience member. Cross the line."
Meanwhile, back on the Playa, the unexpected early burn did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the participants, who are taking the whole thing in stride. Some say the annual ritual -- always held on Saturday -- is an event for everyone to interpret in his or her own way, and that it took place several days of ahead of schedule hardly changes its nature. Others note that this year’s theme of environmental awareness, dubbed "The Green Man", was not foreign to the premature burn, as the man was destroyed and then rebuilt. Yet this notion seems disingenuous when you consider the thousands of gallons of gasoline being burned by attendees in their RV's, who run generators to power their refrigerators and air conditioners while in the middle of the hot, barren desert.

Mankind has always had a fascination with fire from our primeval days, and it comes as no surprise that this has much to do with the appeal of Burning Man. When The Man goes up on Saturday night in an orgy of pyrotechnics, surrounded by 40,000 or more singing, chanting, dancing Burners, it will have its own meaning to each one of them. Religious experience? Pagan ritual? Or just a really great party, man? Take your pick.

For myself, I will light a candle around midnight Saturday night and stare intently into the flame, while imagining myself dancing in the desert. If I'm really lucky, I might be able to meditate outside of my physical self -- and if in doing so I happen to determine any Secrets Of The Universe, I'll be sure and blog about it here.

To be honest, I expect I'm more likely to singe my hair on the damn candle.

More news from the Playa can be found here. In any case, I hope everyone has a great Labor Day weekend.


  • At 9/01/2007 07:28:00 PM, Blogger Synchronicity said…

    No burning woman? Shall I burn my bra? Hey you have a great Labor Day weekend my friend!

  • At 9/01/2007 07:52:00 PM, Blogger Sphincter said…

    Mr. Toast--you are too kind. If I suddenly got the Secrets to the Universe, I would probably hog them and keep them all for myself. I guess that's why I'm a sphincter and you are the lovable Mr Toast.


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