Burning Man and Philosophy:
Love in the Desert
Sometimes you can just feel it. I remember staring at the computer, contemplating this ridiculous trek to the middle of the desert, a place devoid of both animal and vegetable because of the extraordinary preponderance of a particular mineral: a flight across country, a scramble in Reno to get everything one might need for a week’s survival (water, food, goggles, tuxedo jacket . . . ), hours of downtown traffic in the middle of nowhere as scores of trucks, cars, and RVs funnel down to a one-lane exit from civilization. All for one week on an ancient lake bed, a salt flat, where, apparently, a bunch of hippies play bongos for a week and dance around a wooden man on fire. “You should go,” my ex-wife said. I will always love her for that.
Although I knew I needed to go, almost everything else I thought I knew about Burning Man turned out to be wrong. That was seven years ago. I’ve been back each year and I’ve scored a ticket for this year, even though the secret is pretty much out and tickets are scarce. Truth be told, I don’t really need to go back. It changed me, like it’s changed so many others. I’ve internalized what I learned in the desert, but I’m going to go at least this one last time, if only because seven years sounds better than six when you are writing a book.
So, a quick primer before I try to say something smart: First, it’s not a bunch of hippies, though there are some old timers keeping the faith and I do love them so. I’m a little out on a limb here, but I’ll go ahead and say that for the seven days before Labor Day each year, the city with the most talent, intelligence, creativity and ingenuity per capita in the whole damn world is Black Rock City, a city that rises from the dust of Black Rock desert and disappears without a trace in a matter of months. Famously, there are folks out there who have changed how we all live. In all likelihood you’ll use some of their inventions today. But it is the critical mass of anonymous genius that makes Burning Man possible: the girls who forge fire sculptures, the camps that choreograph ballets or spend a year turning a school bus into a two-story high techno-duck, just for the hell of it. And, of course, there’s the folks who could probably survive on the moon who wire a small city within the city or just plain build stuff that won’t fall over when hundreds of burners climb it and howl to the desert wind. There’s filler: frat boys, wide-eyed philosophy professors, tourists. But this is not a paid performance. There’s no money and no bartering. You are the show. You are the show. This is one of the reasons it changes people.
For the dozen or so years I’ve been a philosophy professor, my supposed area of expertise has been the philosophy of love. Of course things get very specific in academics, and so, if we are talking real scholarly expertise, it’s one particular philosopher’s take on one particular type of love. The Greeks had multiple words for love. Most people are familiar with the word eros. That’s the love of desire, most commonly associated with sexual desire. And most people are even familiar with philia, the love of friendship, if only from worlds like “Philadelphia” or “audiophile.” What fewer people know about is the word agape, a word that really didn’t find its groove until early Christian writers adopted it and successfully repackaged it as “Christian Love.” This love, which is more generally associated with growth and transformation—well, that’s my jam.
So my little love story might be a tad unexpected. If you’ve seen, read, or Googled anything about Burning Man, its erotic nature is full frontal. It is an intensely erotic environment, and it is so in the most expected ways: there are lots of beautiful bodies, many of which are exquisitely adorned or simply on display. It is a sexually charged environment, and there are camps and gatherings that exist for the explicit intent of heightening and/or releasing that tension. There is truth to the claim that Burning Man is something of a bacchanal. And, though this isn’t the whole truth, or the most important or interesting truth, it is a truth. Part of the show is the beauty of the human body; part of the attraction is the sexual freedom and the promise of ecstasy.
But eros isn’t just about sex and it’s not just about bodies. It’s about the desire for beauty more generally, and therefore about the appreciation of beauty as such. Through the dusty sundrenched haze of Black Rock City one can soar up Plato’s famous ladder of beauty, his poetic account of the evolution of erotic love from the Symposium: When one is surrounded by so much physical beauty, it’s difficult to not begin to appreciate the beauty of the human form as such. It’s not this or that body that is so beautiful; it is the human body—dancing with fire, in a perfect asana, in an imperfect asana, huddled in prayer or tear, hands raised—in the middle of nowhere—in triumph and joy, hands raised—on the road to nowhere—to direct you towards your next one-hour wait in the desert sun. And it won’t take long until you find a body whose eyes glow like fire for the first time, and you just might get a glimpse of the beauty of the human soul. Burning Man rips your heart open. It punishes your defenses and pleads you not to hide your love away. You will smile and acquiesce as you feel a perfect stranger peer inside you and affirm everything you know about compassion, fear, hope, hatred, desire, love, and lust. In return, for a moment, you will see the beauty of a creature just like you. You will recognize yourself and know the imperfect beauty of what it is to be human.
You will perhaps see that a thriving city of sixty thousand in an otherwise lifeless environment requires something of a social contract. The “laws” that make the common good possible aren’t the laws you’ve left behind; breaking them warrants no tangible penalty. But their novelty provides an opportunity to appreciate their beauty. We don’t leave a trace because of a shared desire to preserve the physical beauty of the desert, and the desire to return. We don’t sell, buy or barter because we see value in creating an experimental economy upon the principle that generosity recreates and multiplies itself. We ask that there be no spectators—that each person participates and creates the event for the next—because this is the essence of and secret to the community, the sine qua non of Burning Man. The strangeness and foreignness of the desert landscape gives relief to the beauty of customs that grow from shared values, the beauty of the sorts of realities that outlast any given collection of human beings.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Beauty itself out there, the essence of Beauty that Plato thought was the source of all lesser beauty. But I have caught a glimpse of the desert sun. And I’ve understood, like never before, that my squinted gaze was no different than Plato’s, Shakespeare’s, or Christ’s. And when the sun disappears each night behind the desert mountains, from the foot of the stage at Distrikt, I feel its loss on my skin and in my soul.
But you knew this. You knew Burning Man was erotic, at least in the most carnal sense. And, even in my misinformation at my computer desk, I suppose I knew that much. What I did not know, and what I really want to talk about, is another kind of love. It’s not the love of desire. It’s the sort of love that changes what people desire. It is, I think, the love that makes it possible not only to ascend Plato’s ladder of love, but to transcend it.
The fact that agape is associated so thoroughly with Christianity is both its curse and its blessing. For those of us who can no longer call ourselves Christian in any formal sense, there is a guilt by association. I was raised Catholic. I teach at a Catholic university, partly because I believe that much of what is best about Catholicism is present in its universities. But I am no longer Catholic, and the words, rituals and customs that rang hollow for me as a child still echo with the same falsity I despised in youth. For those who have walked a similar path, or for those educated in the thoroughly secular world of contemporary philosophy, the word agape sounds like a trope from a bygone era.
And yet I believe that the essence of Christianity, philosophically speaking, is true. I don’t know if God is love, but I know that we need agape, this kind of love, to survive, to evolve, to flourish. Though we may desire to be beautiful, there is nothing in eros to comfort when we are ugly and broken, when we are decrepit and perverse. There simply is no eros when we are ugly. Eros desires the beautiful, but we, each of us, are at best beautiful, in one way or another, for some time or another. There is no body immune to decay; there is no soul without its pockets of depravity. One could wish one’s whole life to be beautiful, to be an object of desire, only to find that desire comes cheap and easy, for it is intended primarily to satisfy he who desires. Even the Beautiful itself that Plato spoke of is loved not for itself, but for the lover. Eros, even at its height, is a love for one’s own satisfaction.
It is not surprising that the word which became synonymous with Christianity has its humble origins in the Greek vernacular as love of mother for child, caretaker for underling. Without agape the infant dies, which is to say, the species dies. There is a type of love that is not intended to satisfy oneself, at least not directly. And this love not only saves us from death in childhood; it saves us from a narrowness and smallness of purpose as we grow. Agape is the love of transformation. The love that transforms the sinner into the saint is the same love that makes erotic ascent possible in the desert.
Burning Man changes people, because, ultimately, it neutralizes erotic desire. It creates a space in which eros may be transcended. Burning Man is an environment of exceptional freedom, and there is no growth, there is no personal evolution, without freedom. One cannot meaningfully choose that which is necessary. For lack of a similar freedom people spend lifetimes shadowboxing their demons, navigating the murky taboos of childhood. The emptiness of the desert is a place where these barriers to joy dissipate.
And yet Burning Man is not merely about freedom. When you are free to pursue every desire for beauty—but are surrounded by a critical mass of anonymous brilliance freely choosing to create, rather than merely consume it—it occurs to you that the creation might be superior to the consumption. That the joy of giving might trump the joy of taking. The moment I understood Burning Man for the first time was the moment I made even the slightest attempt to create it, rather than just consume it. For there is ecstasy—ec-stasis, self-transcendence—not only in the erotic but also in the agapic. And the latter is superior because it provides a more fulfilling and less temporary self-transcendence. It expands the self. It widens one’s circle. Burning Man—agape—changes what you want, what you desire, until, at last, what you want is to give and create—to create art, community and beauty just as it created you. Your eros has become agape.
There is, of course, an almost absurd irony to the fact that my most meaningful spiritual experience of “Christian love” has been at what some have called a neo-pagan gathering. But irony is for clever folk, and lately I find myself feeling intolerant of cleverness. Lately, it seems to me that the joy of creation—of art, of self, of community—is too precious a thing to be handled from such a distance. I believe, with Emerson and Thoreau, with James and Peirce, that I have a wisdom that is wider than my intellect and its pat observations. This wisdom asks me to create and it guides me in the process. It pulls me and pushes me though life, as the hand of the painter or finger of the musician is merely the outward expression of the silent edicts of the sentiments. Self-transcendence and joy are available for the taking, and they do not require a pilgrimage to the desert.
I do suppose that I needed some time in the desert, and I suppose I knew that. I now believe that we don’t just know sometimes. We know all the time. And that’s a philosopher’s love story.
Mike Ventimiglia is Associate Professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart University. He has published numerous articles on popular culture and philosophy, including articles on Bruce Springsteen, poker, and The Daily Show. He is currently writing a book on Burning Man.
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