Burning Man, at Both Ends
By JASON LEE STEORTS
The Middle of Nowhere, Nev.
Hello, how are you? Its 4:30 a.m. and three shadows stand at the edge of our camp. The one in the middle is talking. Were looking for Ecstasy and enough marijuana to roll a joint. Can you help? In exchange Ill give you this
The shadow steps closer and I see that its a man, perhaps 50, conservative in appearance, silver of hair, hand outstretched. This is a book I wrote.
I examine his offering: Rave Culture: An Insiders Overview. The cover shows a dance floor on which an image of the Dalai Lama has been superimposed. His Holiness floats over the crowd and smiles enigmatically, several of his six hands waving CDs and glowsticks as though in blessing.
You wrote this? I repeat, thumbing the pages.
Yes I did.
Thats really cool!
Thank you. But we dont have a lot of time, and we need Ecstasy and marijuana. Can you help?
I have no Ecstasy have never tried it but still I end up with the book. Flipping it over, I read the author bio: Jimi Fritz has been a musician, world traveler, tree surgeon, street performer, producer, director, chef, chauffeur, writer, roofer, painter, entrepreneur, husband, father, and lover. He now lives in Canada with his wife and two teenage sons. The whole family raves regularly.
Next I turn to the chapter called Rave and Religion. On page 181, I read this: The religion of rave embraces the spontaneous and intuitive, seeking to commune with the infinite through ecstatic revelation. And on page 183, this: In the practice of the Dionysian mysteries, the essential unit is not the isolated individual but the group-in-action which manifests its collective energy through throbbing patterns of music and dance. . . . The Dionysians were also well known for openly using mind-altering substances in traditional, structured rituals aimed at self-growth.
This lingers in my mind a while, for earlier tonight I was at Jimi Fritzs church. Not at a rave, exactly though there would later be several to choose from, taking place under huge, glowing canopy tents. Instead I found myself with 50,000 others standing before The Man a structure 40 feet tall, made of wood, and soon to be incinerated. Of dancing and drugs, there was no shortage. Those around me screamed wildly, jumping up and down to music I found both unpleasant and unpleasantly loud. Nearby, a Russian bodybuilder piloted a vehicle decorated with metal plating. This fiendish animal, he said, is dragon, is lizard, is a sort of a thing. You are not permitted to drive a car at Burning Man unless it is an officially approved art car, in which case you may attach a flamethrower. The Russian had put one in his sort-of-a-things mouth, and it erupted at intervals, impressing the bevy of leather-clad dominatrices who ninjad around him. Here and there, lit up by other sources of fire and glistening orangely, was nakedness.
I hadnt acquired Mr. Fritzs book yet, but as I stood there the word Dionysian indeed came to mind. I was entertained in the extreme, but I began to feel an acute unease without being able to identify its source. Look at this, I said to a friend, waving my hand across the throng. Im trying to look at this like Ive just been dropped in by helicopter, like Im seeing it fresh. Im asking what my reaction is. And I think its horror.
* * *
As I pack up camp and prepare to return to civilization, that judgment seems exaggerated. But what led me to exaggerate in just this way?
I think the answer has to do with something I saw yesterday afternoon, before the Burn. I had gone out just as a Category 5 haboob (thats sandstorm to the kids) descended on us. Visibility dropped to ten feet and the sun was blotted out, so for a while I took cover in a place called Entheon Village. Later I dictated this audio report about it:
Four thirty-three in the post meridiem. Back from hippie drug temple. [Names redacted] would love it. Its set up like a Buddhist monastery. They even make you take off your shoes. There was a music-healing hall with people lying down and touching each other and listening to wind chimes, and this other hall where they were teaching about magic spells. Comment overheard in courtyard: Hes a total shaman. In the main hall a lady with a British accent was giving a lecture, which seemed less stupid. Representative sentence: The value of mind-altering substances is the value of having new kinds of experience.
Now the thumbscrew would be a new experience and the lecturers assertion needs caveats. Her basic idea, however, does not strike me as unreasonable. Even so, there was something about Entheon Village that unsettled me, and I think it was related to that horror I felt later. If I had to capture it in a word, I would choose irreverence.
That is not supposed to be a policy argument. I fail to see the logic of our drug laws, which are not grounded in anything like objective risk assessments, and penalize the extremely dangerous and the relatively innocuous with comparable severity. Whether prohibition is justified in terms of harms to the individual or to society, much better cases can be made against alcohol and tobacco than against cannabis and psychedelics (and perhaps some other drugs, though here I make no claims).
In the interest of honesty, I wish to say that I have some experience in these parts. I also wish to suggest that, if you dont, you have no standing to dismiss categorically the value of such experience. This is not an endorsement of Dont knock it till youve tried it, for the comparative dearth of objective harms is relevant to assessing this kind of experience. Speaking subjectively: It can be silly (often) and emotionally unpleasant (sometimes, and especially if had too often), but on the other hand it can heighten empathy, occasion creative thoughts, or enhance aesthetic appreciation. These things are not for everyone, and neither is skydiving.
I recoil, however, from the tendency identified and endorsed by Mr. Fritz to think that drugs point the way to a Higher Purpose or Meaning of Life or Similarly Majusculed Noun. It is easy to see where that tendency comes from. Drug-induced alterations of thought, feeling, and perception give a point of departure to the desire for a reality outside of, or deeper than, everyday experience. This desire is what leads jungle tribes to gulp down ayahuasca brews. It is what leads latter-day psychonauts to interpret their acid trips in the light of animism, Eastern religion, or New Age spirituality. And it is what culminates in Entheon Villages.
In light of this, it is not surprising that the traditionalists see in Entheon Village a counterfeit of their own conception of the sacred, or even a blasphemy against it. And because the counterfeit is often Dionysian in spirit because it tends to coexist with rave music and orange glistenings they also see an inversion of their values.
I myself am not a traditionalist, but I do feel that the questions religion tries to answer should be approached with earnestness, thoughtfulness, and not a little fear. I feel an according distaste for the Aldous Huxleys and Timothy Learys of the world: those who coarsen our feeling for the mystery of these questions by suggesting that its resolution is to be found in something as effortless and trivial as the ingestion of a chemical. I feel an even greater distaste for those who celebrate the untethering of impulse as though this simply were the longed-for resolution.
But it goes too far to call Entheon Village wicked. It is only meretricious, its danger only that of distraction. To me the proper course is not to smash this temple, even in rhetoric, but to point out with tact that its idol, like all idols, is cheap. Those who seek it for a novelty will be all the more inclined to worship if we imbue their ritual with the romance of martyrdom.
* * *
The Man, now burning, begins to collapse, plumes of spar
k blooming starward. I am entranced but still a little horrified. Perhaps inspired by the prophet costume I am wearing (robe, hood, sandals; no one goes around here without a costume), I even begin to deliver a jeremiad.
This is like watching a pagan ritual! I declaim to my friend. Only a society in an advanced stage of decadence could produce this! Theres an article to be written that holds up a mirror to this event. Instead of damning it, you could tell things as straight as possible my implication being that this would constitute the more persuasive damnation.
About then I see that a stranger has overheard me. He looks my way, smiling the smile of the benevolently amused and thats when I start to feel Im taking things too seriously. My horror resolves into longing for a quiet place, and eventually I even have fun. Soon enough the splendid triviality ends, and we all go home.
The National Review featured an article about Burning Man that discusses Entheon Village.