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.