In the movie, Star Wars, Luke Skywalker begins his heroic journey in Episode IV by travelling to the spaceport of Mos Eisley with Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2D2 and C-3PO. Once there, they meet up with Hans Solo and Chewbacca, the 200-year-old Wookiee.
Mos Eisley is a dangerous place, a frontier town populated with colorful characters and aliens who exist outside the law. It is a world totally different from the one that Luke has known– the perfect place to launch a heroic quest.
George Lucas credited the world-famous mythologist Joseph Campbell, and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for inspiring his original trilogy. According to Campbell, the standard myth of the heroic quest consists of three phases: a departure from everyday life, an initiation that consists of overcoming a series of challenges, and a return to normal life where lessons learned are shared.
I am a long time fan of Campbell. His admonition to “follow your bliss,” i.e. do what you love, is my motto. I think Joe would have seen Black Rock City and Burning Man as the perfect jump off place for a quest. I suspect he would have immediately begun to mythologize the experience.
Departure involves coming into a town, region, or situation that shakes up your perception of reality and provides you with an option of change, or even transformation. You can have your nails done or go for the complete makeover. Or you can beat a hasty retreat back to your comfort zone. It’s up to you.
The Virgin Burner, i.e. newbie, who comes to Black Rock City, is immediately thrown into a world of heat, and dust, and noise, and music and magic. There are monsters roaming the Playa and naked people wandering through camp. You can find angels, and devils and aliens on almost every block of the 68,000-person city. You can sway all night with thousands of people to the primitive beat of heavy metal in a tribal ritual as old as humankind, or meditate alone in the far reaches of the Playa.
And art is everywhere– art that can inspire by its beauty, challenge by its message, and amuse by its humor. Over three hundred works were scattered through the city this year including a beautiful 42-foot naked woman with her arms outstretched in dance and a seven-ton coyote howling at the moon.
Performing art is even more prevalent. Fire dancers work their magic with twirling balls of fire and batons. Musicians sing and play drums, guitars, saxophones, sitars, accordions, banjos, harmonicas and almost anything else that makes music. A one-man-band went strolling by our camp with his instruments trailing along behind. We stopped on the Esplanade and listened as a woman with a powerful voice sang Italian opera on top of a mutant vehicle that shot fire into the sky when she hit high notes.
Campbell saw artists as modern myth makers, as the people who capture and translate what is happening in the present time, who “turn the world into an icon so that it’s radiant.” He would have been excited to see the cutting edge art that Burning Man artists produce and enjoyed meeting the artists. I also think he would have understood the burning of art, which speaks to our transitory nature and the Eastern concept of letting go.
I don’t think Burning Man will transform the world, as it would like to, but it is part of a transformation that is taking place. I do believe it has the power to transform individuals. Many who participate return home changed. For some, it is the “aha!” experience of a lifetime. Joe Campbell would be impressed, or at least amused.
Next Blog: The faces of Burning Man 2013