The Burn

Black Rock City, NV, USA

Fire dancers

Fire dancers perform in front of the Man before the Burn

Black Rock City, NV, USA

The antlered figure of the Wendigo was a black silhouette against a sea of flames. The towering Man itself had already fallen, and the Wendigo’s nearest neighbors–a space marine in her power-loader and an endearing robot family with the baby robot peering shyly from its mother’s hip—had followed it into the fire. Of the small sculptures ringing the plinth on which the Man stood, only the Wendigo, a sinister seven-foot figure with a horned skull and massive claws, still resisted the expanding inferno. As I admired its diabolical endurance through my camera lens, I thought to myself that Mike Pence would really hate this.

The event that gives Burning Man its name, the spectacular immolation of a gigantic man-shaped sculpture, is the major event of the festival. Lots of things get set on fire at Burning Man—the night before we’d watched two full-size wooden locomotives given to the flames, and the next night the stately Temple was scheduled to be consumed in its turn. But the burning of the Man is the Burn, distinct from lesser burns, such as ‘the Temple Burn’ or ‘regional’ burns. And there is something unquestionably pagan about the spectacle. You don’t need to be a Christian evangelical—a group with an unequalled ability to detect ungodly influences in even the most anodyne things—to suspect that this particular invented rite contains at least a few stylistic nods to historical paganism.

The ceremony began with a torchlit procession, flame bearers on stilts pacing out the perimeter—the charmed circle around the Man, patrolled by a Black Rock Rangers there to ensure that none of the spectators could get dangerously closer to the intense fire. Soon after the procession began, there was a shout from the crowd as the huge, blue-and-white-lit Man had raised its arms in a gesture of greeting and farewell.

After the marchers came fire spinners dressed in white. They twirled and leapt, now working as an ensemble, now breaking down into solo acts of great skill and inventiveness. The applause, when they finally extinguished the last of their fires and made their farewell bows, was loud and well-deserved.

A hiss of fireworks signaled the start of the main event. A fountain of white sparks leapt up from the plinth, engulfing the Man in curtains of white fire. When the first salvo died away, one of the Man’s upraised arms had gone dark, its electrics blasted by a passing rocket. Flames crawled up the Man’s thighs where sparks had ignited kerosene-soaked burlap. More fireworks followed; within minutes, the Man’s waist was engulfed in fire. Soon after, the entire structure was blazing fiercely, ribbons of flame trailing from its head and upstretched arms.

All day we had watched loaded fuel trucks crawl toward the central playa. As the Man burned ever brighter, the first of the fuel caches hidden in the plinth let go. Fat fireballs boiled upward into a black sky still spattered with exploding fireworks. The scene began to look less like the simple burning of a statue and more like a localized but very intense war.

Fire spread to the plinth. The Man tottered and fell at last, foundering in the flames. Then the smaller sculptures started to succumb one by one. The space marine’s mannequin body must have evaporated in moments, but the steel frame of her power-loader lasted longer. In the end, only the Wendigo was left, looking more than a little demonic as it presided over the raging ocean of fire that spilled upward from the plinth. It was a vision of Hell to gladden the heart of any fire-and-damnation preacher.

Of course, in some people’s eyes, the festival as a whole probably looks pretty Satanic. There is drug-taking, and sex (possibly more in theory than practice; the dry and dusty environment of the playa doesn’t really encourage too much hands-on carnality), and gender-fluidity, and homosexuality, and all kinds of other things that are no doubt anathema to a certain kind of thinking. There had been an unprecedented pre-festival crackdown—the Bureau of Indian Affairs suddenly asserted jurisdiction over the approach roads to Black Rock City and began subjecting early arrivals to intensive drug searches—allegedly on orders from Washington, and maybe even the White House itself. As I watched the flames whirl upward, it occurred to me that the president might not care very much if a few tens of thousands of freaks wanted to roll around in the dust for a week, but his second-in-command could have some strong opinions on the subject. If there really were any special orders coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I wouldn’t be surprised if they issued from the office of the vice-president.

A charge of paganism (if not actual Satanism) doesn’t seem unfounded. Even in Larry Harvey’s original Burns, the Man was unquestionably positioned as a ritual sacrifice, burned to carry away the bad energies and misfortunes of the preceding year: a symbolic ‘sacred king’ in the classic Frazierian sense. (Of course, while Mr. Pence might not make the parallel, Christ also had many of the attributes of a sacred king. But let’s not go there).

As far as I could tell, however, no one around me seemed particularly inclined toward devil worship. There was no chanting, no robes—or at any rate, no uniform dress or undress code. In short, there were none of the things that I have been led to believe are typical of a properly-conducted Satanic mass. The applause that followed the final collapse of the plinth sounded more like appreciation for a grandiose, dramatic spectacle than anything darker. As for the festival as a whole, I saw more acts of loving kindness, neighborliness and unselfish generosity than I’ve ever seen from any of the public spokespersons of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. If the whole business was a recruiting pitch for Old Nick, he wasn't getting his money’s worth.

When the Wendigo fell at last, the fire became general. The stairs to the plinth boiled with fire, then collapsed. The exposed structural members supporting the plinth leaned and fell. Soon there was nothing but a broad puddle of fire to mark where the Man had been, the jumbled timbers and beams still patrolled by firefighters and Rangers. The show was over, and the crowd began to disperse.

“Enjoy that?” C. asked me as we headed back to camp. “Best I’ve seen since the Citistorage warehouse in Brooklyn caught fire,” I told him.

It was true. For sheer spectacle, I’ve seen little to equal it. It was an all-stops-pulled-out, over-the-top piece of pyrotechnic theatricality. a command-performance holocaust with no casualties except ephemeral artworks. The Borg – the Burning Man Organization – certainly knows how to put on a show.

At the same time, I guessed that its significance had shifted over the years. People find their own meanings in the Burn, as they do in every other aspect of the festival. Yet whatever the Burn meant today, I don’t think it was the same thing as when Larry Harvey first set fire to his wooden Man on a San Francisco beach. There’s no harm in that, of course: it’s in the nature of things to evolve and take on new meanings and new forms. Yet it felt not so much like an expiatory ritual, a piece of emotional magic to banish ill-fortune, as the headline act at a rock concert, the big name that everyone’s there to see. I was impressed and entertained, but I was not moved.

And if Mr. Pence is reading, I’m sure he’ll be glad to know that I’m no nearer to accepting Satan as my lord and master than I was before.