A Caterpillar's Passage
// Kevin Murray

“It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself …the hyperreal.” - Jean Baudrillard

There is an old Tibetan proverb that says half the dharma is accomplished when you travel. It may mean that a journey not only brings a new experience, but also a rare slip in the great clockwork of our minds. In the aporia that follows, we see our shadowy selves projected onto the screens of our friends’ faces; on signposts of unknown roads; in the whispers of strangers; on the great effigies that stand in the middle of nowhere.

This past Labour Day I traveled to the desert, to burn on the high alkaline salt flats of the Playa, a Pleistocene seabed in the Black Rock region of Nevada. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the gathering, and more than 50,000 people attended; to camp, to commune, and to witness a skyscraper-sized wooden man burn to the ground. It’s part pagan ritual, part radical art project, and total community performance. Burning Man is not a party that you go to; the party is you.

I attended this year because of the theme: Rites of Passage. As a mature student in my thirties, I suffer from extended adolescence syndrome. All right, it’s not a real syndrome, but I am writing this in a student paper, after all. In a secular society, the rites of transition from one period of life to another are absent. I mean, who really felt that their high school prom launched anyone into adulthood? Instead, we age, and continue to act with the same self-absorbed, hedonistic attitudes that marked our teen years.

However, in some First Nations cultures, the vision quest may initiate a child into his adult role, signifying a change in responsibility towards spirit, the community, and the environment; childhood is subsequently cast off. The Catholic tradition offers sacraments of faith for young teens and new religious roles are adopted. The Jewish Bar or Bat Mitzvah operates similarly. These rituals of birth, adulthood, marriage, old age, and ancestorhood are universally present in all cultures - except our own.
The secular, post-modern rejection of tradition has left millions of people in their parent’s basements at 40, playing Warcraft until their eyes bulge. Similarly, childhood practices of playing with dolls and action figures have translated into real-world addictions to the shopping mall. This is culturally sanctioned, since indulgence is a core tenet of a democratic society. So it goes: the marketplace benefits from our childish consumption.

So with these thoughts, I found myself staring at the back of a Port-a-Potty door in the desert, covered in dust, reading a line in Sharpie ink that said: “I wish I didn’t care so much what people think of me.” These words were the first sign. Later, I learned that people take these kinds of thoughts and write them on the Man himself, so that they may burn with him, thereby extinguishing the hold on their psyches. I left that fetid plastic stall and walked back to our camp, 9:15 and Liminal Street, in the Northwest quadrant of the city that is designed like a sundial.

I wondered what the man meant for me, what I was truly here to burn away. And then, a strange thing happened: someone passed by me on a bike and said, “Yeah, the Man is the man in front, walking ahead of you.” I looked back to see the sun at midday and my shadow behind me. I thought of fear, dust, and pronoia: strange coincidences and a synchronous relationship between thought and phenomena would continue to unfold all week for many burners, and they would speak of these events in whispers.

Looking up, I saw the sculpture of a great wooden wheel turning in the distance: The wheel was turned by the people who visited the piece, and on it, skeletons rowed until the wheel spun so fast it looked like one single figure: Death himself.

Back at camp, in the interminable space of the endless night or afternoon, I recognized that we had completed the first stage of the rites: we had symbolically broken from our home; we had arrived. I had built a 26’ geodesic dome from iron conduit in the preceding weeks for our community’s shelter, but these were just the preliminaries. We wore costumes, like my caterpillar, and created fake names, like Honey Badger, and Dr. Thrillhaus, Tenacious P., and Mis-Placed.

A random stranger once asked me and my partner as we strolled by, “Which is more real, the playa name or the one your parents gave you?” The real faded into a question mark in distance. Our playa address - Liminal - took on special significance, for it marked a transition zone for equally transitional beings.

Our neighbors had an art car, a mutant vehicle that was one of the only allowable motor vehicles on the playa. It was designed to look like a boardroom table, complete with laptops, cell-phones and coffee cups. Their logo - Driven by Profit - was, on the surface, a jab at mainstream commodity culture, though it was made ironic because there is no money exchanged at Burning Man: the only things available to purchase are coffee and ice.

Dressed in business suits, they terrorized the city with a bullhorn, ordering people to get back to work, to clean up, to get a job. This moving Marxist manifesto turned out to be one of the most controversial cars on the playa. People were outraged that their personal dream-worlds were being invaded by this unwelcome vestige of the outside, and violence almost broke out several times. The boardroom disrupted the vibe and was dubbed “the counter-culture of the counter-culture.” My afternoon spent on that car taught me what it was like to be the man that everyone hates, to embody the illusions of profit-mad pirates, and to draw the energy back into myself - to feel it.

Several of my campmates didn’t fare as well with the boardroom. They didn’t have suits, and so were ridiculed and excluded from the corporate roleplay. When this standoff occurred, I was transported back to the schoolyard, when cliques of “in-crowds” terrorized the outs. I recognized that, even as adults, these reactions were the same as those of children, and those who grew shy and insecure repeated their pasts again, solidifying the patterns of behaviour that they would use to maintain their identities.

So, my partner and I went to the Temple of Transition, which burns on the last night of the event, and performed our own ritual. The Temple acts as the feminine counterpart to the Man, upon which one writes their hopes and prayers. We wrote our wishes for the future on the walls and acknowledged the illusions we have been placing on one another. I saw the ghosts of ex-girlfriends, my mother, and my sister mingling in my perception of her, and we vowed to start again in that moment as the sun set on the sprawling, neon city and its strange sea of people.

We recognized that no one here would supply us with a definition of what any of this all meant, or what we should do, or how we should interpret it. We were free to create the rituals we wanted and to have them witnessed by all. The next day, my camp mate asked me to cut his dreadlocks, and, attended by a random man playing a Japanese guitar and singing a traditional Ainu folksong, I snipped his hair while wearing my caterpillar suit. My partner was dressed as a butterfly.

My final rite occurred when the Man burned, during which time I led a drummer’s troupe that played for the Fire Conclave - a sprawling group of poi and flame dancers, and percussionists. My leadership role was unexpected; I had only signed on as a participant, but was asked to be bandleader and to unify a group of strangers into a performing unit. One member of the group gave me a whistle so that I could alert them to changes in the music, and as I took it from him, I recognized that I was taking on a new and unfamiliar role. Like donning a ceremonial ring or a knot, I stepped into a new identity, if only for a time. Looking back, this was an aspect of reintegration, which is traditionally the final stage in a rite of passage.

A week spent being art, rather than consuming it, will not offer enlightenment, but it helped me illuminate a new, shifting paradigm that lies beneath my own changing perceptions. While much of this tale has been left out, and much more is impossible to relate, a final symbol emerged from my experience with the Fire Conclave: an O’odham First Nations man named Andy who played in our troupe showed me the talisman of his people before we left.

It was the I’itoi, or the Man in the Maze. He told me that the maze was life, and that the man inside was like a god whom you could ask for help when you reached an obstacle. Andy told me the man would always answer if called, and I was struck once again by the disintegration of the real, and of that great Pleistocene seabed, shining like a mirror. All around me were the suspicious facts of psychological projection and, at the same time, the strange coincidences of the desert; the wide-eyed stares of the Playa people, dancing and wishing their dreams into dust and diesel. Reintegration remains another matter.

// Kevin Murray
Humour & Fiction Editor

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