Perhaps you’re familiar with the proudly neo-pagan annual desert ‘happening’ known as Burning Man. It started about twenty years ago as a semi-serious attempt to create a sacred ritual for Bay Area bohemians, then morphed into a somewhat dangerous week-long primitivist/anarchist party and has recently bloomed into full-fledged movement, celebrating personal expression, free love and decommodification. Think half back-to-the-earth, half absurdism. Slate recently published a five-part series by Seth Stevenson which attempted to answer the question, “Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?,” shedding some fascinating light on the current spiritual conditions in this country, as well as the universal religious impulse. (Warning: I’ve included some of the relevant passages from the articles below – the full versions are predictably sexually explicit).

Burning Man self-consciously embraces its religious aspect, attracting cultural refugees who are understandably looking for a haven from ‘judgment’ and ‘suppression’ (i.e. The Law), not to mention the transcendence to be found in a worshiping community. There appears to be a gut-level understanding of social and moral conventions having produced existential misery, and there needing to be some form liberating/liberated alternative. Of course, these factors haven’t prevented Burning Man from getting mired in all sorts of new (and by all accounts equally strict) commandments.

The operating anthropology is inflated, to say the least. For example, while there’s something undeniably beautiful about the idea of a ‘gifting economy,’ one wonders if it only works because of the timeframe, i.e. whether one week is the upward limit for keeping human malfeasance in check (Lord of the Flies – or, more appropriately, Bartertown). In other words, is the freedom people have found at Burning Man really just another form of enslavement to self? The prison of desire, etc? Or does the relative lack of restriction/incentive actually foster some genuine selflessness? A lot from column A, a little from column B, one would suspect:

“[Burning Man is] more about creating a new kind of utopian society that exists for only one week each year. Also, there’s some weird, interactive art. And a lot of drugs and nudity. And no running water.” This last part was generally met with open-mouthed stares. “Think of it,” I’d helpfully suggest, “as a combination of Woodstock, Jonestown, and the Park Slope Food Co-op.”…

Out in the open desert, beyond the tents and cars, we encountered the most bizarre, most visually stimulating environment I’ve ever seen. A giant metal octopus rolling across the sand, with actual hot flames spewing out of its tentacles. A pirate ship blasting eardrum-crushing hip-hop music, with a slew of bare-chested women writhing atop its decks. A frigging full-scale Thunderdome, complete with shrieking spectators rattling in its rafters, and a pair of gladiators in animal costumes attacking each other with Nerf bats. Lasers careened across the sky. Choking dust storms howled into our eyes and noses. Everyone was in aviator goggles, and knee-high leather boots, and fur vests…

The truly interesting thing about Burning Man isn’t the large-scale, neon, interactive art. Or the bowel-wobbling bass mixes from the techno DJs. Or the battle for survival against the blazing sun, the sudden dust storms, and the dehydrated desert air. Don’t get me wrong, all those things can be fascinating. Particularly if you’re on mushrooms. But to me, the most intriguing aspect of the event is the group effort by Burners to create a new culture—one in which the rules of the societal board game have been slightly tweaked.

For instance, among the guiding principles of Burning Man is that participants must “leave no trace.” This means, somewhat counterintuitively, that there are no garbage cans in any of the public spaces. You are expected to pack out of the desert any waste you create that hasn’t come from inside your body.

Folks are serious about this. Cultural norms get enforced. People shout “MOOP!”—meaning “Matter Out Of Place”—whenever someone drops a glowstick or a set of fuzzy bunny ears on the ground.

My favorite of Burning Man’s 10 guiding principles (you can read the complete list here) is the directive commanding “radical inclusion.” In practice, this means that everyone is welcome to take part in every formal event and even every informal shindig…

The overall warmth of the interactions at Burning Man is off the charts, fostered by an event-wide agreement that everyone endeavor to be kind and accepting. When one amateur musician’s electric backing tracks crashed, and he was left nervously hemming and hawing on stage, a woman in the audience shouted, “We love you!” and ran up to give him a big hug…

Burners work and plan all year to create this single week of bizarre experiences for each other. They ask nothing in return. Buying and selling are basically forbidden. Even bartering is discouraged. The “gifting economy” relies on everybody contributing and nobody expecting any recompense. It’s not a viable model in the real world, but at this event—for just one week—people have successfully eliminated economic competition and want…

I was… saddened by the large number of people at Burning Man with fairly evident self-esteem problems. They seemed to feel that they could only be happy this one week a year—within the warm bath of a loving, non-judgmental society. I wished they could experience the same kind of contentment the other 51 weeks of the year, in what Burners call “the default world.” I found I preferred to be around folks who had fulfilling lives back on planet Earth, and who had come to the desert simply to try on new personas, indulge in a bit of excess, and experience an alternate universe.

And as much as I enjoyed the “gifting economy,” in which people work to feed, shelter, and amuse each other without requiring any compensation, I’m not sure how much relevance it has to real life.

For reasons I won’t delineate here, the only water bottle that I own says “Goldman Sachs” on it in big letters. I got it for free. I brought it to Burning Man thinking I’d be a responsible, ecologically minded citizen by not using disposable plastic cups. One afternoon, I walked up to a tent where a guy was offering people his homemade fruit tea. I handed him my empty bottle to fill. He looked at it sidelong. “Goldman Sachs, Nalgene,” he read aloud, turning the bottle in his hand. “You got a lotta brands, man,” he said with dry disdain.

In one sense, this guy was a total [nincompoop]. What did he know about my life? Or how I came to possess this Goldman Sachs water bottle? Or whether I also owned a Credit Suisse baseball hat, which I almost brought but ended up leaving behind in my hall closet at the last second?…

Many people claim to have experienced revelations at Burning Man. One woman I met out on the desert said she’d realized that she needed to take more control over her life—to mold the default world more to her liking. Another guy I saw writing in a notebook said he was recording a thought he’d had the night before, while tripping on acid. The thought was that if he wanted things to happen in his life he had to actually, like, try at them.

Perhaps not earthshaking insights. But you can see how they could mean everything to these people at a specific moment in time.

As far as I can tell, then, Burning Man is a mixed bag of compassion. You can’t help but feel for people who have been crushed by the weight of demand and fled, or simply need a breath of non-condemnatory air, but you also can’t help lamenting the solution they’ve settled on, which sounds curiously familiar (in implication) to the one that set them off in the first place. Then again, perhaps the whole thing is simply an enormous midlife crisis. In which case, Tina’s right to point us to, um, the hero we already have: