Larry Harvey and Jerry James took an 8-foot wooden man to San Francisco’s Baker beach on June 21, 1986 and set him on fire.
The reaction was spectacular.
People came sprinting up the beach to have a look. A stranger began improvising a song on his guitar.
And when the winds drove the flames to one side, a woman rushed in to hold the Burning Man’s hand.
It’s this last part I can’t get out of my head. She tried to hold his hand?
What can we say about this?
That some women have terrible taste in men?
That tragedy makes a guy more appealing?
Well, if there were a simple explanation, this image would rush out of my head, instead of just sitting there. So why is it just sitting there?
It’s something to do with the way she is seizing the moment, the sheer opportunism of what she does. She can see that this is fleeting. The wind will change. She must act now and she does. And of course there’s the sheer daring. Because the wind will change. And suddenly. Whatever she’s doing matters extraordinarily to her.
I picture her holding the Burning Man’s hand and facing out to the crowd. (This might be wrong.) As if to say, "look, we’re together." And in this moment, she turns him from a collection of wood scraps into, well, yes, something like a man. (Hey, if he can pull chicks, the Burning Man’s claim to personhood just went up a notch or two.) With this gesture, she goes into the spirit of the occasion and helps make burning wood a burning man. (As ritual transformations go, this is the sort of thing bound to impress an anthropologist. No, but really anyone, no?)
And when she faces out to the crowd (if she did), it’s as if she is striking the portrait pose. It could even be a wedding portrait pose. "With this gesture, with this daring, I thee wed." "Look, we’re together. We’re a we." We’re, as Goffman would have said, a "with."
And now she’s playing with paradox or just playing. After all, every portrait stakes a claim to permanence. It is as close as an ordinary person ever gets to asserting some official truth about themselves…for the record.
It’s standard sociological stuff. We are showing that we, this person, belong to this formally assigned identity, this role. We are stapling ourselves to a social meaning. We are consenting to a shared, collective definition…for the record.
And she is doing this in a fleeting moment with a burning man! It’s astounding…even if merely playful. A claim to permanence that takes and lasts a couple of seconds? Lady, you’re a genius.
The Burning Man has always been a work in progress. Their official account is this: "Burning Man is about coming together is a beautiful yet unforgiving environment to celebrate radical self-expression." And here she is helping define the man just seconds after he appears on the beach. She forges a relationship for the two of them, and an identity for the Man. She’s made her own, instant, origin myth. Blimey.
Anonymous. n.d., “What is Burning Man?: The Early Years.” Available at: http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/1986_1996/ [Accessed November 29, 2010].
Some tickets for the 2011 Burning Man are still on sale. here.
Really last thoughts
Speaking of blimey, you really have to see these mug shots taken in Australia a very long time ago. You will not believe your eyes. Thanks to Very Short List for finding this treasure and letting us know. here.