Unlikely Parallels: Burning Man and The Victorians

By P Segal

A few recent years of my life have been lived half in 21st century San Francisco and half in the London of Charles Dickens. I realized one day that I hadn’t read any Dickens since high school and picked up A Tale of Two Cities at the library. A few years later, I had compulsively read just about everything he had ever written. The more I immersed myself in Dickens’ Victoriana, the more I began to see the similarities between his world and the other one I inhabit briefly every year, at the temporary autonomous zone known as Burning Man. 

Some of the similarities were there from the start, that first year when fewer than 100 people went to the Black Rock Desert, for another event entirely. We brought along the unburned Burning Man, which the police refused to let us torch at the beach in San Francisco. In migrating to the Black Rock Desert, we knew that we’d be giving up the comforts of urban life for a few days. It was worth it. The playa, as the featureless, dry, primordial lakebed is known, had no amenities, but also no liabilities: no bugs, slithering creatures, predatory beasts, beasts of any kind, plants that gave you rashes, or any vegetation at all. It was a blank slate, onto which we could put whatever we liked, but we were also obliged us to take away every single thing we brought.

We brought water needed for every use, and a few port-a-potties, that first year. Acclimating to the privy lifestyle was a first connection to the Victorians, the last era in which the outhouse was still a standard feature. Wealthier homes began to acquire bathtubs and toilets during the Victorian era, but for the most part, the calls of nature required a trip to the outhouse or the use of a chamber pot.

While Burning Man was still a tiny outpost, without city streets, finding the potty wasn’t that difficult. As attendance grew exponentially, there were more streets, more camps, more installations, and more port-a-potties, which were set up in banks near intersections. Locating the nearest bank was one of those things you did immediately upon arriving,

For several years, a particular camp gifted women with pee funnels, cast out of some kind of rubbery stuff. The pee funnel made it easy to urinate in a jar, in the privacy of one’s tent, and they were highly prized playa gifts. Later, the Survival Guide began advising people to bring a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid for this purpose. And then in the morning, you put the pee bucket into a bag with handles, and carried it to the loo for dumping. It was, in fact, the rebirth of the chamber pot, last a ubiquitous necessity in the late Victorian.

Cleanliness was one of the things were learned to forego at Burning Man. With water a precious commodity we had to haul in, we gave up the American obsession with daily showers, unless you came in an RV. Even if you got clean somehow, it didn’t last long in the desert. The crushed clay of the playa, mixed with wind, covered everything and everyone with dust. Playa dust ground its way into our possessions, hair, tents, and vehicles, and is notoriously hard to get rid of. 

Victorians in London—and elsewhere— also had to cope with the lack of plumbing and resultant grime. Only the well-to-do homes had bathing facilities, and most of these also required maids to haul water boiled on the stove. There were public bathhouses in London available to those who could afford them, for the weekly bath, to which they brought a clean set of clothes, which they would wear until their net weekly bath. A lot of people couldn’t afford the bath or the second set of clothes, and the town must have reeked savagely of bodily pong. The citizens of Black Rock City have baby wipes and deodorant to keep the human stench at bay. But for the Victorians and most of the people at Burning Man, frequent bathing placed low on the list of life priorities.

These two factors, the privy lifestyle and the lack of personal hygiene, unconsciously united Victorians and the people of Burning Man in their acceptance of human odor. Other signs of the Victorian lifestyle crept in, as well, as the city grew. The first conscious replication of Victoriana came with the need for light. When there was a civic center, and streets, with the broad avenue leading out to the Burning Man, electrical power for everything was out of the question.

Tall and elegant wooden light posts were designed to hold lanterns. At dusk every night, the team of lamplighters, wearing long, white robes, walks the streets, carrying wooden yokes across their shoulders, each yoke holding several lanterns. At each post, the lamplighters pause to light lanterns and raise them to the hooks high overhead. At dawn, they walk the streets again, taking the lanterns down and extinguishing their flames. Lamp lighting, last a viable profession in the Victorian era.

Victorian fashion crept in early, with the first gentleman’s top hat and waistcoat. Stylistically, the growing desert fashion sensibility borrows heavily from London, 1875. This may have more to do with steam punk than jolly old England, but the same elements are there. Now the top hat and tails are often worn over a wife beater and kilt, or maybe shorts—the look completed with playa-fied combat boots. 

There is a fair amount of late nineteenth century dance-hall women’s fashion, usually just the top half, worn typically over a bikini bottom or booty shorts and stockings with garters. But you also see a fair amount of bloomers, the roomy Victorian era underpants for women, worn over a bikini bottom, perhaps, but probably with little on top. Lace -up boots are favored by both sexes, as are tutus, and the goggles worn by the first motorists, as the Victorian era came to a close. Not everyone gets the look, and not everyone chooses it. You could be a fuzzy pink bunny instead.

Then there are good manners, the antediluvian social contract that have made it possible for people to live in close proximity. The atmosphere at Burning Man is one of nearly absolute civility, if a much more original variety of the excellent good manners of a Victorian Londoner. In Victorian England, manners were observed scrupulously by the upper classes, and reproduced, perhaps more genuinely, by the lower ones, as Dickens illustrates in his novels. 

Dickens made two book tours of the United States and wrote one novel set in America, Martin Chuzzlewit. His American characters—somehow not surprisingly—are obsessed with money and seem to observe no social contract whatsoever. If you have ridden on a Muni bus in San Francisco recently, you have seen the decline of manners in a visceral way, but if you have been to Burning Man, you know how refreshing it is when people tend to treat each other with unconditional positive regard. As the values of Burning Man seep into the society at large, manners may make a comeback, not a moment too soon.

The Victorians’ love of excessive decoration extended far beyond the city limits of London, and the period architecture in San Francisco and other cities makes this perfectly obvious. Modern design has gone in an opposite direction, making everything sleek, unadorned, and relatively cold. However, out in Black Rock City, excessive decoration is an art form, beginning with art everywhere, costumes and bling of endless variety, and the good-natured competition for the most outrageously cool art car, all of it bucking the trend of the unadorned.

There is now the same kind of income disparity at Burning Man as they had in Victorian London, where poverty drove whole families into debtors’ prisons. In Victoria’s time, the wealthy gentry traveled in style, with a retinue to serve them—exactly like the infamous plug-and-play camps that come to the desert with servants, personal chefs, bouncers, and paid companions to keep unaccompanied revelers amused, and in which outsiders aren’t welcome to drop by. 

In the meanwhile, the people who need to work long daily shifts at the café, just to earn a ticket, live in tightly packed rows, three tents deep, edge to edge, on both sides of the narrow footpaths that run through Café Village, without hope of finding space to install a shade structure and a few chairs, or once in, ever getting out for much of anything except work. The inequity of fortune, once invisible in Black Rock City, now infuriates some people, mostly because it is in flagrant violation of the 10 Principles, our social contract, which calls for things like self-reliance, a contribution to the community, and a gifting economy. 

The dirt that is a common factor of Burning Man and the Victorians deserves a second look: the Victorians’ plentiful dirt was largely composed of coal dust, horse dung, and other refuse, since they had no departments of sanitation for the poorer quarters. Burning Man also has no trash pickups, and an inconceivable wealth of dirt, in the form of highly alkaline playa dust, which remains affixed, sometimes forever, to all your stuff. Sanitation is an invention of the modern age, which we now take for granted in our cities. Burning Man reminds us, even if we don’t think much about the privations of history, how glad we are to get home to our tidy bathrooms.

One might argue that all these parallels between the Victorians and life in Black Rock City are all merely surface similarities, of style, circumstance, and external phenomena; there couldn’t be any real parallel between stuffy Victorian London and the anything-goes atmosphere of Burning Man. The Victorian era, after all, is remembered as being prim, repressed, and well behaved. True, the era had the outward reputation for repressing humanity’s wilder side, and most certainly the wilder side of women. However, when you look at the actual history of Victorian England, you learn that there was a whorehouse for every seven men in the city of London, making up, at least as far as men were concerned, for all that repression of female sexuality.

I can’t say that exactly the same is true for Burning Man, because there are no brothels (or anything that costs money, except for coffee and ice) or anything even close to sexual repression. But there are a lot of intensely sex-positive camps, where people can go for gratuitous sexual whatever, assorted types of sex therapy, sex with yogic attributes, and other bodily stuff. So essentially, it amounts to the same thing: some women at the desert, who are in those camps, seem to be doing the lion’s share of carrying on, while others, who may be waiting for something resembling true love, aren’t doing much.  

Perhaps the most potent, but subtle, parallel between the goings-on at Black Rock City and the Victorian age are literary. The writers of the Victorian era, particularly in England, invented the modern novel, stories depicting issues like the plight of the poor, the corruption of the church, and the failure of institutions. Anthony Trollope wrote hilarious novels about church politics, and Dickens wrote about things like income disparity, poverty, the idiocy of government bureaucracy, greedy landlords, injustice and the law, and other issues that still resonate today, perhaps even more than ever. Oscar Wilde poked vicious fun at a society full of pretensions. There were also women writers, writing under male names, like George Eliot and the Brontë sisters, producing works that examined things like the psychology of women and society in general. This was all very new.

Burning Man hasn’t sparked a major literary tradition, but then, far fewer people read novels anymore, and perhaps a new literary tradition would get generally ignored in our current age. But what the event has done is open people’s eyes to the same issues that the Victorians first raised in popular fiction, and the things that needed to be done to improve the way we live together. By direct involvement, rather than by reading and reflection, people in the Burning Man community are breaking down the exhausted paradigms of how the world must be, taking these values home, and unobtrusively making changes in their corners of the planet. The Victorian authors ushered in modern times; the Burning Man Ten Principles attempt to identify how to make modern times better. It’s no surprise that Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey, adores Victorian novels, and they are one of our enthusiastic topics of conversation.

The Victorian era, which produced thinkers like Darwin, Karl Marx, Freud, Proust, and others, is said to be the beginning of the modern age. It’s taken a long time for modern thinking to change the realities of life—we’re still stuck with the same institutions that long pre-dated Queen Victoria. Certainly, we’re having a hard time being particularly modern, while coping with those systems and values we’re supposed to revere, the ones we call “traditional.” With the international popularity of Burning Man, however, we’re finally seeing a different set of values at work in the global popular consciousness, gradually creeping back from the life at the playa into people’s lives at home—a fresh social contract. And as we try hard to plow forward into another shaky phase of human development, a better version of the modern, and attempt to get it right this time, we’ve gone to back to where modernity began—the Victorian—top hats, goggles, chamber pots, and all.