I had one of my atheist epiphanies the other night.
It was at the Edwardian Ball. Quick bit of background: That’s not Edwardian as in King Edward VII, but as in the artist Edward Gorey, known for his finely detailed, hilariously ghoulish depictions of Victoriana, Edwardiana, and ’20s flapperdom. The Edwardian Ball started years ago as a little nightclub gig held in honor of Gorey by the self-described “pagan lounge” band Rosin Coven, and has mushroomed into a massive, magnificent, weekend-long event, with live music, ballroom dancing, costumes, art, exhibitions, absinthe cocktails, trapeze performances, weird taxidermy displays, and more. It’s where the Goth, steampunk, ballroom, and historical recreation society scenes collide in a magnificent explosion, and it seems to have become one of the “can’t miss” events for all these cultures in the Bay Area.
I love it passionately. Ingrid and I never miss it if we can possibly avoid it. And last night, I had an epiphany about why.
The Edwardian Ball is a near-perfect example of what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.
When you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — when you don’t think that the meaning of your life is determined by a perfect divine force, and when you think that humanity is just a tiny, fragile, absurdly mortal fragment in the immensity of space and time — you have to seriously rethink the whole question of what life means. The meaning of life isn’t pleasing God and going to Heaven, or perfecting your soul for your next reincarnation, or working towards the enlightenment of the World-Soul, or anything like that. And humanity isn’t a singularly beloved creation with a special destiny. We’re just an unusually complex biochemical process on one small rock whizzing around one nondescript star in one of billions of galaxies. And when that star goes Foom in a few billion years, that biochemical process is destined to go Foom along with it, with no traces left but a few bits of space junk floating in the vast emptiness of the universe.
The Edwardian Ball looks at all this, and says, “Let’s celebrate.
“And let’s connect.
“Let’s spend hours putting together magnificent outfits, so other people can look at them and go ‘Oo!’ Let’s spend years learning and practicing and playing music, so other people can dance and be happy. Let’s spend years learning and practicing and performing trapeze and acrobatics, so other people can gaze in astonishment and admiration. This is what we have to work with: the matter on this little planet, the energy from this average star, this tiny lifespan before each of us dies, this not- much- longer lifespan of the planet before humanity is boiled into space. What can we do with it? What are some of the strangest, funniest, most beautiful patterns we can work this matter and energy into before we have to go?”
The Edwardian Ball is one of my favorite examples of Stone Soup culture; of people who know that the party will be more fun if they bring their share of it. It isn’t just about hearing other people’ music, watching other people’s stage shows, looking at other people’s art. Everywhere I looked, people were dressed to the nines: in rigorously accurate historical costumes, in fanciful imaginings of fictional history, in elegant formal dress, in irreverent and hilarious re-interpretations of formal dress, in complicated technological marvels, in artfully lascivious displays of flesh, in elaborate configurations of black on black on black. And people were dancing, creating a delightful whirlpool of giddy, ridiculous glamour whizzing around the dance floor. The audience was as much a part of the event as the performers. This event is not about sitting back passively and waiting to be entertained. It’s about participating — being part of the show.
Which is exactly what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.
When I’m in a despondent mood, I sometimes get depressed about the “closed circle” nature of human endeavor. I’m not naturally a very Zen, “in the moment” kind of person; I’m ambitious, forward thinking, and I like to think of my affect on the world as possibly having some life beyond my immediate reach and extending past my death. It sometimes makes me sad to remember that, even if I mysteriously became the most famous and influential person in the history of the planet, it’s still a closed circle — because life on Earth is a closed circle, and there’s no God or World-Soul to carry my thoughts and experiences into infinity. Like the replicant Roy Batty says in Bladerunner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
The Edwardian ball reminds me, “So what? So what if you’re spending hours on your outfit just to be seen and admired by a couple thousand other people, whose outfits you’re also admiring? So what if you’re working to make life a skosh more joyful for people who’ll be dead in a few decades anyway, and whose descendants will be boiled into the sun in a few billion years? Don’t those people matter? And don’t you matter? The odds against you personally having been born at all are beyond astronomical. Beating your breast in despair because you’re going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred trillion. You’re here now — and those other people are here now. Experience your life… and connect with theirs. Even if it’s just to spend a moment admiring the marvelous outfit they spent hours putting together.”
The Edwardian ball reminds me that permanence is not the only measure of consequence or value. The Edwardian ball reminds me that, as fragile and transitory as they are, experience and consciousness are freaking miracles. And the fact that we can share our experiences and connect our consciousnesses, even to the flawed and limited degree that we do, is beyond miraculous.
Let’s participate. Let’s be part of the show.
And here’s the final thing that struck me this year about the Edwardian Ball: All this celebration and magnificent silliness isn’t done by ignoring death.
Quite the contrary. Images of death are all over the Edwardian Ball. There are elaborate dioramas of animal skeletons and bizarre examples of the art of taxidermy. There are skulls and other death symbols incorporated into costumes all over the dance floor, and into the art all over the theater. The stage show this year was an elaborately costumed acrobatic/ trapeze interpretation of Edward Gorey’s “The Evil Garden”… a story in which the characters are strangled by snakes, eaten by carnivorous plants, and carried off by giant moths.
This event is not about dealing with death by pretending it isn’t real or shoving it onto the back burner. This is about dealing with death by transforming it into art, and costume, and ghoulish humor. This is about dealing with death as if it were an urgent To Do reminder. This is about dealing with death by incorporating it into life.
I’m not saying everyone who attends or creates the Edwardian Ball is an atheist. It would surprise me tremendously to find that that was true. I’m saying that for me, as an atheist, the meaning of life is to participate in it as fully as I possibly can; and to connect with others as richly as I can; and to minimize suffering and maximize joy to the greatest degree that I can, for myself and anyone I can connect with. Sometimes that means staying up until four in the morning writing about atheism and sex. Sometimes it means singing the James K. Polk song to my best friend’s new baby. Sometimes it means doing copywriting and website maintenance for a hippie/ punk/ anarchist publisher and book distributor. Sometimes it means cramming twenty people into our apartment for a sit-down Christmas Eve dinner. Sometimes it means going to see our friend’s co-worker’s band as a dutiful favor, and becoming obsessed fans overnight (how we discovered Rosin Coven in the first place). Sometimes it means donating money to earthquake relief in Haiti.
And sometimes it means dressing up like a character in an elegantly ghoulish fictional world, drinking absinthe cocktails, and waltzing the night away with my beloved wife, in a ballroom full of taxidermied animals and beautiful nerds who spent hours on their costumes.
I think I can live with that.
Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Why Are We Here?