Khanh Ho: Burning Man

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Everybody’s seen this picture:  the cross-legged priest in the saffron robe, burning, blazing orange.  His shaved head—a black and white skull—emerges, chiseled, from jagged, wind-swept flames.  A can of gasoline sits carelessly tossed beside him.  The popped hood of his Citroen forms a gaping maw—the mechanized cross between an alligator and a beetle—in the background.  The arc’d edge of a phalanx of white, robed bonzes is discernible; they are only a cross-section of a ring that forms the human barricade keeping policemen from extinguishing the flames before Thich Quang Duc’s spine collapsed and the body slumped down upon itself.

Google it.  You’ll see this picture in spades.  If it was an edge-y image back then, it’s still quite edge-y now.  It’s so edge-y, you can buy a T shirt from Burning Monk Apparel, emblazoned with its imagery:  a radically cropped image of only the priest, grafted onto the body of an American Apparel T-shirt.  Above it sits the declarative “Burning Man,” as if in reference to that carnaval in the Sonora Desert.  Below it, “Since 1963,”  echoing the proprietary language of restaurants, banks and malls.

The T-shirt recalls that ever so memorable debut album by Rage Against the Machine, which too features the image of the monk Thich Quang Duc, engulfed in flames.  In that album—voted one of the “Heaviest Albums of All Time” by Q Magazine—only the name of the fledgling band marks the image: this, done in the sloppy, tumbling script suggestive of refrigerator magnet poetry.

Should you already own too many T-shirts, you can also buy a skateboard deck silk-screened with this iconic image.  It comes in eight different styles and retails for $59.95.  Both the T-shirt and the skateboard are available on  Both come in a number of styles and sizes.  Quantity discounts apply.

The Rage album is now an image in and of itself.  You can buy just the poster itself; it comes in a variety of sizes and is available both in paper and, for the connossieur, fabric.  But also, I’m sure, you can download the album on i-Tunes and the image, no doubt, will come bundled, along with the sound recording, as a digital freebie.

Ironically, there was a lag between the taking of the picture and its emergence into our national consciousness.  Malcolm Browne, the photographer of this image could not place it with any of the major media organs, immediately. The New York Times refused to print such a picture.  And no wonder: even the first reporter on the scene, David Halberstam, would write:  “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough.”

Still, it would eventually make the rounds, becoming published in such mega-venues as Life magazine, where it made enough of a stir that people, for a time, forgot about the domestic issues of the Civil Rights movement and focused their eager eyeballs upon what Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of Vietnam’s bachelor president, colorfully termed a “monk barbecue show.”

We all know how T-shirts are edge-y, sardonic statements upon our subjectivity— they are one of the last vestiges that allow us to express the absurdity of the human condition.  We all know how skateboards are anti-establishment echoes of a teen spirit, railing against the atrocities of divorces, curfews and the random room searches of the parent-gestapo.  So, I am glad that this image has found its place on the shelves of America’s creative pantry, along with the other staples that make the repast of our popular culture a veritable smorgasbord of toothsome pleasures.

Every time I see an angry youth with the shifty-up-to-no-good look of a serial tagger, I see a world of quiet desperation and a burning monk underneath the underneath.  And I know that, were it not for my war, they would never find adequate expression for their angst.

– post by Khanh Ho, assistant professor of English at Grinnell College

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