Defining the Bohemian

The next issue of New Escapologist is dedicated to Bohemia. Since there’s a bit of consternation about what we really mean by ‘Bohemia’, let’s try and nail the thing:

Bohemia is a state of mind: a threadbare but vibrant Utopia in which one can prioritise the tenets of creativity, love, merriment, experimentation and arousal of the senses. The people who believe in Bohemia and practice Bohemianism are called Bohemians.

What often comes to mind is the archetypal Bohemian of history: the Nineteenth-Century starving artist, living in a drafty Parisian garret, prone to flights of Romantic fancy and fits of over-indulgence. This is a fair image but these attributes are symbolic of the above-mentioned tenets and Bohemians can be found throughout the Twentieth Cenury (the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Hippies, Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation William S. Burroughs, George Orwell in Paris and London and possibly the Punks) and surely in the present day.

The Bohemian can come from almost any walk of life: she can be male or female, rich or poor and from any ethnic background. What they universally turn their backs on, however, are the ideals of theBourgeois: the tedious middle-class pomp, etiquette and triviality. Whether a Bohemian has originally come from the lower, middle or upper classes, she must eschew the petty values of the Bourgeois: that money, property or status are anything to do with the content of one’s character; that professional success and widespread celebration have anything to do with talent. What is of value to the Bohemian instead is spiritual integrity and creative freedom. The Bohemian would sooner live in the most abject poverty than submit to an undesirable job.

This belief in integrity and the intense desire for creative freedom often leads to a threadbare existence. Perhaps this material poverty (or ‘simplicity’ as Thoreau would say) leads to the archetypal Bohemian, wild at heart and empty of pocket.

There is no reason, however, that a Bohemian needs necessarily to be poor. It is simply that she has turned her back on the acquisition of property and social status. It’s just that money tends to go out of the window when you decide to reject these things. Money in its own right is worthless and so the Bohemian is unlikely to submit to the Bourgeois Protestant work ethic simply to make money.

In the interests of love, the Bohemian is usually of a merry temperament. She would favour a low-budget and high-spirited party in the name of community and friendship and collaboration. Bohemians often pool their resources. For its avoidance of material possessions and social status, Bohemia is anything but a retreat from society.

Equally in the name of love, and unlike the Bourgeoisie, the Bohemian is often proud to acquire a wide sexual pallet. Even if centrally heterosexual, the Bohemian is likely to dabble on occasion with those of other genders or sexualities. She will often seek the exotic in her sexual mores.

In the interests of creative freedom, the Bohemian is likely to dabble in many arts. A Bohemian who is quintessentially a painter, for example, may also try his hand at sculpture, dance, performance, music or creative writing. At a Bohemian party, one is liable to witness the amateur production of music, often in the form of the ukulele or other non-electronic stringed instruments. The Bohemian, while assuredly a dab hand at one main craft, is unlikely to reject additional amateur pursuits.

The Bohemian experiments in all manner of sensual pleasure, which is why a certain Bohemian symbolism is found in drugs (historically opium and presently marijuana or LSD) and alcohol (eternally, absinthe).

The Bohemian usually knows that she does not possess an immortal soul. In many cases, the Bohemian will keep a human skull on display somewhere about the garret as a reminder to live for the moment. With no gods and few Christian morals, the Bohemian is largely uninhibited and prone to experimentation. The subtitle to Virginia Nicholson’s brilliant book, Among the Bohemians is Experiments in Living 1900-1939. For experimentation and as a reminder of one’s own mortality, the Bohemian is often attracted to the Grotesque: the strange, fantastic, ugly, nihilistic, Hellish or bizarre.

The subtitle surely reads “Experiments in living” because the Bohemian is a practitioner more than a philosopher. While deep thought may have gone into a Bohemian pursuit, it is in living that the Bohemian experiments rather than in the theoretical.

In the name of further spiritual integrity, love, creative freedom and renunciation of materialism, the Bohemian doesn’t usually enjoy authority. To submit is to stifle the central tenets of Bohemia. The Bohemian is a rebel, not just for the sake of rebellion (though the thrill of it would appeal to any sensational experimenter) but for the survival of beauty and love.

I don’t think the Bohemian is a fighting or campaigning soul, like the Punk or the Anarchist, but rather one who simply ignores ‘the system’ through living accordingly. At most, she may satirise the system or seek to irritate the Bourgeoisie (advocates of the system) through art. Moreover, the Bohemian has been known to highlight the difference between them and the Bourgeoisie by indulging in eccentric, outsider and categorically non-Bourgeois behaviour, such as transvestitism, nocturnalism, the adoption of fake honorifics or the walking of a lobster around the local park.

So you can see, Bohemianism is not a straight-up thing or easily defined. Many different attributes go into the mix but it’s largely a rebellion against Bourgeois and authoritarian ideals and a celebration (through living) of free thinking, love, creative freedom and spiritual integrity.

Articles in New Escapologist Issue Five, then, can be fairly diverse (from Oscar Wilde to Sherlock Holmes to thirft to absinth to sexuality to the Beatniks) but always coming back to those central tenets of creativity, love, merriment, experimentation, arousal of the senses and – above all – rejection of Bourgeois ideals.

Oh dear. This has become more of a ‘portrait’ than a snappy definition. For something more precise, try this entry at the Simple English Wikipedia.

As with the Escapologist’s Manifesto last week, your comments and disagreements regarind this portrait of the Bohemian are very welcome in the comments thread.

About

Robert Wringham is a humorist and the editor-in-chief of New Escapologist.

16 Responses to “Defining the Bohemian”

  1. holly says:

    Nice use of pronouns.

  2. Rob says:

    Doesn’t come off as patronising does it?

  3. Holly says:

    No. I think I’m going to get a skull too.

  4. Rob says:

    Wicked! Make sure it’s a real one or a good likeness though. Not a toothy fish tank ornament. 😀

  5. Bev says:

    Too bad that empty of pocket means one’s glass is empty of absinthe. I just checked out the price of a small bottle – yikes! A patron would come in handy.

    I enjoyed this piece – linked to it too.

  6. Rob says:

    Thank you for the link!

    Good point regarding poverty vs absinthe too. It actually struck me while out for a walk yesterday that some symbols of 19th Century Bohemianism must remain symbols. Attempts to incorporate them now is an expensive affectation. It is outlandishly expensive to live in a garret, especially in a classic Bohemian neighbourhood like Greenwich Village or Montmartre. It’s expensive precisely because of the Romantic connotations of the Bohemian. Maybe we should focus on the spirit of Bohemia than the aesthetics of it.

    If you genuinely want to try absinthe (the affectation is appealing to me, but I also genuinely like the stuff), La Fee Absinthe is not too highly priced at about £15-30 for a bottle. This is obviously more than you’d spend on a bottle of wine or beer but it’s not drunk in that way. It’s cheaper than most spirits. Unless you want to be a purist (which you could be!), you don’t have to worry about the accessories either: just take it straight or with a little ice water.

    With regards to whether you’re a Bohemian or not, I think living in ‘the shack in the middle’ would probably impress a Bohemian. The Bohemian artist, Augustus John took to the open road in a similar (though different in some ways) act of defiance and experimentation.

  7. Bev says:

    Oh dear, Mr. John sounds a bit like the charismatic polygamous Mormon leaders in western North America. Imagine how creative we could be if we had a wife or 2 or 3 to take care of all the messy details of life.;-)

    Thanks for the line on the absinthe, though I’m afraid a UK source does me no good. I did discover that there are 3 or 4 kinds available at some outlets of the LCBO, our government alcohol pusher here in Ontario. So do you really see green fairies?

  8. Haha. I can vouch that no fairies are seen. Sadly.

    Your parents’ plan is amazing by the way. That their house will literally be uprooted and moved is miraculous to me. And that you’ll have two separate buildings means that you’ll all have your privacy. Sounds perfect.

    By the way, you should so get a Gravatar.

  9. Bev says:

    Oops! I left the impression that my folks were moving their old house, when in fact they are buying a brand new house to be built in a factory. The legalities of this project require us to remove the house when they’re done with it and that’s a lot easier with something purpose built.

    Got the gravatar. Next I’ll have to get one of those fancy wordpress blogs.

  10. Aha, I see. But perhaps one day all of our houses will be similarly transplantable!

    Spiffing Gravatar!

  11. Bev says:

    If I ever found myself with no obligations I would live in one of these.

  12. Blimy, that’s a bit good. Even simpler than the Downland Gridshell. I think we’ll have to do a piece on these simple house designs for NE at some point.

  13. Regan says:

    Love this portrait of a bohemian. Describes my friends and I quite well. Clever writing.

  14. Regan says:

    I am reading about the Bloomsbury Set currently in the Novel Vanessa and her sister ( Virginia Woolf )

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