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.