Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

What is a Bohemian?

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 A young Bohemian gypsy, from the cover of Isabel Fonseca's book Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey.

 Thackeray's The Paris Sketch Book, xxx.

Bohemia is a region of Czech Republic; the nomadic, often vilified, group called the Gypsies or Romany are called "bohemiens" in French. How did this word come to describe the poor artists of Paris in the nineteenth century?

Henry Murger tried to distance himself and his subjects from the Gypsies, emphasizing in his preface to Scenes de la Vie de Boheme that "The Bohemians of whom it is a question in this book have no connection with the Bohemians whom melodramatists have rendered synonymous with robbers and assassins. Neither are they recruited from among the dancing-bear leaders, sword swallowers, gilt watch-guard venders, street lottery keepers, and a thousand other vague and mysterious professionals whose main business is to have no business at all, and who are always ready to turn their hands to anything except good" (xxxi).

But in spite of this, the Bohemians and the Gypsies, in the most prevalent perceptions of both, shared some characteristics. Both groups are known for their vagabond lifestyle, for their merry poverty, for their disregard of money for the pursuit of music, color, and relationships. They are groups that have different priorities than the dominant cultures of their societies, groups that inspire both disdain and envy.

By the mid-1800s, however, French authors such as George Sand and Honore de Balzac had already started to use the word bohemian in a very different sense. The 1932 Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francaise describes this new meaning this way: "One who lives a vagabond, unregimented life without assured resources, who does not worry about tomorrow" (150, translation by EAG).

Although the word had been used by some in this sense since the beginning of the 19th century, not until Murger's play La Vie de Boheme did everyone come to understand the word's new meaning. "According to the Corsaire's dramatic critic, the audience at the Varietes had been a little puzzled to begin with, but by the end of the evening all doubts were dispersed, and everyone now understood exactly what was meant by the vie de Boheme" (Easton 136).

Murger's introduction to Scenes de la Vie de Boheme outlines his perspective on Bohemians. "Bohemia is a stage in artistic life; it is the preface to the Academy, the Hotel Dieu, or the Morgue . . . Today, as of old, every man who enters on an artistic career, without any other means of livelihood than his art itself, will be forced to walk in the paths of Bohemia" (xxxvi).

He continues to outline the three main kinds of Bohemians that frequent the Latin Quarter:

  • Unknown Dreamers - amateur artists who do not seek publicity but expect it to come for them. They are poor and often die from poverty. Murger calls this way of life a "blind alley," and says that their avoidance of fame works against them (xl).
  • Amateur - has a steady income but chooses to live in Bohemia for the fun of it. Once they have had their fill, they will return to the bourgeoisie.
  • Stalwart Official Bohemians - must be known as an artist to the wider world; though they are not making a lot of money, they are guided by ambition and are expected to soon be "making it" in the world of art. They known both how to be frugal and how to be extravagant and can fit in in squalor or luxury.

Other authors offered their own definitions. "Bohemia is a district in the Department of the Seine bordered on the north by cold, on the west by hunger, on the south by love, and on the east by hope" (Silhouette magazine, qtd. in Miller 60). Author Honore de Balzac wrote "This word 'boheme' is self-explanatory. Bohemia possesses nothing, yet contrives to exist on that nothing. Its religion is hope; its code, faith in itself; its income, in so far that it appears to have one, charity."

The first generations of bohemians were predominantly bourgeois youths on their own in Paris, trying out an independent, artistic life for the first time. For them, Bohemianism was a prolonged adolescence, a time to pretend to be poor before returning to comfortable homes and bourgeois careers. Later, working class people joined the movement too, brining with them their knowledge of actual poverty.

Though they made light of their serious concerns, "to spend one's days hungry and ill-shod, and making paradoxes about it, is really the dreariest kind of existence" (Champfleury, qtd. in Easton 124). Even when poverty was novel, it could still be depressing and even dangerous.

And yet - "Bad as things might seem from time to time, what compensations this life of freedom brought with it: getting up late, lounging and sponging one's way round the clock, and at the end of it, excusing everything, the observation: 'We're only young once!'" (Easton 123).