Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Role in Revolutionary Movements

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Politics: Personal Stand, or Public Barricades?

Victor Hugo has his students in Les Miserables as leaders of the revolution, the first in line for both the barricades and for stirring up trouble. However, this was not always the case. In fact, many times the revolt affected the bohemians more than they affected it.

The 1789 revolution profoundly changed the lives of the visual artists, glorifying them and placing them on the same pedestal as the writers. Before that, they'd been considered tradesmen, in "a place somwhere between the upper-domestic, and lower-civil, servant." (Easton 2.) Due to this revolutions and its winners, many bohemians did see their lives as a rejection of bourgeois values, as a way to purify the "stew of contradictions and hypocricies" they saw in middle-class lives. (Siegel 2.) Often, however, the bohemian retreat from standard bourgeois life-styles was enough of a political stand.

Others, like Murger, were apolitical. Instead of thinking about class conflict or political struggle, they wanted to forget the upheavals of recent revolutions and concentrate on "the poetry of private life" (Siegel 2). An example from his own work, Murger writes about a character arranging to rent a room. He requests that the porter tell him every morning both the weather conditions and the form of government ruling France. A sample response: Monsieur, to-day is the ninth of April, eighteen hundred and forty...the streets are muddy and his Majesty Louis-Philippe is still King of France and Navarre. (Easton 124.) Murger acknowledged that the times were chaotic and uncertain, but chose his private life over the politics and upheaval.

Most of Hugo's early circle of artists and writers simply didn't notice if politics existed around them, even during the revolution of 1830. (Easton 59.)

...it is true that the Revolution of 1830 left a mark on this community, for it changed baiting the bourgeois from a light-hearted studio prank into a serious demonstration. The Romantic writer and artist detested every representative of Louis-Philippe's triumphant bourgeoisie, from the 'progressive' industrialisty who sought to fit art into his own pattern of social utility down to the mass of small businessmen, for hwose benefit a new type of artistic and literary criticism was invading the newspapers. Even more detestable were the obstinate Classicists who still wrote and painted in that tradition, and seemed to have no other intention in doing so but to flatter the taste of the shopkeeper. (Easton 60.)

The continued animosty that the bohemians had for the bourgeois grew during this time period, but never actually decreased on a large scale. The revolution did cause a split, however, between the artists who eventually decided to be political, and those who, like Hugo, wished for a more sober interpretaion of Romanticism. Considering the characters of Les Miserables, Marius did not follow in his creator's footsteps, but chose the political route.

The students at the barricade, questioning
Javert. From the Musical Les Miserables
from the page www.lesmis.com