The Kingdom of Bohemia ceased to exist in 1918, when it was absorbed into the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. The people of the various lands which now constitute the Czech Republic were all referred to by the English as ‘Bohemians’, and the Czech language as Bohemian, until the term ‘Czech’ became more prevalent in the twentieth century. However, the defunct kingdom is immortalised, for purely accidental reasons, in the current usage of the word ‘bohemian’ to denote the lifestyle of impoverished artists: unconstrained by convention, sexually free, voluntarily poor; a life devoted to art and love. The word is now used almost exclusively in this sense.
The accident was merely that the Romani people of France were thought to have entered Europe through Bohemia. Bohème was the name the French gave to the Roma, just as the English by a similar misconception called them Gypsies, believing their origins lay in Egypt. The word carries the full range of connotations generated by outsider perceptions of the Roma people: wandering and adventure; poverty and laziness; dirtiness and immorality; exoticism and possession of arcane mysteries.
Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Bohèmes en Voyage’ in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) is a case in point. To Baudelaire the Roma represent everything foreign and exotic. They remind him of his voyage to India; they remind him, perhaps, of himself, self-exiled from the bourgeoisie and thus from family. To him they are ‘the prophetical tribe, that ardent-eyed people’ (trans. William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954). Their women breast-feed openly, and their men watch over them with ‘gleaming weapons’ and ‘eyes rendered heavy / By mournful regret for vanished illusions’. They represent fertility and ferocity, and are watched over by the Anatolian-Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, who ‘Makes the desert blossom, water spurt from the rock / Before these travellers for whom is opened wide / The familiar domain of the future’s darkness.’
The Bohemians had arrived in France from the fifteenth century onwards; now their misnomer would be appropriated by a new tribe, and Bohemia would become, not a country or a people, but a state of mind.
In post-revolutionary, early nineteenth century France, artists and poets started moving into cheap working class areas in Paris, often areas where the Roma had settled, and before long the term ‘Bohème’ had transferred itself to those who adopted a version of the gypsy lifestyle and aspects of their dress. Indeed Romani culture reportedly regards cultural attitude, Romani spirit (called romanipen or romaimos) as more important than ethnicity in determining membership of the tribe. An ethnic Rom, for example, who does not exhibit romanipen is considered a gadjo or non-Romani; and likewise a gadjo who shows romanipen may be considered Romani. From mid-century ‘bohemian’ also enters English to describe the unorthodox lifestyles of artists, poets, musicians and actors in cities across Europe.
These bohemians were apostates of the bourgeoisie who renounced security, orthodoxy, and social convention. The bohemian abjures the narrowness of the bourgeois vision, with its kitsch denial of the uncontrollable and disturbing aspects of life — bohemianism is an attempt to embrace life in all its fullness, including, of course, sexuality and death. It mirrors the Romantic aesthetic, founded not on beauty but the sublime – an aesthetic experience which transcends beauty and ugliness, life and death, and which overwhelms the observer, inducing a primitive awe and reducing his personal existence to insignificance. Since experiences of the sublime are (by definition) rare, the bohemian tends compulsively to seek self-immolation in sexual passion and alcohol or drugs – opium and hashish in nineteenth century Paris, and of course absinthe – to render the mundane sublime.
The bohemian artist is detached from his middle or upper-class roots and finds a greater sense of belonging among the poor. Of course a devotion to art is, de facto, a renunciation of money, though shadowed by dreams of recognition and wealth. Artists who become wealthy can only do so as a by-product or side-effect of their art; no one goes into art to make money; anyone who does is gadjo, and no part of this tribe. The bohemian accepts poverty because he aspires to something richer than wealth. The mystery he sets against bourgeois banality, the arcane enlightenment that sustains the literary gypsy, is more than status or wealth; it is art. The goddess that breaks the rock for him and makes the desert flower is not Cybele but his model or Muse.
As for love, the poets and painters of Montmartre, the Latin Quarter and other bohemian haunts found their anima in the idealised figure of the grisette – the poor working class girl who cheerfully combines prostitution with her work as a seamstress, a flower seller, or a milliner’s assistant. The title role in Giacomo Puchini’s opera La Bohème (1896), beloved of the bourgeoisie across Europe and indeed the world, is based on characters out of Henri Murger’s loosely structured ‘novel’, Scenes de la Vie de Bohème: Francine and Mimì. The composite character Mimì is a seamstress, but all the other main characters are artistic bohemians: Rudolfo is a poet, Marcello a painter, Musetta a singer, Schaunard a musician, Colline a philosopher, and so on. The cast is made up with students, working girls, townsfolk, shopkeepers, street-vendors, soldiers, waiters, children… and this is the bohemian milieu.
Forty years later Tennessee Williams beautifully evokes a similar urban scene in his play A Streetcar Named Desire, set in New Orleans. In Williams’ cast there is no poet – that role is subsumed into the lyricism of the author’s stage directions, and the madness of his alter ego, Blanche Dubois. But Elysian Fields thrums with jazz musicians, sailors, working men, street-vendors and prostitutes. For the bohemian poet or the New Realist playwright, these people are real in ways that those trapped in the illusions of the secure, respectable life are not.
The life-style is not sustainable, of course, and there are only two ways out of Bohemia: fame or death; apotheosis or self-destruction. And there were so many ways to take the latter road: drink, drugs, disease, starvation, madness. Although unknown at the time of his death, the young poet Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself in 1779 at the age of seventeen, became a Romantic icon when the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis immortalised him in his painting of 1856; which inspired a rash of copycat suicides by other would-be Parisian artists jealous of his posthumous fame.
Others were less rash. Henri Murger rewrote his character-sketches as a novel and his novel as a play, moved out of the city and spent the rest of his life re-cycling stories of people he’d known in the far-off country of Bohemia.
The bohemian meme spread across Europe and the English-speaking world, surfacing in the Shelley menage on Lake Geneva, and the pre-Raphaelite group in London, which created a visual style that later made millions for the owner of the Biba chain of clothing stores and myriad other Carnaby Street entrepreneurs. Via Andy Warhol and the Factory, Lou Reed and Nico, Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, the Grateful Dead and the Doors, eventually it found its way into my naive and provincial skull, whence I would never be able to extricate it, or even want to.
I grew up in the cathedral city of Winchester in southern England, a pleasant middle-class dormitory town with one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. My father was an advertising man who worked for the oldest agency in London, traveling up to town every day; an educated man of taste – the ad man who never sold himself, which made him a little different in his world and had a lot to do, I think, with his cumulative success in the business.
As a teenager, I gravitated not towards London but towards Bohemia. I found some of the bohemian poets, musicians and painters who nested in my provincial town, such as the fondly remembered Duncan Tweedale, who lived on benefits and practically without furniture, but owned an ancient hand-operated printing press which spewed out many editions of the underground magazine Black Eggs. Unfortunately his is about the only name I remember from this time, but I remember faces, paintings and poems – and I remember the magical midsummer’s night two or three dozen of us spent on top of St Catherine’s Hill outside of the town, the site of stone-age ceremonial mazes, crowned by a stand of tall hornbeam trees. We lit a fire and jammed and smoked and entwined until dawn, when I literally rolled down the hill and somehow home to my middle-class domicile.
Captured by the rip-tide of bohemianism, but still under the control of my (very lovely) parents, I somehow found myself studying at Oxford University, where after a few miserable and misplaced months I found a band to play drums in, centred around two friends who had recently graduated and now inhabited a beautiful squatted house in Iffley village, a mile or two along the river. It was the old Mill House, which had previously belonged to the Professor of Botany at the University. The extensive gardens, overgrown but full of rare plants and trees, sloped down to the sluice gate, where we would try to swim against the rush of water at night, and always be beaten back. There was a tall tulip tree, with its magnolia-like flowers; clearing a nettle bed we found rare snake’s head orchids. Since the professor’s death the house had stood empty; another rock band occupied the upstairs, and the ground floor was John and Allan’s. We spent hours and days working on our music, playing Grateful Dead and Beatles, Stones and Steely Dan until our live sound was tight as a studio recording. We gigged in town sometimes, but as time went on we took to just throwing parties. That way we could leave our gear permanently set up in the huge front room with its double sets of French windows opening on to the overgrown lawns. People came, bringing drugs and wine; they spilled out into the gardens, and later the river. This was where I experienced my first LSD trips, wandering off across the river and into the dark countryside for hours. There were many that year – far, far too many – but I managed to pull out of my psychedelic trance in time to study for a week or two and pass my first year exams.
You could call us hippies – which was merely a new name for bohemians, though now there were powerful influences manipulating the meme. I dropped into college a couple of times a week for tutorials, but apart from that I spent most of my time at the Mill House. The locals hated us, of course, and sometimes threw bricks through our windows. Staying in the house with a girlfriend one cold New Year, we found that the tulip tree had been cut down by the local council, and workers had sawed the trunk and branches into neat logs, which we lugged inside and burned in the fireplace all night, tripped out of our minds and transported by the sweet smoke of the rare, perfumed wood.
Our bohemian bliss survived until the end of my second year, when the two guitarists moved to London to try their luck. I moved back into college and got back to my studies. This was 78, and it was as if I was waking from a dream, or some great experiment I’d been part of was finally being shut down. Nothing by now but a doe-eyed, disoriented lotos-eater, I had no idea how to deal with the world or the future. I didn’t know what direction to take, and after I graduated I found myself marrying my girlfriend, moving to London, and taking temporary labouring jobs while I wrote poems and struggled to resist increasing pressure to decide what to do with my life; I can’t explain it: I’d known, for a long time. But somehow I’d forgotten.
The music and the fashions seemed to have changed overnight. Reagan and Thatcher came to power. There were new cults – of the body, of money, of ‘lifestyle’. The bohemian meme was not dead in me but slept like a recessive gene as I got to grips with London, searching for a viable career, and soon, starting a family.
Murger’s health never recovered from his years of deprivation, and nor could any of his subsequent work match the success of Scènes de la vie de bohème. He died, penniless, in a Paris hospital in 1861, two months before his fortieth birthday.
That same year, a new mutation of the meme surfaced thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, when the San Franciscan journalist Bret Harte created his ‘The Bohemian’ persona for his column in The Golden Era newspaper. The ‘bohemian’ sobriquet had become attached to journalists of the new commercial style; young, cultured newspaper columnists in the big cities called themselves bohemians, and when the Civil War started they spread out across the country to cover the conflict, their roving lifestyles and dependence on the pen giving them some imaginary congruence with the archetype. A number of them of them built humorous, self-admiring personas for themselves; the life of the journalist became the tangential subject of the journalism, just as in a later re-incarnation of this style, the ‘gonzo journalism’ of Hunter S Thompson.
Living by their wits and their pens, these journalists glamorised their roving, unattached lifestyles, and no doubt part of the attraction was the subtext of roving, unattached sexual possibility which is almost always synonymous with dreams of travel. Harte’s column was wildly popular, and — like Murger — he republished them in book form after the war, as The Bohemian Papers. (This time nobody made an opera.)
On the East Coast, Junius Henry Browne entertained the public in The New York Tribune and Harper’s magazine with pen-portraits of ‘bohemian’ journalists (such as himself) and accounts of some of their adventures on the road. It’s a watered down version of the bohemian ideal; I suppose the American fascination with the sheer size of their acquired continent and the adventures to be had on it explains the phenomenon; the experiences of these adventurers seemed essentially romantic to the new American bourgeoisie.
In 1872, when a group of journalists and aficionados of the arts in San Francisco established a club for cultural pursuits, looking to introduce some of the ‘sophistication’ of the East coast to the West, they called it, inevitably, The Bohemian Club. Many of the Club’s members were prosperous, respectable businessmen – and now the ‘bohemian’ tag expanded to include wealthy, sociable bon-vivants. The Club quickly acquired some extraordinarily prime real estate in the form of 2,700 acres of ancient redwood forest in Sonoma County, where from 1879 it held an annual retreat in the woods, called The Bohemian Grove –- and it was at the Grove that a dark form of high (aristocratic) bohemianism emerged, or re-emerged. More Thelème than Bohème, it would have shocked even Beaudelaire, and made de Sade weep with envy.