29 April 2008

Social Movements: The Bohemians

By Jennifer Linforth

Degenerates are not always criminals. Anarchist and pronounced lunatics; They are often authors and artists ~ Max Nordan, Degeneration

I have spent the last three years in a dark and foreboding world far below the Paris streets. I have been wholly absorbed in researching the undergrounds of society to bring to life a little known man who was not a tight-tooshed Scotsman in a tiny white half-mask, but an ardent (yet completely insane) gentleman who lurked behind a full black mask and hid his murderously vengeful habits in the counter-culture of Paris.

You may all step away to read Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera now. I'll wait...

No social movement was more prevalent in Paris of the late 19th century where my debut historical romance, Madrigal: A Novel of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera is set then that of the Bohemian. The Bohemian movement was a counter culture effort to reject the values of mainstream Paris and mock the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. While the Bohemian moment is not something overly prevalent in Leroux's original novel (or mine) it was a culture that influenced Paris in the Victorian era—whether you were a journalist, lawyer, aristocrat or artist. Those involved were not the upper class or the deviants of the underground, but the writers, students and artists who contented themselves with ignoring the social ladder-climbing around them.

The terms boheme and bohemian came to denote a generation that hated money and the work ethic. Bohemians were portrayed as vagabonds, misfits, drunks, philosophers and narcissists. The lifestyle was associated with idleness. Public opinion of the Bohemian movement was solidified after du Mauier's best selling novel of Bohemian culture: Trilby was published in 1894. (Ironically, this body of work closely resembles Leroux's original novel in other cultural ways mostly in the views of Svengali the Austria Jew, a social deviant who seduces a young singer and molds her to be the gem of society.)

Bohemians lived by their own sets of rules--they were wanderers of the most extreme extent. Social values were not their concern. Their lives were carefree events filled with drink, merriment, the arts and sexual freedom. They usually did not work, but poured themselves into living solely for the sake of art and literature. Renouncing private property made them glaringly different from the bourgeoisie that desired nothing more than to achieve the status of the aristocracy. Members of the culture shared this life with others in communal camps, an area I have had great delight in exploring in my body of works. Who can resist a vagabond who carries all his wealth with him and hangs his hat wherever the road may take him? What stories must they have?

The daily routine for a Bohemian might be to rise and work on a painting or poem. But the goal was not to be productive, rather to enjoy the salons, seek the latest sexual encounter and simply enjoy one’s company. You could spot a Bohemian (if the long hair and pockets overflowing with all they owned did not give it away) by their out of date fashions and clothes in glaring colors.

Bohemians were not just men; women joined the movement too. For women, it was the allure of freedom that called to them. Women of the mindset did not want to be ruled by marriage and it took a great deal for them to leave behind the stability that such a life might have offered. It was harder to break the ties with their former lives because women were encouraged to be respectable and upstanding individuals. These Grisettes were young women usually of the countryside who headed to Paris to find work--but Bohemia found them. They were carefree and longed for the best of both worlds: the money of the upper class and the thrill of being considered an equal in the eyes of the Bohemian man.

Though there are plenty of types of Bohemian cultures found in the 21st century, I think it would be fascinating to explore Bohemia of 19th Century Paris. Perhaps pour some absinthe from my earlier blog and wander to the Opera Garnier for a show. Then, drunk with daring, head toward the Cour de Miracles to see Paris culture in all its opposite glory.

Anyone up for a ride? What social movement would you like to see first hand?

(Photo by Adolphe-William Bouguereau: The Bohemian 1890, Oil on canvas, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts)