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The continuing allure of bohemianism

Watching a staged production of La Bohème last week, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at their new outdoor Encore Amphitheater, one could not help but be struck by the inevitable disconnect between the themes of that opera and the circumstances of the performance.  Because this was not a full theatrical production, the performers wore the more customary glitter dresses and dress suits of symphonic presentation, which strikes one as a little strange as they sing about how hungry and freezing cold they are.  Even given a fully willing suspension of disbelief, it still seemed a little odd to be listening to odes to bohemianism over the sounds of clinking champagne glasses from there up front at the corporate tables.

But this is high art, well presented, beautifully performed, and the outdoor theater is a great addition to our regional arts scene.  Still, it got me thinking about the continuing allure of bohemianism, and its call for something of a pseudo-renunciation of material wealth in favor of a more direct engagement with the passions (I say pseudo-renunciation since as La Bohème makes very clear, the bohemian characters are just as happy to drink the champagne as the audience members).

The concept of Bohemianism first circulated in the English language in the nineteenth century (the OED notes a first occurrence in 1848), and from the start people tagged with the label were being both cursed and complimented.  Bohemians were marginalized, artistic, self-indulgent, brilliant, urban, contagious, sexually liberated and, as the phrase often circulated, “voluntarily poor.”  The term is a literal falsehood – the Gypsies who inspired the term in France were not from Bohemia – but the negative attributions made (that to be bohemian was to be dirty and scheming and sexually degenerate) remain deeply rooted in the western consciousness.  When Henri Murger wrote Scènes de la Vie Bohème in 1845, his goal was to proclaim bohemianism, and Murger’s stories were the basis of Puccini’s opera fifty years later.  The artistic afterlife of these movements continues:  La Bohème is the inspiration source material for the musical Rent (if you’ve seen the film or stage show you will recall one of the central songs in the production is La Vie Bohème, which takes the traditional bohemian identity in a postmodern direction).  La Bohème’s music and themes also play a significant part in the films Moonstruck and Fatal Attraction; in fact for Moonstruck, La Bohème structures the entire narrative – the Nicholas Cage character’s sensitivity is established by his passion for Puccini, and a key moment in his courtship of Loretta (the Cher character) comes when he persuades her to see the opera at Lincoln Center.

Ironically, the emergence of the bohemian as a contestable cultural figure was directly connected with an operatic performance, namely, the 1830 opening night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani.  The opera brought out Hugo’s followers, and their behavior turned opening night into a huge scandal.  Normally composers helped nudge their productions into success by hiring professional clappers; Hugo skipped this step and instead relied on his younger unpaid friends – the “young people, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, print makers, etc,” at he put it later – to generate enthusiasm.  Mary Gluck recounts the result:

Inside the theater, they scattered in small groups in the pit and the galleries and acted as coordinated cheering squadrons for the play.  They countered every hiss from the audience with louder applause, and the commotion in the audience rivaled in interest the actual drama being performed on stage.  As one of the reviewers of the play commented the following day, “The spectators were on the same plane as the actors on the stage and they performed as epileptics.”   …From the perspective forty years later, Gautier was to provide an even more revealing evaluation of the significance of the Battle of Hernani.  The opening night, Gautier recalled, was “the greatest event of the century, since it represented the inauguration of free, youthful, and new thought on the debris of old routine.”  It was the battle “of youth against decrepitude, of long hair against baldness, of enthusiasm against routine, of the future against the past.”  …Gautier’s hyperbolic account accurately conveys the hidden agenda of the Battle of Hernani.  The real significance of the mock-heroic battle was, it turns out, not the triumph of romanticism over classicism, which was a foregone conclusion by 1830, but the transformation of the long-standing aesthetic conflict into a more modern cultural antagonism, that of the artist versus bourgeois, bohemian versus philistine.  The Battle of Hernani witnessed the emergence of radical artists as a recognizable, collective presence in public life.  It represented the first enactment of the bohemian identity in modern culture. (354-355)

The conflicting impulses of bohemianism are often understood as relying on the contrary views that (a) bohemians are transhistorical marginalized artists and (b) that bohemianism is a historically specific consequence of capitalistic modernity.  Although traces of both views pervade Murger and Puccini’s evocations, others have tended to come down on one side or the other of this divide.  Pierre Bourdieu has argued, for instance, that bohemianism, which he celebrates for having carved out an autonomous space of artistic production, nonetheless was only made possible because of the particular marketplaces created by industrial capitalism (this point is elaborated in his 1995 Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field).

Considerable energies were expended to condemn bohemianism, and this is both a mainstream cultural response to deviance but was also charged by the late nineteenth century’s preoccupation with masculine vigor and moral (and physical) hygiene.  These tendencies were perhaps most fully formed in the influential work of the Hungarian-native doctor Max Nordau, author of Degeneration (published in English, having been translated from the earlier German, in New York in 1895).  Nordau’s apocalyptic survey of late-nineteenth century was not a comforting one:

A race which is regularly addicted, even without excess, to narcotics and stimulants in any form (such as fermented alcoholic drinks, tobacco, opium, hashish, arsenic) …begets degenerate descendants who, if they remain exposed to the same influences, rapidly descend to the lowest degrees of degeneracy, to idiocy, to dwarfishness, etc. (34).

Because, artistically speaking, bohemianism (and its intellectual cousins, such as the Decadence movement to which Baudelaire and Mallarmé were connected) implied a turn to psychological explanations, with attendant interest in concepts like authenticity and subjectivity, the critique was individual as well as civilizational.  Here is Hermann Bahr’s description of a 1891 James Whistler portrait of Robert de Montesquiou (cited in Berman, pg. 631):

There he is, the haggard, pale Dandy… entirely in black, very tall, very thin, very sleek, a little affected, heroic yet bizarre, nearly sublime, but comical…  He appears [to his friends] as the great artist not through his works, but through his power… to hallucinate [while] fully conscious, to escape into unreality, to live a poem, that is “the art of the Decadence”; in this he is the master…

Bohemianism also implies separation and marginalization, and so it is historically connected to a physical separation from mainstream society, and one cannot name the following locales without also stirring a romantic (and sometimes sordid) sense of the bohemian:  Montmartre, Chelsea, Soho, Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury, the French Quarter, Ipanema, Schwabing.  These are places (at least as nostalgically romanticized) into which one can disappear, live out an alternative identity, and escape authority:  what happened at the Moulin Rouge stayed at the Moulin Rouge.

La Bohème, first heard in 1896, is a reflection of Puccini’s mature style, and in strong contrast to Wagner’s epic, mythological, and titanic characters and orchestrations, the work deploys the style of opera verité – popular songs and everyday characters mingle together with occasionally thundering orchestration.  This makes his work both more accessible – the easy transition from melody to melody, all interspersed by larger themes, can sometimes sneak up on a listener – but also sometimes less narratively coherent.  In Act I lovers who have only met two minutes prior are suddenly declaring their undying bolt-out-of-the-blue eternal love for each other, and then without any real characterological development suddenly we learn in Act III that the relationship is star-crossed and doomed by jealousy and the physically debilitating effects of consumption and that they’ve been arguing for months.  Time is curiously manipulated throughout, a fact perhaps most evident in the final act, where temporal logic is distorted:  characters leave to engage in tasks (selling jewelry, even tracking down the doctors) that might normally take hours but which are compressed into minutes, while of course the dying itself it stretched out and the final last moments seem to suspend time altogether.  [To some extent, of course, one might argue that these discontinuities derive from the source material and not Puccini, since Murger’s novel was a collection of unconnected short vignettes.]

As Alex Ross has put it, contrasting Puccini with the much more essentially grand style of Wagner:  “If Wagner, in the Ring, made the gods into ordinary people, Puccini’s La Bohème does the opposite:  it gives mythic dimensions to a rattily charming collection of bohemians” (13).  These tendencies were recognized and much discussed at the time, and made Puccini the source of considerable criticism – Eduard Hanslick regretted that in Puccini the literary so fully trumped the musical, and Fausto Torrefranca felt the tropes of Puccini’s work reduced his work to nothing more than a “cynical commercialism, [with] all its pitiful impotence and its triumphant international vogue” (a 1912 passage translated by Greenwald at pg. 24).

While Puccini has a worldwide following, of course, perhaps there is something distinctive in his themes that peculiarly taps American sensibilities, for his operas stage something of a rough democracy, in the sense that any of his characters (regardless of origin) are able to mix it up across lines of class and birth.  Stereotypes are circulating everywhere and form the basis of dramatic conflict, caricature and humor, but finally these stereotypes are subordinated to a sort of equal opportunity access to the best of life.  The bohemian commitment to artistic production is thus a great equalizer; the ability to tap into the deeper psychic pleasures of music and poetry permits the main characters in La Bohème to evade paying the rent and the huge bar tab they have run up, although not finally fate itself.  It is no coincidence, I think, that Puccini was wildly popular in America from the beginning.  In 1907 he visited the United States for five weeks and his major operas (La Bohème, but also by then Tosca and Madame Butterfly) were all performed at the Met and the Manhattan Opera House to considerable acclaim and sold out popularity.  Puccini was so moved by this reception that he resolved to write an opera set in the Wild West, and on returning to Italy did just that, writing The Girl of the Golden WestLa Bohème remains the most performed work in the full history of the Metropolitan Opera.  And recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks has argued that the key to America’s class divisions is a best understood as a recurring bohemian sensibility – the country’s upper classes can be understood as Bobo’s (Bourgeois Bohemians) in Paradise.

Even amidst the tragedy, there might also be something distinctively American about the essential utopian optimism that pervades bohemian thought.  At its core, bohemianism is exuberantly open to the possibility that, no matter how it ends up, the human condition also means one is never more than a moment away from true love or fulfillment, and that such freedoms cannot be easily denied since their source is not material but mental.  Living in the shadow of rough industrialization and fast emerging materialism, the bohemian ideal lingers as a reminder that we are not finally defined by the champagne we drink or the glitter dresses we wear.

SOURCES:  Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007); Patricia G. Berman, “Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette: Smoking and the Bohemian Persona,” Art Bulletin 75.4 (December 1993): 627-646; Helen Greenwald, “Recent Puccini Research,” Acta Musicologica 65, Fasc. 1 (January-June 1993): 23-50; Mary Gluck, “Theorizing the Cultural Roots of the Bohemian Artist,” Modernism/modernity 7.3 (2000): 351-378.


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