Ephraim Mizruchi’s “Bohemia as a Means of Social Regulation” describes how Bohemianism, or better, this way of living, has spread from France, throughout Europe, and eventually to the United States during the last 170 years. While Oxford Dictionary defines Bohemianism as “A person who has informal and unconventional social habits, especially an artist or writer”, it is such a flexible and individual concept, that its meaning changed and assumed several connotations during time. For Ephrai Mizruchi some of the main characteristics of the typical bohemian are:
- Being somewhat “outside” of the conventional society
- The general assumption that artists sometimes should assume unconventional behaviors in their public life
- The tendency to include youth as main part of the Bohemia
Googling the word “Bohemianism”, one can sees how it relates to personal artistic inspiration and pursuit. A Bohemian loves and enjoys art in multiple forms, such as music, paintings or theatre. Moreover, the artistic practice takes often place in the company of similar individuals who appreciate a likewise Bohemian lifestyle.
The idea of bohemianism reflects both the desire to share an unconventional way of living and to create a community based on common interests. In many ways, Bohemianism strongly resembles the academic experience that many college students live globally.
I have found, in fact, that the Bohemian lifestyle was strongly related to several experiences that are part of my life as a college student. One recent example of a bohemian experience I had was retiring to a training camp in West Virginia with my rowing team for seven days during spring break. After an eight hour drive on a van we reached our destination—eight cabins located on a beautiful lake in a Natural Park. The view was gorgeous, and the typical sounds of wild nature, such as singing birds and blowing wind, replaced the police sirens and honks of New York City.
At first, the lack of phone service and wifi seemed to be an annoying setback to all of us, but eventually this loss became an opportunity to have long conversations before going to sleep, and laugh together, enjoying each others’ company. Rowing on that beautiful lake was physically challenging, especially in the early morning or when the weather condition was particularly harsh. However, the feeling of total connection with the other athletes in the boat and with the nature surrounding us was an incredible reward for our efforts.
Our last night of our stay in Virginia was the most “bohemian”, ending with us laying down to stargaze in the grass. Without any artificial light to ruin that fantastic view of the night sky, it was a moment of peace and meditation that we all shared together, simply for the sake of it. This unconditional love for an activity, without egoistic expectations related to it, is bohemianism. As an example, even if probably no one on our crew team will eventually proceed into a professional career practicing this sport, the enjoyment of it was rewarding enough to completely devote ourselves. Furthermore, the act of leaving the city to go into a natural environment was a remarkable opportunity of reflection and contemplation, which are both fundamental activities in the life of a young bohemian.
Practicing a sport, playing an instrument, writing a poem, or any other activity in which we take joy represents Bohemia: the dream of reaching a state of total fulfilment and gratification while doing what one loves. But why do we define this lifestyle as Bohemian? What does Bohemian mean? Where did it begin?
Bohemia is a region of the Czech Republic that in the nineteenth century was believed to be densely populated by groups of gypsies, who were called “Bohemiens” by the French. However, the concept that we know of today is rather different. In the current definition of Bohemian, what matters is having an artistic and free attitude, rather than any geographic or ethnical connotation related to the concept of gypsies and their lifestyle. This modern interpretation of bohemianism was described in 1845 by Henri Murger, when he wrote “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème,” a classic novel based on a series of magazine sketches that for the first time defined the idea of Bohemia and everything that this concept implied.
When considering how bohemianism may appear today, the first thought that came up in my mind was about all of those bohemians that I directly and indirectly knew, and how they probably were not even aware of their status. In college people show their bohemianism in their everyday life by drawing, playing an instrument, writing or reading. University life is a source of inspirational and mind opening experiences. Some of my most compelling experiences are those nights spent playing music with other students who live on campus in the university. Playing our guitars and singing is a powerful way to express ourselves and enjoy a beautiful form of art. We often end up talking about how music can become a reason of union and fellowship among students, which is a perfect way to foster and cultivate a feeling of self devotion toward our community.
As Bob Marley even claimed there are people in the world who experience a type of richness that is not merely determined by material possessions and money. This raises the question of what a bohemian should consider to be their real wealth. In order to answer this question, it is helpful to consider how in 1845, Murger described three different kinds of Bohemians:
- “Unknown Bohemians”: The largest class, of Bohemians. Most of these unknown artists are defined in this way because they have no means to publicize their artistic production. They usually come from poor families, and their artistic production truly represents everything they desire and somehow worship. For these poor Bohemians, art still represents faith instead of a profession.
- “Amateurs”: These Bohemians usually come from bourgeois and wealthy families. Even though they truly enjoy the artistic production and lifestyle, they will eventually return to a more conventional and profitable lifestyle after the Bohemian passage period of their lives.
- “The Real Bohemians”: They are actually famous in the rest of society, or even the world, as artists. Even though they usually do not earn great amounts of money, they expect this to happen in the near future. This does not mean, however, that ambition or materialistic desires guide their lifestyle, but they simply understand how potentially successful Bohemia is.
Few today actually desire to be an “unknown Bohemian”, but what about the other two options? It is interesting to consider how people today are actually living this type of life, and often not even realizing it. Let’s consider for example a group of young teenagers; they may spend days playing instruments, drawing, acting, or expressing their artistic drive in any possible way. Eventually, according to Murger’s classes, they may either “settle down” in a conventional and more convenient lifestyle, ending up as “Amateurs,” or find their way to express what they love to the rest of the world, and make a professional career through their dreams. However, while these definitions are helpful to interpret the general phenomenon of bohemianism, these categories are probably too rigid for a modern interpretation of bohemianism.
What I like about Murger’s view about bohemianism is that while the three categories somehow differ in their final goals, they all share the same fundamental values of pursuing a life of artistic inspiration. However, I am not sure if I completely agree with his definition of “Real Bohemians” as already famous and affirmed artists, especially when this is related to the College environment. In a stimulating setting such as a university, students should embrace the opportunity of following their artistic drive for the joy of doing it, without focusing too much on the possible fame and success that their works of art could achieve in the future. In fact, while ambition and determination are remarkable qualities in a young developing person, a bohemian attitude should include the complete freedom from any external pressure. Clearly, positive feedback from the rest of our society to what we create is an encouraging message, but a bohemian should find his or her own love toward creativity and life an even more worthwhile possession, similarly to what Marley states in the interview. In the same way, the bohemian lifestyle exemplifies the idea of enjoying life and everything that it has to offer.
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