If one subscribes to the definition of bohemians as those rejected for one reason or another by society, there is certainly no shortage of fiction concerning ultimate bohemians: those so deranged or different that they experience total alienation from society. For these people, there is no hope of joining even a community of bohemians, let alone ‘normal’ people. As such, they form their own bohemian worlds, utopias (or from the outside, dystopias) for those not allowed into traditional society because of who they are.
In 1890, the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun published his novel Hunger. The plot of the novel revolves around a young man of high intellectual abilities who is deranged by poverty and hunger. Considering himself a genius, the unnamed narrator declares himself unsuitable for ‘normal’ work, insisting that his literary genius is unrecognized.
Wandering the streets of Oslo (then Christiana), the narrator loses touch with reality as he deludes himself into believing that other people are more in need of charity than he, and that as a genius he must vainly reject all offers that offend his pride – publishers are idiots if they suggest changes to articles he writes, regardless of the money they offer him for the articles. He, in true bohemian fashion, feels that his art is misunderstood and underappreciated, and that he would be better served in a society more capable of appreciating him. His talents are not necessarily even required, and they are not valued if they do have some place in his society.
Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God explores similar themes of downward spirals of isolation and insanity but to much more extreme results. Deprived of appropriate living spaces and social contact following the death of his parents, Lester Ballard descends into madness of the most depraved sort. Ballard, incapable of forming a romantic or sexual relationship (not that he was asexual, he was an incredibly sexual being but simply unable to act on his desires), debases himself to the lowest and most grisly forms of life, engaging in serial murder, necrophilia, rape, and cannibalism. While this may not appear bohemian, it’s important to remember that bohemians form their own views of living following their rejection from society. In this case, one man created his own society based on his deranged mind and sexuality.
The regression of man to a basic state is a recurring theme in the work of British novelist and short story writer JG Ballard. In his novels Crash, High Rise, and Concrete Island, Ballard examines how people debase themselves to the most animal of levels when faced with technology and the modern world. In Crash, the automobile becomes the object of a depraved new sexuality born out of the machine age. A small group of fetishists designs, arranges, and executes car crashes with strangers or specific targets, and find themselves unable to get off without the presence of at least the imagery of a crash. In High Rise, the various residents of an apartment complex wage a class war between floors that eventually devolves into simple tribalism. Concrete Island finds a man forced to revert to pure survivalism after he crashes his car off the freeway and into a small patch of land closed to the outside world by the concrete walls of various freeway overpasses. In each case, the characters find themselves excluded from the normal rules and expectations of society.
In the final scene of Crash, the architect of the circle of sexual deviants orchestrates his final interaction with society, in which he attempts to drive his car off a freeway and through the roof of actress Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. This is his final rebellion against the society which refuses to accept the rawest aspect of his humanity: his sexuality. In High Rise, the tenants of the building, having access to basic amenities, never have to leave. Once services begin to shut down, instead of leaving the building, the tenants form bands of hunters and gatherers, warring and scrounging for supplies. Sex and violence come to dominate the social order of the building, and the residents begin to form their own societies, outside of what is expected. As such, they create their own little bohemias: the lower floors of the poorer residents create art on the walls, primarily graffiti. The middle floors, home to the middle classes, maintain a small television station until they are unable to maintain it. The upper floors, home to the wealthiest tenants, have their own small sculpture garden which they oversee and conserve. In their sexually free societies of art, they embody a particularly violent brand of the bohemian dream. Finally, in Concrete Island, the protagonist Robert Maitland is forced to abandon his upper class propriety in an effort to survive on what little supplies he finds available in his own personal Robinson Crusoe.
These of course are not the only examples of literature of outsiders. The writings of the Marquis de Sade stand in infamy thanks to their extensive descriptions of sexual libertinism. Given the morality of the time – the late 18th century – de Sade’s descriptive accounts of depravity were especially shocking – enough to land him in prison. There is too long a history of writers crafting bohemian utopias for it all to be recounted here, though a brief summary of the identifying features of this genre could perhaps be given. At the very least, these bohemian utopias (or dystopias) can be said to exist outside of what would be considered a normal utopia, one in which people exist in simple peace and harmony. These utopias are marked by something different – a marked emphasis on sexuality or on violence, and the utopias may also differ in number – as in Child of God, where it consists of one living person. What else can be said of these is that they all come from novels in which the characters suck up into their own minds in order to craft a reality that fits into their personalities, rather than the normal, non-bohemian process of crafting a personality that fits into reality.