On bohos, Bonzos and urban pastorals

August 31, 2001

There is reason to suppose that Mr Blair, Mr Straw & Co are not overly fond of bohemians, the odd brush with an air-guitar notwithstanding. They have made it abundantly clear that their primal allegiance is to Mondeo man and pebble-dash woman. In this rectilinear world, general riff-raff and other disorderly elements are not merely excluded, but increasingly find themselves (to adopt the euphemism) "targeted". Tolerance is indeed at zero.

Elizabeth Wilson has chosen to write against this prevailing social orthodoxy, producing a spirited reminder that there are indeed historic alternatives. The fetching photograph of Viv Stanshall (late of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and, indeed, of this mortal world) that adorns the cover, the recuperation of such long-forgotten bohemian totems as the New York Dolls, the evocation of too many hours whiled away in Soho's Patisserie Valerie all suggest that there is a ghost of an individual biography here as well as more formal reflection. Bohemians continues a trajectory that Wilson has made her own: a reconstruction of modern life that dwells on the hallucinogenic and the disorderly, the mirrored and the dreamt, as a means of undermining or containing what one of her characters in this volume describes as the "small tyrannies of everyday life".

Wilson's scope is wide ranging. It encompasses Paris, Berlin, New York, London and Munich and takes in a historical sweep of the past couple of centuries. Baudelaire looms large, the aboriginal flâneur . There are many good stories of artistic experimentation and sexual rebellion, of new lives flourishing, which - Wilson implies - are ours if we care to possess them. Drawn to a life of improvisation and dreams, there was much to commend in the bohemian world. All of this is reconstructed with flair, though the lengthy cataloguing of sexual genealogies (of who slept with whom - "Man Ray meanwhile was involved with Kiki, a model and successful chanteuse who also painted") is as wearisome in its transgressive rendition as in its more orthodox variants. And some lives, of course, far from flourishing, were spectacularly destructive. Even the deepest libertarian would have to concede that a fair measure of existing bohemians, those whom one might meet - garrulous and indigent, their philosophising driven by a narcissistic arrogance - are at best a pain in the butt. Not all share the brilliance of Alfred Jarry. But the affectations can still resurface. "He lived in a room," we are told of Jarry, "that contained nothing but a pallet bed and the plaster cast of a larger-than-life penis." An addiction to meths brought his life to an end.

The centrality of Baudelaire to the myths of bohemia reminds us that, in its lived, urban forms, bohemianism functioned as the counterpoint to the aesthetic critique of a uniform, commodified modernity. In this lay its promise - not merely as an intellectual matter, but as a critique that needed to be lived. In consequence, we should not be surprised at the degree to which personal catastrophes followed. Bravery and delusion may not be easily separable.

A question that runs through Wilson's analysis, though, turns on the reality (or not) of bohemia itself. Was there a period when it was not just a myth? Was there ever a time when bohemians were bohemians, and not the pub bores from whom we turn away? Malcolm Cowley, perceptive as ever, writing of Greenwich Village in the 1920s, came to conclude that "bohemia is always yesterday". Walter Benjamin, considering the fate of the Romanische Cafe in Berlin in the same period, arrived at much the same conclusion. In this sense, bohemia is a matter as much of memory as anything else. It is shaped by the consciousness of generation and by apprehensions of individual lives advancing. Who now recalls the excitements and mysteries of Viv Stanshall? In this view of things, bohemia works as an urban pastoral, always just a little too intangible, always just having dipped from view, its shadows disappearing around the corner, or barely visible in dark, cavernous cafes.

"Always yesterday" (as we know) can also be commodified. There are many anguished comments punctuating this story, despairing of the fact that "the real bohemia" is on the point of becoming nothing more than a tourist attraction. These are familiar laments, rarely to be taken at face value, but indicative of the degree to which critique itself is vulnerable to commodification.

And this is the dilemma Wilson leaves us to ponder. It is difficult to point to contemporary bohemias. It all sounds a bit quaint today. A Starbucks outlet does not provide a natural locale for shocking the bourgeoisie - unless one sets out to trash it, as did the rebellious free spirits of Seattle, an act that has the value of unencumbered defiance, if not much else.

Wilson herself, it seems, feels ambivalent about the contemporary legacies of bohemian lives, at once warming to them and remaining sceptical. She has stern words at the end for those whom she believes choose to live in "internal exile" in contemporary cultures, and who have willed themselves to forget the virtues of true "opposition". But as she herself demonstrates, this was a dichotomy that her bohemian characters consistently confused. They could never be sure where the line could be drawn. Metaphors of dreaming and mirroring, powerful explanatory devices to which Wilson lays claim, make the problem yet more intractable. Maybe her book might serve to reconcile her readers to the fact that this dilemma is still with us - which is why the story she tells remains valuable, and which may also explain the spirited impulse that compelled her to tell it.

Bill Schwarz is reader in the department of media and communications, Goldsmiths College.

Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts

Author - Elizabeth Wilson
ISBN - 1 86064 567 4
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £19.95
Pages - 5

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