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What became of Bohemianism?
Over the past week I’ve been reading “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks”, by Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The book was written in the forties but put on ice for various legal and personal reasons, until 2008 when it was finally released. Book description from the back cover:
Burroughs did some truly bad things in his life, but I remember reading Naked Lunch in my twenties and being exhilarated by it. It felt like he’d cracked his skull open like an egg and poured the contents onto the page. The sense of freedom didn’t just come from the writing but from the world his books took place in, and the life he himself lived. That world is described evocatively in Ted Morgan’s Burroughs biography Literary Outlaw. It’s what used to be called Bohemian, when that word meant something other than a reference point for Sunday supplement fashion shoots.
“Hippos” is part of the same world, and is of full of art, booze, drugs, late nights and early mornings, philosophising and tumultuous relationships. It’s populated by people who couldn’t or wouldn’t live a square life at a time when that wasn’t common. Instead they lived outside / beneath/ against the suffocating banality of the system, scraping together enough to do so one day at a time.
A central plot point in the book is the plan by the Kerouac-surrogate and another character to join the merchant navy and then go AWOL in France and walk to Paris (World War 2 is still in progress at this point); one of them would use rudimentary French and the other would pretend to be a deaf-mute. They get close to at least initiating this plan before murder intervenes. It’s an extremely stupid idea but reflective of the spontaneity and possibility of how an artistic person of the recent past lived, or was supposed to.
But did anyone ever really live like this? There are a couple of complicating factors. The lives of Bohemians often seemed miserable because they were broke all the time. Burroughs himself wasn’t always broke – his Grandfather invented the adding machine and he could rely on trust fund payments his whole life, which makes his actions seem a little less carefree in retrospect. And not everyone bought into the every aspect of the Bohemianism – Kerouac was a sincere Catholic, with everything that implies. Nevertheless they described a version freedom an artistic person could believe in.
So what happened to this attitude?
Firstly, the Bohemians won. Their style –which comes down to extravagant self-expression in the face of traditional order – was commodified, and became an express value of middle-class people and the institutions they run. Now in 2022, there is no cultural red line you can step over that you won’t find an ad campaign from a multinational corporation cheering you on. Whatever the benefits of that change, it means the age of cultural transgression through individualism is over.
Not only is the thrill of transgression gone – but thanks to connective technology, the space to experience the thrill has gone with it. “Hippos” depicts a different pace of life, that seems impossible now. It’s full of moments of languor that allow minds to relax and spread out, allow for uncertainty to bloom and for unexpected things to happen. Characters lay back on the floor of their apartments, smoking and staring at the ceiling. People call round to each other unannounced or run into each other on the street unexpectedly. That stuff still happens but mostly social networking has murdered those moments. In 2022 there’s no directionless pause for thought, no silent freedom from distraction, no empty psychic spaces to dawdle in. Every experience is catalogued, mediated and frozen before it can bloom. That’s a loss.
The Bohemian dream was to live a life of individual freedom, or failing that, to at least rattle the bars of your cultural prison cell. But in 2022 the jailer gets in the cage with you to help you break out; and then he tags along with you after escape, whispering his jailer thoughts in your ear about how brave you are, how right you are, how we’re all in this together. I’m the most bourgeois and conventional person alive; I never would never have lived that bohemian life one way or another, but it helped to know it was out there, and someone was living it. No longer. I can’t help but feel something’s been lost.