Bohemianism ended because no one is scandalised any more. Nobody is allowed to be 'odd': they have a 'syndrome'
Published 06/10/2013 | 05:00
It was always one of my ambitions to acquire a VW camper van, and now they've gone and announced that they're not being made any more. The camper van is condemned as an outdated symbol of 1960s hippydom and well past its time. Pity. I was planning, one day, to drive one across America. Maybe.
The end of the hippy's vehicle is about something else, too. It's part of the disappearance of Bohemianism. Sociologists ponder why Bohemianism – the arty outsider living in a garret and doing things that upset the bourgeoisie – is seldom seen now. But the popular poet Pam Ayres has given as good an answer as any.
It's because, she says, no one is scandalised by anything any more. Pam, who grew up in rural Oxfordshire, can remember a time when scandal and gossip could be transmitted in such whispers as "that woman is living with a man who is not her husband" and "I have it on good authority that that couple is living in sin".
As there is nothing remotely scandalous about individuals living together without benefit of clergy (or a civil contract conferred in a register office), there is no scandal, no stigma and no outsider status. It is now all perfectly respectable, and there is even a respectable word for such arrangements – 'partners'.
There are virtually no 'lovers' or 'mistresses' any more: they are all 'partners'. There is no such thing as 'adultery' (or even 'love affairs'): people just have 'relationships', in which, occasionally, one partner 'cheats'.
All this is a step forward for tolerance, but if everything is mainstream and respectable, then nothing is transgressive. The purpose of a Bohemian lifestyle was that it was outside of, and against, what respectable people were expected to do.
Bohemians were not just excluded from mainstream society: they excluded themselves because they chose to live naughtily, defiantly, against everything defined as the 'norm'.
Now, everything is the norm. If you ran off with a gypsy rover with flashing eyes, nowadays, you'd have to join the Human Rights Roma Activists. You can't even be a harlot today: you'd have to be called a sex worker. Imagine Verdi writing an opera for 'Traviata, the sex worker'.
The squashing of Bohemianism is a kind of pincer movement between Left and Right. On the Left, you have those kindly, caring, compassionate folk who seek 'inclusion' for all. Nobody is allowed to be 'odd': they now have a 'syndrome', be it Tourette, OCD or 'social phobia disorder' (being shy, a loner or a hermit).
Then on the Right, there is the monetisation of what was once marginal. Capitalism monetises everything with airey neutrality: if pornography sells, porn will be sold; if a musical about John Paul II can make money (in the offing), that will be flogged with equal gusto.
Capitalism clocked that mad impressionist painters were (retrospectively) good for business, so you get throngs flocking to anything about Van Gogh.
In the past, artists and writers were poor, struggling (and, ideally, dying of consumption, as in the true story of 'La Boheme'), but that has all been commodified. There is a Virginia Woolf's Bar & Bistro in Bloomsbury, London – she'd have thought it so common – just as there are all kinds of knick-knacks in Ireland masquerading as souvenirs of James Joyce and WB Yeats.
Anthony Cronin, who has written the best memoir of Bohemian Dublin as it once was, 'Dead as Doornails', has deplored the way that Bloomsday has been monetised. James Joyce and the people he wrote about were genuine Bohemians, and, said Cronin, basically failures. You can't have rich lawyers quaffing offal for breakfast and pretending to be skint Joycean characters. Well, you can. But it's not the spirit of Bohemianism.
Music is the prime example of how the melody of the underdog becomes another arm of the mainstream. Country and western music is about poor hillbillies who do humble jobs and are unlucky in love: its authenticity depends upon its outsider status.
Pop and rock were about rebelling against the norm (and even 'crooning', in its time, was thought unorthodox). Maybe performers like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are trying to keep up that tradition – as Amy Winehouse continued in the tradition of the self-destructive artiste who dies young – but it couldn't be done without the paraphernalia of razzmatazz marketing.
Keith Richards' autobiography is a revealing document indeed: the Rolling Stones were superb businessmen, and Mick has the greatest accountant's mind of all.
So that's how Bohemianism dies: its symbols either get abandoned, like the camper van, or its products go mainstream. For example, the state of Colorado has passed a bill legalising the sale and use of recreational marijuana. Those with a keen eye for a buck are busy making their preparations for the marketing of weed. Attractive designs are being drawn up in which to sell the once-forbidden spliffs. Innovative advertising will follow.
Gay marriage is something similar: it is the quintessence of respectability and a fabulous opportunity to extend the accessorising of weddings.
It's tough being a Bohemian today and finding something transgressive. I suppose smoking cigarettes is the new naughty. And so, I learn, is untidiness. There has just been a research study on people's attitudes to tidiness, and a third of those interviewed (36pc) thought that a tidy home is a top priority in life – more desirable than sex, holidays or a night out.
So a few of us can still affirm our inner Bohemian with flagrant domestic disorder.