If a Bohemian Falls in the Forest …

Is there currently an American bohemia? Last week the official organ of American cultural bohemianism, the Village Voice, was sold to speculators without a complaint from its once fiercely anti-capitalist readers and staff. Also last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education proclaimed the death of American intellectual bohemianism: A junior professor of English at Princeton bemoaned the fact that his most brilliant students are being lured into high-paid consulting jobs (higher-paid than his!), rather than pursuing the life of genteel poverty demanded by academic or artistic careers. Oh sure, he says, he knows the occasional Ivy Leaguer who works nine-to-five so that she can rush off at night to read Gilles Deleuze or play rock ’n’ roll. But she’s an anachronism. New York, at least, is “postbohemian.”

Now, people have been proclaiming the death of bohemia ever since a 19th-century Parisian, Henri Murger, wrote a book that would become an opera that would become synonymous with the artistic life right up to the moment when the whole concoction was boiled down to corn syrup in the Broadway musical Rent. Jerrold Seigel, the author of an excellent history of bohemianism, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830-1930 (1986), says that when people go around saying bohemia is dead, what they usually mean is that they can’t see how to wiggle free of commercialism and convention: “People experience bohemia as a form of authentic existence.” Bohemia is a state of mind, says Seigel. It’s not just the collective experience of radicals and artistes in the cafes of Paris or the lofts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Bohemianism is a life self-consciously positioned on the margins in order to express ambivalence about the mainstream.

But does the aggregate of people who happen to be living the bohemian lifestyle right now add up to an actual bohemia? That’s a tougher question. Seigel also says that bohemians have a role to play in society: Theirs is to act out the bourgeoisie’s quashed longings and confusions. Bohemians should be mirrors in which we see what we might have been, had we dared.

So who’s doing that today? Obviously, we can rule out the hipsters paying exorbitant sums to inhabit gentrified downtowns and sport the latest iteration of poverty chic. But there are people all over America living lives quietly on the fringe. We get a glimpse of them in a forthcoming book by New York Times rock critic Ann Powers. Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America (Simon & Schuster, $23) is a charming, rambling account of her coming of age as a music-store clerk/riot-grrrl punkster/aspiring writer in Seattle and San Francisco, interspersed with interviews of her old friends. Bohemia, Powers admits, is geographically dispersed. It looks moribund. But, she says, it thrives sight unseen. It is “everywhere somebody opens a used-record shop, a laundromat-café, and a punk rock bar.” It’s a “floating underground, which is really more a life path than a place. … It is a challenge undertaken in privacy … to confront and reinvigorate the premises of society, the definitions of kinship, labor, love, leisure, consumerism, and identity itself.”

Here’s the problem with this definition: Can bohemia exist “in privacy”? What if society isn’t aware that its premises are being reinvigorated, its contradictions being dramatized? What if the bourgeoisie, whom the bohemians are supposed to épater, seems un-épater-able? What if it just doesn’t give a damn? If there is a bohemia today, it seems to be neither hated nor celebrated. This strikes Culturebox as a mortal condition. The great bohemias of history–Murger’s and Charles Baudelaire’s 19th-century Paris, Bloomsbury, the French and German Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Beats, the indie rock scene–were flamboyant and self-enthralled. They hogged the limelight. They made themselves seem the center of the artistic universe. In so doing, they really did change the world.

There was a moment about a decade ago when the group-house dwellers and music-store clerks whose lives Powers details so minutely rose to the level of a bohemia. The streets of Seattle opened up and gave us Kurt Cobain; New York’s Strand bookstore yielded Mary Gaitskill; video-store culture belched forth Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. Now, however, when Powers returns to her old music store, she is bewildered by how little she finds. “I could see no sign of the Planet attitude, no surly looks in the eyes of the kids behind the cash register,” she writes. Then she thinks she understands: “I realized that I was on the other side of it now. To the sly members of the cultured proletariat I looked like an average customer, not a fellow traveler who knew and approved of their tricks.”

Perhaps. What Powers describes sounds frankly too subterranean to amount to a bohemia anymore. At best, the stone-faced attitudes of retail-outlet clerks have become the manifestation of a subculture that is soon to disappear, like all the other subcultures that have faded into history. One of the most remarkable facts about this turn of the century, so far, is that if you want to be on the cutting edge, you have to leave the margins for the center. That, the domain of American industry and entrepreneurship, is where the interesting ideas–the innovation, the subversion, the re-imagining of the boundaries of society–are coming from. That’s the bohemia of the moment. Great American bohemias have bubbled up from the depths in the past, and more surely will in the future. But there’s nothing going on down there right now.