“We raise our glass — You bet your ass to — La Vie Boheme!” – Mark Cohen, Rent
Bohemianism has been a part of me since I was fourteen years old. Not in a tangible way, of course. As young as I was, my capitalistic tendencies were already blossoming, and I had begun accepting that the wildest, most exciting parts of creative thought (think Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with his cane full of absinthe, or Salvador Dali, with his antenna mustache) are not compatible with my somewhat practical personality. But one of my best friends from my high school, Raissa, had lent me a copy of a musical called Rent, and I fell in love.
How could I not get caught up in a story set in gritty New York, full of “starving” artists? Rent exemplified what it means to have a Bohemian philosophy, meaning that the characters were “living each day one at a time and striving to make their short lives purposeful through the expression of their artistic passions.”
Sounds compelling, doesn’t it?
But here I am–in the Czech Republic, the original land of Bohemia. (Well, fine, I’m actually in Brno, in the protectorate of Moravia, but Bohemia’s just, like, a bus away.) And visiting Prague, which is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, made me wonder, how the heck is this place related to the bohemia I knew before coming here?
I did some research on it, and it turns out that in French, the word “bohemiens” means the Romani or gypsies. Apparently, the French mistakenly assumed that all the heavily stereotyped “nomadic robbers/dancing-bear leaders/sword swallowers/gilt watch-guard venders/street lottery keepers/singers of “God Help the Outcasts”/assassins” were from Česká republika. How ironic is that, since almost every Czech person (or country-affiliated European, for that matter) I’ve met loathes the gypsies?
As languages are apt to do, it appears that the words had started evolving. George Sand and Honore de Balzac, famous French writers, started implying that being bohemian had nothing to do with the gypsies, though they shared similar vagabond, carefree characteristics.
Henry Murger, who wrote Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, wrote most eloquently: “Today, as of old, every man who enters on an artistic career, without any other means of livelihood than his art itself, will be forced to walk in the paths of Bohemia.”
Being bohemian had changed from it’s previously derogatory sense, and had become romantic: “easy, graceful, joyous unconsciousness, guided by the principles of good taste and feeling.” In fact, the 1960 hippies are considered part of the bohemian impulse.
Some famous Bohemians are:
Vincent van Gogh
Though I may not have a genuinely bohemian soul, I can still admire it as an outsider. After all, there is a little part in all of us that toasts,