Seigel's survey of 100 years of Parisian Bohemia (the word is derived from the French for ""gypsy"") weaves together...


BOHEMIAN PARIS: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930

Seigel's survey of 100 years of Parisian Bohemia (the word is derived from the French for ""gypsy"") weaves together aesthetic, political, and countercultural strands to form a picture that is always clear and detailed, if not always equally compelling. For Seigel, the rise of Bohemianism is linked to the decline of classicism and aristocracy. Like romanticism (and like that other subculture produced by the decline of aristocracy, dandyism), Bohemianism was a ""cult of the isolate individual."" It lasted, says Seigel, from the Romantic period through the 1920's, when the avant-garde again became a group movement. Bohemia was a phenomenon of individuals, not groups, and its artistic pretensions faded after the 1920's. Bohemians believed that ""life in the remote margins and corners of society allowed the mind a free play that the demands of a regular, orderly life constricted."" Although most Bohemians were penniless students, street people, prostitutes or criminals, a few were great poets: ""The Pads police commissioner gave orders [in 1878] that Verlaine was never to be arrested, no matter what he did."" Bohemians were outsiders, but they occupied a special, not unaffectionate niche in the minds of bourgeois Parisians, as Seigel convincingly argues here. In fact, although the subtitle implies a division or ""boundary"" between the bourgeois and the Bohemian, one of Seigel's most interesting points is that Bohemia was, in fact, not completely divergent from middle-class values. In the Bohemian artists' dreams of eventual fame and fortune, Seigel points out, ""Bohemia stood for assimilation to regular life"" as well as for ""resistance to it."" Although he argues this paradoxical thesis quite persuasively, Seigel's finest chapters are not on aesthetics or politics. The individual poets and artists who transcended Bohemia--who occasionally embraced the role of the outsider when it suited their purpose--provide Seigel's most illuminating insights. The enigmatic, attractive Courbet (""Painting is. . .a way of going crazy""), the self-tortured Baudelaire (who combined dandyism with Bohemianism, and Verlaine's young protÉgÉ Rimbaud (who abandoned Bohemia and poetry to build--and lose--a personal fortune in Africa) all are covered brilliantly. This is best, then, as an informative general survey of 19th-century artistic Bohemianisn. For a social and political history of this class and era, there are more comprehensive guides.

Pub Date: March 1, 1986


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1986

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