Commentary Magazine

Bohemian versus Bourgeois, by Cesar Grana

La Vie Bohème

Bohemian Versus Bourgeois, French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century.
by Cesar Graña.
Basic Books. 212 pp. $5.95.

There have not been many general studies of the vast problem of the alienation of the artist from society, although the theme has been endlessly commented on, in an unsystematic way, as one of the cultural commonplaces of the last century and a half. Mr. Colin Wilson's The Outsider was more of a stimulating rag-bag than an organized book; Albert Camus's L'homme révolté remains a major document, written by an artist who was trying to move convincingly from alienation to integration; Jean-Paul Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la littérature is full of interesting suggestions but, of course, contains no built-in explanation of its own strongly emotional assumptions. Dr. Graña has now come along to take a more coolly academic view, and he relates the whole question to the attitudes of certain French writers of the 19th century. He divides his book into three parts: “The Social World Of Modern French Letters,” which sketches in the political and social background of 19th-century France; “Three Literary Critics of Bourgeois Society”; and “The Heritage of Alienation: Productivity, Social Efficiency, and Intellectual Gloom.” His three major exemplars in the middle section are Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Flaubert; all three, although of bourgeois origin, were violent enemies of the “bourgeois,” and their different personalities had a tremendous effect on subsequent writers and artists. It was Stendhal who helped to make the artistic cult of the self enjoyable and who popularized in France the Shakespearean phrase “the happy few” to refer to those superior souls who really understand what the artist is doing; Baudelaire gave the prestige of sophistication to the Romantic idea of the uniqueness of the poet; Flaubert firmly placed the alienated artist's ideal in art, whether or not there was any public to appreciate that art.

It is understandable that Dr. Graña should have appealed to French history, because the relevant issues are more clearly defined in France than elsewhere. The appearances, at least, of patronage, feudalism, and many degrees of social inequality continued up to 1789; thereafter, all the upper part of society seemed to be swept away to allow the predominance of the bourgeoisie, which had been quietly strengthening its position throughout the 18th century in the shadow of the absolute monarchy. Dr. Graña quotes Flaubert as saying that the great revolution of our time was the conquest of modern society by the spirit of the middle class. Actually, in England, the aristocratic upper-middle-class oligarchy survived much longer, and perhaps even now is not quite dead; America was a new country in which the bourgeois tradition had not had time to solidify; Germany and Italy were too fragmented to present a very definite pattern. In France, the numerous middle class, based on private property and supported by Catholic dogma or confident rationalism, was eminently prudent, commonsensical, and—according to the artists who constantly attacked it—philistine. It could be considered as an oppressive class, since it exploited the lower orders, but it did not redeem its oppressiveness by imaginative extravagance, quixoticism, suicidal brilliance, or any other of those qualities for which aristocracies have been remarkable. Therefore, it produced successive generations of alienated sons for whom art was, to some extent, a passionate search for “something else”: Italian passion, Spanish honor, English aristocratic dandyism, Oriental magnificence, ideal beauty, mystic communion with the infinite, or absolute personal freedom.

However, a paradoxical aspect of the bourgeois rebel which Dr. Graña does not emphasize, perhaps because he is not primarily a French specialist, is that the modest wealth of the family background is a pre-condition—sometimes even a permanent condition—of the rebellion against it. It is quite extraordinary to what extent the French anti-bourgeois remain bourgeois. Stendhal said that the first task of the superior soul was to see that it had an adequate income, and the statement was not entirely a joke. It never seems to have crossed Baudelaire's mind that he should actually fend for himself; he had the typical wealthy child's attitude that money should be there when he wanted it. Flaubert used his comfortable bourgeois seclusion to work away at the artistic condemnation of the class to which he belonged. This contradiction has continued into the 20th century: Gide, one of the last great bourgeois rebels, might never have found the energy to write or to cultivate his non-conformism if he had not been the complete rentier. Perhaps the contradiction is more general still: we may wonder, for instance, if William Burroughs would have been able to plumb the drug-addict's hell in Tangier, if he had not been receiving a monthly check from America. The bum who calls regularly at the American Express is like the English ex-public-school rebel who never touches his deposit account or the French left-wing intellectual who has a portfolio of stocks and shares.

But granted the importance of the bourgeois-bohemian contrast in 19th-century France for the general establishment of the psychological pattern, I would be tempted to widen the question and to say that what happened in France was a local manifestation of a much broader phenomenon, and here I part company to some extent with Dr. Graña. He says, in passing, that the alienated spirit occurs before the 19th century, and he instances Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, a portrait of the un-regenerate, disgruntled bohemian in the middle of the 18th century. Now Rameau's nephew, while he can be interpreted, according to Lionel Trilling's suggestion, as the bohemian Id beneath Diderot's bourgeois Ego, is also quite firmly in the picaresque tradition, and that is another vast trend, stretching at least from Lazarillo de Tormès, in the middle of the 16th century, to Figaro, on the eve of the Revolution, and then again to various bohemian-picaresque types in the 20th century. It is true that the picaresque hero is not always, nor even most often, an artist, although he may carry a guitar and try his hand at different artistic pursuits. As far as one can tell, he first emerges in Spain as a displaced person, dislodged from his setting by the economic upheavals which accompanied the decline of the Empire. He gradually caught on as a type all over Europe, which suggests that there was something universal about him, and, from my reading, he appears to divide up into three major categories: the bastard, who was by definition in a social limbo; the younger son, or chevalier, who had to make his own way, since he would inherit neither the title nor the family estates (an interesting sub-division of this second category is formed by the English Empire-builders); and the bright lower-class boy, who fought his way up through the Church, or by trade, or by near-criminality.

This last point reminds us that the picaresque itself goes back into the literature of roguery, the tradition of the clever slave, and so on. When we move forward to the modern period, we may find any of these features combining with the bohemian-bourgeois tension. For instance, Baudelaire thought of himself as an honorary bastard, because he had a stepfather; so does Sartre, for the same reason. Gide uses the concept of bastardy to create two anti-bourgeois heroes, Lafcadio and Bernard, and attributes to them actes gratuits which may be considered as manifestations of purified criminality. The whole issue takes on a metaphysical tinge, of course, since the father that all bastards are annoyed with because of their unsatisfactory status is not, in the last resort, their natural or their putative father, but God the Father, whose untidy universe allows such messiness. Thus social resentment is projected onto the whole of creation, as Sartre rather naively shows in the character of Goetz, the bastard hero of Le Diable et le Bon Dieu. Even legitimate sons at the point at which they instinctively rebel against parental authority, may look upon their fathers as being honorary stepfathers, and in this case too there may be confusion between the bourgeois paterfamilias and the Great Genitor. The consequences vary; sometimes the son sees the world as a free domain, in opposition to the paternal prison, or he may consider it just as a larger house, in which he is a “stranger” in the Camusian sense, or in which he is a Luciferian naughty boy with an urge to break things, whether they be virginities, as in the case of Don Juan, or social institutions, as in the case of the bomb-throwing anarchist.

This being so, it is not always easy to tell who the bourgeois is that the bohemian is annoyed with. Is he God or Man? Is he the bourgeois within the bohemian himself? Is he the upper-class type for whom the bohemian has a sneaking admiration, as in Look Back in Anger or in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, because that type has a certain elegant assurance about the universe? (If so, the bourgeois is recovering something of the prestige of the aristocrat.) He may sometimes be another form of artist or art appreciator: the bohemian scholarship-boy picaresque hero of Lucky Jim cannot stand madrigals or Mozart; Henry Miller, in the Tropic of Cancer, guys a classical concert; Joyce Gary, in The Horse's Mouth, lambasts civilized people entertaining an artist.


Perhaps we have to conclude that each strong bohemian character works out his own pattern of what is bourgeois (“square”) and bohemian (“hip”). Dr. Graña, referring to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and to Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, suggests that, on the whole, “hip” characteristics are masculine, nonproductive, aristocratic, and affirmative, whereas the “square” ones are feminine, thrifty, non-aristocratic, and passive. But it may be that he does not sufficiently explore the fact that the same characteristics can be “hip” or “square” according to fashion and circumstances. Even male homosexuality itself seems to be a “masculine” trait in some situations and a “feminine” one in others. On the whole, the bourgeois tends to be stolidly male, through sheer lack of imagination, whereas the bohemian has both genders, through richness of vitality, deliberate perversity, or impatience with being any one thing in particular. Perhaps the fundamental difference between them is that the bourgeois believes in a limited, optimum set of quasi-permanent conventions, whereas the bohemian demonstrates the relativity of conventions by creating his own. But here again the problem is complicated by the bohemian's recurrent tendency to settle for a conventional set of anti-conventions. For instance, the T-shirt and blue jeans may very soon appear as quaintly out of date as the cloak, the broad-brimmed hat, and the lavallière tie.

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