how to be a bohemian

“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York, ” said Richard III.  Things were looking up for Richard as his brother had just been made king.

Was the collapse of our banks the winter of our discontent, now being made glorious by people around the world – starting with the Arab spring and spreading some months later to America – to walk the streets, to camp in parks, to make demands, to express their dissatisfaction with a world that has become unequal?

The analogy isn’t quite right:  Shakespeare’s peerless words perfectly describe a thawing; but Richard’s glorious summer was decidedly murderous, and the one flowering for us appears to be much more hopeful.

The peaceful occupiers in America don’t have murder on their minds.  But all of the elements found in the bard’s phrase: discontent, flowering summer, and even the scheming and murderous intent of the protagonist Richard III, are evident in the protests that are happening across America.

I’ll take it chronologically, beginning with the discontented winter.  In this first decade of the 21st century, we are caught in world of stress and anxiety.  Some of its qualities are:  competition, long hours, lowering wages, less and less leisure time, anxiety, desk slavery, sociopathology, manipulation, lack of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The discontent has to come from somewhere.  I propose it comes from bad philosophy:  the analytic desire to quantify and corollarily to avoid qualification, the tendency to merely react instead of attempting to make better, the belief that there is no such thing as a society (Margaret Thatcher said this).  Reductive and mean ideas lead to reductive and mean lives.

Bad philosophy doesn’t just happen; it is the work of people.  Exceptional people with exceptional drives.  A new study from Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen “pitted a group of stockbrokers against a group of actual psychopaths in various computer simulations and intelligence tests and found that the money men were significantly more reckless, competitive and manipulative.” (Newser)  Erich Fromm said regarding our business culture, “the aim of sadism is to transform a man into a thing, something animate into something inanimate, since by complete and absolute control the living loses one essential quality of life — freedom.”

A dystopian vision emerges:  of reckless manipulative men dominating and controlling people to the point of – well – death.  The loss of freedom at the very least.  This is our winter of discontent:  this fruitless and dull life dictated to us by crazed and competitive men (and women).  But what about the good news; what about our glorious summer?

In the following excerpt from his article, In Praise of Bohemia, Robert Wrightham proposes an antidote to the culture of competition and death.  And, as the title suggests, the ideas are lifted from the numerous instances of bohemia that have flared up over the past two centuries: Montparnasse, Chelsea, Soho.

Learn to love change and decay, don’t compete, cheap and less work is good, accept your mortality, are the precepts of Bohemianism.  Whether you think these ideas are crazy or that they will work for you, there is a strong case to be made for needing a check against the harshness and cruelty of the competitive world we have established for ourselves.  That even half measures, or an easing out of intransigence, could help to save us from much of the pain we are presently inflicting on ourselves.

Here is Wrightham’s summary of Bohemianism:

1. Embrace entropy

One absolute truth about the universe is that things fall apart. Worrying about this is a Bourgeois trait and distracts from pursuits of real value. Learn to enjoy the dust and dirt. Learn to find beauty in imperfect or malfunctioning things. Allow your beard or leg hair to grow. Allow your bare feet to touch the grass or the dust today. Spend less precious time and energy trying to tame nature.

2. Combat Status Anxiety

If you knowingly divorce yourself from the status symbols of Bourgeois life—cars, white collar employment, brand names, daily newspapers—it no longer feels like a failure when you do not to have the best examples of these things. You’ll spend less energy keeping up with the Joneses and eventually forget about status anxiety altogether. Stop competing. Adopt Bohemia and leave status anxiety behind forever.

3. Live cheaply and work less

The Bohemian life is, by necessity, cheap. It costs very little to engage in truly Bohemian pursuits. You don’t need to save up lots of money to become Bohemian and you don’t even need to have regular income. You can begin today by turning down the volume on the Bourgeois command system in your brain. By living cheaply—by lowering your overheads to the absolute minimum—you can probably afford to work part-time instead of full-time or put less stress on your own small business.

4. Embrace mindfulness and experimentation: the keys to happiness

The Bohemian does not usually believe in an immortal soul. In many cases, the Bohemian will keep a human skull on display somewhere about the garret as a reminder to live for the moment. With no gods and few Christian morals, the Bohemian is largely uninhibited and prone to experimentation.

In Praise of Bohemia by Robert Wringham

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