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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Noble Bohemianism

By Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834–1894)

From ‘Human Intercourse’

AMONGST the common injustices of the world, there have been few more complete than its reprobation of the state of mind and manner of life that have been called Bohemianism; and so closely is that reprobation attached to the word, that I would gladly have substituted some other term for the better Bohemianism, had the English language provided me with one. It may, however, be a gain to justice itself that we should be compelled to use the same expression, qualified only by an adjective, for two states of existence that are the good and the bad conditions of the same; as it will tend to make us more charitable to those whom we must always blame, and yet may blame with a more or less perfect understanding of the causes that led them into error.

The lower forms of Bohemianism are associated with several kinds of vice, and are therefore justly disliked by people who know the value of a well-regulated life, and when at the worst, regarded by them with feelings of positive abhorrence. The vices connected with these forms of Bohemianism are idleness, irregularity, extravagance, drunkenness, and immorality; and besides these vices, the worst Bohemianism is associated with many repulsive faults that may not be exactly vices, and yet are almost as much disliked by decent people. These faults are slovenliness, dirt, a degree of carelessness in matters of business often scarcely to be distinguished from dishonesty, and habitual neglect of the decorous observances that are inseparable from a high state of civilization.

After such an account of the worst Bohemianism, in which, as the reader perceives, I have extenuated nothing, it may seem almost an act of temerity to advance the theory that this is only the bad side of a state of mind and feeling that has its good and perfectly respectable side also. If this seems difficult to believe, the reader has only to consider how certain other instincts of humanity have also their good and bad developments. The religious and the sexual instincts, in their best action, are on the side of national and domestic order; but in their worst action they produce sanguinary quarrels, ferocious persecutions, and the excesses of the most degrading sensuality….

Again, before going to the raison d’être of Bohemianism, let me point to one consideration of great importance to us if we desire to think quite justly. It is, and has always been, a characteristic of Bohemianism to be extremely careless of appearances, and to live outside the shelter of hypocrisy; so its vices are far more visible than the same vices when practiced by men of the world, and incomparably more offensive to persons with a strong sense of what is called “propriety.” At the time when the worst form of Bohemianism was more common than it is now, its most serious vices were also the vices of the best society. If the Bohemian drank to excess, so did the nobility and gentry; if the Bohemian had a mistress, so had the most exalted personages. The Bohemian was not so much blamed for being a sepulchre as for being an ill-kept sepulchre, and not a whited sepulchre like the rest. It was far more his slovenliness and poverty than his graver vices that made him offensive to a corrupt society with fine clothes and ceremonious manners.

Bohemianism and Philistinism are the terms by which, for want of better, we designate two opposite ways of estimating wealth and culture. There are two categories of advantages in wealth,—the intellectual and the material. The intellectual advantages are leisure to think and read, travel, and intelligent conversation. The material advantages are large and comfortable houses, tables well served and abundant, good coats, clean linen, fine dresses and diamonds, horses, carriages, servants, hot-houses, wine cellars, shootings. Evidently the most perfect condition of wealth would unite both classes of advantages; but this is not always, or often, possible, and it so happens that in most situations a choice has to be made between them. The Bohemian is the man who with small means desires and contrives to obtain the intellectual advantages of wealth, which he considers to be leisure to think and read, travel, and intelligent conversation. The Philistine is the man who, whether his means are small or large, devotes himself wholly to the attainment of the other set of advantages,—a large house, good food and wine, clothes, horses, and servants….

The intelligent Bohemian does not despise them; on the contrary, when he can afford it, he encourages them and often surrounds himself with beautiful things; but he will not barter his mental liberty in exchange for them, as the Philistine does so readily. If the Bohemian simply prefers sordid idleness to the comfort which is the reward of industry, he has no part in the higher Bohemianism, but combines the Philistine fault of intellectual apathy with the Bohemian fault of standing aloof from industrial civilization. If a man abstains from furthering the industrial civilization of his country, he is only excusable if he pursues some object of at least equal importance. Intellectual civilization really is such an object, and the noble Bohemianism is excusable for serving it rather than that other civilization of arts and manufactures which has such numerous servants of its own. If the Bohemian does not redeem his negligence of material things by superior intellectual brightness, he is half a Philistine; he is destitute of what is best in Bohemianism (I had nearly written of all that is worth having in it); and his contempt for material perfection has no longer any charm, because it is not the sacrifice of a lower merit to a higher, but the blank absence of the lower merit not compensated or condoned by the presence of anything nobler or better….

I have said that the intelligent Bohemian is generally a man of small or moderate means, whose object is to enjoy the best advantages (not the most visible) of riches. In his view these advantages are leisure, travel, reading, and conversation. His estimate is different from that of the Philistine, who sets his heart on the lower advantages of riches, sacrificing leisure, travel, reading, and conversation, in order to have a larger house and more servants. But how, without riches, is the Bohemian to secure the advantages that he desires? for they also belong to riches. There lies the difficulty, and the Bohemian’s way of overcoming it constitutes the romance of his existence. In absolute destitution the intelligent Bohemian life is not possible. A little money is necessary for it; and the art and craft of Bohemianism is to get for that small amount of money such an amount of leisure, reading, travel, and good conversation as may suffice to make life interesting. The way in which an old-fashioned Bohemian usually set about it was this: he treated material comfort and outward appearances as matters of no consequence, accepting them when they came in his way, but enduring the privation of them gayly. He learned the art of living on a little.

He spent the little that he had, first for what was really necessary, and next for what really gave him pleasure; but he spent hardly anything in deference to the usages of society. In this way he got what he wanted. His books were second-hand and ill bound, but he had books and read them; his clothes were shabby, yet still kept him warm; he traveled in all sorts of cheap ways, and frequently on foot; he lived a good deal in some unfashionable quarters in a capital city, and saw much of art, nature, and humanity.

To exemplify the true theory of Bohemianism, let me describe from memory two rooms; one of them inhabited by an English lady not at all Bohemian, the other by a German of the coarser sex who was essentially and thoroughly Bohemian. The lady’s room was not a drawing-room, being a reasonable sort of sitting-room without any exasperating inutilities; but it was extremely, excessively comfortable. Half hidden amongst its material comforts might be found a little rosewood bookcase containing a number of pretty volumes in purple morocco, that were seldom if ever opened. My German Bohemian was a steady reader in six languages; and if he had seen such a room as that, he would probably have criticized it as follows. He would have said:—“It is rich in superfluities, but has not what is necessary. The carpet is superfluous; plain boards are quite comfortable enough. One or two cheap chairs and tables might replace this costly furniture. That pretty rosewood bookcase holds the smallest number of books at the greatest cost, and is therefore contrary to true economy; give me rather a sufficiency of long deal shelves all innocent of paint. What is the use of fine bindings and gilt edges? This little library is miserably poor. It is all in one language, and does not represent even English literature adequately: there are a few novels, books of poems, and travels, but I find neither science nor philosophy. Such a room as that, with all its comfort, would seem to me like a prison. My mind needs wider pastures.” I remember his own room, a place to make a rich Englishman shudder. One climbed up to it by a stone corkscrew-stair, half ruinous, in an old mediæval house. It was a large room, with a bed in one corner, and it was wholly destitute of anything resembling a carpet or a curtain. The remaining furniture consisted of two or three rush-bottomed chairs, one large cheap lounging-chair, and two large plain tables. There were plenty of shelves (common deal, unpainted), and on them an immense litter of books in different languages, most of them in paper covers, and bought second-hand, but in readable editions. In the way of material luxury there was a pot of tobacco; and if a friend dropped in for an evening, a jug of ale would make its appearance. My Bohemian was shabby in his dress, and unfashionable; but he had seen more, read more, and passed more hours in intelligent conversation than many who considered themselves his superiors. The entire material side of life had been systematically neglected, in his case, in order that the intellectual side might flourish. It is hardly necessary to observe that any attempt at luxury or visible comfort, any conformity to fashion, would have been incompatible, on small means, with the intellectual existence that this German scholar enjoyed….

The class in which the higher Bohemianism has most steadily flourished is the artistic and literary class, and here it is visible and recognizable because there is often poverty enough to compel the choice between the objects of the intelligent Bohemian and those of ordinary men. The early life of Goldsmith, for example, was that of a genuine Bohemian. He had scarcely any money, and yet he contrived to get for himself what the intelligent Bohemian always desires; namely, leisure to read and think, travel, and interesting conversation. When penniless and unknown, he lounged about the world thinking and observing; he traveled in Holland, France, Switzerland, and Italy, not as people do in railway carriages, but in leisurely intercourse with the inhabitants. Notwithstanding his poverty he was received by the learned in different European cities; and, notably, heard Voltaire and Diderot talk till three o’clock in the morning. So long as he remained faithful to the true principles of Bohemianism he was happy in his own strange and eccentric way; and all the anxieties, all the slavery of his later years were due to his apostasy from those principles. He no longer estimated leisure at its true value, when he allowed himself to be placed in such a situation that he was compelled to toil like a slave in order to clear off work that had been already paid for, such advances having been rendered necessary by expenditure on Philistine luxuries. He no longer enjoyed humble travel; but on his later tour in France with Mrs. Horneck and her two beautiful daughters, instead of enjoying the country in his own old simple innocent way, he allowed his mind to be poisoned with Philistine ideas, and constantly complained of the want of physical comfort, though he lived far more expensively than in his youth. The new apartments, taken on the success of the ‘Good-natured Man,’ consisted, says Irving, “of three rooms, which he furnished with mahogany sofas, card tables, and bookcases; with curtains, mirrors, and Wilton carpets.” At the same time he went even beyond the precept of Polonius, for his garments were costlier than his purse could buy, and his entertainments were so extravagant as to give pain to his acquaintances. All this is a desertion of real Bohemian principles. Goldsmith ought to have protected his own leisure, which from the Bohemian point of view was incomparably more precious to himself than Wilton carpets and coats “of Tyrian bloom.”

Corot, the French landscape painter, was a model of consistent Bohemianism of the best kind. When his father said, “You shall have £80 a year, your plate at my table, and be a painter; or you shall have £4,000 to start with if you will be a shopkeeper,” his choice was made at once. He remained always faithful to true Bohemian principles, fully understanding the value of leisure, and protecting his artistic independence by the extreme simplicity of his living. He never gave way to the modern rage for luxuries; but in his latter years, when enriched by tardy professional success and hereditary fortune, he employed his money in acts of fraternal generosity to enable others to lead the intelligent Bohemian life.

Wordsworth had in him a very strong element of Bohemianism. His long pedestrian rambles, his interest in humble life and familiar intercourse with the poor, his passion for wild nature and preference of natural beauty to fine society, his simple and economical habits, are enough to reveal the tendency. His “plain living and high thinking” is a thoroughly Bohemian idea, in striking opposition to the Philistine passion for rich living and low thinking. There is a story that he was seen at a breakfast-table to cut open a new volume with a greasy butter-knife. To every lover of books this must seem horribly barbarous; yet at the same time it was Bohemian, in that Wordsworth valued the thought only and cared nothing for the material condition of the volume. I have observed a like indifference to the material condition of books in other Bohemians who took the most lively interest in their contents. I have also seen “bibliophiles” who had beautiful libraries in excellent preservation, and who loved to fondle fine copies of books that they never read. That is Philistine,—it is the preference of material perfection to intellectual values….

Some practical experience of the higher Bohemianism is a valuable part of education. It enables us to estimate things at their true worth, and to extract happiness from situations in which the Philistine is both dull and miserable. A true Bohemian of the best kind knows the value of mere shelter, of food enough to satisfy hunger, of plain clothes that will keep him sufficiently warm; and in the things of the mind he values the liberty to use his own faculties as a kind of happiness in itself. His philosophy leads him to take an interest in talking with human beings of all sorts and conditions, and in different countries. He does not despise the poor; for whether poor or rich in his own person, he understands simplicity of life, and if the poor man lives in a small cottage, he too has probably been lodged less spaciously still in some small hut or tent. He has lived often, in rough travel, as the poor live every day. I maintain that such tastes and experiences are valuable both in prosperity and in adversity. If we are prosperous they enhance our appreciation of the things around us, and yet at the same time make us really know that they are not indispensable, as so many believe them to be; if we fall into adversity they prepare us to accept lightly and cheerfully what would be depressing privations to others.