La bohème – bohème éternel
The origins of Puccini’s La Bohème are in Henri Murger’s 1851 series of stories Scènes de la vie de bohème, which were originally published separately in the Parisian literary magazine Le Corsaire. These stories were all set in the present day in the Latin Quarter of Paris and featured romanticized tales of bohemian characters, many of whom were based on real people. Although Murger’s stories were popular among his literary-minded coterie, they did not attract a larger audience until the success of Théodore Barrière’s 1849 theatrical adaptation La Vie de la bohème. Following this success, Murger published the stories together as a collection, although he added introductory chapters to familiarize new readers with the setting and characters and some concluding chapters intended to resolve loose ends. Puccini’s La Bohème is but one of many musical and theatrical adaptations of La Vie de la bohème, which ranged from the competing 1897 opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo, a number of films, and the more recent hits Rent! (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001). The original source material’s mutability and its simultaneous celebration and critique of the bohemian lifestyle, with its individualistic focus on artistic authenticity and non-conformity, provides a rich well of complex themes.
The bohemian life in La Vie de la bohème takes place in a complex and somewhat murky world existing on the margins of the respectable Parisian bourgeois society its participants simultaneously disdain and desire. By the mid-19th century, the term “Bohemian” was beginning to shed its associations with itinerant Roma and was becoming something rather more amorphous. On the one hand, it connoted a sort of low-level criminal underworld populated by con men (as Alcindoro finds out!). Yet this new Bohemia was also populated by innovative entrepreneurs who recycled the detritus of the city, along with artists whose material impoverishment was inversely proportional to their individualistic artistic integrity. Indeed, in modern searches through thesauruses, the term “bohemian” is closely associated with “nonconformist” and “misfit.” The Bohemian ideal is also a product of the new-found individualism of the mid-19th century, after the collapse of the Ancién Regime and its rigid social structures. The postures of Bohemia were in that respect radical and revolutionary, yet their goals also almost inevitably destined for disappointment when their ambitions crashed against the enduring barriers of society. Indeed, the characters in La Bohème seem to have little of the discipline and conviction that is required of professional artists, regardless of the grandeur of their self-images. For Murger’s characters and their real-life counterparts, fulfillment through artistic work often takes a back seat to simply living the Bohemian life. This was perhaps best described by the author David Rakoff in a piece he performed about the musical Rent, in which he noted that “the only thing that makes you an artist is making art, and that takes the opposite of hanging out.”
For Puccini, Bohemia was not something he had to imagine or travel in order to experience. Like many (if not most) musicians and other artistic types, his early adulthood was marked by financial hardship, particularly during his years at the Milan Conservatory (1880 – 83). However, also like many other young folks who have found themselves temporarily “college poor,” he had relatives who were sometimes willing to lend him money when things got tight. Even then, these periods of deprivation prior to his successes informed his approach to La Bohème. When he was composing La Bohème, Puccini was also involved with a community of artists and eccentrics who had gathered in the cabins around Lake Massaciuccoli near the village of Torre del Lago, which at the time was fairly isolated and uninhabited. Puccini rented a cabin there beginning in 1891 as a refuge that allowed him to indulge in his passions for composing through the night until dawn, along with ample opportunity for hunting and hiking. While there, Puccini befriended a group of painters and other artists whose exploits and personalities colored Puccini’s characterizations of the artistic cohort in La Bohème. Indeed, as Puccini was working on his opera, he purchased one of the cabins that was commonly used as a gathering spot and christened it “Club La Bohème” as a tribute to the novel and the opera he was composing. The painter Ferruccio Pagni, Puccini’s closest friend among the group and one of his early biographers, noted that when Puccini played them “Sono andati…” immediately after he’d finished it, “…the vision then appeared to us: “Rodolfo,” Marcello,” Schaunard,” “Colline,” were images of us, or we their reincarnations. ‘Mimì’ was our lover of some time or some dream, and all this agony our own agony.” (Marotti and Pagni 72-73).
The musicologist Michele Girardi notes that in this blurring between the imaginary and the real Puccini is nostalgically remembering his own bohemian period as a student, albeit revived with the detachment of time and artistic reinterpretation. Indeed, another Italian musicologist, Claudio Sartori, traced the opening theme of La Bohème back to Puccini’s diploma test piece Cappriccio sinfonico (1883), arguing that in order for Puccini to express the climate of Bohemia, he went back to his own artistic expressions of that time in his life. After all, by the time he was engaged in writing La Bohème Puccini was no longer struggling financially and his bohemian period was clearly behind him. Yet his little artistic commune allowed him to re-experience the Bohemian artistic spirit in all its camaraderie without suffering from its economic deprivations.
Once Bohemia entered the popular imagination in Paris, its ideals spread and persisted, taking root in cities around the globe. Puccini would have been familiar with the specifically Italian version, the scapigliati (unruly ones), a coterie of northern Italian writers who duly repudiated artistic and social norms in favor of less traditional forms of expression. Bohemian ideals have been echoed repeatedly in the USA, most famously with the Beat Generation in the 1950s, their cultural progeny the hippies, and the DIY ethos of underground music scenes into the 21st century. Indeed, one might see Murger’s influence on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Dharma Bums not only in the countercultural lifestyles of the characters but also in the ways in which they blurred the lines between fiction and reality and served to both celebrate and critique their respective Bohemian projects. The USA has also long provided fertile ground for Bohemian and Utopian projects because tradition generally weighs less heavily on Americans than it does on Europeans, and American culture tends to promote independence and self-styled individuality. The Bohemian promise of individuality has also made these sorts of informal communities into magnets for young folks who adopt its outward expressions (clothes, mannerisms, etc.) as a way to simultaneously nonconform and fit in. Indeed, the 19th century Parisian dandy would seem to be the model for all later “hipster” types even to the present day.
However, no matter where Bohemia pops up, it is also always ephemeral and fleeting. In this sense it is perhaps an early form of Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” an anarchic (and mostly theoretical) space that could exist beyond the reach of state surveillance and the mechanisms of market capitalism. Such a place would provide opportunities for radical reorganizations of social norms and conventions. However, this Bohemian “zone” must also be temporary, for if Bohemia becomes an institution it loses its autonomy and inevitably collapses. Any attempt at permanence makes it visible, which then subjects it both to the controls of the state and the demands of the market. This contradiction is perhaps one of the things that makes Bohemia so enticing both as a real-world lifestyle and as an artistic subject for authors and composers. The autonomy of Bohemia provides the opportunity to explore alternate ways of living, if only temporarily or even vicariously. Even if Bohemia endures in one way or another, society often eventually intervenes in the lives of its individual inhabitants. In Murger’s original novel, the final chapter connects with Rudolph and Marcel a year after Mimì’s death, when they and the rest of their Bohemian crew have finally begun to enjoy artistic successes and material comforts. Rudolph proposes a cheap dinner in their old haunts, but Marcel replies, “I am perfectly willing to reminisce about the past, but it will be over a bottle of good wine and seated in a comfortable arm-chair…I have been corrupted. I no longer like anything but what is good.”
Finally, although it sometimes seems like a sort of artistic slumming among the sick and impoverished, the theatre of marginality that we see in La Bohème and related works is also theatre of potentiality and change. Each new generation cultivates an exploration of the limitations of their own liberties against social barriers that are likewise also constantly in flux. (Seigel) Indeed, the infusion of the fashions and behaviors of previously marginal communities into everyday life is evidence of how the Bohemian becomes bourgeois. In the process, that which once signaled outsiderness or membership in a marginal community becomes ordinary, no longer charged with the frisson of nonconformity. For example, in most places in the U.S.A. there’s no longer anything particularly audacious about having visible tattoos, which were once worn almost exclusively by biker gangs, dockworkers, convicts, carnies, and other folks living on the fringes of society. However, we should also consider that the Bohemian’s non-conformity comes from a position of privilege because it is consciously chosen, and can then also be disavowed if it becomes too inconvenient. Those who are marginalized because of race, ethnic origin, sexuality, gender identity, or social class do not have the opportunity to choose their non-conformity and are often permanently stuck with its consequences. For the Bohemian, the door leading to economic security and bourgeois respectability usually remains unlocked.