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The Social Class and Cultural Significance of the Bohemian Lifestyle in Conjunction with the Role of the Coffeehouses as the Visibility Sites of New Types of Sociality

Forschungsarbeit 2001 31 Seiten





Part I: Bohemian Circles on the Margins of Law-Abiding Society

Part II: The Historical Emergence of ‘Bohemian’ Social Type

Part III: Parisian Café as an Institutional Prototype

Part IV: Coffeehouses in German Society and Culture

Part V: London Teashops as Modernist Public Spheres




The bohemians to a great measure directed not only their daily behaviour and appearances but also consciously created the image of themselves that was to be handed down to the generations to come. As a social class and as a space of positions within the general social structure their very emergence have become possible through the creation of the market for cultural goods from one side, and through the general rise in the level of the European economic activity that gradually has had its influence on the general standard of living. According to a series of researchers the coffee-houses are heterogeneous sites because of the various uses of this type of social space, on one side of spectrum of such activities are gambling and prostitution, while on the other newspapers reading and political pamphlets, as well as because of structural functionality of their position within the realization of the dynamics of modernity as an epoch spanning the period from the late Renaissance to the twentieth century (Hetherington 1997: 14; Ellis 1956; Billington 1980; Stallybrass and White 1986). The essence of the umbilical relationship of the bourgeoisie as a social class and of the identitarian politics of its self-constitution against the site of the social space that presents itself both as other and as the identical to the ethos of the middle class is revealed in the role the coffee-house played in the seventeenth and eighteenth century with regard to the stabilization of the ways the bourgeois social relations work.


The task of description of the poplar culture implications of the bohemian circles from the interdisciplinary perspective makes necessary a precise definition of the object of investigation subsumed under the name of the ‘Bohème’. Not only the dynamics of oppositions and complementarities observed over the course of the second half of XIXth and the beginning decades of the XXth century between the bourgeoisie and the bohemians as it was taking place all over the Europe should be taken into account, but also the specific regional differences are hoped to be traceable in the mass of documents surrounding the historical image of the successive generations of people finding themselves on the margins of “the respectable society.” It is of no great importance if these singular personalities were forced by the circumstances to relegate themselves to the circles of meretricious glamour, or they did join the community at will. A historian or any other kind of faithful researcher will never know the actual moving forces behind the series of decisions and actions due to the indeterminacy and multiplicity of factors of influence that have had bearing on the life style and trajectory these persons taken up.

The bohemians to a great measure directed not only their daily behaviour and appearances but also consciously created the image of themselves that was to be handed down to the generations to come. As a social class and as a space of positions within the general social structure their very emergence have become possible through the creation of the market for cultural goods from one side, and through the general rise in the level of the European economic activity that gradually has had its influence on the general standard of living. In great metropolitan cities these tendencies not only have come to expression much earlier than in the hinterland or provincial regions, but also were continually affected by the special status of these centers of accumulation of wealth and power.

Part I: Bohemian Circles on the Margins of Law-Abiding Society

- Contradictory traits of the conventional coupling of the bohemian circles with the underworld on the margin of the law abiding population of big cities as both set against the “respectable society” of the time

With little loss of focus I may widen the area of concern to include the problematics of interaction of special divisions as the reflections of the respective divisions born of social class distinctions. Without the context of social aspirations and the valorization of success as a feature of increasingly more capitalist modern societies there are a few insights to be derived from the descriptions of the individual dramas played out by the members of the community situated on the margins of what was then agreed upon to call the respectable society. That last aspect of the orientation on the success whether defined in broad economic terms or in terms of the recognition granted by the representatives of the same artistic trade helps avoid the sweeping generalization frequently made by the students of the ‘bohemia’ who throw into one category of marginality the dwellers of underworld defined in opposition to the criminal code and the personalities going against the grain of widely held at their time social norms and conventions. Both groups found themselves thrust out of the pale of respectable society by differing constellations of respective social conditions that had been relevant for them with significantly different implications. The outlaw population of the criminal underworld did not share with the socially dominant part of the wider society those parts of culture that could let them lead a social existence propitious to taking part in the general economy of cultural or material production. Their criminal activities although clothed into the appearance of the economic transactions was clearly at odds with the legal codes enforced by the central authorities. And the terms of the interaction between the criminal world and the mainstream society were not possible to be changed by means of negotiations as concerns the historical period in question.

On the contrary, the social strata occupying the marginal sector of wider societies but never the less employed in forms of cultural activity could at least in principle negotiate the terms on which the wider market of cultural goods granted value to these products. The very possibility to set up an independent gallery in the middle of the nineteenth century apart from being a revolutionary in its local meaning act constituted a first step to more equitable terms of negotiations over the value and in many cases the price itself of the work of art.

Such conflation should mainly be observable in the content of the contemporary popular culture circulating among the masses belonging to the rapidly growing in numbers middle class to whom the station of a criminal figure and the situation of a person marginal in consequence of his lifestyle even if it had no criminal features were lacking of significant difference.

In this context the practice of social signification and the attachment of the mark of bohemianism not only to certain types of dress or behaviour, but also to places that having a social history of their own have acquired through a sort of metonymy new historically rooted significance as the sites closely related to the Bohemian life and in certain cases to certain circles of personalities who have entered art and cultural history of multiple Modernist movements and molded the outward features of late Modernity, have secured to the coffee-house the status of the symbol and memorial to the life of ‘La Bohème’.

The character of the writing strategy I intend to employ in constructing the description and the image of the constellation of sites, which consist of numerous cafes established in main metropolitan cities of Europe in their activity roughly coinciding with French ‘Belle Epoch’ of spectacular development in social and artistic realms, will be that of iterative and web-like narrating of the extant historical and socio-analytical materials along with the selected excerpts from the autobiographies and memoirs of the representative frequenters of these coffee drinking establishments which occasionally have become the centers and the symbols of Bohemianism, e.g. Café des Westens. The expected iterative readdressing of certain figures within the sometimes international, or cosmopolitan for that matter, sometimes more narrowly nationally rooted bohemian circles has to do with the precedent setting and frequently used by mass media of these times image intentionally cultivated by those who led and popularized the Bohemian life. Thus the description and analysis of the place of certain location, first conceived in purely topographical terms and secondly as products of strategies of assignment of social meaning to certain spaces, will necessarily avail itself of historic references of figures, place names, and artistic movements history to effect a type of thick description of the phenomenon that have secured itself a place in the popular culture.

Part II: The Historical Emergence of ‘Bohemian’ Social Type

- The historical underpinnings to the emergence of the ‘bohemian’ social type found among the frequenters of the socially signified sites of the European coffeehouses in the period stretching from the latter years of the XIX century up to the WWII

Among the sources I am using in rendering the links between certain locations defined by their outward function and certain social type and activities concomitant to it, at first without any attempt to define the qualities of a social milieu corresponding to it and the dynamics of its membership or boundary setting and maintenance, there is recent work by Elisabeth Wilson ‘Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts’ (2000) who engages in creating a general picture of the times and people who were counted among the exemplary reference points whenever there was or is a need to name and contrast to their contemporary social climate a group of persons many times implicated in most seminal of the events either of artistic history or of social one. She attempts not only to contextualize the personalities subsequently immortalized as rebels or people far ahead of their times, and thus natural born revolutionaries, but also to find place for the issues borne of late XXth century concern for those inhabitants of the Bohemian world who ever remained condemned to be the unnoticed part of the background. In this manner she contributes to writing the alternative history of the events incorporated into the dominant historical discourse from the approach tending to negate the presence of the not noticed contribution of women, minor artists, and all of the representatives of the occupations and classes that indirectly gave their support essential to existence and sometimes success of the traditional celebrities of Bohemian world.

From the dilemmas Elizabeth Wilson tries to disentangle the subject of her investigation gets into relief the tripartite subdivision of the riddle of Bohemianism that up to this day does no let rest the inquisitiveness of the student of societies.

On the one side, there are clear attempts to set time and place boundaries to the phenomenon of Bohemia and within such pinned down localities to trace through the historiography informed tools of description the content and the defining traits of the persons that at different times and places were identified with the much vaunted life style of free and haunted artist. But the intersections and interrelations observable in the biographies and other historical records blur the distinct boundaries between the Bohemian and the Bourgeois, as figures ever opposed to each other both in manifests of numerous avant-garde movements and the behavior the first engaged in not infrequently flaunting the conventions accepted at the time. The enigma of miraculous reconciliation of the apparently struggling social camps may only be explained either by the recourse to the reason of inner need of increasingly bourgeois society in the means of alleviating the boredom of materially comfortable and private existence or by dint of pointing to the inherently bourgeois and individualistic ethos of an independent genius, eve if he in his self realization comes to reject the rest of society and the established social order.

On the second side, the dynamics of the transformations that modern Western societies have undergone in the course of the late XIXth and the XXth centuries have put an ordinary citizen of the nation states, that under the pressures of globalizations and homogenization flowing from increasing penetration of the dominant Western lifestyle and the multinational corporations providing the products associated with it are forced to discover anew the essence of their respective national identities or to reject the national identity in favor of the one defined in much more local or reflexive terms, in the situation that demands from him or her to accommodate to the style of life much resembling that of the Bohemian not so much in its experiential fullness but in the basic economic insecurity and contingency of the parameters of status from now on ever open to renegotiation and risk (Blass 1974: 30-2). By this token there is an assumption that to the history and the very phenomenon of Bohemianism there are more on going implications than was previously suspected under more narrowly defined tasks of inquiry into the strands of popular culture of late XIXth century.

From the third side, that there is to the investigation of the importance of certain places to the constitution of the Bohemianism, it is possible to highlight the unremitting presence of the themes of nostalgia for forever gone past on the background of eternal presence of the physical locations that even during the longed for period have acquired the special fame of Bohemian enclaves within the vast and impersonal expanses of rapidly modernizing metropolises (Blass 1974: 27, 33). To prove that we just have to consider a citation from the Kandinsky’s diary made in reference to the special and instantly felt atmosphere that reigned to his opinion in the artistic quarters of pre-WWI Munich. This shift of the charm from the specially treated group of socially marginal personalities, let it be noted, by the creators of the public educational, mass media, and artistic discourses, to the group locations that in popular imagination remain endowed with a degree of distinction based on the consecrative aptitude of a unique event to change the nature of material objects and structure from that of a mundane to the one imbued with historic and artistic connotations. This reverence for history, monuments, and the activity of bringing to the gaze of contemporaries of the artifacts and the scenes of past is readily recognizable as a defining feature of a bourgeois ethos, as it constituted itself from the earliest stages in the development of interest in the commemoration of the histories of particular localities and making them accessible to the wide public, which presumes shared cultural assumptions both of constructors of sites of popular interest and those of the public educated and brought up in a certain way.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
493 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Rothberg International School - Hebräische Universität Jerusalem, Israel – Helmut Kohl Institute for European Studies
Social Class Cultural Significance Bohemian Lifestyle Conjunction Role Coffeehouses Visibility Sites Types Sociality Popular Culture Nineteenth Century Europe



Titel: The Social Class and Cultural Significance of the Bohemian Lifestyle in Conjunction with the Role of the Coffeehouses as the Visibility Sites of New Types of Sociality