Solutions: Bohemia (Notes from Status Anxiety)

Notes from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004). This is the eleventh post on this topic; the first is here.

PART II: Solutions


Bohemians came to prominence in France after Napoleon, 1815. Bohemians are found in all social classes, age groups, professions, and in both genders. They include Romantics, surrealists, Beatniks, punks, situationalists, Kibbutzbiks, et. al.

Bohemians lived simply, read a lot, didn’t care much for money, were melancholic, had an allegiance to art and emotion, led unconventional sex lives, and … some of the women wore their hair short! Most importantly, they did not fit into the bourgeois conception of respectability.

Bohemians don’t like the bourgeoisie, private schools, debutantes and ‘eligible bachelors,’ blood sports, missionaries, bores, and people who worry about their reputations.

Bohemians like men and women, Nietzsche, Picasso, Kokoschka, jazz, acrobats, Havelock Ellis, the Mediterranean, DH Lawrence, those who don’t anticipate life after death.

Flaubert: “Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of wisdom.”

The bourgeoisie are seen as prudes, materialistic, both cynical and sentimental, immersed in trivia and trivial pursuits.

‘Real’ bohemians were those who “set themselves up as sabatoeurs of the economic meritocracy.” They valued ‘sensitivity’ over worldly ambition. Work and money, they felt, destroyed one’s capacity for sensitivity. They thought themselves “deserving of the highest honour for their ethical good sense and their powers of receptivity and expression.” [Isn’t this just another form of meritocracy, status based on talent, skill, intelligence?]

Thoreau – lack of wealth didn’t necessarily mean, as the bourgeois said, that one was a loser at the game of life; one might be impoverished financially because one focused energies on things other than making money, equally enriching in their own right.
Bohemians (and others) realised that maintaining confidence in their values, so at odds with the mainstream, required mixing socially mainly with others who shared the same values, and reading and listening to materials that supported their values. Hence, enclaves of Bohemians in Montparnasse, Bloomsbury, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Venice Beach, etc.

Bohemians redefined failure. For the bourgeoisie, failure in business or the arts was an indictment of character because it’s assumed that society is fair in distributing its rewards. For bohemians, there’s nothing punitive about failure. In fact, because those who succeed in society are those who can best “pander to the flawed values of their audiences,” commercial success was viewed with some suspicion. (Myth of the misunderstood artist)

Bohemians emphasise the “dignity and superiority of the rejected ones,” which is a secular counterpart to the Christian message and story of Jesus’s marginalisation and crucifixion: “Torture at the hands of the uncomprehending masses” is “evidence of the righteousness of the neglected party.”

Sometimes bohemians were “radicals devoted to anything so long as it was taboo in the Mid-West,” shocked the middle class, outraged public opinion.

It’s “only a short step from valuing originality and emphasising the non-material aspects of life to feeling that almost anything that could surprise a judge or pharmacist — from crustacean-walking [Gérard de Nerval] to strawberry-breast-cooking [Filippo Marinetti] — must be important.”

Most generally, bohemia has legitimised the pursuit of an alternative way of life.” They “articulated a case for a spiritual as opposed to a material method of evaluating both oneself and others.”

Addendum: Rebecca Blood made a comment when this was originally posted; she wrote:

Based on my recent reading on the Myers-Briggs personality types, this could just as easily be named “Intuitives vs Sensers” (the Bohemians being the Intuitives).

(More on Myers-Briggs here:



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