It is a beautifully clear day despite the freezing cold, and mon chéri is napping on the couch beside me. Charles Aznavour and I are singing la bohème just low enough not to wake him, and I am thinking back to a cold little closet of a room we once lived in on the sixth floor of a crumbling building in Paris’s 14ème arrondissement.
La bohème. It was French novelist Henri Murger who first romanticized the expression in his 1847 novel, ‘Scènes de la vie de bohème.’ The term originally designated a region in what is today the Czech Republic, inhabited then by a poor, nomadic group called Gypsies or Romany. But with Murger it came to mean ‘a world of artists, social rebels, and radicals who rejected the comforts of the bourgeoisie, opting instead for poverty, and believing that any true experience demanded suffering. They were committed to a life of freedom, work, and pleasure, and eschewed the corruption and rotten values of conventional society.’
Bohemianism caught on among writers, composers, and artists in the nineteenth century: Giacomo Puccini, Alexandre Privat, Jules Vallès, George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire… In 1932, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française even issued a new definition for the word bohemian: ‘One who lives a vagabond, unregimented life without assured resources, who does not worry about tomorrow.’
Trust the Parisians to elevate starving to death to an art form.
Murger lived in different times, when status was predetermined by birth and philosophy could be a profession. A time when there was romance in the notion of voluntary poverty. Today, the world is industrialized, monetized, and mass-produced, and when you are not born to privilege, wealth, or status, la bohème is a luxury you cannot afford. Just ask the 5.9 billion citizens of developing countries and the 38.5 million immigrants in the United States. The only guarantee of security, and survival, is hard work.
Forget about art, forget about poetry. Choose a noble profession. Once upon a time that term designated clergymen, educators, and doctors. Today it refers to any sought-after job that requires an education, is performed in a soil-free office environment, and offers enticing socio-economic returns. Trade in your passion for a white collar, your happiness for security. The sky may be the limit, but in this day and age you are what you do; how many cowboys and ballerinas do you know anyway?
I do not blame parents for wanting solid futures for their children. I do not blame them for raising a generation of overachieving lawyers, doctors, and accountants. Poverty is exhausting, and only in a Hemingway novel is there any romance in going to bed hungry and cold. But I do blame society for its twisted, shallow association of profession with worth. I blame it for dictating people’s lives by the white or blue color of their shirts. I blame it for ruining la bohème.
More than a century after Murger, Françoise Sagan wrote of a world where, instead of asking people what they did, she asked them if they were in love, what they were reading. Imagine what that would look like: a world where being an artist or a banker, a grocer or a physician, a musician or an engineer, was only a byproduct to being happy. A world where we were less concerned with what we were and more with who we were.
Perhaps la bohème was never about starving to death at all. Perhaps, as Aznavour so simply put it, it only meant on est heureux.*
Professions are not noble. People are. Those who do what they love, and those who find happiness in whatever they do.
Here’s to those who make our bread, those who make our music, and those who make us dream. To happiness. To la bohème.
* ‘We are happy.’