Bohemia Without Borders. The Production and Internationalization of a Literary Attitude
University of Toronto
10-13 December 2008
The literary and artistic bohemia of the 19th and 20th centuries has been subjected to many interpretations – many of which are contradictory. In his Scènes de la vie de Bohème, published in 1851, Henri Murger founds the myth of the bohemia, which brings together young and poor Parisian painters and writers waiting for consecration and glory. A few years later, Karl Marx recasts Murger’s bohemia in the urban sub-proletariat (within the world of pickpockets, swindlers, gamblers, scavengers, etc.). Because of its resistance to the bourgeois culture, Walter Benjamin confers to the Parisian bohemia a dimension of heroism that he considers typical to modernity. As a result, much scholarly attention has associated the bohemia with a number of counter-cultural and anti-bourgeois tendencies (from François Villon to Andy Warhol and beyond). Furthermore, the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Nathalie Heinich have recently attributed a key role to the bohemia in the genealogy of French literary and artistic fields: along with ways of life and creation characteristic of the bohemia, they postulated that the bohemia is radically outside of the mainstream.
Confronted with this abundance of interpretations, most of art and literature historians have renounced to explore the causes of the bohemian phenomenon to instead seek to trace the history avatars of the Murger’s bohemia (as transmitted by Puccini’s opera) both in France and in other countries. Therefore, we can ask ourselves, which type of bohemia in particular is evoked by these historians? What is there in common between the bohemias of the impasse of Doyenné, of Verlaine, of the Chat noir or of Montmartre during the Belle Epoque? Outside of France, what kind of bohemia have embodied Oscar Wilde, Willem Kloos, Rubén Dario and Emile Nelligan? In the history of French literature, the centralization of intellectual activity in Paris, the development of the publishing and press markets, and the demographic explosion of writers were factors that were capital to the development of a literary proletariat. It is from this social milieu that bohemia emerged. A specific attitude was added to this social configuration: this attitude, the “vie de bohème”, has its heroes, its looks, its places and its eccentricities. Many questions, however, are left unanswered: which figures, positions and what authority were conferred to the successive bohemias in Paris? Moreover, to what extent do literary and artistic bohemias share similar traits? Considering cities like London, Madrid, Brussels, Munich or even New York, Montreal or Toronto, who have had their fair share of bohemians, we could also ask whether or not similar conditions have produced the bohemian phenomenon.
These are the type of questions which will be addressed in the international conference to be held in Toronto December 10th to 13th 2008. Rather than seeking definitions, which are often either too extensive or too restrictive, or than identifying antagonisms that are already very obvious (such as bohemian vs bourgeois), or to create a census of various bohemias, this conference would like to explore modes of constitutions, perpetuation and representation of the bohemia phenomenon in a country and a literature to another. Along with cultural history, sociology of literature and sociocriticism, the conference will also be open to other methodological approaches, such as rhetorical, historic and poetic. Although bohemia continues to reactivate itself and to reappear every now and then, the conference will focus on the period dating from 1789 to 1968, the period during which the social, literary and artistic phenomena of the bohemia experienced its most wide-spread expansion.
The seeked paper proposals should fall in any of the following categories:
1. The metropolis of the bohemia. Although the bourgeois lifestyle can be led in the country as well as in the city, it is virtually impossible to imagine the bohemia outside his metropolitan context. What relationship can we establish between bohemia’s way of life and the metropolis, where intellectual activity centralizes, where newspapers and editorial companies prolifer; and where, simply put, literary and artistic successes appears and disappears? Of particular interest will be the typical places of bohemia’s life – such as attics cafes, taverns and press-rooms – since they represent a distinct urban geography that enabled bohemians to exhibit their eccentric attitudes and that allowed them to hide from their creditors. In addition, the development of bohemian quarters, from Montmartre to Schwabing, from Soho to Greenwich Village and to the Latin Quarter of Montreal could also be explored.
2. Process of legitimization. If bohemia is the product of the expansion and stratification of the literary and artistic fields, and if it originates from the artistic and literary proletariat, is it consequently confined to illegitimacy? Since the time of Rousseau, the poverty embodied by the bohemian is no longer a factor of cultural disqualification. Moreover, despite not entering salons or the French Academy, the bohemian is a fascinating figure for all actors of the literary world. The importance occupied by the bohemia in the literary imagination of the 19th and 20th centuries forces us to rethink how myths and attitudes may partake in the process of cultural legitimization. Thus, did the bohemia introduce new processes of legitimization? In what ways were the iconization of Rimbaud or of Nelligan’s figures products of the collective imagination associated to the bohemia?
3. Cultural transfers. “La bohème n’existe et n’est possible qu’à Paris”, wrote Henry Murger in the beginning of his "Scènes de la vie de Bohème". Nevertheless, there have been Spanish, Belgian, and Canadian bohemias, even though, in certain cases, not all the social conditions associated with bohemia were present. By which vectors and mediators did the bohemian attitude transfer itself to different cultural contexts? In what ways did the fascinating French capital serve as a model to the members of European and American literary fields? What was the nature of these cultural transfers, which forms and what transformations have they undergone? Were there any cases of cultural exchanges or “backlashes” between Paris and the other metropolis of the bohemia?
4. Representations. If the bohemia and the bohemian way of life are a collective construction, what were the bases for it? How did the bohemia, an ensemble consisting of topoi, or realities founded on discourse and representations, express itself in British, German and French literature? How both bohemian literature and literature of the bohemia did contribute to the production of a collective attitude?
Researchers are invited to send their paper proposals, with a title and an abstract of around ten lines in length (in French or in English) before September 1st 2007 to Anthony Glinoer (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to Pascal Brissette (email@example.com). The presentations could be in either French or English and should not exceed 25 minutes. A financial assistance might be available for the conference, but participants should ask to obtain reimbursement for their traveling fees and other costs from their own research centers and subsidiary organizations.
Assistant professor at the University of Toronto
Assistant professor at McGill University
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