Love like a Bohemian

Originally in: New Escapologist

Tom Mellors looks at the lessons from a tradition of literary and historic Bohemian courting rituals.

First: Be light

“What then shall we choose? Lightness or heaviness?”
Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Posed with the question that Milan Kundera’s narrator asks in the opening chapters of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Bohemian lover chooses lightness. In order to love like a Bohemian one must embrace the lightness that, as Kundera writes, causes a person to “take leave of the earth and his earthly being.”

There are exceptions, of course. There have been Bohemians whose love carried such a weight that it brought them down to earth with an almost terminal velocity. When Geoffrey Phibbs refused to take part in a love quadrangle with the American poet Laura Riding, the English poet Robert Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson, Riding made a desperate suicide attempt and threw herself from a fourth-storey window. She survived, but the heaviness of her love forced her and Graves into exile.

The majority of Bohemian lovers embrace lightness. That is not to say that they do not love passionately or even violently, but rather that their love renounces the heaviness that conventional social narratives place on relationships. The Bohemian lovers of the early 20th century spurned chaperones like the establishment spurned bohemians. Many refused to marry their partners because they saw marriage as a symbol designed to constrain; symbols, when backed by the Bourgeois society, become burdens of insufferable weight.

Few characters, real or fictional, embody the lightness of Bohemian love as perfectly as Sabina. One of the most alluring characters in Kundera’s novel, Sabina approaches the freedom of her existence with a playful, passionate eroticism that mystifies those who see the world heavily. She is the long-time mistress and close friend of an almost equally light-spirited surgeon named Tomas.

Sabina’s ethereal disposition enables her to engage in sexual acts that are essentially humiliating without the slightest sense of degradation. In the novel’s most famous love scene, Tomas places a Victorian bowler hat on Sabina’s head. The hat belonged to her grandfather who was once the mayor of “a small Bohemian town.” As she looks at herself in the mirror, Sabina realises that far from being a joke the hat actually signifies violence: “violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman.” The bowler hat is humiliating because it is a symbol of repressive patriarchal power adorning the body of a naked woman. Rather than protest however, she relishes the humiliation. Sabina is free and freedom is light. “Instead of spurning it,” we are told, “she proudly, provocatively played it for all it was worth, as if submitting of her own will to public rape.”

Second: Be avant-garde

“Make it new!”
Ezra Pound – Make It New

For Bohemian lovers in the early 20th century, Ezra Pound’s modernist call-to-arms applied just as much to the bedroom as it did to poetry and painting. A sexual revolution was taking place that pushed beyond the boundaries of ‘normal’ sexual behaviour to a place where few things were ‘out of bounds’.

Strictly speaking of course, there was nothing new about the Bohemians’ sexual experiments. Homosexuality, polygamy and event incest have been practised since time immemorial. What was new was the disregard for traditional forms of relationships (marriage for example) and the shift from Victorian values (which emphasised prudishness) to values of exploration, sensual pleasure and aesthetic beauty.

It is within this spirit that the Bohemian lover views love as an artistic experiment, making him or her avant-garde in the modernist sense of the word – a daring expression of authenticity. Bohemians delight in shocking Bourgeois society through their art and Bohemian lovers through their enthusiasm for sexual deviancy. If you aren’t put on trial for obscenity then you aren’t experimenting enough.

Mischievous behaviour is a central tenant of pushing boundaries and Bohemian lovers become ecstatic at the thought of their own wickedness. Virginia Nicholson describes how the illicit nature of the early Bohemian’s sexual experiments – which included cavorting in public – filled them with a sense of excitement.

Vanessa Bell was known to have a mischievous streak. In a letter to the art critic Roger Fry, with whom she had open affairs throughout her life, Bell wrote: “I suggest a series of copulations in strange attitudes and have offered to pose. Will you join? I mean in the painting.” An equally provocative letter was sent to her friend, the economist John Maynard Keynes. Bell teasingly asked him if he had had “a pleasant afternoon buggering one or more young men we left for you. It must have been delicious out on the downs in the afternoon sun, a thing I have often wanted to do…”

Bell was adventurous in all aspects of her life. As an artist she rejected the limitations of Impressionism and became a pioneer of abstract painting; as a lover she was equally avant-garde. During the First World War she took part in a threesome with her sometime lover Duncan Grant and his partner David Garnett. Vanessa and her husband Clive Bell maintained an open marriage, each taking different partners throughout their lives.

Third: Be inspired   

“Oh Muse, Oh high genius, aid me now!”
Dante – The Inferno

Like Dante, the Bohemian lover believes in muses. Unlike the divine muses of classical or medieval culture however, the Bohemian muse is very human. Inspiration is discovered through romance; lustful and passionate encounters feed the artistic imagination.

It is evident from Gustav Klimt’s obsession with the female form that he gained as much inspiration from the models he worked with – and often slept with – as he did from Japanese woodblock prints or Greek urns. Klimt recreated this erotic inspiration with an originality and daring that shocked his Edwardian peers. The Austrian painter lived in Freud’s Vienna – a city of archaic traditions, sexual repression and rigid morality. Yet it was within this setting that Klimt created some of the most original erotic art of the early 1900s.

Little is known about Klimt’s personal life yet much can be surmised from his paintings. The women of Klimt’s art are often criticised as representing either erotic fantasies or sinister goddesses. This attitude towards women is fairly typical of Bohemian men at the time. Virginia Nicholson, author of Among the Bohemians, describes it as the “hard-to-eradicate sexism of the Bohemian male.”

Not all of Klimt’s art falls into this category however. Klimt’s most famous painting is of the socially distinguished Adele Bloch-Bauer – the wife of Klimt’s patron who became his lover. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is at once a criticism of the decadent middle-classes – seen in the extensive use of silver and gold in the dress – and a careful study of the woman behind the clothes. The way she holds her hands for example, suggests the awkwardness of a delicate feminine body encased within the symbols of Bourgeois society. Adele’s face suggests resigned indifference, while the gaudy dress she wears threatens to overcome her.

For me, the careful rendering of Adele’s hands and face demonstrate Klimt’s ability to look deep into soul of this woman and to be inspired by it. That Klimt’s love affair with Adele influenced his art is undeniable – one only has to browse through his work to see her face crop up again and again. Whether she is in orgasm or appearing stern and cold, Adele Bloch-Bauer testifies to the power of the Bohemian muse.

Fourth: Be authentic

“Truth , Love and Beauty… this is what the real meaning of the Beat Generation is.”
Fred W. McDarrah – Anatomy of a Beatnik

Like Keats’ mysterious voice in Ode to a Grecian Urn, the Bohemian believes that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The Bohemian lover seeks to love as truthfully and therefore as beautifully as is humanly possible. This does not mean that the Bohemian lover strives always to be honest, but rather that they love in a way which is truthful to themselves.

Bohemian love is all about authenticity. Bohemian lovers listen to their desires and act on them, regardless of the social implications. The painter Robert Medley is an example of someone who, through the influence of Bohemia, came to love authentically. Having grown up in a highly homophobic society, Medley found the strength to accept his true sexual persuasion only after being introduced to the Bloomsbury Group. Over time Medley was kissed by Lytton Strachey, had a relationship with the young W. H. Auden and eventually met his future partner Rupert Doone, with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

Like Nietzsche, the Bohemian lover believes that “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” Providing the love is authentic, it matters not whether the majority of people deem it to be immoral, or worse yet, evil. One group of Bohemians who saw it as their mission to puncture the moral codes of their day was The Beats. The three figureheads of the movement, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, once joined together for a gay romp in post-Second World War Manhattan. Although Kerouac was sexually ambiguous, Burroughs and Ginsberg were openly bisexual and gay.

Neal Cassady was another major Beat figure who loved according to his own rhythm, which for Cassady had the frenetic energy of jazz improvisation. While living in New York, Cassady worked out a weekly schedule to accommodate his polyamorous relationships and his passion for writing. Kerouac’s biographer Ann Charters describes how Cassady “spent two days a week with Allen Ginsberg writing poetry and making love, two days with Jack Kerouac learning about prose writing and two days with his wife Luanne making love and fighting.” According to Charters, “the schedule barely lasted a week because Luanne wasn’t having any of it.”

The Bohemian lover can’t help but admire his ambitious experiment, even if it did end in failure. Not only was it sexually daring but it was true to Cassady’s frenzied way of life and reminds us that authentic love exists beyond the Bourgeois conception of a “successful relationship”.

  1. Tom Mellors

    I have yet to read the book “”The unbearable lightness of being.”I have however, just ordered it online so once I receive it I shall be quick to read it. A few months ago I changed my writing genre to Bohemians, having not know anything about them before. I became intrigued immediately and I have being doing alot of research on this genre so you can imagine my surprise when I came across your blog. I found it fascinating. Infact I had not heard of Gustav Klimt until now, I read of his life on Wikipedia. I found the common link between Gustav Klimt, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and many more that they carried so much pain, secretly suffering amount of depression. Not only this but they grew up surrounded by constant death of loved ones. It is weird that the majority of Artists, Writers, Musicians have this gift. They see beauty in everything except their heart is black.

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