Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bourgeois and Bohemian

For Russell Kirk fans: He called himself a Tory Bohemian and was all about the "unbought grace of life" (Burke). He also couldn’t hold a job and had four kids fast relatively late in life because a relatively sensible (or somewhat bourgeois) woman figured out how to catch him. So bohemian means, in this conext, life is beautiful and to some extent don’t worry be happy. Bourgeois means turning all over life over to calculation and consent about one’s own interest. The bourgeois/bohemian distinction originates with Rousseau, who was very hard on the bourgeoisie. Pure bohemian and pure bourgeois are both undesirable and unreproductive extremes, but surely that’s one of the teachings of KNOCKED UP--where an excessively--even repulsively--bohemian man accidentally impregnates an excessively bourgeois woman. And (of course) they make each other better.
David Brooks wrote a book called BOBOS (bourgeois bohemians) IN PARADISE, where he explains that sophisticated Americans today pride themselves in combining bourgeois productivity with bohemian meaningful self-fulfillment. But the truth is that at every crucial turn bourgeois trumps bohemian, because healthy and safety or personal security are real and spiritual purpose or meaning, for the Bobos, is a mere preference or whim. (All this is to explain the terminology used in the KNOCKED UP post below.)

Discussions - 5 Comments

There's no question the BoBos are bourgeois. They have a bohemian tincture, that's all.

To be more accurate, I'd say they have bohemian pretensions. But I'd probably say that about "genuine" bohemians as well as "bobos." Why? I don't like the dichotomy of bourgeois and bohemian to begin with so I find something really weird in trying to mesh the two. The bobo is, by his nature, flawed as he begins with two extremes that I don't really believe really exist in people who are not putting on. Possibly, it's all just too French for my taste and I don't understand. But it seems to me (and Peter seems to allude to this above) that the Bohemian's quest for "self-fulfillment" and the bourgeois quest for material well-being is so wrapped up in the self and the annoying sport of navel-gazing that I see little real difference between them.

I have not seen this movie yet but I am hearing so much about it that I feel like I have seen it. I have another question about it. Does its plot about a loser guy who finds himself beholden to an achieving and intelligent woman tell us something else about ourselves? Is it now the case that so many women are successful in the ways that feminists wanted that these women now have to "pick up" guys in the way that men used to "pick up" women. That is, she chooses him not because he is an impressive guy who charms her with his intellectual powers or his strength or power in the world. Rather, he's simply amusing. In days of old, a man might meet a woman who had some connection with him beyond being "kinda cute" and likable and amiable. But it was not required or even, possibly, hoped for. There was a sense (as in Katherine Hepburn's The African Queen) in which there was something more exciting and admirable in a match up with a woman who could give as good as she gets. But not even the most successful businessman (excluding blue bloods, of course) would be embarrassed to say that he met his wife while she was checking his groceries or bringing him coffee at the local diner. Am I wrong to note a tide turning? The single men I know today seem to look at resumes as much as ordinary attraction--not so much because they are concerned with the quality of conversation they will have when they hit retirement but because they are concerned about the size of the 401K she will bring to the deal. Is this the new American version of the dowry? I don't think much has changed in the preferences of women with regard to men--but it is getting increasingly difficult for many of them to find men who are on a par with themselves for education and earning potential. Is the point of Knocked Up that a girl should just give up that quest and find a nice, amiable, average looking slacker and make the best of it?

I agree with Julie that the bourgeois/bohemian distinction is crudely drawn. This probably has a lot to do with Rousseau's original formulation, rooted in the distinction between amour propre and amour de soi, and based on a particular view of human nature, which was too neatly drawn (maybe for rhetorical reasons-you get a much fuller picture from Rosseau in the footnotes to the Second Discourse than in the main text and in his book on the origins of language). Anyway, there is certainly some sense in which Socrates was a bohemian but still managed to pay deference to bourgois virtue and avoid contempt for bourgeois life, even while he often critiqued it.

Thanks Ivan for that discussion of Rousseau. I haven't read him in more than a few years and my memory is rusty but I couldn't resist commenting on your phrase "too neatly drawn." I like it very much and it nicely summarizes much of what I do remember thinking about him--though I confess to hazy recollection of details. Isn't the distinction that the ancients drew between body and soul the real tension in life that is interesting and doesn't it point to a way of understanding the world that is richer and deeper? I remember finding much in Rousseau deeply interesting and provocative--esp. Emile. But I never thought he approached the depth of understanding in Aristotle, added much that was new to it, or successfully subtracted anything away from it. But what do I know?

Russell Kirk said that neocons "mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States," and he was correct in this respect.

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