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Bohemian Rhapsody : Art, Angst and Good Coffee--Not to Mention the Enviable Ability to Bravely Run Away. A Report From the World's Most Enduring Parallel Universe

March 21, 1993|Herbert Gold | Gold, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, won the 1989 Sherwood Anderson Prize for fiction. This essay was adapted from "Bohemia, Where Art, Angst, Love and Strong Coffee Meet," to be published next month by Simon & Schuster.

"STRIVE TO BE WHERE YOU ARE," SAID THE ZEN BOHEMIAN AT TASSAJA-in the Los Padres forest of Northern California. Since she had taken a vow of silence in honor of the anniversary of her parents' divorce, she gave me this advice by pointing to her breast. She had ironed the decal letters onto her T-shirt. Later she joined a crew of workers flapping towels and T-shirts to chase the flies out of the dining room at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, flies that were only striving to be where they were.

LIFE IS NOT A CABARET OR A FESTIVAL OF LOVE, MUCH AS WE MIGHT prefer it to be, but bohemia is at least a busy cafe of watchers and waiters, doers and don'ters, thinkers and the heedless, men and women possessed of the need to seize the day or plan the future or regret the past, all stubbornly devoted to demonstrating that life really is what good sense tells us it is not. A festival of love or lost love. A dance of the living at the irrevocable spectacle of the massed dead. A territory whose citizens defy time while figuring out what to do with it, how to pass it.

The bohemian clings to the world of sense and feeling--and his or her particular presence in it--because otherwise experience seems to diminish, fade, decay, die. He wants to write in order to name life in the world, paint in order to guard its shape and color, sing in order to measure time and the heartbeat; or he may simply hang out. In a post-industrial world that clings to the values of useful action, bohemianism devotes its life force to expressing rather than doing; only essence is real, and effectiveness is reduced to an incidental, irrelevant function of soul. Bohemian Nation keeps on trying, inscribing need onto both the silence and the noisiness of our short time on Earth. Forever is on its mind. "I knew all men are mortal," William Saroyan said in his last hours, "but I didn't realize this applied to me."

THERE'S A SAN FRANCISCO PANHANDLER WHO WEARS A TATTOO THAT reads "YUPPIE" with the afterthought "VOID" inked over it. He exchanged conversation for my quarters. "Are you a former yuppie?" I asked.

"I'm a Void," he said. "It's the '90s, brother. I'm the living image."

At this minimal level, he was expressing himself, leaving it to his audience to decide if he was also communicating a perspective on social realities. His palimpsest poem, "VOID," one word long, one-seventeenth of a haiku, with its yuppie shadow behind it, absorbed all his energies. Unlike the mere graffiti artist, he carried it to his audience on daily rounds, using smiles, teeth, repartee. He was not an addict. He was a chemically challenged performing artist in need of fellowship and, perhaps, a substance unknown to me to push the damp wind of outdoors off his chest. His smile offered fellowship in return.

Traditional bohemians are intended to respond with greater assertiveness. Kosmik Lady, who has been handing me her poems on the street for many years, believes Void should give up minimalism. She utters many syllables. Her gospel requires floods of explanation, much Xeroxing.

Free spirits must tell themselves they are making something, doing something, in addition to telling the world they are creative, revolutionary, real, in touch--whatever the language they come to use. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took on the manners of London layabouts, but then lay about actually painting, and soon they were professional artists who had worn capes and velvet at a certain period in their gestation. Now they were artist-bohemians rather than merely bohemians, and continued to don capes and velvet upon occasion. (Defiance of the hard-working is part of the deal; embracing the stigmas of rebellion is one of the tenets of bohemian faith.)

Russian art rebels just before World War I and the Soviet Revolution reflected the passions of St. Petersburg and Russian desperation. The art movement named Futurism has a place in history, but the full raucousness of these visionaries can be evoked by the usual splinter group, this time called Everythingism, the cafe named the Wandering Dog and perhaps most eloquently by the newspaper called Murder Without Bloodshed. When people talk about murder without bloodshed, one can expect a bit of murder with bloodshed. Revolution came hard to Russia, and bohemia was one of its most beleaguered victims.

Tiflis, in Soviet Georgia, briefly became the Paris of, well, Soviet Georgia, welcoming artists and rebels in such meeting places as the Little Fantastic Cabaret. Some of the Tiflis painters, poets, collagists and designers made their way in exile to Paris, the Tiflis of France. More died; turned out there was bloodshed after all. Yet during the bad times, the 70 years of the Soviet Union, improvised cafe life persisted even when there were no cafes. People gathered at tables in apartments to deal in forbidden thoughts. The impulse survived the regime.

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