Friday 27 December 2013

The Bohemian impulse


The Bohemian impulse, which is also Romanticism, has a perennial appeal - perhaps especially to young men (and young men have great power in society).

And the appeal is real and has great Good in it - and that good is the experience of liberation from corruptly oppressive social structures and practices and the opening-out of the mind into intellectual adventure and endeavor.

Albeit in practice the Bohemian is extremely prone to corruption, indeed perhaps intrinsically and necessarily prone to corruption; and especially via sexual revolution, but also by drugs (intoxication with alcohol and other substances) - and in general break down into selfish short-termist mutual exploitation, or mere idleness, then squalid inertia.

Indeed, so swiftly and so surely is the Bohemian life corrupted, that it can be hard to distinguish that first pure and delightsome phase of creative 'opening-out' from its inevitable corruption. Yet it is real and good and accounts for the perennial nature of the Bohemian life - under certain facilitating conditions.

The Bohemian life in this good aspect is indeed an indicator of the corruptions of organized and dominant Religious life, its over-reach and crudeness of application - it tendency to assume that one size fits all and to crush the individual spirit into the predetermined shape. Its tendency to embrace death: in such a situation the pure Bohemian impulse is a upwelling of sheer life.

This group-versus-individual conflict may be deformed into being purely a matter of sexual constraint, and that is what it rapidly becomes; but in its origin in some people the conflict is not about sex but about the creative spirit.

There are indeed many religions and denominations which make zero provision for the creative spirit, and since the creative spirit is rare this lack is sustainable - yet the creative spirits have a power to burst from such constraint and by their example and arguments (including both valid arguments and dishonest rationalizations) may indirectly cause all manner of problems to the constraining religion over the medium to long term.

Thus any religion must either crush the creative spirit ruthlessly; or have the flexibility to treat the individual Bohemian whose motivation is truly creative and intellectual, as a different case from the individual whose underlying real Bohemian drive is for sexual liberty and escape from moral truth.

Such individual sensitivity and flexibility combined with firm religious principle is a product of individual human judgement, and that alone - it cannot be legislated nor captured in rules and procedures which will either be to oppressive or too weak.

And the proper balance, the ideal balance, can only be achieved in religions and denominations which on the one hand are strong and centred such as to hold their course despite changes; and on the other hand genuinely value creative freedom and possibility.

A religion which sees Goodness only in obedience cannot achieve this balance and must ruthlessly oppress or else soon be subverted by its intellectuals, while a religion which fails to distinguish the free creative spirit from the covert libertine, psychopath or parasite is doomed to disintegration.


Adam G. said...

That sounds like a real problem, but frankly like an impossible problem to solve definitively.

That may be one divine purpose in allowing the proliferation of sects, as lamentable as it may be otherwise. In a world of religious competition, sects have more incentive to accommodate their creative members. But more to the point, its easier to found new denominations.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - "an impossible problem to solve definitively"

Yes I agree. This post was partly stimulated by reading the biographical book of interviews about Sterling McMurrin. Because of the personal interventions of Mormon Presidents and General Authorities - McMmurrin was kept in contact with the LDS church, and on the side of the church, and in fact ended-up strengthening the church.

It could easily have been otherwise and McMurrin could perhaps have damaged the LDS church significantly; but McMurrin's liberalism was seemingly based not on covertly justifying sexual liberation (apparently he continued to live as a Mormon, with strict sexual morality, even when his beliefs were heretical and sometimes contrary), but stemmed from the drive for genuine intellectual liberation.

Samson J. said...

I also find this perennial Bohemian impulse intriguing. For one thing, it's interesting to imagine how it might have manifested itself in times when travel and "easy living" wasn't so easy.

I've been reading Young Nelsons, about the British Navy's employment of boy sailors during the Napoleonic wars. In a letter to his father, one boy described another sailor-boy as a "macaroni", and the author goes on to tell that although we may not understand that term today, the boy's father surely would have - it denoted a young man who was "well-traveled" and "affected European ways". Plus ca change!

Anonymous said...

The solution is to take these people, impose vows of chastity and poverty on them, and give them space to talk to each other and drive intellectual accomplishment.

The true creative intellectuals will accept this bargain. The hangers-on looking for sexual license will not.

The problem is it means taking the best and systematically extinguishing their line of genes. We need to find a way to reproduce them somehow, without actually permitting them sexual contact, or making their lives glamorous.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - Well, OK in a sense (but imposing chastity and poverty is difficult/ impossible over the long term unless people embrace them willingly) - but surely it is much more widely applicable for people to marry and have kids? That's what happened for hundreds of years.

PS Use a pseudonym, not Anonymous.

The Crow said...

I have little use for intellectualism, but in this particular case, it has worked astonishingly well. Great essay, Bruce, and true as true could be.
Maybe I recognize the once-Bohemian in me. The underlying motivations. The chaos that followed, and the fulfillment that followed that.
If you're not alive when you're young, then you never will be.

Christopher Burd said...

Yankee Doodle went to town / Riding on a pony / Stuck a feather in his cap / And called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle is such a hick, he thinks that wearing a feather will make him look like a sophisticated man of the world.