Eight books dealing with various aspects of Western literature and the arts during the last 150 years should tell us something about how we are learning to sort out our recent past. The only artist to whom all eight works assign an important place is Baudelaire. Bergson, Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, and William James appear in most of them. All are written by professors of history or literature in (with one exception) American colleges and universities. Behind several of these works I detect the needs of higher education as now organized in the United States. Both the survey course and the graduate seminar call for comprehensive categories that can be laid out and illustrated in a semester. The metaphor of the map that appears in Quinones’s title recurs in nearly every introduction. The terrain these writers wish to describe is cultural and artistic and can presumably be discovered by careful reference to contemporary documents. All but one of them have a thesis rather than a theory; Bürger carries a fairly heavy burden of Frankfurt-school Marxism. None has written a major critical or historical work. Taken together they reveal enough patterns and omissions to reward careful scrutiny.


A Renaissance scholar and former Marxist, Jerrold Seigel has written the most ambitious and illuminating of these books. His subtitle, “Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930,” insists on the symbiotic relations of bohemia—seen as a social category—to the bourgeoisie. Associated from the start with art, youth, and vagabond living bordering on criminality, the bohemians came to assume an important pioneering function. “Individuals in modern society can explore forms of action and expression, enter new territories of personal and social life, without the cataclysm of revolution.” Seigel’s study of how the amorphous territory of bohemia overlapped that of street performers, ragpickers, artists, gypsies, the underworld, and restless bourgeois individuals leads him to challenge attempts to distinguish between a genuine revolutionary bohemia and a romantic hedonistic bohemia. In Image of the People (1973) the art historian T.J. Clark singled out the socialist Jules Vallès to represent the true condition of bohemia and he insisted on the need “to rescue Bohemia from Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème.” Seigel’s response takes better account of the historical evidence.

In [Clark’s] Marxist schema, the boundaries of bourgeois experience are known in advance; uncertainty, ambivalence, and the testing of limits disappear…. Such a view mistakes a division that existed within individuals, and which was often shifting and uncertain, for a firm distinction between one group and others.

Seigel portrays Murger as the spokesman for an emergent social status that drew on the mythology of withdrawal, marginality, parasitism, and opposition—what we now call alienation.

Seigel’s teeming social history of bohemian Paris gains concreteness from the album of full-length portraits it incorporates, approximately one per chapter for thirteen chapters. After Murger, Seigel examines little-known figures like Alexandre Private d’Anglemont, chronicler of offbeat professions, and Emile Goudeau, cofounder of the Chat Noir cabaret, and well-known writers like Baudelaire and Verlaine. Courbet and Satie are the only nonliterary figures represented. The variety and perceptiveness of the case histories prevent bohemia from becoming a narrow notion. The careful treatment of Vallès, the loner revolutionary who saw in the stock market “a moving poetry,” contributes to Seigel’s basic attitude. “A bohemian political style was one formed by ambivalence toward membership in the bourgeoisie, and whose successive expressions were the dramatizations of that ambivalence.”

Seigel’s case histories are accompanied throughout by a thesis on the nature of art and the production of art works.

The surprising conclusion was that the most characteristically Bohemian attitude toward art—its identification with feeling and sentiment—was precisely the bourgeois view. Both neglected the conditions of real artistic production for some form of pure natural feeling. In bourgeois writers like Augier, this feeling could be found within ordinary life rather than, as for Murger’s followers, at its margins. But both invited the confusion of art and life. The Bohemian project of living life in the name of art dissolved real artistic production in the life that was substituted for it.

It was partly the example of Vaché that led Breton at this time to conceive art in a surprising way—as réclame, advertising…the sense in which Christianity was a form of publicity for heaven. In other words, art was a way of life and a system of convictions that embodied the yearning for a transcendent form of being within the limitations of the present…. The claim to be a poet or an artist was now justified only because it contributed to a life beyond art.

Without ever using a phrase that goes back at least to Hegel, Seigel suggests that the alluring stumblings and mumblings of bohemia display not a valorization of art but “the withering away of art.” I shall come back to this theme.


So comprehensive a book underlines its own omissions. For example, I miss a pertinent discussion of caricature and Daumier. At least once Seigel compares bohemia to Erik Erikson’s notion of a “moratorium”—a social space for acting out rebellion before full maturity, but he fails to examine the fluxes and forces in actual experience suggested by such familiar expressions as “rites of passage” and “sow one’s wild oats” (jeter sa gourme in French). Toward the end of the book the terms “avant-garde” and “modernism” begin to appear without adequate explanation.

The research that went into Bohemian Paris turns up some treasures—the very stuff of history. The anarcho-socialist weekly of the 1860s, La Rive Gauche, preached a bohemianism based on hard work and political engagement opposed to sensual indulgence. Emile Goudeau founded the Hydropathes, an informal café-theater for poets and artists that preceded the Chat Noir, because the leftist results of the 1877 elections inspired him to look for new means of publicity in order to reach a more democratic audience. In Cocteau’s original scenario the true subject of the ballet Parade (1917) was “the confusion that had grown up between art and the life that parodied it, the entanglement of modernism with Bohemia.” This highly readable book probes further than any other I know into the reciprocating movements that connect and distinguish bohemia and bourgeois.

Charles Rearick’s Pleasures of the Belle Epoque is an elusive book. A proverb Rearick quotes could apply to his own celebration: “Après la fête, on gratte tête.” (“After the party, you scratch your head.”) The art nouveau design and detail of the book, the generous illustration (almost a third of the space), and the bouncy opening pages on la joie de vivre suggest that Rearick accepts as a premise the myth that France actually had a belle époque around the turn of the century. Qualifiers and reservations accumulate slowly; by the end we discover that the presumed euphoria of the era was lined with pessimism and aching ennui. The last chapter interprets the belle époque as a moral lesson for our own times, which have absorbed into their everyday texture the indulgence, prodigality, and taboo breaking formerly reserved for la fête. Rearick does not seek the seamy underside of the period; he tries to locate the ideal of shared public enjoyment in a republic recently set free from the aristocratic monopoly of pleasure; he wants to find events in which people were not treated as objects.

Rearick wrote his first book on the connections between folklore and history in France. His new book is gleaned from extensive archival research, interviews, explorations of Parisian topography, and enterprising reading. He includes a map of the principal “places of pleasure” at the turn of the century. Rearick gives us statistics on prices, attendance, consumption, and profits in a variety of establishments. There were 27,000 cafés in Paris in 1900; if you add wine shops and cabarets, Paris had “more drinking places (11.25 for every thousand residents) than any other major city in the world.” The well-documented opening chapter on the first Bastille Day in 1880 demonstrates that it was both a popular outburst and a spectacle staged by the government. The belle époque began with its climax.

As he moves on to cabarets, music halls, world’s fairs, and movie houses, Rearick introduces many vivid details.1 He identifies the weekly newspaper, Le Courrier français, that stimulated and exploited the wave of festivity, and describes the group of eccentric spirits, the Incoherents, who in the Eighties and Nineties sponsored an annual salon and a wild costume ball at mid-Lent. Intermittent discussions of publicity and commercialization probe beneath the appearances of lightheartedness that feed the myth. Rearick finds two apt quotations from Paul Adam, a second-rank Symbolist close to the trends of the era, to demonstrate the downward path of entertainments. Adam refers to “the right to license and enjoyment” that infused the Eighties. By 1907 he begins to see the need for social constraints and to recognize the role of suffering and the wisdom of composing “a purely spectator soul.” For Adam, the party was virtually over.

Reproduced in color on the jacket and again in Chapter 2, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin de la Galette (1889) shows a respectable man in a derby seated at a table and staring intensely at a heavily made-up woman sitting near him at the edge of the dance floor. Rearick’s caption refers to Renoir’s earlier festive version of the same dance hall and compares it to Toulouse-Lautrec’s “more somber view of…isolated individuals waiting on the sideline.” Toulouse-Lautrec depicts a moment of pure sexual solicitation. Rearick is too much the historian to bowdlerize his materials. Yet how can a sustained study of, precisely, the pleasures of the belle époque, omit the subjects of prostitution, the pervasive demimonde of kept women who became celebrities of scandal and extravagance, and the criminal side of bohemia? Zola’s Nana and Proust’s Odette tell us more about certain basic pleasures of Paris than Rearick. Most writers and painters of the day dealt with the brothel as an institution that revealed human behavior and character as much as a political meeting or a concert. Rearick cites Edmond de Goncourt’s description of a belly dancer and of a fellow spectator, a clergyman, who looked away when the movements became too suggestive. Rearick himself looks away too often and thus leaves undisturbed large segments of the myth he wants to recast.


The last page of the introduction uses the word “modern” three times. The first sentence of the conclusion recapitulates. “By the early twentieth century, most of what we know as the modern culture of entertainments was in place.” Yet Rearick has given us only occasional and uncertain suggestions of what he means by modern: giganticism, spectatorship rather than participation, commercialization. Amplifying technology, radio, and television would soon modify these features. We are fascinated by the belle époque, I believe, because many of its entertainments were sui generis, not because they ushered in a loosely defined condition called modern.

In the last chapter of Pleasures of the Belle Epoque Rearick approaches and then shies away from the troubling thesis that World War I was the final spree, a fête that would open up a new world. The Futurists and Apollinaire’s war poetry never enter the picture. We are offered an imaginary encounter between the camp of suffering and discipline and the camp of laughter and gaiety. The subject is left hanging. In sum, it is a fascinating, malformed book. Like the rest of us, Rearick learns as he writes. There is something ingenuous about the fact that the mission and mood of his book shift to disenchantment after the giddiness of his early chapters.

After several books on forms of political reaction in early-twentieth-century France, Eugen Weber published Peasants into Frenchmen in 1976. This fine, comprehensive work of history studies the demographic and cultural shifts that wrenched the French nation toward a tentative unity in variety around the turn of the century. Concerned with the same period, France: Fin de Siècle picks its way around traditional questions of causality and leadership in history in order to paint the lively portrait of an era. Weber proceeds thematically: decadence as fashion, eschatology, and myth; sport; the big sociopolitical crises of Boulanger, anarchism, and Dreyfus; and much more. Immersion in archives, books, paintings, and photographs has made Weber seem effortlessly familiar with the times. “How They Lived,” the chapter on daily living from water supply and (un)cleanliness to transportation and communication, and “Tourists and Curists,” the chapter on the medically justified leisure culture of spas, go a long way toward establishing Weber’s anecdotal method of history. It echoes Stendhal on des petits faits vrais and Oscar Wilde on the revelations of surface.

Profound realities may stir the imagination, but most of life passes on the surface. This is where I mostly look….

A lot of life is about things so trivial that we do not bother to record them—only sometimes to note their absence, as with manners. But the petite histoire is made up of details, and it can surely help to make vaster and more important processes clear.

One may gain small revelations from learning about the origins of celluloid and how the 1881 freedom of the press law changed the appearance of Paris streets. But after a few chapters I began to feel as if I were reading detailed gossip about people I didn’t know. Weber keeps moving on to new details without pausing to develop a case history. Scores of brief trial records from Gazette des Tribunaux finally blur into anonymity. Weber deliberately avoids sustained argument in order to make us register the full variety of a large collection of snapshots. He remains more descriptive and less analytical than Theodore Zeldin in his two-volume France, 1848–1945. Unlike R.H. Wilensky’s unique “How It Happened” sections, enthusiastically jumbled yet suggestive chronicles of everything at once (Modern French Painters, 1949), Weber’s book does not observe strict chronology within his two chosen decades. Frequently he relies too heavily on the autonomy of anecdote, on facts for facts’ sake, rather than bringing out their explanatory power. At these moments the book loses force as a coherent portrait.2

Two second-order postulates keep the book together and afloat. Weber wishes to avoid confusion by distinguishing between fin de siècle (1880–1900) and la belle époque (1900–1914). I find no convincing reason why the two periods and moods should not be seen as overlapping and intermingling, particularly in individual lives. In the last chapter Weber quotes the contemporary critic, Emile Faguet, on the nineteenth century as enacting “the failure of liberalism” because of the contradiction between liberty and equality. The idea deserves closer attention than Weber gives it. Weber himself believes that these corrosive conflicts were redeemed during the fin de siècle by a gradual increase in leisure, dignity, and civility. “The steady stream of small facts…seems to testify for change. And perhaps for progress.” Most readers will find absorbing pages in this information-packed book. It would be hard to describe the reader to whom the whole book is addressed.

In a bare hundred pages Peter Bürger proposes what is properly called a theory. It remains inadequately supported by pertinent examples and is often clouded by a settling of scores with rival German theorists from Adorno to Gadamer and with scholars who reviewed the German edition of his book (1974). Nowhere, not even in the bibliography, does he mention earlier studies by Renato Poggioli (who used the same title in 1962), Ortega y Gasset, César Graña, or Harold Rosenberg. Furthermore Bürger writes stilted prose and tacitly relies on his earlier book on Surrealism to substantiate his case. The frequent references to “literary science” sound both naive and ominous.

Two pages in the third chapter yield a fairly complete statement of Bürger’s theory and a sample of his style.

In bourgeois art, the portrayal of bourgeois self-understanding occurs in a sphere that lies outside the praxis of life. The citizen who, in everyday life has been reduced to a partial function (means-ends activity) can be discovered in art as “human being.”…The separation of art from the praxis of life becomes the decisive characteristic of the autonomy of bourgeois art…. The development of the contents of works is subject to a historical dynamics, whose terminal point is reached in Aestheticism, where art becomes the content of art.

The European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society…art as an institution…. The avant-gardistes proposed the sublation of art…transferred to the praxis of life…. The praxis of life to which Aestheticism refers and which it negates is the means-ends rationality of the bourgeois everyday. Now, it is not the aim of the avant-gardistes to integrate art into this praxis. On the contrary, they assent to the aestheticists’ rejection of the world and its means-ends rationality. What distinguishes them from the latter is the attempt to organize a new life praxis from a basis in art. In this respect also, Aestheticism turns out to have been the necessary precondition of the avant-gardiste intent.

Such high abstraction distorts more than it clarifies. Defining the avant-garde in this way means confining it to the twentieth century (even to the years after 1917, as Bürger suggests elsewhere). Yet the notion and the term, “avant-garde,” go back to the first half of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the transposition of art into life is an essential defining element in dandyism, bohemia, decadence, and aestheticism itself, all in the nineteenth century; it was not initiated by twentieth-century avant-gardists.

In reducing the swirl of history to monolithic blocks of behavior (bourgeois, avant-garde, aestheticist) Bürger ignores what he cannot or prefers not to see. For him the aim of the avant-gardist is “to reintegrate art into the praxis of life.” But the reverse is also true, especially of a strong tendency in Dada, the movement in which Bürger finds proof of his theory. “The whole world is art,” Jean Arp insists; to him it means raising praxis to the realm of art, not the reverse. Bürger has to neglect the record to erect his theory. Hans Richter’s Dada, Art and Anti-Art (1964), never mentioned by Bürger, deals with “the institution of art” more comprehensively and profoundly than Bürger. He also would have learned much from Albert Cassagne’s still useful book (1906) on art for art’s sake and from later studies of cultural innovation (e.g., Comparative Studies in Society and History, October 1964).

Bürger is right in directing his attention to the relations between the avant-garde and the institution of art but his theory misses both the chronology and the dynamics of the relation. In a curious, almost therapeutic refrain that runs through his book, he comes closer to conveying an insight. “The category art as an institution was not invented by the avant-garde movements…. But it only became recognizable after the avant-garde movements had criticized the autonomy status of art in developed bourgeois society.” Does recognition bring liberation? enslavement? revulsion? Bürger does not elaborate; I hear an implied analogy with the presumptive cure of psychoanalysis.

If you must have a theory of the avant-garde, Poggioli’s book is still the place to start in spite of his obsession with classification and terminology and in spite of his wish to reduce his subject to “a law of nature.”3 By confining “literary science” to higher critics and university theorists, Bürger has written a disappointingly provincial book.

Charles Russell offers both a theory and a history of the avant-garde since around 1870. The preface and lengthy opening chapter set up a contrast between an avant-garde sensibility or impulse and the more introverted, individualist, and conservative current known as modernism. Russell, discusses alienation the projection of transcendence into the future as promise of change, and the roles of the artist mentioned in his title. He argues that the avant-garde is not separate from modernism but nested within it as a distinctly dynamic attitude; it is therefore a more basic and enduring category than modernism. Six central chapters describe interconnected writers and artistic movements (from Rimbaud to Brecht) as representative of the avant-garde impulse. Russell often brings his argument down to quoted passages of poetry up to a page long. Even without access to the Russian originals he writes enthusiastically about Mayakovsky. These two hundred central pages provide a new survey of familiar material rarely covered in one book.

The last chapter deals with the contemporary scene, primarily what Russell calls “postmodern” fiction in the United States. He pays close attention to Pynchon, Burroughs, Kosinski, and Sukenick, writers with whose antihumanism and implication that people are subject to mysterious collective codes Russell feels a lively kinship. Yet he concludes that these writers, now lumped together as “post-modern,” can be seen as avant-garde only in a very limited way. They express their era more than they reach out ahead of it.

Russell has done his homework more carefully than Bürger, whom he quotes and corrects on the art for art’s sake movement. He even gets Dada and Surrealism essentially right except when he underestimates the resolve of the early Paris Dadaists “to proclaim the negation of all art, especially their own.” Both Apollinaire and Italian Futurism lose considerably from being put together in one chapter, for each has an importance quite apart from the other.

The opening thesis that the notion of the avant-garde should have priority seems to become intermittent in the middle historical chapters and practically fades away in the final chapter, which attempts to show that postmodernism is not in advance of its time but with it. The last pages make me wonder if Russell hasn’t changed his mind about the primary importance of the term “avant-garde.” The contemporary authors he empathizes with most do not fit into that category. Furthermore, there are significant elements Russell overlooks. He barely mentions the social phenomenon of bohemia, and slights the ways that writers and artists collaborated in these various movements and schools. Because he has to rely on secondary sources, I do not feel he always writes from inside his subject. But he provides a useful synthesis. The last chapter on American writers gains in intensity from direct familiarity and partisanship.

The quite different books by Sanford Schwartz, Ricardo Quinones, and Stephen Kern still have underlying themes in common. Sanford Schwartz devotes a hundred pages at the start of The Matrix of Modernism to the philosophical background of modernism, particularly its hovering between subjective impressionism and objective observation, before tracing it in the poetry of Pound and Eliot. In such a well-informed study I am struck by certain silences. Schopenhauer appears only once very briefly. There is no mention of Pater, who, among other contributions, introduced Nietzsche to English readers. In Mapping Literary Modernism Ricardo Quinones, author of The Renaissance Discovery of Time, elaborates a strongly affirmative view of classical modernism in Proust, Mann, Joyce, Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence, arguing that modernism enlarged the aperture of individual experience and slowed down “the Western dynamic that had been unleashed in the Renaissance.” Quinones relies on the notion of “a complex central consciousness.” He presents it first as a central character like Marcel or Hans Castorp, and then enlarges it to the dimensions of “the collective self of myth.”

Stephen Kern, scrupulously avoiding all references to modernism in The Culture of Time and Space: 1880–1918, sets out ambitiously to locate the essential thought or content of an age by cutting across traditional disciplines. His categories of time, space, speed, distance, and form refer as much to science and technology as to philosophy and the arts. The last two chapters on World War I offer an often dazzling performance during which Kern juggles the accelerated telephone-inspired timing of the crisis among the European powers—“the whole-souled sentimental equipment” that F. Scott Fitzgerald said won the war—and Picasso’s recognition of Cubism’s contribution to camouflage. Kern proposes a final panoptic metaphor for the era: “the miles of telephone wires that criss-crossed the Western world” and stand for “the vast extended present” of simultaneity.4

In spite of modernism’s complexities Schwartz is confident of finding “a coherent plan” in it. Quinones quietly proposes four stages and three purposes. Kern often verges on the lyric in exhibiting his variegated materials. Still, it is worth remarking the similarities among these three works. They attach prime importance, both as source and as expression, to the thought of Bergson, Nietzsche, William James, and Ortega y Gasset. Our experience of time as enlarged simultaneity rather than as a link with past and future occupies all three authors. They do not challenge the canon—Proust, Mann, and Joyce; Pound and Eliot. (Continental poetry goes generally unexamined.) These books paint a picture of disjunction and isolation, “a climate of opinion” in which reality and the truth remain essentially unknowable. Kern takes Ortega’s “perspectivism”—“Each life is a point of view on the universe”—as a central concept; Schwartz makes much of “the anthropomorphic error” of confusing the categories of human thinking with reality.

Yet by a paradox that we all live intimately with, the tone and organization of these studies and their very existence imply that everything connects, that we can in fact find reality, that the true lineaments of the segment of time falling across 1900 in Western culture will reveal themselves. Despite disclaimers the three books seek a Spirit of the Age, a Zeitgeist. They use the notion of modernism as a kind of factotum to give their quest some substance. Kern refers at the start to “the culture of an age” and later finds confirmation for his convictions in the words of Gertrude Stein, who “believed that the spirit of the age shaped all things from ‘the way the roads are frequented’ to painting and war.” How hard it is to go beyond our faith in chronology, in sheer periodization, as if time itself, through degrees of simultaneity, represents the last stand of unity in human thoughts and actions.


We are all numerologists and hypostasizers under the skin. The most common classification in English for our recent past, modernism, implies the existence of a period and a style. Yet there is as much disagreement about the dating and the essential features of modernism as about the existence and nature of a fundamental particle in physics. Richard Ellmann’s and Charles Feidelson’s widely used anthology, The Modern Tradition (1965), carries it back to Kant and the eighteenth century. The Idea of the Modern (1967), edited by Irving Howe, allows ten contributors to pick their dates. The collection of essays edited by Bradbury and McFarlane, Modernism (1976), proposes the dates 1890–1930. The debate about the meanings of “modern” and its derivatives has been going on at least since Matthew Arnold and Baudelaire, more accurately since the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns.

When made to stand for virtually all developments in the arts during a certain period, modernism becomes no more than an umbrella or bucket word. To a Spaniard, furthermore, modernismo has a very specific meaning. German critics are not comfortable with the term and apply it mostly to other cultures. The French prefer modernité, an intense and widespread attention to the conditions of modern life since the early nineteenth century rather than a particular set of writers and artists. I find that in speaking of the major works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries I avoid the word modernism. It has become a universal category with little explanatory power, creates the illusion of coherence, and serves as an intellectual red herring.5

Drastically restricted, the term still may serve a purpose. The vagaries of cultural exchange at the turn of the century led to an accelerated assimilation of continental currents in English-speaking countries. “Younger generations can hardly realize the intellectual desert of England and America during the first decade and more of this century. The predominance of Paris was incontestable.” What Eliot wrote in the Criterion in 1934 was echoed by Pound. Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Cubism and Futurism, the London Postimpressionist exhibit of 1910 (it provoked Virginia Woolf’s notorious comment that “human character changed”), Diaghilev’s tours, and the New York Armory Show (1913)—these events produced a mighty response in English, Irish and American literature and art to which I believe the term modernism might usefully be applied for the period 1900–1930.6

In this limited definition modernism displays as one of its distinguishing characteristics a feature that Russell and Kern barely mention and that Quinones tucks away into an almost embarrassed note. Spiritual experience survives in Virginia Woolf, in early Eliot, and in Joyce as a momentary vision or extratemporal insight, a privileged moment, an “epiphany.” With the addition of Proust’s privileged moments and the Surrealists’ revelations, the theme became so powerful that Sartre felt compelled to mock it in Nausea (1938) and succeeded in doing exactly the opposite. As time drains into an expanded present, spiritual life shrinks into momentary illuminations.

The other two academic terms available for dealing with the recent past, “bohemia” and the “avant-garde,” are French in origin. They raise the question, suggested by several of the books under review, why so much writing on cultural history centers around nineteenth-and twentieth-century France. In 1850, reporting on “the class struggles in France” as they unfolded, Marx still believed that England was “the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos.” Thirty-five years later Engels modified that view in his preface to Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

France is the land where, more than anywhere else, the historical class struggles were each time fought out to a decision, and where, consequently, the changing political forms within which they move and in which their results are summarized have been stamped in the sharpest outline.

A wrenching series of revolutions and regimes; intense conflict between a still powerful nobility, the ascendant bourgeoisie, and a downtrodden people; the dominance of Paris; the survival of institutions like the Napoleonic Code, the Academy, and the Salon; the political theater of the Dreyfus case—innumerable factors lend urgency to the history of postrevolutionary France and contribute to the high relief of developments in the arts. Everything, including bohemia and avant-garde, seemed to take the form of a response to, and a revulsion from, the all-pervasive bourgeoisie, great and small.

The idle, fun-loving waiting room of fame and power that Balzac depicts in A Prince of Bohemia (1845) contrasts markedly with the villainous street people that appear in an 1843 play, The Bohemians of Paris by Adolphe D’Ennery and Eugène Grangé. In a review of that play Théophile Gautier tried to set things straight by distinguishing between genuine vagabond gypsies (bohemians or gitans), Paris ruffians improperly called bohemians, and a “charming and poetic” bohemia of laziness and freedom “of which we have all been more or less members.”7 He prefers to overlook hardworking groups dedicated to literature and poverty, such as the Water-Drinkers of the Forties. Like the poor, the bohemians we shall have always with us in some form.

The historian Donald D. Egbert has traced the term “avant-garde” back to an 1825 dialogue written by Saint-Simon in which an artist claims his rightful place beside industrialists and scientists “in exercising a positive power over society.” Saint-Simon sounds like Trotsky in Literature and Revolution, calling on artists “to direct events” and to find the poetry of revolution in action. More than the nebulous, heterogenous country of bohemia, the avant-garde stood for innovation in the arts and in society. Though artists like Baudelaire rejected the military metaphor as connoting conformity and progress, the concept of an artistic avant-garde flourished well into the middle of the twentieth century and has not entirely lost its force.

France gave birth not only to the terms “bohemia,” “avant-garde,” and “art for art’s sake.” It also produced a series of increasingly self-conscious and organized movements or schools from Impressionism and Symbolism to Dada and Surrealism.8 To some critics one or the other of these named movements captures the essential spirit and formal qualities of all art in our time. Lukács picked Realism; Arnold Hauser picked Impressionism; Edmund Wilson chose Symbolism; John Berger favors Cubism. They are by no means foolish choices.

All these terms and isms can have the effect of carrying us away from what was set down by writers and artists toward abstract categories. In compensation I should like to mention an opposed tendency. Nineteenth-century French artists had a knack, closely connected to the remarkable development of caricature, of creating a prototype and stereotype for some of these groups. When Murger and a collaborator produced a stage version in 1849 of his earlier sketches, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, Rodolphe, Mimi, and the others rapidly assumed a mythological existence certified by a popular opera and scores of imitations. Three years later under a different regime the caricaturist-actor-writer Henri Monnier staged his Grandeur et décadance de M. Joseph Prudhomme. That pompous, benevolent dupe stands for the perfect bourgeois in all his foolish aspirations to honor and power. Monnier’s later writings fill in the portrait of Monsieur Prudhomme by giving him a past in bohemia as an aspiring poet and by particularizing his habits and dress.9 In a little-known preface Gide refers to the impression made on Gautier and Baudelaire by Monsieur Prudhomme and to his continuing importance. Verlaine wrote a deadpan sonnet about him that begins: “Il est grave. Il est maire et père de famille.” In the drawn, acted, and written versions of Monsieur Prudhomme, Monnier prepared the royal road for Père Ubu.

The vivid caricature figures created by Murger and Monnier offer us a backdoor entry into a period we usually approach through its movements and isms, and through broader concepts like “bohemia” and “avant-garde.”


It may be a long time before we grasp how wide and deep was the break that occurred in the arts between 1880 and 1930. I believe that after long gestation a set of antinomies converge on this period to produce a radical testing of traditions and practices. The hiatus—which was also some kind of turning point—reached its moment of highest stress and activity in France between 1905 and 1914, a few years before comparable crises in Russia, Germany, England, Ireland, and (in somewhat muted and displaced form) the United States. The four antinomies I shall mention are composed of what, at the end of the nineteenth century, appeared to be paired opposites and of what we would do better to see now as complementaries.

First, the embracing of primitive art by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Apollinaire, Stravinsky, and many others coincided with a widespread affirmative response by artists and writers to science and technology. Futurism in Italy and Russia gave that response a name and a doctrine. The same artists and writers who welcomed the unfamiliar forms and magical content of African sculpture also reveled in powerful automobiles; they went to movies, speculated about airplane flight and the fourth dimension.10 In works like Apollinaire’s “Zone” (1913) and Picasso’s cubist heads of 1909, primitivist elements are inseparable, almost indistinguishable, from a deep-seated futurism. Yet primitivism and futurism are usually treated separately.

At the same time the widespread loss of religion, institutionalized in France by the separation of Church and State, was accompanied by an equally widespread continuation of religion in other forms. The woods were full of new spiritualist and occultist sects. Proust and Yeats explored the spiritual in art as persistently as Kandinsky. The writers that championed Cubism spoke fervently of its spiritual aspirations.

In another domain, ever since Courbet a defiant attempt to depict appearances directly and faithfully had been paralleled—often in the same artists—by the deformation and exaggeration of appearances in the wonderfully inventive development of caricature. With all their excesses and violations of convention, Impressionist and Cubist paintings could and did claim to be more “realistic” than traditional figurative painting.

Finally, art for art’s sake and social radicalism in the arts appeared to pull in diametrically opposed directions. Yet the pages we read today as the manifesto of art for art’s sake, the 1835 preface (“everything useful is ugly”) to the sulfurous Mademoiselle de Maupin, represent Gautier’s protest against the strict censorship reimposed just two months earlier by Louis Philippe. The poet most clearly associated with art for art’s sake did not refer to residence in an ivory tower; he described the appropriate attitude of the poet as that of being “on strike against society” and “an outlaw.” The gentle Mallarmé was capable of a certain vehemence. Even in the Romantic era one does not find so strong an ambition in artists and writers to embrace explosive new forces, to change people’s sensibilities, and to modify society rather than represent the status quo in works of art.

By affirming both terms of these antinomies, in reaching for a synthesis that would require profound modification of all aspects of life and society, Western art between 1880 and 1930 attempted to jump out of its own skin. I believe the jump succeeded only in part and for a limited time. Yet the attempt has wide significance. Where did these artists land, if at all? I see two distinct places.

The desire to found a new society, especially when channeled through loyalties to a dominant political party, ran the risk of changing art and literature into agents of social engineering. In Germany, in the Soviet Union, in Cuba, we know the story now. We are never so alert as we think to the co-optation of art by politics.

The other direction in which the arts moved is less evident. It goes back to the figure of the dandy, to Proudhon’s statements on the role of art, to the writings and posturings of decadents and aesthetes, and emerges in a tendency to channel the energies of artistic creation away from art works into the living of life itself as an adventure. The biting ironies of Huysmans’s Against Nature (1884) are usually forgotten in favor of the elaborate project of the main character, Des Esseintes, to transform his environment, his very material and moral ecology, into a work of art—total interior decoration. It is in part through Huysmans that Valéry imagined his own artistic alter ego, Monsieur Teste, who lives a life not of exquisite enjoyment but of refined intellectual meditation and produces no works. Both Des Esseintes and Teste are portrayed as embodying the ideal that Murger imagined in 1850 for his bohemians. “Their existence each day is a work of genius.”

The story does not end there. One of the sturdiest anti-art strains in Paris Dada derived from Breton’s fascination, when he was barely twenty, with Valéry’s abandonment of poetry, with his silence echoing Rimbaud’s. Breton’s Barcelona speech quoted earlier begins its argument with a deliberately ominous sentence. “There are abroad today in the world a few individuals for whom art…is no longer a goal.” Breton was alluding to the secret pact sworn by Aragon and himself three years earlier in 1919 not to be taken in by the blandishments of art and fame, to practice poetry in their lives, and to write only as a form of réclame—the signaling necessary to find other kindred spirits.

When the Surrealists launched their manifesto and their review, they attacked the novel, published dream accounts and surrealist texts in preference to poetry, favored a scientific attitude, and presented the group as a cross between a sociopolitical conspiracy and a medical emergency team trying to save Western civilization from itself. Literature and the arts were spat upon as “alibis” and as “lamentable expedients.” Because we have now classified the “surrealist revolution” under literature and painting, we fail to realize how resolutely and systematically Breton and Aragon and Soupault set out to flout the traditions and rewards of art as an autonomous activity. They advocated the withering away of art not into social engineering but into the discovery and cultivating of the marvelous, the lyric in everyday life. The antinomies that had long beset the arts could now be subsumed and surpassed by declaring that the only true art is life itself.

Literature and the arts have not withered away; they have flourished. Still, the Surrealist campaign to direct the artistic impulse back toward everyday life, toward love, dreams, language, found objects, chance encounters, and magic, has a long history and has left its mark on the way we see and enjoy life.

There is another respect in which Surrealism represents a culmination of the histories of bohemia and the avant-garde. Breton sternly censured his comrades if they engaged in any form of conventional work—salaried jobs, journalism, even collaboration with Diaghilev. The vows of nonparticipation in order to serve a higher goal revive the vows of the original Water-Drinkers in the 1840s to whom Murger refers as “the disciples of art for art’s sake” and “obstinate dreamers” whose only activity was art. Dedication of this kind is predicated upon the rare state of affairs we refer to as leisure. The entire history of bohemia from Mimi to Saint-Germain-des-Prés presents the quest for an ideal leisure within changing cultural circumstances. The best commentary still comes from the third chapter of the eighth book of Aristotle’s Politics. “Nature herself requires that we should be able, not only to work, but to use leisure as well; for…the first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and its end.”

From Aristotle’s time until well after the French Revolution, leisure and pleasure belonged almost exclusively to a ruling class; the rest of humanity existed in order to supply them. After that, it is hard to know what thread to follow. Is there a continuity of endeavor to establish a new aristocracy, a new leisure class, that links dandy, bohemian, aesthete, surrealist, beat, and hippie? Perhaps, but the perspective is too limited. I have already referred to Saint-Simon’s aborted attempt to launch a new ruling class composed of scientists, industrialists, and artists—a group to be known as the avant-garde, devoted not to leisure but to leadership and service. When the bourgeoisie became the new class of the nineteenth century under capitalism, the search for different social arrangements and descriptions did not therefore cease.

The debates between Marx and Bakunin, and later between Lenin and Kautsky, over the existence of an intellectual class in addition to peasant and proletarian were played out in France at the time of the Dreyfus affair. The much needed substantive “un intellectuel” was coined in 1898 by Clemenceau for the resounding “Manifesto of the Intellectuals.” Immediately picked up as a term of abuse, the word suggests the existence of an intermediate class apart from bourgeois and workers.11 A parallel discussion peaked around 1940 when, probably influenced by Trotsky, Bruno Rizzi and James Burnham called attention to the emergence of a new class, which they called respectively bureaucratic and managerial. Neither capitalists nor workers were really running things. On the basis of expertise a new group had insinuated itself into power everywhere. (Rizzi called his pamphlet The Bureaucratization of the World.)

On the question of a new class, history never stops providing revealing precedents. In March 1847 in the Chamber of Deputies Prime Minister Guizot spoke on an amendment to the electoral law that would grant the vote to persons of intellectual distinction apart from property and income. Himself far more an intellectual than a philistine, Guizot nevertheless valued the social order.

Excessive confidence in human intelligence, human pride, intellectual pride…these things are the disease…. Intelligence…must at all times be guarded, restrained, guided by social conditions. The proponents of the amendment treat modern intelligence as in former days one treated the aristocracy.12

This significant debate in the last year of the reign of Louis Philippe, the Bourgeois King, raises the central issues. One can hear echoes of Rousseau a century earlier trumpeting the uniqueness of his sensibility and at the same time proposing a social contract into which that precious individuality could be merged. One can hear Flaubert inveighing against the tide of nineteenth-century philistinism rising around him and his desperate oath of allegiance to bohemia as his “fatherland.” And one can foresee the situation, now stood on its head, discussed in the last part of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. There he examines the debate among certain American intellectuals in the Fifties about the extent to which their approach to prestige and power had made them surrender to the status quo. Only a few clung to alienation as a “moral imperative.” One case is particularly revealing for us. “[Irving] Howe’s counterideal to this complacent adaptation was an old one: the community of Bohemia.”

In Russia a comparable appeal to the past would cite not bohemia but the intelligentsia, often defined as that part of the population that thinks critically. For at least a century it constituted a way of life in Russia, virtually a social class, recognized by the publication of D.N. Ovsyaniko Kulikovsky’s three-volume History of the Russian Intelligentsia (1909–1911). The Soviet system either took over or stifled the intelligentsia. In the United States bohemia has suffered a different fate. As both Seigel and Rearick suggest, commercialism has appropriated its most popular and pleasurable elements and injected them into the daily expectations of everyone. The counter-culture of the Sixties surrendered a large part of its impetus to universally marketed products like rock music. To a great extent the intellectual side of the counterculture has been incorporated into higher education. In what direction are intellectuals and artists to turn if they see as available to them neither a genuinely dissident intelligentsia nor a livable bohemia?

Have we then no native or imported institutions that would foster our hard-earned individualism without overrestricting or overindulging it? Think tanks, research centers, and artists’ colonies provide an eerily artificial environment. Where have all the “free-lancers” gone? There seem to be no powerful imaginations at work on the institutions that serve, particularly, the life of the mind. Trenchant thinking on the subject may still be found in Max Weber’s paired reflections on “Scholarship as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). He clarifies the responsibilities imposed by our present system yet imagines no improved arrangement of things. Do we need a religion—a religion even of science or politics or art—to inspire the leap of imagination that would see beyond the present impasse?

Perhaps I don’t read the right books. A recent pamphlet by Charles Newman, The Post-Modern Aura (1985), starts out as if it is going to grapple with some of these questions under the category of the cultural and intellectual inflation of everything. But its style and argument soon yield to the very overstimulation it sets out to attack. Almost on the last page one finds the lonely, unsupported sentence, “The crisis is largely institutional.”

The virtue of most of the books under review, especially Seigel’s Bohemian Paris, is that they oblige us to think about individual lives of artists and intellectuals along with the institutions and shifting class structures that engage them. We are not making life any easier for ourselves today by eliminating constraints on individual behavior and by inflating our desires into a reigning hedonism. In 1819 the liberal political thinker Benjamin Constant foresaw the social conflicts that would preoccupy Murger and Monnier, that would create a role for bohemia and art for art’s sake and the avant-garde, and that would continue to trouble observers like Hofstadter and Newman down to our own time. Speaking before the Royal Atheneum Constant distinguished between the liberty of the Ancients, “active and constant participation in collective power,” and modern liberty, “tranquil enjoyment of private independence.” Then he cautioned: “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in our private independence and in the pursuit of personal pleasures and interests, we may give up too easily our right of participation in the political process.” To what Constant observed about the need for both politics and pleasure I shall add that, in spite of alluring doctrines to the contrary, it would be unwise to envision a future based on the withering away of both art and labor. Not a small subject.

This Issue

December 18, 1986