Bohemian Like You
On the places we feel at home
The Wonderland Rules is a reader-supported publication. To support the Neo-Gonzo Bohemia, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’ve been living in North Carolina for two weeks. It’s a relaxing place. The people are open in the South a way they aren’t in New England; they’re courteous, which I appreciate. I’m a very polite person, and the abruptness, and sometimes outright rudeness, of the area in which I’d lived since just before the pandemic (and where I’m originally from) was always what I liked least about it.
Apart from a year in the Southwest (and a sojourn in Mexico that lasted roughly ten minutes, but has nonetheless etched itself into my mind forever as an example of both the type and degree of insanity that wins Academy Awards when put on the page in screenplay form), I lived in the BosWash Corridor for the majority of my life. It was the ocean I had always swum in, and fish don’t notice the ocean; it’s just what is.
Even within that Ocean of The Establishment though, there are lagoons that contain flora and fauna that evolved differently, places where fish of extraordinary hues and patterns congregate around beds of unconventional kelp. This is, of course, true of all places, and I have long been an expert in finding those lagoons. The pH balance of the water in them is different, and more congenial to my biology. Wherever I have gone, I have somehow known where the counterculture could be found. It has always been instinctual and entirely natural for me to find the one shop in a row of corporate storefronts owned by the man standing behind the counter, who invariably has some kind of grievance against the mainstream. Those guys never mind weirdos like me hanging out in their places. We are an organic part of the ecosystem, somehow, a Belonging Kind.
Bohemias form in unconsidered, seemingly unimportant pockets of places, under certain predictable conditions. They always get monetized and co-opted eventually, to the dismay of the Kurt Cobains of the world, whose feelings of betrayal and moral conflict, which stem the fact that they materially benefit from that cooptation, form integral components of their art. Kurt never understood the Myth of Eternal Return, or his part in the story of his generation, and that inability to recognize his role ultimately killed him.
These things have never not happened, and trying to swim against the story in which you find yourself is futile; better to jump from story to story until you find one that is congenial to your world-view. Eventually you’ll reach a denouement you can live with, and at some point all stories end.
It was harder for us all to see stories form before the internet, which accelerates anything language-based, and which is driving us all crazy as a consequence of that acceleration. They come into being faster and faster now.
I think the world into which we were all born started with the First World War, which I know little about. The horrors of that war insinuated themselves into a resentful Austrian painter, and the echoes of his war have not yet left us. No one living remembers what it was like before that war, but there are a few films that show us what people looked like.
Were people fundamentally different then? I think, watching them walk around, sublimely oblivious to the camera and to the future, that they were. While I do not believe people are blank slates, I am acutely conscious of the ways chemicals and trauma influence human behavior. Generational trauma is real, if misdefined.
We all bear the scars of the madness of the Austrian painter. He infected our cultural DNA.
The Japanese cultural tendencies toward misogyny and conquest have been sublimated and warped by the voyage of the Enola Gay. They are a beaten people, beaten harder than anyone ever was before. Rebuilding them was the right thing to do; it is a universal truth that if you win a fight in the schoolyard and then pick the loser up and dust him off, you’ll be friends for life.
Israel is a nation of brutal, paranoid spies and assassins, determined never to be victims again. The way my people have reacted to the trauma of the Shoah is particularly painful to me; I understand it on a cellular level, and while I do not judge them, I wish it were otherwise.
The decline of Britannia, which gave everything she had, is a difficult thing to watch. She had an identity, and she has lost it forever. All empires end eventually, but the setting of the sun on the British Empire was a loss (though perhaps not for the Irish and the Indians, who that empire intentionally starved into submission). The British were the most capable administrators the world has ever seen, and the snuffing out of that national talent is a tragedy; institutional memory maintains civilization.
America, bloated with power, seems to want to be punished for taking the world as spoils of war, and Russia, whose losses were greater than we recognize, seems grimly prepared to punish us, and everyone else, for real and imagined slights against it. Perhaps they will punish us, punish everyone. I hope not. There is an argument for a simmer rather than a boiling over, for turning the heat down and regrouping. I hope that argument carries the day.
Bohemias are a rejection of this generational trauma. Their inhabitants try to live as humans did before it.
The best of them are kind places, where the world’s judgement of their inhabitants is suspended. Homosexuals, artists, and freethinkers have always flocked to them, and the egregore of a place, its genius loci, is made of its people. I grew up in Bohemias, and as a consequence, was partially shielded from what the Austrian painter did. All of them are home to me.
There are still some digital ones, Substack among them. Maybe Twitter will be another, although it isn’t a place I enjoy myself. The Wild West aspect of the internet that appealed to people in its early days was not, I think, uncontrolled anarchy, but the possibility that exists on a frontier. Bohemias and frontiers are similar in that sense.
I haven’t yet found my ideal bohemian living space, but I know I will; I always do. And when I find it, you’ll know. Writing done in a place that makes sense, where one feels comfortable and at peace, always reads differently.
Great post with very intriguing observations and musings, compellingly written. For America, the World Wars definitely changed our culture forever, but you could argue that we're living under the lingering shadow of the Civil War, with all the same issues that boiled over into that conflict once again heating up and reaching another boiling point.
On a personal level, the quest you describe of finding one's own bohemian living space, is one I feel deeply. The phenomenon you described, of such spaces and states of being getting commoditized and mass-produced -- Niccolo Soldo makes the genius observation that the Great American Empire's genius lies in its ability to coopt and monetize literally anything and everything, including the "counterculture" -- definitely complicates this task, as it dramatically shortens the useful lifespan of legitimately countercultural spaces, before the globohomo marketers and their NPC consumers show up en masse. And when those NPC morons show up, they are convinced that they are the true counterculture, and being driven by their insatiable groupthinking desire for homogeneous conformity, they immediately destroy the creative spirit before it can really even take root.
At least substack remains a great place for creative bohemians for now. Real-life spaces would be much better, but virtual spaces are better than nothing.
This is a brilliant rumination, Jay. Writing a "recommends" post and adding this.