I think I’ve linked to Tom Wolfe’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities from 2006 before, but not the passage quoted below, which brilliantly ties together the original bohemians, and today’s versions, and reminds us that while the clothes on their backs may change, the need to seek out status, or to invert it–or both–remains the same, ever after 150 years or so:
Status groups, [German sociologist Max Weber] contended, are the creators of all new styles of life. In his heyday, the turn of the 19th century, the most stylish new status sphere, no more than 30 years old, was known as la vie boheme, the bohemian life. The bohemians were artists plus the intellectuals and layabouts in their orbit. They did their best to stand bourgeois propriety on its head through rakish dishabille, louder music, more wine, great gouts of it, ostentatious cohabitation, and by flaunting their poverty as a virtue. And why? Because they all came from the bourgeoisie themselves originally and wanted nothing more desperately than to distinguish themselves from it. They seldom mentioned the upper class, Marx’s owners of “the means of production.” They seldom mentioned Marx’s working class, except in sentimental appreciation of the workers’ occasional show of rebelliousness. No, as the late Jean-Francois Revel said of mid-20th century French intellectuals, the bohemians’ sole object was to separate themselves from the mob, the rabble, which today is known as the middle class.
I thought bohemia had been brought to its apogee in the 1960s, before my very eyes, by the hippies, originally known as acid heads, in reference to the drug LSD, with their Rapunzel hair down to the shoulder blades among the males and great tangled thickets of hair in the armpits of the women, all living in communes. The communes inevitably turned religious thanks to the hallucinations hippies experienced while on LSD and a whole array of other hallucinogens whose names no one can remember. Some head–short for acid head–would end up in the middle of Broadway, one of San Francisco’s main drags, sitting cross-legged in the Lotus position, looking about, wide eyes glistening with beatification, shouting, “I’m in the pudding and I’ve met the manager! I’m in the pudding and I’ve met the manager!” Seldom had so many gone so far to feel aloof from the middle class.
But I was wrong. They were not the ones who raised rejection of the middle class to its final, Olympian level. For what were the hippies and their communes compared to the great bohemians of our time in the status sphere known as Hip Hop, with its black rappers and “posses” and groupies, its hordes of hangers-on–and its millions of followers and believers among the youth of America, white and black? The Hip Hop style of life turns bourgeois propriety inside out. It celebrates the status system of the Street, which is to say, the standards of juvenile male street gangs, so-called gangbangers. What matters is masculinity to burn and a disdain of authority. The rappers themselves always put on looks of sullen hostility for photographs. The hippies’ clothes of yore look like no more than clown costumes next to the voluminous Hip Hop jeans with the crotch at knee level and the pants legs cascading into great puddles of fabric at the ankles, the T-shirts hanging outside the pants and just short of knee level and as much as a foot below their leather jackets or windbreakers, and the black bandannas known as do-rags around their heads. What were the hippies’ LSD routs known as acid tests . . . compared to the Hip Hop stars’ status tests that require shooting and assassinating one another periodically? How cool is that? One of my favorite sights in New York is that of a 14- or-15-year-old boy who has just descended from his family’s $10 or $12 million apartment and is emerging onto the sidewalks of Park Avenue dressed Hip-Hop head to crotch, walking through a brass-filigreed door held open by a doorman in a uniform that looks like an Austrian army colonel’s from 1870.
Of course, as David Brooks noted in Bobos In Paradise, we’re living in an era where some degree of bohemianism is expected, is the societal norm. And while that trend is obviously most pronounced on the left, it’s hard to escape its trappings in all aspects of American society. And that may not be a healthy development, in the long run.