It is perhaps not surprising that rootless young artists have only a hazy grasp of the intensely practical and familial Roma (gypsy) people, any more than it would be surprising that young artists would have a hazy grasp of geography. That is water over the dam now. “Bohemian” now means artists of all kinds who defy convention.
What strikes me most about all of these artistic bohos, though, is how strongly anti-family they are. Rodolpho and Mimi, dying of consumption, have no parents, no marriage, no children. They live only for art and for love – temporarily. Roger and Mimi, dying of AIDS, reject their parents, have contempt for marriage, and have no hope of children. Their only hope of a posterity is their Art. The first Mimi embroidered flowers. The second Mimi’s art is more ephemeral still, consisting of lewd songs and pole dances at a strip club.
Lest the anti-family message of “Rent” be missed, Mark Cohen, (the counterpart of Marcelo), explains the whole point of la vie boheme in a song of that name, which the ensemble sings in order to outrage the bourgeoisie:
To loving tension, no pension
To more than one dimension,
To starving for attention,
Hating convention, hating pretension
Not to mention of course,
Hating dear old mom and dad.
There it is: bohemians reject the Fifth Commandment, “of course.” Though the story turns on the love of a set of couples, I don’t believe children are even spoken of once.
Richard Gill, in Posterity Lost: Progress, Ideology, and the Decline of the American Family, argues that the main cause of family decline in the past generation or so is that we have lost the idea that we act not solely for ourselves today, but for our posterity. People who imagine that they are working, building, and saving for their children and their grandchildren are less concerned with living for themselves and living for now.
And what do bohemians live for? The most memorable song from “Rent” says it all: “No Day But Today.”