Monday, December 05, 2005

No Day But Today vs. Posterity Lost

“Rent” follows the lives of doomed but romantic artists in the bohemian quarter of New York in the 1990s, just as “La Boheme” followed the lives of doomed but romantic artists in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1890s, all of which leads back to the originals of these stories, Henri Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, about doomed artists in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1840s. The Parisian bohemian quarter was not peopled by actual Bohemians, any more than the New York version was or is. Rather, the French artists who left bourgeois homes in the provinces to lead a rootless life in the metropolis saw themselves as being like gypsies. They imagined gypsies as romantic artists traveling through the world; they also imagined that gypsies came from Bohemia, the present-day Czech Republic.

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.”


Anonymous said...

I think most adolescents (which the Rent characters largely are) aren't focusing at this point in their lives on building stable families. Wouldn't you be even more concerned if a 19-year-old drug addict like Mimi was thinking about having children? The characters in Rent are dealing with being able to open up to, trust, and love anyone, and by the end of the show most of them have grown in closeness to one another. Aren't these skills prerequisites for raising families?
I agree that it's unclear that people like Mimi and Roger would ever gain a desire to marry and have children... but at least their ability and potential willingness to move in that direction has improved, not deteriorated, over the course of the story.
Also, the show overall is less negative about parents than the characters you mentioned. Mimi, Roger, Joanne, and Mark's parents all appear on stage as often overprotective but basically decent people concerned about their children. They certainly aren't the heroes of the story, but I think their presence is important for the impact of the show.

Gruntled said...

Well, it is certainly better to learn how to love and trust than not, but their subculture is not just non-familial, but anti. And their lives, both through their drugs and their sex, are about as hazardous as they could be to children or the possibility of children. And the parents are held in contempt because of their decency.

I don't want to treat an adolescent interlude as a full alternative subculture, but I sure hope my adolescents never fall into this one, no matter how short the interlude.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of a tale of my misspent youth. When I was growing up in suburban Dallas, I was quite fond of Kerouac, Kesey, Hunter Thompson, and the like. Some friends and I had heard that there was a Bohemian community in West, Texas, which is not actually in West Texas, but between Dallas and Waco. We drove down one Friday evening expecting to find the Bohemian Cafe full of black-turtleneck- and beret-wearing, Gaulois-smoking, and exotic-coffee-drinking Bohos listening to Bird, Miles, and Coltrane. Instead, upon entering said Bohemian Cafe, we found a bunch of local yokels playing dominoes, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and listening to Hank Williams. These people weren't Bohemians from Paris. They were Bohemians from Bohemia whose ancestors had moved to Texas in the mid-19th century. We sat down, played some dominoes, listened to good music, and went home more than satisfied with our Bohemian adventure.

Gruntled said...

That is wonderful. I have wondered how real Bohemians feel about bohos -- the way I wonder how actual Arabs feel about Shriners. Bohemia is east of the places that invented "bohemianism," so I suppose both bohos and Shriners are examples of Orientalism.