Author: Helen Warfle

La Vie Bohème

In class, the word bohemian was used to describe New Orleans’ red light district, the origin of the venerated Baby Dolls tradition. The word choice felt a little bit off in context of today’s meaning of bohemian, but historically, this has not been the case.

Part of my discomfort with the use of bohemian in that context comes from my experience working at the mall over the summer. When it came to clothes, we had three “trends” for women: sporty, pretty, and boho. So, I spent my entire summer trying to label people’s style as bohemian or one of the other two. In my mind, bohemian became associated with flowy clothes, floral patterns, and musical festivals.

However, my classmate was right to use bohemian in the context of Storyville in New Orleans. Only recently has bohemian come to have the connotations of young 20-somethings going to Coachella, fairy lights and tapestries in dorms, and a certain style of dress.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (I know it is a cliché to quote dictionaries, but bear with me), bohemian means vagabond, wanderer, especially a gypsy, or a person (such as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life, usually in a colony with others. The labeling of a certain type of clothes as bohemian seems particularly ironic once faced with the dictionary definition, as someone who is unconventional should, by all reason, not want to buy any particular style, especially those labeled boho by a large corporation, but I digress.

Moving on to the etymology of bohemian, I once again find myself faced with Roach’s idea of performance, particularly the conscription of people into roles that they did not sign up for. The word bohemian originally meant someone that comes from the region of Bohemia, located in the present day Czech Republic. Mistakenly, the French thought that the Roma came from that region, possibly because another group was forced to leave their homeland in Bohemia around the same time the Roma first appeared in western Europe.

The Roma, because of their nomadic lifestyle, were conscripted into a sort of performance: the romanticization of their lifestyle while at the same time being persecuted by pretty much all groups in Europe. They were expected to play the happy nomads, the kind you see in any novel involving “g*psies” (which I have censored because it is now considered a slur by the Roma). Because of this romanticization of what is considered an unconventional lifestyle, bohemian came to mean any lifestyle out of the societal norm.

Undoubtedly, this was exacerbated by the French artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris that called themselves bohemian, vividly portrayed in La Bohème by Puccini (on which the musical Rent is based). This definition best fits Storyville. From there, it is easy to see how the word was commercialized and romanticized until it means what it does today.

Through a simple idea offered by Professor McCoy, to write a blog post about the etymology of bohemian, I did not expect to find Roach, but I did. Through geographical and historical errors and the conscripting the Roma into a stereotyped performance, bohemian means what it does today.

Art and Empowerment: The Performance of Memory Through Artistic Expression

Last semester, I went to the event Professor McCoy and Steve Prince organized on Main Street, where students, faculty, and community members alike were invited to create woodblock prints that were then arranged around one that Prince had created. The focus of the piece was trauma and healing, inspired by the trials and tribulations of Emmeline the bear, who was run into by cars multiple times. As such, I immediately recognized Prince’s art style when confronted with it in class in the piece Katrina’s Veil: Stand at Gretna Bridge, pictured belowPrince Katrina's Veil Stand at the Gretna Bridge .jpgImage Credit

Prince’s work deals with remembrance: in the case of his project at Geneseo, remembering trauma and moving on from it, and in his series done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, remembering and bearing witness to the atrocities caused by the hurricane, but also by those in power that we are supposed to trust, namely the police and the government.

This brings me to the quote from Roach’s “Echoes in the Bone” that has so vexed and fascinated the class: “Echoes in the bone refer not only to a history of forgetting but to a strategy of empowering the living through the performance of memory” (34). What does it mean to “empower the living?” More importantly, how can we both forget and remember? Read more