When I was young I wanted to be a bohemian when I grew up.
I cannot quite recall how and why I formed this ambition. I suppose bohemianism seemed to be both a way of asserting my individuality (it did not occur to me that bohemians were just as much a herd as an other) and of doing God's glorious work, which was annoying the grown-ups.
I suppose my model was Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet. He, it seemed to me, had lived as a free man ought to live. This conclusion could only have been drawn by someone who actually knew rather little about his life; and certainly I never had a vocation for excessive drinking. When I reached the age at which I was free to drink as much as I liked, or had money for, I soon discovered that I did not really like the feeling of drunkenness; particularly disagreeable was the sensation when one went to bed that the ceiling above was going round and round. I was fortunate enough also to suffer severely from hangovers, and since (quite apart from the unpleasantness of the hangover itself) I have always been attached to clarity of mind, in so far as I have been able to achieve it, I abjured drunkenness, at least in any regular form. I did not, however, foreswear alcohol altogether; and now not a day goes past, at least unless I happen to be in a place like Somalia, when I do not drink — in moderation.
Dylan Thomas' life (minus the drink, if such a thing can be imagined) seemed a model. At the time, I would not have understood John Malcolm Brinnin's assertion (in his book, Dylan in America) that his life was just plain boring, meaningless, pointless, sordid and avoidable crisis following meaningless, pointless, sordid and avoidable crisis. The important thing in life was to cock a snook, almost irrespective of the target.
But Dylan Thomas was the real thing, a man of talent if not of genius. Perhaps there is something too theatrical for modern tastes about his public reading of his poems, but I at least am still moved by it. The emotion in his voice and in his lines is real, not bogus; and if his life sometimes seemed almost a caricature of itself, this at least was genuine. I do not see how anyone with even the most minimal feeling for poetry could fail to be stirred, for example, by his In My Craft or Sullen Art. Fifty-eight years after his death, his frequently disgraceful behaviour seems a small thing to set against the achievement.
Incidentally, and a propos of nothing, his grave in Laugharne church cemetery, in South-West Wales, is one of the most moving graves known to me. It consists of a mound with a simple white cross, painted (and no doubt regularly re-painted) with his name and dates. Beside it, in exactly the same form, is the grave of his wife, Caitlin, with whom he had a passionate cat-and-dog relationship. 'Reunited' does not seem so ridiculous a cliche here, though Caitlin survived her husband by forty years. Perhaps it is partly because I love the landscape of that part of the country so much that I can return to Laugharne cemetery and know that I shall be overtaken by pleasantly melancholic sorrow.
I did not come from a bohemian family, far from it. My mother went to the theatre often, including to all the supposedly shocking new plays, but this was mere diversion from her own unhappiness. I had one bohemian cousin, who lived in Paris for a time, moved among poets, wrote a little poetry, and had a brief affair with Richard Wright (of Native Son fame); but she did not have, nor was she allowed to have, much influence on my life.
Alas, as I grew up the times became less and less propitious for real bohemianism. There were a number of reasons for this.
Naturally, sloppiness in dress is a convention like any other: for if there is one thing that human beings cannot escape, other than death and taxes, it is convention.
The first was economic: cheap garrets and boarding houses disappeared. Increasing wealth, luxury and housing regulation meant that no one any longer could or was permitted to live in a single room without proper heating, lighting or plumbing. The areas in which bohemians had once gathered were either gentrified, or — to indulge in neologism — millionairified. It is difficult, not much fun, and possibly even slightly dangerous, to be a bohemian in a dingy lifeless suburb without real bars, full of people with nine-to-five jobs trudging to and from work every day. The effect of the demise of the boarding house upon English literature has never been fully documented, but I suspect that it was devastating. No doubt boarding houses with their imperious, mean-spirited, prurient, tolerant landladies had their disadvantages from the point of view of raw physical comfort; but they relieved countless people from the sapping tedium of looking after themselves. They allowed people the greatest luxury of all, the one that we have forgotten: time.
But while real bohemianism has become difficult or impossible — it has gone the way of genteel poverty which, alas, no longer exists or is possible, if only because rents are now too high in the areas where the genteelly poor once gathered — a kind of bogus bohemianism has become the rule. In a sense, everyone is a bohemian now.
Walk down any street in the western world and try to estimate the proportion of people dressed in a conspicuously bourgeois manner. Except possibly in the financial centres (and Swiss cities) it will be very low. The great majority of people whom you pass in the street will be dressed in a manner which, sixty years ago, would have been thought bohemian. And this is so despite the fact that one of the principal past-times of enormous numbers of people is shopping for clothes. It is as if they are studiously sloppy.
Naturally, sloppiness in dress is a convention like any other: for if there is one thing that human beings cannot escape, other than death and taxes, it is convention. So the question is not whether a certain form of behaviour is conventional, but whether it represents a good convention.
I am glad to be able to report that, on the question of dress I have changed my mind completely. I am glad to be able to report it because it demonstrates, to myself if to no others, that I am not totally inflexible mentally. Evidence, reason and reflection can still cause me — occasionally — to change my mind, even if it takes me many years to do so.
I was once much struck by a little essay by the novelist Arnold Bennett called Clothes and Men. I will quote from it:
I would sooner see a fop in the street than a man whose suit ought obviously to have been sold or burnt last year but one. The fop has at least achieved something and is not an eyesore. The scarecrow is an eyesore and has simply left something undone, either from conceit or from sloth. The fop is not without his use in society. He keeps tailors alert. He sets the pace. He may often be an ass, but he is also an idealist, a searcher after perfection; we have none too many searchers after perfection, and an ass engaged in that quest is entitled to some of our esteem.
Do not judge a book by its cover, this form of dress proclaims, or almost shouts; inside me there is the Summa theologica.
Bennett says a little later:
The sole purpose of clothes — whatever it may once have been — is no longer merely to give protection. An important purpose of clothes is to make a pleasing visual impression — partly on oneself but chiefly on other people.
These are not deep or original thoughts, but Bennett is not proud and is ready to answer that criticism:
Platitudes, you will say. They are; but it is astonishing how the most obvious platitudes are ignored by seemingly sensible persons in daily life.
But platitudes are relative to their time; what is obvious in one epoch is no longer obvious, or even true, in another. Let us take one of Bennett's statements, that he regards as a platitude, that an important purpose of clothes is to make a pleasing visual impression, and examine it.
The statement remains only partly true. The part that is true is that an important purpose of clothes is to make an impression, but it is no longer true that the impression that it is their purpose to make is a pleasing visual one, very much to the contrary. The impression that the bohemianisation of dress is intended to make is that the wearer is such an individual, whose real inner me is so unique and valuable, that it is quite unnecessary for him to make any effort to cover it in the rages of mere outer smartness. Do not judge a book by its cover, this form of dress proclaims, or almost shouts; inside me there is the Summa theologica.
Actually, it is usually quite possible to judge a book by its cover, at least as a first approximation. It is ridiculous to say that you cannot distinguish between a scholarly work and an airport novel of soft pornography merely by looking at their respective covers. Occasionally you will be wrong in your judgment, of course, and it is always necessary to keep an open mind; but not a mind that is open in the sense that a dam that has collapsed is open.
The sloppiness of modern dress is not the consequence of economic exigency (Bennett in his essay deals with that objection pretty smartly). The late Mr Jobs did not look a mess because he had no money, but because he wanted to look a mess. Perhaps one of his thoughts was that, if he looked sufficiently a mess, no one would object to his having so much money. He would demonstrate thereby that, notwithstanding his great fortune, he was one of the people.
Our current way of dressing is a sign of our egotism, of our habit of living in a kind of portable solipsistic bubble that goes everywhere with us, like a shadow. 'I am not going to make an effort just for you,' proclaim our clothes.
If you look at pictures of crowds in Edwardian times, you will see that practically no one appears in public in a dishevelled state: and this is not because everyone in the picture is well-off. This tradition continued into the 1950s. Even bohemians were not badly dressed: they were differently-dressed. The only people who are in rags are the destitute; they do not want to be in rags.
Our current way of dressing is a sign of our egotism, of our habit of living in a kind of portable solipsistic bubble that goes everywhere with us, like a shadow. 'I am not going to make an effort just for you,' proclaim our clothes. On the contrary, my life is so full of importance, so beyond the right of anyone else to have a say in it, that I shall just put on the first crumpled apparel that comes to hand as a matter of principle.
This, I readily confess, is a revolution in my own thought. When I was young I affected to believe that to look a mess was a sign of inner profundity. I made the mistake of supposing that if the wise are bearded, the bearded are wise. If I adopted the supposed manner of an artist, therefore, I too would be an artist, or at least artistic. And, conveniently enough, the sloppiness of inner profundity required no effort on my part. As everyone knows, a lot of human history consists of man's attempt to escape effort.
Like all virtues, attention to dress for the sake of others can go too far and become the most absurd vanity (though there are far worse and more destructive types of vanity, not least intellectual and moral vanity). The dapperness of Hercule Poirot is ridiculous, and one would not want everyone to be like him. But while his eccentric attention to his own appearance is endearing, the opposite end of the spectrum — complete indifference to the point of dirtiness — is not at all endearing, but repellent rather.
If, from the social point of view, the happy medium is best, it does not follow that both extremes are equally bad.
Theodore Dalrymple. "To Judge By Appearances." The New English Review (March, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.
Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He lives in France and is the author of, The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, Out Into The Beautiful World, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Farewell Fear, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.Copyright © 2012 Theodore Dalrymple
back to top