A Journal on Resilience, Independence, and the Self-Assertive Personalities That Define Humanity.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Armed Bohemian - Origins and Definitions of the Term

Armed Bohemian as a term is the evolution of something I've used for awhile, and you can still find as a label on my mainstream blog Rum & Donuts – “NeoBohemian”.
I'd been trying for a couple of years to collect the foundations of an idea of neobohemianism as a sort of armed renaissance man for today. Bookstore and coffee shop court holding, art opening attending, gun bearing, etc. It just wasn't working. NeoBohemian was too easily misinterpreted (including by me) and lacked the robustness of the self-contained definition Armed Bohemian.
My first encounter with the term “Armed Bohemian” was via ZenPundit, referencing Konrad Heiden. Heiden, a German journalist and authority on of the rise of Hitler, used the term to describe Hitler, and many of his fellows. The idea being that they were (self-assumed at least) intellectuals and artists, educated or semi-educated men, hardened by war and applying that combined experience into a new movement of force.
ZenPundit quoted the term to cover a general range of tyrants and warlords:
“Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.”
Despite the negative connotations of the term, I liked it when I first read it and wanted to know more. Perhaps my sympathy towards some warlord ideals and romantic stereotypes eased the punch of the associated negatives.
In researching the term, I came across another usage of it – This from libertarian-socialist, conservationist Murray Bookchin's
Ecology of Freedom.
For context, I feel it worthwhile to quote a few pages where Bookchin enters a discussion of individualist assertive personalities giving definition to humanity. His case-study is Archilochus, the Greek mercenary-poet:

The word humanity is a barren abstraction if it is not given existential reality by self-assertive personalities who enjoy a visible degree of autonomy. Such beings could hardly be created by imperial edict. To the extent that organic society declined, so too did the intense sense of collectivity it had fostered. A new contect had to be created for the individual that would render it function in an increasingly atomized world. [...] the waning of primordial society placed a high premium on a new type of individual: a resourceful, comparatively self-sufficient, and self-reliant ego that could readily adapt itself to – if not “command” - a society that was losing its human scale and developing more complex political institutions and commercial ties than any human community had known in the past.
Such individuals had always existed on the margins of the early collective. They were ordinarily given a certain degree of institutional expression if only to provide a safety valve for marked personal idiosyncrasies. Tribal society has always made allowances for aberrant sexual behavior, exotic psychological traits and personal ambition (the “big man” syndrome) – allowances that find expression in a high degree of sexual freedom, shamanistic roles, and an exaltation of courage and skill. From this marginal area, society recruited its priests and warrior-chieftains for commanding positions in later, more hierarchical institutions.
But this development is not simply one of breakdown and recomposition. It occurs on a personal level and a social level – egocentric and sociocentric. Viewed on the personal level, the individual accompanies the emergence of “civilization” like a brash, unruly child whose cries literally pierce the air of history and panic the more composed, tradition-bound collectivity that continues to exist after the decline of organic society. The ego's presence is stridently announced by the warrior, whose own “ego boundaries” are established by transgressing the boundaries of all traditional societies. The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, for example, befriends the stranger, Enkidu, who shares his various fears as a companion, not a kinsman. Valor, rather than lineage, marks their myth-beclouded personal traits.
But misty, almost stereotyped figures like Gilgamesh seem like metaphors for individuality rather than the real thing. More clearly etched personalities like Achilles, Agamemnon, and the Homeric warriors are often cited as the best candidates for western conceptions of the newly born ego. “
The model of the emerging individual is the Greek hero,” observes Max Horkheimer in his fascinating discussion of the rise and decline of individuality. “Daring and self-reliant, he triumphs in the struggle for survival and emancipates himself from tradition as well as from the tribe.” That these qualities of daring and self-reliance were the be prized in the Greco-Roman world is accurate enough, but it is doubtful if the model is properly placed. In fact, the most striking egos of the archaic world were not the bronze-age heroes celebrated by Homer but the iron-age antiheroes so cynically described by Archilochus. Indeed, Archilochus himself was the embodiment of this highly unique personality. He links a hidden tradition of the ego's self-assertion in organic society with the calculating individual of emerging “civilization”.

Unlike a quasi-mythical despot like Gilgamesh or a newly-arrived aristocrat like Achilles, Archilochus speaks for a remarkable breed: the displaced, wandering band of mercenaries who must live by their wits and cunning. He is no Homeric hero but rather something of an armed bohemian of the seventh century B.C. His self-possession and libertarian spirit stand in marked contrast to the disciplined lifeways that are congealing around the manorial society of his day. His very existence almost seems improbable, even an affront to the heroic posture of his era. His occupation as itinerant soldier reflects the sweeping decomposition of society; his arrogant disdain for tradition exudes the negativity of the menacing rebel. What cares he for the shield has had abandoned in battle? “Myself I saved from death; why should I worry about my shield? Let it be gone: I shall buy another equally good.” Such sentiments could never have been expressed by a Homeric hero with his aristocratic code of arms and honor. Nor does Archilochus judge his commanders by their mien and status. He dislikes a “tall general, striding forth on his long legs; who prides himself on his locks and shaves his chin like a fop. Let him be a small man,” he declares, “perhaps even bow-legged, as long as he stands firm on his feet, full of heart.
Archilochus and his wandering band of companions are the earliest record we have of that long line of “masterless men” who surface repeatedly during periods of social decomposition and unrest – men, and later women, who have no roots in any community or tradition, who colonize the world's future rather than its past. Their characters are literally structured to defy custom, to satirize and shatter established mores, to play the game of life by their own rules. Marginal as they may be, they are the harbingers of the intensely individuated rebel who is destined to “turn the world upside down.” They have broad shoulders, not puny neuroses, and express themselves in a wild, expletive-riddled poetry or oratory. Society must henceforth always warily step aside when they appear on the horizon and silently pray that they will pass by unnoticed by its restive commoners – or else it must simply destroy them.
But these are the few sharply etched personalities of history, the handful of marginal rebels whose significance varies with the stability of social life. Their fortunes depend upon the reception they receive by much larger, often inert, masses of people.”

This passage, on whole, is incredibly important for defining armed bohemianism as I see it and seek to practice it. Bookchin's armed bohemian, “
He is no Homeric hero but rather something of an armed bohemian”, is not a man of society, or of tribe, but a force which shapes and defines his own society and tribe, his own freedom and attachments.
How is this different from the armed bohemian of ZenPundit and Heiden? The tyrant bohemian they portray is seemingly limited in his/her scope merely to villainy. A perhaps locally celebrated, but overall negative, force in the world at large. But outstanding characteristics remain - The tyrant bohemian is of the type of “
Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty”. This is not a characteristic solely of tyrants, but of all those “self-assertive personalities who enjoy a visible degree of autonomy” that we call armed bohemians.
We define the armed bohemian as a character of multiple possibilities, dark and light, but retaining many of the same qualities on both sides of the coin. Perhaps foremost among these is that they are creatures of limited value (other than to themselves) except at certain times – Their individuality, a certain confrontational independence, puts them at odds with a stable society. They seek the interstices, places of lawlessness and freedom rather than those of stability and control.
Here their desires and skillsets may never be of great value, but they are free to practice them and share them with the select few allowed to participate (not just fellow inhabitants of the fringe, but the select attachments chosen by the individual). However, at times of great unrest, destabilization, these personalities rise as the quality they sought in the interstices are now extant in the whole. The armed bohemian, being “acutely sensitive to these shifts”, finds his greatest potential successes here – Where much of general society would fail, or flee, being inhibited by their establishment in past modes.
To quote ZenPundit again,
“Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.“

Warlords to warrior-poets, rogue farmers and black-swan economists – Armed Bohemians are fundamental to humanity, and societal evolution. Useless and castigated, until they are absolutely necessary.

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