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  • Buenos Aires Bohème:Argentina and the Transatlantic Bohemian Renaissance, 1890–1910

When best-selling Argentine novelist and intellectual giant Manuel Gálvez released the first volume of his memoirs in 1944, he expected readers to be surprised, even dismayed, by one of its revelations. “Thousands of people alien to the little world of writers, or those who live far from the literary scene, and even some young writers today, are convinced that between roughly 1900 and 1906 there existed in Buenos Aires a true bohemia, formed by men of letters and by journalists.”1 Nonsense, he scoffed. Fantasy! No such bohemian coast had ever existed on Argentine shores, declared Gálvez, who would only admit the presence of a few pathetic “pseudobohemians” in the Buenos Aires of his youth—all of them pale shadows of the heroic, penniless Parisian artists and writers of the 1840s made famous by Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème (1849–51). “I read Murger’s novel,” snarled the great master, “exactly in those years of our pseudobohemia”; the experience, he claimed, left him with a “clear idea” of “what the life of bohemia was” and “what it has continued to be, more or less, until today, in Paris, the fatherland of bohemians” (Amigos y maestros, 134–35). Buenos Aires fell far short of the mark, as it so often did for the acerbic Gálvez, whose moralizing novels—in particular El mal metafísico (1916), Nacha Regules (1918), and Historia de arrabal (1922)—had long before established his distaste for the modern city, café life, and popular culture.2 Now he set his sights on another aspect of urban modernity. “I am going to destroy the legend” of Argentina’s “pseudobohemia,” he announced with considerable relish (134). [End Page 37]

And so he did, at least to his own satisfaction. Unaware or unconcerned that this cry of imposture had been raised repeatedly throughout the history of modern bohemianism, even in Murger’s day, Gálvez gladly hacked away at the myth of a turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires bohème, using the Paris original as his yardstick and axe.3 The real bohemia, he declared, consisted of spontaneous, poor, and sentimental artists, ill suited for family or social life but fiercely loyal to one another, lacking in discipline but crafty in matters of survival—men who cared little for politics or money, who survived on drink and passion, and who were totally dismissive of bourgeois values. By contrast, the few porteños (people of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s port city) who claimed to be bohemians all had day jobs, said Gálvez, and since most of them had families too, none could really stay up all night.4 Besides, their temperament was all wrong: lacking the real bohemian’s frivolity, they were not just melancholic but truly depressed, with lives “as monotone as other Argentines’ in those years around 1900” (143). Most damningly of all, these “pseudobohemians”—among whom Gálvez counted playwright Florencio Sánchez, café philosopher Charles de Soussens, and future sociologist José Ingenieros—were passionate about not only art but also politics. When they congregated in cafés, they debated the latest permutations of anarchism and socialism as much as they discussed their literary work and journalism. Such leftist politics had many years earlier become anathema to Gálvez, and yet he seemed more to pity than to condemn this purported deviation from the bohemian ideal. In truth, he concluded, the fault belonged to Buenos Aires itself, for “bohemia cannot exist where collective and individual life is routine, monotonous, and spiritually poor” (143).

Gálvez was not alone among Argentines in his repudiation of local claims to bohemian authenticity, nor was this view confined to one end of the political spectrum. Raúl Larra, a younger Argentine intellectual whose commitment to Marxist revolution contrasted sharply with Gálvez’s quasi-fascist Catholic nationalism, agreed that the turn-of-the-century bohemia of Buenos Aires had been exaggerated. Thinking back on the nocturnal antics of writers such as novelist Roberto Payró and poet Rubén Darío from the vantage point of the...


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pp. 37-63
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