Are We All Just Bouzingos At Heart?

(Photo Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Little is known about the strange and fascinating world of the Bouzingos, a group of poets, misfits and malcontents who inhabited Paris in the 1830’s. Indeed, much of it is now only a myth that has become somewhat distorted through the mists of time. Their members did however exist as real people, the French poet Gerard de Nerval being the most famous. He was rumored to have owned pet lobster named Thibault that he took out on daily walk through the royal Tuileries gardens. Why did he do such a thing you might ask? Because as Nerval explains:

“Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do.”

OK, that clears things up, though I can definitely say with certainty that no dog in my lifetime will ever know the secrets of the deep.

Gerard de Nerval

Nerval and his band of merrymakers set about offending pretty much everyone they could (this was probably pretty easy to do in the 1830’s). They believed that the middle and upper classes should be provoked and made to feel uncomfortable by the idea of artists behaving badly. They reveled in their poverty, influencing the later Bohemians to do the same. These brazen scoundrels dressed in flamboyant costumes involving velvet capes, Arab garb and Cossack leather boots. Rumors abound that the Bouzingos (I have no idea where they got this name) hosted wild parties in their Parisian apartments where clothes were banned and wine was drunk from human skulls. They also had a disturbing penchant for busking on street corners using instruments that they had absolutley no idea how to play. I doubt they earned very much money, though I’m sure the upstairs neighbors threw the odd egg or rotten tomato their way after listening to these concerts for the umpteenth time.

Many of the Bouzingos also spent their time traveling, especially to “exotic” destinations like Italy, Turkey and Egypt. Nerval, perhaps inspired by his wanderings, created the “Club des Hashischins” along with his friends Theophile Gautier and Baudelaire. There, with other literary notables of the day, they held seances and experimented with opium and hashish from the Far East (and God know what else)- again probably terrifying the neighbors.

Looks like they had fun…

The Bouzingos can definitely be credited with being some of the first people to do the sorts of wacky things we come to expect from alternative-minded folks in the our own modern age: slumming it in a run-down area of town, offending conservative society with confrontational art, doing drugs and practicing open sexuality. Their mindset and lifestyle can be seen in the works of Salvador Dali and the Surrealists (Dali walked about town with his pet anteater), as well as even Punk Rock: anybody can play an instrument, right?

These folks seemed pretty freaking cool, and if I had access to a time machine, I’d definitely want to go back to  the 1830’s and make their acquaintance. If I knew any French, I’d even try to have a conversation with them over a bottle of rotgut wine. I think any party where clothes are banned and cocktails are served in human skulls is my kind of Saturday night. Far more fun than dressing up in an itchy tuxedo and seeing the opera. Perhaps I should rename this blog “Romantic Bouzingo” instead of “Romantic Bohemian”, though I admit, it doesn’t have quite the same ring…

Would you consider yourself a Bouzingo? Is everything we do today as artists and malcontents just ripping off these guys? Did the Bouzingos lay the blueprint for the rest of us to come?

3 thoughts on “Are We All Just Bouzingos At Heart?

  1. I hadn’t heard of the Bouzingos but it makes me laugh to think of them doing their craziness all around Paris. Somewhere in my mind though, I was a aware that a man walked a lobster while dressed in a top hat and loved the silliness of the idea. Maybe I saw a photo.

    I’m a big fan of the absurdist author Daniil Kharms whose writing is full of all sorts of surreal crazy little stories. Their lifestyle reminds of them and he would have loved the Bouzingos.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Yeah, just reading about this groups exploits always gives me a chuckle. I always wondered where they got their ideas from, and if there were any pre-existing counter-cultures that inspired them- but Gerard Nerval & Co. seem like the first. I actually kind of feel sorry for his lobster though, don’t think it really would have liked being walked around in the street out in the open air, a bit cruel really. Probably ended up in some Frenchman’s souffle.

      Never read Daniil Kharms, now I guess I have to! I do believe the Bouzingos were a big influence on Dadaists and Surrealists 100 years later, using the juxtaposition of contrary or bizarre images to induce people to think about current reality. I like the Master And Margarita (read it on a Russian Lit class in college), though perhaps it’s more in the magical realism vein than surrealism/absurdism.


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