A journey around my room

March 25, 2020 0 Comments

One of the many effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been to put a stop to all but the shortest and most qualified kinds of walking.  But if social distancing means that your personal movement is restricted to walking around your own home (and garden, if you have one) and little more, that doesn’t mean that journeys and voyages are at an end for you.  Or that travel writing is no longer possible.  On the contrary, even if you’re limited to a single room, you still have the means to roam, over the whole world if you like, without difficulty.

At first sight that proposition might seem hard to accept, but around 225 years ago a book was published that put its truth beyond doubt.  Its title was Voyage autour de ma chambre (A journey around my room) and its author was Xavier de Maistre, a French aristocrat, soldier, painter and student of rhetoric and philosophy.  Like his ferociously reactionary brother (and philosopher) Joseph, Xavier was horrified by the French Revolution.  He was also a keen early aeronaut.  In the words of the foreword to the English translation,

De Maistre and a friend constructed a pair of giant wings out of paper and wire and planned to fly to America.  They did not succeed.  Two years later de Maistre secured himself a place in a hot-air balloon and spent a few moments floating above Chambéry before the machine crashed into a pine forest.

While in Turin in 1790 as an officer in the army of Savoy, de Maistre found himself involved a duel.  Those around him took a dim view of the incident.  He was placed under what was in effect house arrest in a tower in the city, for a ‘cooling off’ period of 42 days.  From this experience he distilled the ideas that found their way into his book, which he published in Turin in 1794, when he was 25 years old.  It’s probably the first ever example of ‘anti-travel’ literature, or, more accurately, ‘meta-travel’ writing.

De Maistre’s book fits into a genre, which had a craze after the publication of Laurence Sterne’s A sentimental journey in 1768.  That novel, with its eccentric narrator, wilful digressions, cod philosophy and sexual suggestiveness, became an instant success, and bred many imitations and burlesques.  If you’re familiar with A sentimental journey you’ll easily spot the Sternean elements in A journey round my room: the addressing of friends and lovers as if they were present, the learned and pseudo-philosophical wit, the textual playfulness, and the erotic overtones.

Aside from this ‘intertextuality’, though, de Maistre’s central theme is original and arresting.  It is that you can, and should, treat your immediate, familiar surroundings as if you were exploring an exotic foreign land for the first time.  And if you do, you’ll derive great enjoyment and enlightenment from the exercise.

There are 42 chapters, one for each of the days of de Maistre’s confinement.  But the chapters don’t correspond to days, and this is no diary.  Instead, it’s an eccentric tour of the contents of his room and the apparently arbitrary stream of ideas, memories and fantasies suggested by them.

De Maistre’s room forms ‘a long rectangle, thirty-six paces in circumference, if you hug the wall’.  That’s hardly a garret.  It can be made larger still: ‘I will be crossing it frequently lengthwise, or else diagonally, without any rule or method.  I will even follow a zigzag path, and I will trace out every possible geometrical trajectory if need be’.  His thoughts, too, will follow an unpredictable course.  He invites his readers to travel with him: ‘we will travel in short marches, laughing all along the way at the travellers who have seen Roman and Paris; no obstacle will be able to stop us; and, yielding merrily to our imagination, we will follow it wherever it wishes to lead us’.

We start with de Maistre’s armchair, ‘an excellent piece of furniture … highly useful for every man inclined to meditation’:

A nice fire, books, pens; how many resources against boredom!  And what a pleasure it is, too, to forget your books and your pens and instead poke your fire, succumbing to a gentle contemplation, or rearranging a few rhymes to amuse your friends!  Then the hours slip away over you, and silently fall into eternity, without making you feel their melancholy passage.

Next comes the bed – a perfect place to wake up in the morning, to the sound of birdsong, and the scene of so many intense moments of life – love-making, childbirth and dying: ‘it is a cradle bedecked with flowers; it is the throne of love; it is a sepulchre’.  The second in this list sets de Maistre off on a lengthy mental diversion: a chapter (‘meant for metaphysicians’) on the Cartesian distinction between his soul and his baser, animal self (the ‘beast’ or ‘the other’), and another describing his beast’s visit, unaccompanied by his restraining soul, to the house of a beautiful woman, Mme de Hautcastel.  Another example is that common phenomenon of reading words on a page without registering their meaning:

When you read a book, sir, and a more agreeable idea suddenly strikes on your imagination, your soul straight away pounces on it and forgets the book, while your eyes mechanically follow the words and the lines; you come to the end of the page without understanding it, and without remembering what you have read.  This comes from the fact that your soul, having ordered its companion to read to it, did not warn it of the brief absence on which it was about to embark; as a result, the other continued to read even though your soul was no longer listening.

But this dualism is a thing to be welcomed:

Is there any more deeply satisfying pleasure than that of spreading out one’s existence in this way, occupying heaven and earth at once, and thereby doubling, so to speak, one’s being?

Returning to his bed, de Maistre recommends its colours, pink and white, ‘two colours dedicated to pleasure and happiness’ that ignite a Proust-like association-memory of a walk with ‘dear Rosalie’:

Suddenly, having reached the summit of a mound, she turned back to us to catch her breath, and smiled at our slowness.  Never, perhaps, had the two colours whose praises I am singing scored such a great triumph.  Her flaming cheeks, her coral lips, her gleaming teeth, her alabaster neck, against a background of verdure, struck every eye.

De Maistre is reduced to silence by this erotic vision and the next chapter consists of just one word, surround by a forest of full stops: ‘the mound’.  He’s clearly not thinking here of a geographical feature.  By now it’s lunchtime, and as he waits for his manservant, Joanetti, to fetch his meal, de Maistre retreats to his armchair, resting his feet on the mantlepiece.  This is an invitation for his dog, Rosine, to jump up and lie on his legs, and for de Maistre to reflect on the unconditional mutual love of a dog and its master (in implied contrast to the inconstancy of his human lovers).

Next de Maistre introduces us to the paintings and engravings on the walls of his room, the occasion for another stream of emotional memories and stories, and to a mirror, where he treats us to his thoughts on the usefulness, or not, of a ‘moral mirror’.  Then, the desk, reached after a small accident, in which de Maistre, surprised by a knock on the door, falls from his chair (‘post-chaise’) to lie sprawled on to the floor.  The desk contains letters received long ago (re-reading them is another ‘intense, melancholy pleasure’), a dried rose (associated with the cruel indifference of his mistress), and his library of novels and poetry (a ‘vast terrain which I wander across in every direction at leisure’).

Dreams too are a good room-bound way to travel, in time as well as space.  De Maistre falls asleep in his chair by the fire.  He dreams about meeting historical figures, including Hippocrates, Plato and Pericles, and talking with them about medicine, wigs and dress styles. 

Finally, in chapter 42, his captors come to let him loose from his room.  But he has mixed feelings about liberation:

Ah, why didn’t they let me finish my journey?  Was it to punish me that they had locked me up in my room – in that delightful country that holds every good thing, and all the riches of life, within its realm?  You may as well exile a mouse in a granary.

De Maistre so enjoyed international travel from a single room that he returned to the theme, this time voluntarily.  In 1825, while he and his Russian wife Sophie were living in St Petersburg, he published an equally eccentric text, Expédition nocturne autour de ma chamber (A nocturnal expedition around my room).  In this book his travels extend and become intergalactic.  Chapter 16, entitled ‘The system of the world’, consists of one sentence:

I believe, then, that as space is infinite, creation is also infinite, and that God has created in His eternity an infinity of worlds in the immensity of space.

It’s maybe surprising that few later writers have taken up de Maistre’s brilliant idea.  His translator, Andrew Brown, cites three: Marcel Proust (his cork-lined room), Samuel Beckett (Malone and other unfortunates) and the French novelist George Perec.  In 1974 Perec published Espèces d’espaces (Species of spaces), a series of disconnected thoughts in succeeding chapters, beginning with ‘The page’, and moving via ‘The bed’, ‘The bedroom’, ‘The apartment’, and so on, to ‘Europe’, ‘The world’ and finally ‘Space’.  It might take as its starting point a children’s game, but this piece seems entirely in keeping with the miniature but grand thinking of Xavier de Maistre.

Xavier de Maistre, A journey around my room; and, A nocturnal expedition around my room, translated by Andrew Brown, with a foreword by Alain de Botton, London: Hesperus, 2004 (reprinted by Alma Classics, 2015).

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