Words and cover art by Ant Gray
Can’t afford an expensive holiday overseas? Take some advice from an eighteen century French writer, soldier and artist under house arrest, and go on a magical sight-seeing tour of your very own home.
“The real voyage of discovery,” Marcel Proust is often quoted as saying, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” So why bother with the expense of travelling at all? Wouldn’t it be easier to work on having new eyes at home?
The eighteenth century French aristocrat, writer, painter and soldier, Xavier de Maistre, did just that. After getting into trouble with the Tunisian authorities for duelling, he was put under house arrest. While confined to his small apartment for six weeks, he amused himself by writing a satirical travelogue entitled Journey Around My Room.
de Maistre wrote it for his older brother Joseph for a laugh. The book pokes fun at the travel accounts of exotic places that were popular in Europe at the time.
He describes his journey in grand terms and in great depth. “My room,” he writes at the beginning of his ‘travelogue’, “forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round.”
“My journey will, however, be longer than this; for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan. I shall even zig-zag about, following, if needs be, every possible geometrical line.
He talks at length about the paintings hanging on his walls. He tells us about his library—about his favourite novels and books of poetry. He carefully examines every piece of furniture in the place.
He meditates on his favourite armchair:
“By the by, what a capital article of furniture an armchair is, and, above all, how convenient to a thoughtful man. In long winter evenings it is ofttimes sweet, and always prudent, to stretch yourself therein, far from the bustle of crowded assemblies.
A good fire, some books and pens; what safeguards these against ennui!
And how pleasant, again, to forget books and pens in order to stir the fire, while giving one’s self up to some agreeable meditation, or stringing together a few rhymes for the amusement of friends, as the hours glide by and fall into eternity, without making their sad passage felt.”
He describes his bed at great length:
“Next to my arm-chair, as we go northward, my bed comes into sight. It is placed at the end of my room, and forms the most agreeable perspective. It is very pleasantly situated, and the earliest rays of the sun play upon my curtains. On fine summer days I see them come creeping, as the sun rises, all along the whitened wall.”
Even though the book is satire, it’s hard at times not to take it at its word and be swept up in his enthusiasm—feigned or not.
“The elm-trees opposite my windows divide them into a thousand patterns as they dance upon my bed, and, reflecting its rose-and-white colour, shed a charming tint around. I hear the confused twitter of the swallows that have taken possession of my roof, and the warbling of the birds that people the elms.”
“Then do a thousand smiling fancies fill my soul,” he writes, “and in the whole universe no being enjoys an awakening so delightful, so peaceful, as mine.”
His exuberance about his bed—about lying there in the seeping light, watching the play of shadows and listening to the birds outside—is catching. I want to believe it’s genuine.
“I confess that I do indeed revel in these sweet moments, and prolong as far as I can the pleasure it gives me to meditate in the comfortable warmth of my bed.”
How could his enthusiasm not be real?
Of enjoying the comforts of bed, he writes: “It is here that during one half of a lifetime we forget the annoyances of the other half.”
On the surface Journey Around My Room presents a picture of a man who is not bored by his confinement, nor by life as a whole.
de Maistre finds something interesting to say on many topics big and small: on the nature of the soul and its relationship to the body; on his love for his dog; how distracted his mistress gets when she is preparing for a ball; in describing the imbalance of power in his relationship with his servant. (You know, stuff we can all relate to.)
He also talks at length on the art of painting. de Maistre himself was a painter of some repute.
“How sublime, thought my soul, is the painter’s art! Happy is he who is touched by the aspect of nature, and does not depend upon his pictures for a livelihood; who does not paint solely as a pastime, but struck with the majesty of a beautiful form, and the wonderful way in which the light with its thousand tints plays upon the human face, strives to imitate in his works the wonderful effects of nature! Happy, too, is the painter who is led by love of landscape into solitary paths, and who can make his canvas breathe the feeling of sadness with which he is inspired by a gloomy wood or a desert plain.”
He is also lyrical about our capacity for imagination, which seems natural considering his confinement, writing: “Delightful realm of Imagination, which the benevolent Being has bestowed upon man to console him for the disappointments he meets with in real life.”
“What more flattering delight is there than the being able thus to expand one’s existence, to occupy at once earth and heaven, to double, so to speak, one’s being? Is it not man’s eternal, insatiable desire to augment his strength and his faculties, to be where he is not, to recall the past, and live in the future?”
But is his seemingly boundless positivity all an elaborate joke?
Or was his satire a double bluff, a cover for the true expression of someone who really does love life and who has great capacity to find enjoyment in the everyday? Isn’t writing a book like this, an elaborate joke to send your brother, evidence of that?
It’s useful to think of the period in which de Maistre was writing. As literary critic Nicholas Lezard explains, the author “lived in a world of blood and thunder,” adding that “the chief reason Xavier was in Turin in the first place was to escape the revolution that was severing aristocrats’ necks” in France. So why not enjoy life? Isn’t the enjoyment of life in face of the seriousness of death the greatest act of rebellion? Especially when you’re under arrest and a prisoner in your own house.
The book is not all happy though. There are sad moments too. Like a lengthy description of a friend and fellow soldier who died, not on any battlefield, but in the normal course of life. And the admission of loneliness, especially when socialising:
“Do you enjoy balls and plays as much as you used to do? As for me, I avow that for some time past crowded assemblies have inspired me with a kind of terror. […] Perhaps this is because the soul, overwhelmed at the present moment by dark fancies and painful pictures, sees nothing but sadness around it.”
But throughout Journey Around My Room, de Maistre exhibits a kind of... I want to say lust for life. What in German is called Schwärmerei—a word for which the literal translation is ‘to swarm like bees’, but actually means something closer to what Kramer in Seinfeld calls ‘unbridled enthusiasm.’ That’s hard to fake.
Cynicism is easy. Acting like a disengaged teen where ‘everything sucks’ is a cop-out. Being open to the joys and agonies of everyday life is hard.
The Mysterious Wonders of Traffic Island
Xavier de Maistre’s project of cataloguing his small apartment in Tunis, satire or not, seems allied with Proust’s idea that the ultimate aim of travel is not just about seeing the sights, but ‘seeing the world with new eyes.’
In the foreword to a new edition of A Journey Around My Room, Alain de Botton writes:
“Wrapped in his dressing gown, satisfied by the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.”
What is needed in our daily lives, de Botton says, is to stop looking past the familiar and see things afresh—to take on a ‘travelling mindset’ even when we are at home.
To do this, de Botton argues, requires an engaged sense of ‘receptivity’ in the same way we are receptive in foreign, unfamiliar places. When we travel “we approach new places with humility,” he writes.
“We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be strange small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or hairdresser’s unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.”
There are so few of us, lulled by the well-worn familiarity of home, who could say we can maintain that sense of receptivity towards own neighbourhoods, our neighbours, our friends, even our partners. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt,’ and maybe that’s why our days feel so contemptible. Following de Maistre’s example, if we were less distracted, less disengaged, we might discover more wonders at home.
At the end of Journey Around My Room, the author is freed from his captivity, but he is sad to end his ‘travels.’
“This day, certain persons on whom I am dependent affect to restore me to liberty,” he writes adding, “as if they had ever deprived me of it!”
“As if it were in their power to snatch it from me for a single moment, and to hinder me from traversing, at my own good pleasure, the vast space that ever lies open before me!
They have forbidden me to go at large in a city, a mere speck, and have left open to me the whole universe, in which immensity and eternity obey me.
Was it as a punishment that I was exiled to my chamber, to that delightful country in which abound all the riches and enjoyments of the world? As well might they consign a mouse to a granary.”
Upon finishing writing his ‘travel book,’ the then twenty-seven year-old sent it to his older brother who enjoyed it so much he sent it off for publication. According to Daniel Elkind, de Maistre, now free, reenlisted as an officer in the Russian army. He did not hear that Journey Around My Room had been published, and knew nothing of its popularity until many years later.
A Backyard Wonderland
In a time closer to our own, for nearly thirty years from the mid-1970s onwards, British biologist Jennifer Owen conducted field research, not in Uganda where she lived for some time, nor Sierra Leone where she lived for a time also, but in the small backyard of her suburban home in Leicester in England.
According to The Independent, after extensive time abroad, Owen decided to return to her hometown to raise her children with her husband Denis, who was also a naturalist and academic. Between 1975 and 2001 she catalogued over 400 types of plants in her backyard, 120 different species of bees and wasps, 50 different birds, and 422 species of beetles.
“A gardener crowds together in one place a far greater diversity of plants than is ever found in one place in the wild,” she writes in her book Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-year Study.
“Even in tropical rainforest an area equivalent to a typical garden would not contain so many different plant species.”
By the end of her career she had identified over 2,600 different plants, insects and animals all living in her small backyard, a significant number of which had never been recorded by science. Over three decades, she wrote numerous academic papers and published two books on her research.
At first, doing fieldwork on 741 square metres just outside her back door was a matter of curiosity and convenience. The whole family joined in collecting bugs and butterflies. But later in her life, it became a necessity. Owen was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which meant as her mobility diminished, sadly so too did her collection of specimens.
“A great deal of what we know about garden biodiversity comes from a single garden in Leicester belonging to Jennifer Owen,” writes biologist Ken Thompson, even though “Leicestershire is not a notably biodiverse county.” Owen was able to identify 56% of all varieties of bumblebees in England and an astonishing 533 species of parasitic wasps, “including seven species new to Britain and four new to science.”
“Few enough of us would contemplate trying to assemble a complete inventory of the beetles, birds, butterflies (and a great deal else) in our gardens for even one year,” Thompson writes.
“To persist for 30 years is an achievement that will probably never be equalled.”
To sustain such enthusiasm and interest at home is a gift. And it is no less grand a project than seeking adventure in far-flung places.