“In 1790, Count Xavier de Maistre, a twenty-seven-year-old Savoyard officer stationed in Turin, fought a duel with a Piedmontese officer and was put under house arrest for forty-two days, an interval during which he wrote a text to beguile the languors of his solitude — having hitherto shown no trace of a literary vocation — and in 1794 he left the manuscript of Voyage autour de ma chambre in Lausanne with his older brother Joseph, who published it there the following year without the author’s knowledge.“— Richard Howard, from his introduction to Voyage Around My Room
“De Maistre pioneered a mode of travel that was to make his name: room travel. Dressed in pink-and-blue pajamas, satisfied within 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.“—Alain de Botton
Xavier de Maistre’s interior travelogue has new relevance in our current moment of quarantine, social distancing, and COVID-19 precautions and panic. For the soothing purposes of distraction and amusement, we make the first ten chapters of this instructive work available here. This excerpt from de Maistre will mark the first post in a “Voyage Around My Room” series by ND authors, editors, and friends.
Buck up, then; we’re on our way!
— New Directions
How glorious it is to blaze a new trail, and suddenly to appear in learned society, a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unforeseen comet flashing through space!— No, I will no longer keep my book in petto:* here it is, gentlemen. Read it. I have just completed a forty-two-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. For the pleasure of traveling around one’s room is beyond the reach of man’s restless jealousy: it depends not on one’s material circumstance.
Indeed, is there anyone so wretched, so forlorn as not to have some sort of garret in which to withdraw and hide from the world? For such is all that is required for travel.
I am certain that all sensible men will adopt my system, regardless of disposition or temperament. Whether they be miserly or prodigal, rich or poor, young or old, born in the torrid zone or near the pole, they can travel as I do. Indeed, in the vast family of men teeming on the surface of the earth, there is not one, no, not a single one (among those living in rooms, that is) who, upon reading this book, could possibly refuse to approve the new manner of travel that I am introducing to the world.
I could begin the praise of my voyage by saying that it cost me nothing. This point merits some attention. It will, at first, be extolled and celebrated by people of middling circumstances; yet there is another class of people with whom it is even more certain to enjoy great success, for the same reason, that it costs nothing. And who would these people be? Need you even ask? Why, the rich, of course. And in what respect would this new manner of travel not also be suitable for the infirm? They need not fear the inclemency of the elements or the seasons. As for the faint of heart, they will be safe from bandits, and need not fear encountering any precipices or holes in the road. Thousands of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, and others who had been unable, and still others who had never dreamed of it, will now, after my example, undertake to do so. Would even the most indolent of creatures hesitate to set out with me in search of pleasures that will cost him neither effort nor money? Buck up, then; we’re on our way. Follow me, all you whom humiliation in love or neglect in friendship confines to your apartments, far from the pettiness and treachery of your fellow men. Let all the wretched, the sick, and the bored follow me — let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse; — and you, whose brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform; you, who in your boudoir are contemplating renouncing the world in order to live; gentle anchorites of an evening, you too, come, heed my call and forget those dark ideas; you are losing time for pleasure, while gaining none for wisdom; be so good as to accompany me on my voyage, we shall travel by short stages, laughing all along the way at travelers who have seen Rome and Paris. — Nothing can stop us; and abandoning ourselves gaily to our fancy, we shall follow it wherever it wishes to take us.
There are so many curious people in this world. — I am convinced that some would like to know why my voyage around my room lasted forty-two days instead of forty-three or some other length of time. But how can I impart this to the reader, if I myself do not know? All I can say with any assurance is that if this work is too long for his liking, it was not within my power to shorten it: a traveler’s vanity notwithstanding, I would have been content with a single chapter. I was, it is true, quite pleased and amused to stay in my room; but I was not, alas, free to come out at will. Indeed, I believe that without the intervention of certain powerful persons interested in my case, and for whom my gratitude is most keen, I should have had all the time I needed to bring out an in-folio volume, so disposed in my favor were the protectors who sent me on my voyage around my room.
And yet, sensible reader, note how wrong these men were, and try, if you can, to grasp the logic that I am about to set forth to you.
What could be more natural and proper than to engage in mutual slaughter with someone who has inadvertently stepped on your foot or blurted out a few stinging remarks in a moment of spite occasioned by your own indiscretion, or who has had the misfortune of catching your mistress’s fancy?
You go into a meadow, and there, as Nicole did with the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, you try to thrust in quarte while he parries in tierce; and, so that vengeance will be guaranteed and total, you expose your chest to him unprotected, and run the risk of being killed by your enemy to avenge yourself on him. — Nothing could be more logical, and yet there are people who disapprove of this laudable custom! Yet equally logical as the rest is that these same disapproving people, who want us to consider it a grave misdeed, would reserve still harsher treatment for anyone who refused to commit it. To conform to their opinion, more than one unhappy wretch has lost his reputation and livelihood; consequently, when one has the misfortune to become involved in what is called an an air of honor, it may not be ill-advised to draw lots to determine whether one should carry it out according to law or according to custom; and since the law and the custom are in contradiction, the judges themselves could decide upon their sentence with a toss of the dice. One must, no doubt, look to a decision of this sort to explain why and how my voyage lasted exactly forty-two days.
My room is situated at forty-five degrees latitude, according to the measurements of Father Beccaria. It runs from east to west, and forms a rectangle that is thirty-six paces around, keeping well nigh to the walls. My voyage, however, will encompass a great deal more; for I shall often walk across it lengthwise and breadthwise, and diagonally too, following no rule or method. — I shall even zigzag this way and that, and follow every line possible in geometry, if necessary. I do not care much for people who so control their steps and ideas, who say, “Today I will pay three visits, write four letters, and finish the piece I have begun.” — My soul is so open to every manner of idea, taste, and sentiment, it avidly takes in everything that turns up! … — And why should it refuse any of the delights scattered along the difficult path of life? They are so rare, so few and far between, that one would have to be mad not to stop, indeed to stray from one’s path, to gather every one that is within reach. And there is none more enticing, in my opinion, than to follow the trail of one’s ideas, as the hunter stalks his quarry, without keeping to any one course. I too, when traveling in my room, rarely follow a straight line! I go from my table toward a painting hung in a corner, and from there I set off obliquely for the door; yet although in setting out my intention is to reach that spot, if I happen to encounter my armchair along the way, without hesitation I settle right down into it. — What a splendid piece of furniture an armchair is, of utmost importance and usefulness for every contemplative man. During those long winter evenings, it is often sweet and always advisable to stretch out luxuriously in one, far from the din of the crowds. A good fire, a few books, some quills — what excellent antidotes to boredom! And what a pleasure then to forget your books and quills and to poke the fire, relinquishing your thoughts to some pleasant meditation — or composing some rhymes to amuse your friends: the hours slide over you and fall silently into eternity, and you do not even feel their melancholy passing.
Heading north from my armchair, we discover my bed, which sits at the back of the room and creates a most agreeable perspective: it is most felicitously situated, receiving the morning sun’s first rays as they shine through my curtains. — On lovely summer days, I see them advance along the white wall as the sun slowly rises; the elm trees outside my window break them up in a thousand different ways, sending them rippling across my pink and white bed, which everywhere casts a charming glow from their reflection. — I hear the confused twitter of the swallows that have made a home of the building’s roof, and the other birds that inhabit the elms: a thousand happy ideas fill my mind, and no man alive enjoys an awakening so pleasant and peaceful as mine.
I must admit that I love to savor those sweet moments, and I always prolong as much as possible the pleasure of meditating in the sweet warmth of my bed. — Is there any theater that better quickens the imagination, that more effectively awakens thoughts of tenderness, than the piece of furniture in which I sometimes find oblivion? — Modest reader, have no fear; — but shall I never be able to speak of the happiness of a lover who, for the first time, takes a virtuous wife into his arms? What ineffable pleasure, which my unhappy fate condemns me never to taste! Is it not in a bed that a mother, drunk with the joy of her child’s birth, forgets her pain? It is here that the imaginary pleasures, the fruits of fancy and hope, come to stir us. — And it is in this cradle of delight that we forget, for one half of our life’s duration, the sorrows of the other half. — Yet what a host of thoughts both pleasant and sad rush all at once into my brain! What a bewildering mix of frightful and delightful situations! — A bed witnesses our birth and it witnesses our death: it is the ever-changing theater where the human species enacts, by turns, engaging dramas, ridiculous farces, and horrible tragedies. — It is a cradle decked with flowers; — it is love’s throne; — it is a sepulcher.
This chapter is strictly for metaphysicians. It will shed the greatest possible light on the nature of man; it is a prism through which we shall soon be able to analyze and break down man’s faculties, separating his animal powers from the pure light of intelligence.
It would be impossible for me to explain how and why I burned my fingers when taking the first steps of my voyage, without first explaining to the reader, in the greatest of detail, my system of the soul and the beast. — This metaphysical discovery, moreover, has such great bearing on my thoughts and actions that it would be most difficult to understand this book if I did not provide the key to it at the very beginning.
I have noticed, through many and sundry observations, that man is made up of a soul and a beast. — These two beings are absolutely distinct, yet so contained within one another, or rather on top of one another, that the soul must in some way be superior to the beast to be able to make such a distinction.
An old professor once told me (that’s as much as I can remember) that Plato called matter the other. That’s quite good, yet I would rather give that quintessential name to the beast that is united with our soul. For that substance is the real other and pesters us in a most distressing manner. It is rather frequently observed that man is twofold, but this is, they say, because he is made up of a soul and a body; and this body is accused of I know not how many dreadful things, quite inappropriately I am sure, since it is as incapable of feeling as it is of thinking. The real culprit is the beast, that sentient being utterly distinct from the soul, that veritable individual that has his own separate existence, tastes, inclinations and will, and is superior to the other animals only because he happens to be a little more well- bred and endowed with more perfect organs.
Ladies and Gentlemen, be as proud of your intelligence as you please, but beware of that other — especially when you are together.
I have conducted I know not how many experiments on the union of these two heterogeneous creatures. For example, I have clearly determined that the soul can command obedience from the beast, and that, by an unfortunate reciprocity, the latter can very often compel the soul to act against her will. According to the rules, the one has legislative power, the other executive power; but very often these powers oppose each other. — The great skill of a man of genius lies in knowing how to bring his beast up well, so that he may go his own way in the world while the soul, released from this distressing intimacy, raises herself to the heavens.
But let me clarify this with an example.
When you are reading a book, Monsieur, and a thought more agreeable than the rest suddenly enters your mind, your soul clings to it at once and forgets the book. As your eyes mechanically follow the words and lines, you reach the end of the page without understanding or remembering what you have just read; and this is because your soul, having ordered her companion to do the reading in her place, did not inform him that she was about to absent herself briefly, and thus the other continued reading while your soul no longer listened.
Does that not seem clear to you? Here is another example.
One day last summer I was on my way to the Court. I had been painting all morning, and my soul, taking pleasure in meditating on painting, left it to the beast to transport me to the royal palace.
“What a sublime art painting is!” my soul was thinking. “Happy is the man moved by the spectacle of nature who is not obliged to make paintings for a living; who does not paint solely as a pastime, but rather, when struck by the majesty of a beautiful countenance or the wonderful play of the light as it blends into a thousand shades on a human face, strives in his works to approximate nature’s sublime effects! And happier still the painter who, summoned to his solitary promenades by his love for the landscape, can express on canvas the sadness inspired in him by a shaded thicket or an empty plain. His creations imitate and reproduce nature; he invents new seas and dark caverns the sun has never known: at his command, shady groves, always green, arise from nothing; heaven’s blue is mirrored in his paintings. With his art he can roil the winds and make tempests roar. At other times he presents to the spectator’s astonished eye the splendid landscapes of ancient Sicily: one sees frightened nymphs fleeing through the reeds, pursued by a satyr; temples of majestic architecture rise proudly above the sacred forest surrounding them: the imagination loses its way along the silent paths of this ideal land; the bluish distance blends into the sky, and the whole landscape, mirrored in the waters of a tranquil river, creates a spectacle that no language can describe.” — As my soul was reflecting thus, the other continued on his way, and God knows where he was going! — Instead of repairing to the court, as he had been ordered to do, he drifted so far to port that by the time my soul caught up, he was at Mme de Hautcastel’s front door, a half-mile from the king’s palace.
I shall leave it to the reader to imagine what would have happened had I let my beast enter, alone, the house of so lovely a lady.
If it is useful and agreeable to have a soul so disengaged from matter that one can let her travel alone as one sees fit, this faculty also has its inconveniences. It was, for example, to blame for the burn I mentioned a few chapters back. — Customarily I leave to my beast the task of preparing my breakfast: he toasts and slices my bread, makes excellent coffee, and often drinks it without the participation of my soul, unless the latter wishes to amuse herself while watching the other work, but that happens rarely, and is very difficult to carry out; for it is easy, when one is performing a mechanical operation, to have one’s mind on something else entirely, but it is extremely difficult to watch oneself working, so to speak, or — to put it more clearly in terms of my system — to use one’s soul to observe the working of the beast without taking part. — For that is the most stunning metaphysical tour de force that man can perform.
I had laid my tongs down on the embers, to toast the bread, and a little while later, as my soul was traveling, a flaming log suddenly rolled onto the hearth — my poor beast set his hand to the tongs, and I burned my fingers.
I hope that in the preceding chapters I have set forth my ideas well enough to give the reader food for thought and enable him to make discoveries of his own in this luminous realm. He could not help but be pleased with himself should he succeed one day in making his soul travel all by herself; the delights that this ability will bring to him will more than outweigh the misunderstandings that might result from it. Indeed, could there be any joy more gratifying than that of thus stretching one’s existence, of inhabiting the earth and the heavens at once, of doubling, as it were, one’s being? — Is it not man’s eternal and forever unfulfilled wish to increase his power and abilities, to be where he is not, to recall the past and to live in the future? He wants to command armies and preside over academies; he wants to be worshiped by beautiful women; yet if he has all this, he misses the calm of the countryside, and envies the shepherd his cabin. His plans and hopes are forever doomed to founder against the real sorrows inherent in human nature: he cannot find happiness. — A quarter of an hour’s travel with me will show him the way.
Ah, but why does he not leave these miserable cares, the torment of ambition, to the other? — Come, unhappy wretch! Try to break out of your prison and, from the sky where I will take you, amidst the heavenly orbs and the empyrean, look down upon your beast cast into the world, as he beats the path of fortune and honor all alone; see how solemnly he walks among men: the rabble steps aside in respect. And take my word, none shall ever notice that he is alone; that is the least concern of the mob in whose midst he moves; little do they care whether or not he has a soul, whether or not he thinks. — Hundreds of passionate women will love him madly unawares; and he can even, without the aid of your soul, raise him- self to the highest station, the pinnacle of success. — In short, I should not be at all surprised if, upon our return from the empyrean, your soul, in going back home, found herself inside the beast of a great lord.
Let no one think that while describing my voyage around my room, instead of keeping my word I have been roaming the countryside to make things easy on myself. That would be quite mistaken, for my voyage, indeed, continues apace, and while my soul, withdrawing within herself in the previous chapter, was traveling the tortuous meanders of metaphysics, I was actually in my armchair, having leaned backward to the point where the two front legs were raised a couple of inches from the floor; then, rocking sideways from left to right, and gaining ground, I had, little by little, nearly reached the wall — such is my mode of travel when not in a hurry — : there, my hand had instinctively seized the portrait of Mme de Hautcastel, and the other then amused himself removing the dust that covered it. — He derived a quiet pleasure from this, a pleasure that made itself felt in my soul, even though she was lost in the vast reaches of the heavens. It is worthwhile to note that when the spirit is thus traveling through space, it remains bound to the senses by I know not what secret link; as a result, without interrupting its business, it can take part in the peaceful enjoyments of the other; yet if this pleasure grows beyond a certain point, or if the beast is struck by some unexpected sight, then the soul resumes her place with the swiftness of a lightning bolt.
This is what happened to me as I was cleaning the portrait.
As the cloth removed the dust and began to uncover the blond curls and the garland of roses crowning them, my soul, from the distant sun to which she had own, felt a gentle quiver of delight and sympathetically shared my heart’s joy. This joy became keener and less confused when the cloth, in a single stroke, revealed the stunning brow of that lovely countenance, and my soul made ready to quit the heavens to enjoy the spectacle. Even had she been in the Elysian Fields, or listening to a concert of cherubim, she would not have tarried half a second when her companion, taking ever greater interest in his work, thought to seize a wet sponge that had been brought and to run this at once over the eyebrows and eyes, — over the nose, — the cheeks, — and that mouth. — Oh, God! my heart is racing: — over the chin, the bosom; it took but a moment, and the entire figure seemed to return to life, to emerge from oblivion. — My soul dashed headlong from the sky like a falling star; she found the other in a state of rapt ecstasy, and succeeded in augmenting this by taking part in it. This unusual, unforeseen situation made time and space disappear for me. — For an instant, I existed in the past; I grew younger, contrary to the laws of nature. — Yes, there she is: the beloved woman. It is she, none other: I see her smiling; she is about to speak, to tell me she loves me. — What a gaze! Come closer and let me clutch you to my breast, light of my life, my second existence! Come and share my transport and my happiness. — This moment was brief, but entrancing. Soon cold reason resumed its rule, and in the twinkling of an eye I aged an entire year: my heart grew cold, icy, and I found myself again among the indifferent crowd weighing down the planet.
(Detail of “La chambre rouge” by Félix Vallotton, 1898)