Archive for May, 2020

A Survival Guide for Lock-Down: Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Room

May 27th, 2020

How does one come to terms with being confined to one’s home?  In 1790, when Count Xavier de Maistre. a 26-year-old lieutenant of marines in the service of the King of Sardinia, was placed under house arrest, he undertook and completed a forty-two-day ‘journey around his room’, for that was the precise length of his sentence for the rather gentlemanly offence of duelling.

Pouring out a book that he had already long planned, Maistre writes with great verve and enthusiasm, determined to ‘display only the cheerful aspect of my soul’. His Journey around My Room is a spoof travelogue, offering an alternative, but no less fulfilling form of travel to the timid and the indolent, to those in poor health, and to those who are simply short of cash, not to mention those, like him, who are forbidden to go out at all.

Maistre’s modest furniture and pictures spark a series of delightful reflections and imaginative leaps, although, as he points out, a ‘nice fire, books, pens’ are all you really need for such a journey.

He writes with great appreciation of his armchair, his sofa and his bed, where so much of his interior life is lived. After all, ‘A bed witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human race acts out, successively, its captivating dramas, laughable farces, and dreadful tragedies. – It is a cradle bedecked with flowers; – it is the throne of love; – it is a sepulchre.’

His carefully-curated picture gallery evokes sentimental memories of former loves and of past friendships. ‘Happy the man who finds a friend whose heart and mind harmonise with his; a friend united to him by a conformity of tastes, feelings and interests; a friend who is not tormented by ambition or egotism; – one who prefers the shade of a tree to the pomp and circumstance of a court! – Happy the man who possesses a friend!’

Though he presents himself in Voyage autour de ma chambre as rather unsoldierly, forgetting more than once to buckle on his sword for court duty, Xavier de Maistre had a distinguished military career ahead of him. He joined the Russian service in 1800, fought in the war of 1812 and was promoted a year later to Major-General. He married into my family and spent part of his retirement (from the late 1830s) in Naples, where he was the neighbour and close friend of my Naryshkin ancestors. The story he told them was that he had considered his little manuscript to be of no significance, but that his brother Joseph had liked the book and had had it published in Turin in 1794, with further editions issuing from Paris and Hamburg in 1796. It was only many years later, after the downfall of Napoleon, that Xavier was able to visit Paris. There he discovered, to his astonishment, that everyone seemed to have read his book, and he was quite taken aback to be fêted as a literary celebrity. A wise and modest old man, as one would expect, the preoccupation of his later life was painting, in which he was no less skilled than as a writer. He died in St Petersburg in 1852.

However, as any astute person knows, one is never alone with a book. Through his library of novels, ‘and a few choice poets’, Maistre is able to ‘transport my existence’ and explore a ‘vast terrain’, from ‘the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos’. He is referring particularly to Homer, Virgil, Ossian and Milton, for whose Lucifer he confesses a guilty admiration. His books give him access to worlds which can no longer be found on Earth, ‘for the men and even the heroes of today are pygmies’. In this light, it is no vanity for Maistre to describe his journey as the finest ever undertaken.

Unlike those who, today, are cowering inside for the avoidance of an epidemic, Maistre suffers his punishment alone, though at least he is able to receive friends, and is waited on by a Jeeves-like servant called Joannetti. Besides, there are those tussles with his (apparently female) soul. However, his coquettish mistress, Madame de Hautcastel, is indifferent to him and not among the visitors. Maistre is also exiled from, and grieves for, his native Savoy, a land assailed by ills, and soon to be annexed by Revolutionary France.

Outside in Turin, it is the time of the Carnival. He would have preferred his sentence to have fallen during Lent, but ‘philosophical reflections granted by Heaven’ prevent him from envying the revellers, whose merriment is clearly audible in the streets below. Instead, he reflects on those who are in far worse predicaments than he.

He is thinking of the poor, whose ‘pitiful cries’ are everywhere met with indifference, except by ‘the host of charitable men who sleep while the others are enjoying themselves, get up at daybreak and go off to give aid and comfort to misfortune, without witnesses and without ostentation.’ These saintly people then go off to church to thank God for his benefits, for which reason alone ‘the Eternal, angered at the harshness and avarice of men, holds back his thunder bolt that was poised to strike!’

In truth, Maistre is enjoying the uninterrupted time to himself, confessing that, ‘for some time now, all crowded gatherings have inspired in me a certain terror’. He has felt corrupted by the artificial bonhomie of such occasions, and is prone to finding ‘causes of sadness everywhere’. In confinement, his natural optimism asserts itself: ‘What a rich storehouse of enjoyment has kindly nature endowed on those men whose hearts are able to enjoy!’

He knows in his heart that he needs ‘the heaven’s air, and that solitude resembles death’, but Maistre speaks for all those fortunate people who are enjoying ‘lock-down’ too much – for whom, indeed, it is a blissful, restorative experience, a chance for tired souls to rest and for the whole Earth to breathe again.

‘Enchanting land of the imagination, you whom the most benevolent Being bequeathed to men to console them for reality, I must leave you. – Today is the day when certain persons on whom I depend say they will restore me to freedom. As if they had taken freedom from me! As if it had been in their power to deprive me of it for a single moment, and to prevent me from exploring at will the vast space that always lies open before me! – They have forbidden me to roam around a city, a mere point in space; but they have left me with the whole universe: immensity and eternity are mine to command.

‘So,’ he concludes, ‘today is the day I am to be free, or rather the day on which I am to be shackled in chains once more! The yoke of business will once more weigh down on me; I will no longer be able to take a single step that is not traced out for me by propriety and duty. – I may still be happy if some capricious deity makes me forget both of them, and if I can escape from this new and dangerous captivity!’

[Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room, trans. Andrew Brown, with a foreword by Alain de Botton, London, Hesperus Classics, 2004.]