Organized into twenty-one “legs”—or short chapters—Traveling in Place begins with a consideration of Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 Voyage autour de ma chambre, an account of the forty-two-day “journey around his room” Maistre undertook as a way to entertain himself while under house arrest. Stiegler is fascinated by the notion of exploring the familiar as though it were completely new and strange. He engages writers as diverse as Roussel, Beckett, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Cortázar, Kierkegaard, and Borges, all of whom show how the everyday can be brilliantly transformed. Like the best guidebooks, Traveling in Place is more interested in the idea of travel as a state of mind than as a physical activity, and Stiegler reflects on the different ways that traveling at home have manifested themselves in the modern era, from literature and film to the virtual possibilities of the Internet, blogs, and contemporary art.
Reminiscent of the pictorial meditations of Sebald, but possessed of the intellectual playfulness of Calvino, Traveling in Place offers an entertaining and creative Baedeker to journeying at home.
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Traveling in Place
A History of Armchair Travel
By BERND STIEGLER, Peter Filkins
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
The Journey around the Room
Look for the secret to happiness nowhere else but within yourself.
Abbé Gresset, Vert-Vert (1733); motto of the first edition of de Maistre's Voyage autour de ma chambre
How many a man has journeyed forth without leaving his room.
In many a deep author of wisdom quite sublime, I've read that too much travel is an utter waste of time
Anonymous reviewer of Voyage autour de ma chambre, 977, and Jaquet, 43
In the spring of 1790, Xavier de Maistre, brother of the conservative political philosopher Joseph de Maistre, made the best that he could of a house arrest and commenced a forty-two-day journey around his room, which he turned into a detailed travel account that not only would become an exceedingly renowned work of French literature but also launched a literary genre. De Maistre was in no way as travel-shy as it may appear at first glance. He was no homebody, but on the contrary urbane and a proponent of technological innovation. Together with his brother he took a ride in Montgolfière's early hot-air balloon, writing about it in two articles, and during his lifetime traveled a great deal, though oft en for political reasons.
Even today, his Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey around My Room) is available in many editions and translations, and is a staple of comprehensive high school exams; it is a classic text whose immediate success came as a surprise to its author, yet it pointed the way for many other works to take up the idea and develop it further. Already on February 16, 1803, a vaudeville comedy by René Perin premiered at the Théâtre de l'Ambigu Comique in Paris, which was followed by many more right up until the mid-nineteenth century, while just a few years after the first edition of de Maistre's book there appeared numerous books and travel accounts in the same vein. Even de Maistre himself was a bit surprised by the success of his book. On December 31, 1799, at the turn of the century, he wrote to his brother Joseph about his colossal success: "I've seen copies of it everywhere. It's been translated into German. There's also another book with the title Zweite Reise um ... (Second Journey Around ...), etc., that's been translated as well. That's wonderful, while a third one along the same lines, Reise durch meine Taschen (Journey through My Pockets), is mediocre" (de Maistre, Lettres, 1:60). Many years later, he would write a kind of sequel, an Expédition nocturne autour de ma chambre (A Nocturnal Expedition around My Room), about travel which lasted only for a single night. Charles Nodier commented smugly on the success of this new type of travel literature: "For ages nothing but travel books or children's books have been published. Have you read Voyage autour de ma chambre, Le Voyage autour de vingtquatre heures, Le Voyage au Palais-Royal, Le Voyage dans le boudoir de Pauline, Le Voyage dans mes poches ...? It's a regular mania" (Nodier, in Sangsue, 166).
De Maistre's slim book, Voyage autour de ma chambre, which runs to barely a hundred pages, is full of allusions, not only to the tradition of travel writing but also to literature. On the one hand, he ironically distances himself from very well-known travel accounts of his time when implicitly or explicitly quoting them, while on the other he moves toward Laurence Sterne's recent accentuation of the travel account in A Sentimental Journey, which is less about stunning discoveries and explorations among foreign peoples, animals, and marvels than about the sensations experienced by the traveler himself. Nor is the depiction of these free of irony in his account. Any such discovery—and this is oft en the case—whether the account is more about the object or the subject, even if it is tinged with irony, is also a discovery about what is being discovered. De Maistre's journey explores the long-familiar world that is seen anew with the gaze brought to it through the distancing perspectives of travel and irony.
De Maistre added a foreword to the new edition of 1812 that pointedly addresses the topos of journeys of discovery in an ironic manner: "It's in no way our intention to belittle the merits of those travelers who have circled the planet in order to publish their discoveries and interesting adventures. Magellan, Drake, Anson, Cook, etc., were without doubt worthy men. However, it is permissible and, if we are not mistaken, even our duty to suggest that the particular merit of the Voyage autour de ma chambre is that this book is superior to all others previous to it. The most illustrious journeys can be repeated: a fine line drawn across all maps shows us the route, and each is free to follow in the footsteps of these clever men who once made the journey themselves. The situation is different with the Voyage autour de ma chambre. It occurs only once and no mortal can boast being able to again repeat it, particularly since the world depicted within it no longer exists" (de Maistre, Nouvelles, 27). Thus De Maistre emphasizes in ironic fashion that although the routes of the explorers' ships can be repeated, the journey around one's room is, regardless of whether intended so, of a transient nature, necessarily singular and therefore not repeatable. The experiences involved in the journey around one's room are not just attached to the place but also bound to time, being explorations of a space whose aim is to invoke stories and experiences that cannot be repeated. Even if numerous models of de Maistre's room journey can be found right up to the present, the discoveries that each traveler makes are attached to the experience of that particular space. Each room journey discovers realms of experience and makes these the subject of a travel account.
De Maistre's begins in classic manner with an orientation: "My room is, according to the measurement of Fr. Beccaria, situated on the forty-fifth degree of latitude; it stretches from east to west; it forms a long rectangle, thirty-six paces in circumference if you hug the wall. My journey will, however, measure much more than this, as I will be crossing it frequently lengthwise, or else diagonally, without any rule or method" (de Maistre 7). His travel account contains forty-two chapters, some of which sometimes contain only a few lines, one having just two words, as if each chapter comprised a day of his journey and an entry in his logbook. The shortness of the chapters, the absence of dates, and a peculiarly erratic "plot" (if we can even call it that) which only samples a few given hours—all this makes clear that this is a travel diary of a different type of experience, one that cannot simply be put down in chronological and reconstructed manner in order to be followed. Just as his friend Rodolphe Toepffer in his equally successful Voyages en zigzag (Zigzag Journeys) had to cover even larger distances, and therefore profited greatly from not having an itinerary, so de Maistre traverses his room, back and forth, back and forth, and round and round.
During his wanderings, the "sedentary traveler" (de Maistre 37) not only discovers the functional beauty of everyday things—the many common items of a normal household, such as a bed and an armchair—he also reports on the history of the paintings that hang in the room and on what he finds in his small library. Mostly, de Maistre reports casually on the narrative unfolding of each day—be it about his servant, his dog, or his lovers—narratives in which, through the mindset of the traveler, a special receptivity or sensibility results where "this very dichotomy, 'boring daily life' pitted against 'marvellous world'" (de Botton 248), is uniquely suspended. The everyday is transformed through the specific perspective of the journey around the room into specific narratives that are indeed about the power of the habitual, which for the brief period of the journey loses its power.
Xavier de Maistre limits his journey exclusively to the space of his room. The view from the window, which soon would become a literary topos (see the Fifth Leg), plays as limited a role as do the building's environs, which are completely erased. Instead, the journey is first and foremost about the interior of the room and the interiority of the experience of the one who "travels around" (de Maistre, Nouvelles, 28). The result is that these are turned into newly discovered realms removed from the world.
The room itself is a "delightful country that holds every good thing, and all the riches of life" (de Maistre 67), and needs nothing more than itself. A world before the fall of man, innocent as a result of its brief splendid isolation, is briefly taken out of time and yet still loaded with history. Here he makes, as he writes, "discovery after discovery" (de Maistre 21). De Maistre is thus the opposite of the immensely popular "Robinsonade" of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While Robinson Crusoe—no matter the version, of which there are many—on his deserted island in the far-off and not-so-placid ocean recapitulates the social and cultural patterns of his native land, examining them and then asserting them anew, the room traveler explores with his alienated gaze all the familiar property and objects of an isolated and yet centrally located dwelling in the middle of a city, transforming everything without altering any of it. Everything remains in its place. The traveler doesn't arrange anything that is around him anew, but instead studies its normal function with his gaze. None of the objects are strange, only the gaze that meets them. It is what returns to them the measure of strangeness they have lost to the quotidian. Objects are the familiar-strange compass points of his travel account and his life, which as it flows from the objects, allows itself to be told.
Inside the room, de Maistre also undertakes the kind of introspection that leads to a particular kind of metaphysical model, which then further informs the journey. He discovers that he is "double," that he consists of a thinking soul and a body, which he describes as the other. "Never have I been more clearly aware that I am double" (de Maistre 67). Not only are both observed by him, but each can observe the other. Thus the "most astonishing metaphysical tour de force that man can perform [is] ... to give his soul the task of examining the doings of the beast, and to watch it at work without joining in" (de Maistre 12). Here again are the parallels of movement and standing still, of that which is our own and that which is other, of familiarity and distance, that inform his stance throughout. And so the hidden goal of the journey is also "to send his soul off on its travels all by itself" (de Maistre 13). Xavier de Maistre's journey around his room is recognizable as a journey of a soul that opens up an inner world of freedom and self-actualization amid the spatial limitations of his own four walls. "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" (de Maistre 66). In his later foreword, de Maistre also ironically comments on this discovery as anticipating transcendental philosophy, which can be found only in the gaze of one who journeys about his room. "Metaphysics is a science that seldom mentions the traveler: yet with a famous exception, namely that which occurs in the Voyage autour de ma maison [sic!], one finds within it a complete system of transcendental philosophy, such that any of those women who do not like and hardly ever read weighty tomes will end up knowing just as much about the critique of the soul as the famous Professor Kant" (de Maistre, Nouvelles, 28).
De Maistre's journey around his room is, if we follow further the allusion to Kant, a critique of reason in regard to the traveler who discovers what it means to travel in place, and with it the gaze of the other upon a supposedly familiar realm of experience. Two hundred years after de Maistre's journey, Daniel Leuwers writes about trips with his grandfather to Beauvais, where Xavier de Maistre wrote his account, and arrives at this wonderful formulation: "The room is an ideal place to withdraw [retrait]—more so than a place to simply retreat and retire [retraite]" (Leuwers 103).
Travel, as I do, around your own little room, asking yourself what's really there, neglecting nothing at all during your search, and when you arrive at the end of your journey, look inside yourself and ask if you don't feel more benevolent, civilized, charitable, industrious, and in a word, better and thus happier than you did before.
And you, my monk's cell, my sweet and dearly loved domicile, I love you, for I, like Pascal, am convinced that most of our sorrows come from not spending enough time in our room.
Traveling through Islamic countries today, we oft en see drawings on the whitewashed walls, or even large-scale paintings that depict a journey in several or many individual scenes. Thus we find on a whitewashed clay wall in the Farafra Oasis, which lies on the western end of Egypt and several hours outside Cairo in the middle of the Libyan Desert, pictures of ships and airplanes, of cars and buses. These show the observer that whoever lives there has successfully completed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that should be undertaken by all religious Muslims at least once in a lifetime. They also attest to, in so many words, the soteriological status of the believer, the chances of his eventual salvation having been substantially improved as a result of the journey—and because such a journey is quite expensive, the evidence of his material wealth. Pilgrimages also have a long tradition in Christianity and many other world religions. Yet sometimes there are many serious reasons that prevent such pilgrimages, be they wars, illness, or simply lack of material means. What, then, can one do when so much, if not everything, is at stake in making such a journey? In the Christian tradition, we find a peculiar device that simulates the distant journey, making it possible for the traveler to remain close to home and yet still travel. It's the so-called Sacri Monti, a "topographical simulation of sacred sites" that employs life-size, painted terra-cotta figures (Grau 42). In Varallo alone there are forty-three chapels. Around 1500, this became a model for other pilgrimage sites, and until the mid-nineteenth century one could find numerous such sites in northern Italy. All one had to do was walk a little ways or travel just a few kilometers, and yet still take in all the major holy sites—and thus come much closer to salvation. In 1488, Pope Innocent VIII even granted an indulgence to pilgrims to Varallo. Many later popes followed this example well into the eighteenth century—occasionally coupling it with a so-called plenary indulgence granted by Clemens VIII in 1599. Even today, above the portal of the church in Domodossola is an inscription indicating the indulgence granted in a specific year (Landgraf 25f.).
Yet souls also wander far and with pleasure. The journey of the soul is a topos of nearly every world religion. And even during life, the demands of the soul's postmortem journey cast their dark shadows upon earthly existence. If life as such is already a journey, then that journey becomes all the more complex, having from the very beginning to consider the final actual goal. This brings us to Antoine Caillot's lovely formulation on the occasion of a journey that he made in 1809 among the four major Parisian cemeteries, a circuit encompassing "everywhere and nowhere at once" (Caillot 41). All such earthly journeys are a faint reflection of the real journey that still remains ahead. The notion of being only a guest on earth and only after death finding one's true home in heaven was, in the Christian tradition, the chronological-eschatological framework that underscored the irreducible tentativeness of the earthly journey. "Humans are only travelers upon the earth, even though many wish to settle upon it; but a Christian must see the earth as a place of exile and misery: he should endlessly address his sighs towards Heaven in order to remember his true home" (Anon., Voyage spirituel, no page).
Excerpted from Traveling in Place by BERND STIEGLER, Peter Filkins. Copyright © 2010 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of ContentsBrief Travel Guide
1 The Journey around the Room
3 The “Frauenzimmer”
4 Expeditions in the Near-at-Hand
5 Framed Views
6 The Life of Plants
7 The Life of Objects
8 The Journey through a Sea of Images
9 Dark Chambers
11 The Flâneur
Excursion and Stopover: Around the World in 80 Days
13 Travels with a Room
14 A Cinematic Baedeker
15 The Journey to La Défense
16 Journeys into the World as Text
17 The Journey into Oneself
19 Cinematic Explorations
20 Near Distance
21 The Final Journey
Translator’s NoteIndex of Names