Travelers are strange people in a way, speaking of those who take upon themselves as their life’s mission to visit places not known to them, sounds and ways unheard by them. They self-sentence themselves to fast paced days behaving as swimmers gasping for breath on their long lap and then get home to love leisure as though this was the ultimate truth in life. Satre’s essays can go take a walk if they want to but the real dope will always be those travel anthologies on the shelf. These are the people who are more heartbroken on border crossings and immigraton desks than departures of their lovers. These inconsistencies in preferences and behaviours are hard to understand for others. One needs to have more than an acquaintance with a rucksack to understand those for whom rucksack is more essential than essential clothing. Even as I recover from a leg injury it remains a foregone conclusion that the leg must get ready to bear the weight of us – the rucksack and the body. After all, there must be a reason why mankind put one from our species on the moon before it thought of putting wheels under a suitcase. That which we call strollers have made expectations of paved surfaces a birthright. Watch them wail as they take a cobbled path up to a lodge or give up on those inclines where their masters are panting with the effort of hauling their innocent selves up.
As I scooped out detergent and got ready to wash all the gear that I had taken on the trip to Siberia I began to think of situations similar to lockdown when the most diehard of the travelers were forced to sit in, confined to a room. A house perhaps. Most of the gear was soaked in sweat which was packed hurriedly after drying them overnight on the room’s radiator in Irkutsk. The whole setting and the day materialised itself like virtual reality this morning. It has been seven weeks since I have arrived back home from Siberia. In the post-return high, there were several coffee filled half days at Third Wave Coffee and those reconnecting motorbike rides. These rides are micro travels. A sort of tweet versions from within the city before one goes out of the city limits again. But returning from this digression – I was looking for travelers who were confined to a room for any period of time longer than ten days. Ten is a reasonable number of days to think of as confinement, I thought.
In Xavier de Maistre, nearly three hundred years back, I found someone who was confined to a room for forty two days. The confinement was only physical it turns out. We know it for sure because in those days Maistre ended up writing Voyage autour de ma chambre or A Journey Round My Room written in 1794. As I read the book which Maistre wrote as a parody on a serious and perhaps well received travel journal A Voyage Around the World by Louis de Bougainville in 1771. Maistre cautions the reader –
But you must not let yourself think that instead of keeping my promise to describe my journey around my room, I am beating the bush to see how I can evade the difficulty. This would be a great mistake on your part. For our journey is really going: and, while my soul, falling back on her own resources, was in the last chapter threading the mazy paths of metaphysics, I had so placed myself in my arm-chair…
Maistre wrote in French. He was an officer in the Sardinian army who sought asylum in St Petersburg after the fall of Savoy. The travel journal of his room was written when he was sentenced to this confinement in Turin for participating in a duel. No surprises here to guess that the man was truly a sport. An English translation of his book which I am reading via The Public Domain Review was done in 1871 by Henry Attwell. Due to the efforts of Mr Attwell the book can still be discovered by non-French speakers. The French world today improves in its reputation, for I thought they could only do Satre and De Beuavoir.
Maistre packs an energetic punch right in the first chapter of the journal, with these lines –
Opening paragraph –
What more glorious than to open for one’s self a new career, – to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unlooked-for comet blazing in the empyrean!
Closing lines –
Among the immense family of men who throng the earth, there is not one, not one (I mean those who inhabit rooms), who, after reading this book can refuse his approbation of the new mode of traveling I introduce into the world.
The man cuts an outstanding, almost insufferable, traveler. He draws attention to the fact that his journey has cost him nothing. ‘This point merits attention’, he writes because this will be ‘welcome of people of moderate means’. His words smoke two centuries down to meaningless ash when he speaks of his reservations for –
‘people who are such masters of their every step and every idea that they can say: ‘To-morrow I shall make three calls, write four letters, and finish this or that work.”
Continuing his train of disdain, he declares –
So open is my soul to all sorts of ideas, tastes, and feelings; so greedily does it absorb whatever comes first, that… but why should it deny itself the delights that are scattered along life’s hard path? So few and far between are they, that it would indeed be senseless not to stop, and even turn aside, to gather such as are placed within our reach. Of these joys, none, to my thinking, is more attractive than following the course of one’s fancies as a hunter follows his fame, without pretending to keep any set route. Hence, when I travel in my room, I seldom keep to a straight line.
Maistre is clearly delighting in the freedoms that his confinement affords him. Not quite different in 2020 as I sit in, tapping hours in nearly the same format. For him, ‘the hours glide by and fall into eternity.’ Somewhere near the middle of his days, is a chapter which seems consistent in the eccentricity of the thoughts, but a stopping moment nevertheless. In ‘A Halt’ he writes-
My efforts are useless. I must sojourn here awhile whether I will or not. The ‘Halt!’ is irresistible.
The arc of his days go from the bed, to metaphysics, philosophy and to meditation. A few people and friends surface as the journal progresses. The chapter ‘A Friend’ starts with a straight cut –
I had a friend. Death took him from me. He was snatched away at the beginning of his career, at the moment when his friendship had become a pressing need to my heart.
The journal finishes with ‘Liberty’ in which our man sounds as cheerful and witty as he began with. The progression of this journal is remarkable in its consistently high spirit, enthusiasm and curiosity about the world. He reflects –
Still, never did I more clearly perceive than I am double than I do now. Whilst I regret my imaginary joys, I feel myself consoled. I am borne along by an unseen power which tells me I need the pure air, and then light of heaven, and that solitude is like death. Once more I don my customary garb; my door opens; I wander under the spacious porticos of the Strada della Po; a thousand agreeable visions float before my eyes. Yes, there is that mansion, that door, that staircase! I thrill with expectation.
In like manner the act of slicing a lemon gives you a foretaste that makes your mouth water.
Poor ANIMAL! Take care!
Here was a man who knew how to make most of the days, own up to one’s actions and redefine travel when it must be, for the hard place he found himself in. Could these days be drowned in misery and flood irrigated with sorrow and regret? Certainly yes. But this strange travel instead chose to redefine the boundaries and explore relentlessly, within them.