Friday, July 25th, 2014
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1790 / Turin

Small World

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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!

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 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.

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.

Image: Bedroom in Arles (1888), by Vincent van Gogh

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Travel
About the Author

Xavier de Maistre, from Voyage Around My Room. The twenty-seven-year-old Maistre began writing his "Voyage" while under a forty-two-day house arrest for dueling. He did not think to publish it until his older brother printed it without the author's consent in 1794. Susan Sontag called it "One of the most original and mettlesome autobiographical narratives ever written."

At no time are we ever in such complete possession of a journey, down to its last nook and cranny, as when we are busy with preparations for it. After that, there remains only the journey itself, which is nothing but the process through which we lose our ownership of it. This is what makes travel so utterly fruitless.
Yukio Mishima, 1948
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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