Opinions - 17.04.2020 - 00:00 

A journey around your room – a few negative certainties in the time of coronavirus

At this time, journeys to distant lands are taking place firmly within four walls and require a generous dash of imagination. One man attempted this very feat two hundred years ago: Xavier de Maistre, with his A Journey Around my Room. By Emmanuel Alloa.

17 April 2020. At a time in which Europe was gripped by a feverish desire for exotic journeys around the globe and nothing gained such public literary acclaim as travel narratives, from Chateaubriand and Lamartine to Alexander von Humboldt, another writer was temporarily barred from leaving his home. In 1790, the Savoy Officer de Maistre, who would later be drawn to Russia where he fought with the Tsar's army in the Caucuses and took part in the campaign against Napoleon, found himself in Turin, where he was sentenced to six weeks of house arrest for his involvement in a duel with a rival. In his cramped abode above the roofs of the the Piedmontese capital, he sought ruses with which he could pass the time. There it occurred to him that he might indulge himself in a sort of imaginary, relaxing exercise, a stroll within his mind.  

The officer, who lived his life in the shadow of his more famous brother, the state philosopher Joseph de Maistre, shared with him an antimodern, royalist sentiment: neither saw the appeal of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Aside from being a tireless publicist for Joseph, Officer Xavier wrote little, but his self-experiment A Journey Around my Room became a minor literary best seller in the 19th century. The book contained 42 chapters, one for each day of his forced isolation. Within his place of confinement, he paced to and fro between each piece of furniture, from bed to armchair and back to the writing desk. Various paintings and prints, which adorned the walls of the house, formed the basis for fanciful digressions, while writing equipment or washing utensils became eloquent dialogue partners. Comparisons of this journey within a room with George Perec's description exercises of the 20th century are well founded: Perec's Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris («tentatives d’épuisement d’un lieu») is virtually on par with Xavier de Maistre's work. In addition to the inanimate objects that serve as a distraction during this period of confinement, the reader also learns in passing that the incarcerated duellist shares his home with a domestic servant. He even has a pet, a dog by the name of Rosine, who displaces the monotony created by the continuous passing of the same daily routine.

One could dismiss this small piece of writing from the final years of the 18th century as an amusing literary gimmick, which it doubtless also is. However, the current crisis caused by the coronavirus and the subsequent prohibition on leaving one's house place de Maistre's journey around his room in an unexpected and new light. It is striking that the narrator experiences all possible moods during the course of confinement: the façade of determined optimism falters time and again, allowing weariness and consternation to set in. Moreover, the mind does wish not to adjust itself to the confines of the four walls; time and again it drifts off into the ether, and nothing is experienced with greater urgency than that which one is currently deprived of. The Turinese house arrest to which the swashbuckling de Maistre was sentenced, lacks the universal, social topicality of a worldwide pandemic; but in being forbidden contact with the outside world, de Maistre undergoes new experiences, which appear oddly familiar to us today. The sum of humanity's problems – as Blaise Pascal puts it – stem from the individual's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

In spite of the restrictions placed upon him, the royalist de Maistre nonetheless belonged to a privileged class, and those in Western Europe currently consoling themselves with such literary musings must surely belong to the same group. Undertaking an imaginary journey around your room requires that you have one to begin with (unemployment brought about by the coronavirus outbreak has spawned an urban exodus of tens of thousands in Madagascar, Kenya and Columbia, because people are no longer able to pay their rent), and the leisure to engage in such an activity (those whose workload has increased significantly during these times may be preoccupied with other concerns). The current situation does have its advantages in comparison to that of Xavier de Maistre however: what the miscreant soldier lacked in his attic lodgings in the Turin of his time was communication technology such as the telephone and internet, which demonstrate today why social cohesion need not break down simply on the grounds of distance (the expression social distancing is as such unsuitable, it is surely more accurate to talk of physical distancing ). While the pictures on the walls provided a means of imaginary escape for the Savoy officer, today you can let the entire world into your home by means of a screen, so much so that we must reassess the meaning of 'near' and 'far'. This much is certain: in the mean time, all kinds of channels have come into being, which allow people connect or establish connections. Perhaps a more far-reaching question would be to ask ourselves: to whom – in this crisis and beyond – do we feel connected? After all, coronavirus affects us all, and this changes much in the moral economics of globalised relationships. Everyone is affected, if not in the same way; inequalities thus make themselves visible: as epidemic inequalities.

A striking revelation uncovered by the crisis has been the extreme level of dependence of affluent societies, primarily, on many things. While no country is immune, the virus first struck the regions of the world that are defined, through a vast movement of goods and people, as the engine of globalisation. For this giant built on feet of clay, the ground has begun to shake; a pathogen, no bigger than a tenth of a micrometre, has brought many cherished certainties into question. Many have been quick to supply answers in an effort to investigate the cause of the crisis: unrestrained movement of people, rampant global capitalism or the hubris of people who cram foreign species, such as pangolins, bats or snakes, beside one another in cages at wet markets. For others, who prophesied the collapse of thermo-industrial civilisation, the coronavirus epidemic serves as a warning signal from the planet, a final shot across the bow before the bug which finally demonstrates to humanity the fact that a world without the human race is a genuine possibility. This idea, presented in Hollywood disaster movies for many years, namely the prospect of a post-apocalyptic, human-free planet, is now more palpable then ever. They come to us from all over the world, images of high streets laid bare and extinct city centres, into which nature is making its way once more. In Chile, the mountain lions are coming down from the Cordillera, fin whales are cruising off the coast of Marseilles, in Venice fish are swimming once again in the lagoon's ever clearer waters, while in Chinese zoos, pairs of panda bears have finally begun to mate, which, thanks to many gawping pairs of eyes, they had been refusing to do for a decade.

When will we return to normality? Perhaps this question has been phrased incorrectly from the start. The corona crisis holds few certainties for us, but those it does are decidedly negative: we have all been suddenly made aware of what we are missing. Restrictions on our movement show us, as was the case for Xavier de Maistre, everything that we are missing, but also how heavy a toll confinement takes on us. The dependence manifests itself as it were the symptoms of a withdrawal. The absurdity and the failure of neo-sovereignist attempts at self-segregation in the light of such a global threat can be gleaned from a glance into the history books: viral pathogens have as little regard for barriers as the poisonous cloud emanating from Chernobyl did for the borders of the countries of Western Europe. In an instant, the international dependence on the manufacture of masks and other means of battling the illness were perceived as a failure of our political systems, whose preparations for a worst-case scenario came too late. But perhaps this insight into systemic vulnerabilities also presents us with an opportunity to reassess our ideas of cohesion and solidarity. Spatial isolation must not be confused with political isolation. That which applies to states likewise applies to individuals: restrictions on movement – as was the case for Xavier de Maistre – also entail negative memories of everything that forms the fabric of our social bonds.

To conclude, one final excursion into the world of literature. The author of A Journey Around my Room also published another small Novella in 1811: titled The Leper from Aosta, the book takes us back to de Maistre's sojourn in the north Italian Aosta valley twenty years earlier. What initially should have been a brief winter camp for his royalist regiment, which was set to perform a tactical retreat into the mountain valleys to counter the movements of advancing revolutionary troops, was drawn out across many seasons. During this enforced demobilisation, in 1797 de Maistre made the acquaintance of a leper named Guasco, who lived in solitude in a medieval tower in the middle of the provincial capital of Aosta. In the novella the soldier dares to cross the threshold of the tower; the voyeuristic impulse here is not to be completely overlooked. Guasco, born with leprosy and cruelly disfigured recounts the ways in which he busies himself and the efforts he makes to pursue a social life, in spite of his exile. De Maistre is particularly struck by the well-cultivated vegetable garden. Guasco is quick to stress that this is not for his personal sustenance: he explains that he had the best seeds in all of Italy delivered to him and in his beds he grows fine flowers, which he is careful not to touch, so that the children of the town may pluck them later. A religious man, de Masitre interprets this primarily as a sign of Christian charity. One could perhaps conduct a simple anthropological reading of the novella: human beings remain, even when cut off from the rest of society, social creatures.

Emmanuel Alloa is Full Professor of Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art at the University of Fribourg and will be Visiting Professor at the Institute for Political Science at the University of St.Gallen in autumn 2020.

Picture: Adobe Stock / zef art

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