Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Immobile Flâneur: Motionless Travel and the Art of Xavier de Maistre

Engraving of Xavier de Maistre, by Cyprien Jacquemin, 1820.

“Imagination, realm of enchantment—which the most beneficent of beings bestowed upon us to console us for reality—I must quit you now.” – Xavier de Maistre, 1796.
My personal paradox is that though I greatly enjoy reading and writing about travel and the art of travel, especially in works by Bruce Chatwin, Lawrence Durrell or Paul Theroux, I do not myself actually enjoy travelling, other than in its psychological manifestation: the contemplation of the human condition. It’s fair to say that I might exhibit all the traits of long-term agoraphobia, with my daily trip a block away on the sidewalk to pick up my New York Times and morning tea and scones being a major achievement in the realm of geographical traversal. Leaving my front door affords me no particular charm or enchantment at all. And as for social distancing, well, that concept makes me smile, since all I needed to do during our present predicament was to extend my normal everyday six-foot-distance rule to an expanded nine feet of protective rapture. When it comes to going to the great outdoors, I am definitely at two with nature.

As an art critic and curator, therefore, I tend to do all my travelling through the close study of visual artworks, by gazing at paintings, photographs and especially cinema. All the more charming and enchanting, then, was my discovery a few years ago of the breathtakingly original travel writing of one Xavier de Maistre, who seems to have engaged in an almost accidental parallel invention of pataphysics, the science of impossible solutions crafted by his fellow Gallic parodist Alfred Jarry almost a century later. In 1790, while serving in the Piedmontese army, the French aristocrat de Maistre (1763-1852) was sentenced to house arrest for forty-two days, for the offense of dueling. The result was a discursive, mischievous memoir, his classic Voyage Around My Room. De Maistre's literary output began with his Voyage (1794) and ended with its sequel, Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room (1825), with a few shorter pieces in between.

In addition to the Voyage and Expedition, his sparse but inspiring selected works includes the compelling dialogue "The Leper of the City of Aosta" (1811) and a "Preface" by Xavier's better-known older brother, the reactionary Joseph de Maistre. His works afford us today, in this surreal realm of stay-at-home-ness and quarantine ennui, the opportunity for deep reflection on what it truly means to travel, and just how far we can go without ever leaving the secure bounds of our own abodes. As another Gallic immobile flâneur, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, expressed it so succinctly that it still burns today: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." It's a line repeated so frequently, especially in our era of twits, cellphones and social media, that it's easy to forget how remarkable it is that he wrote it in the 17th century.

Just as remarkable to me is de Maistre’s own artistic contribution from his vantage point on the very cusp of modernism. He lived during a period of dramatic transition in cultural production, a revolution in the mind and sciences which would permit him to behold that most mystical of all creative tools: the camera. After all, when De Maistre’s surprisingly modernist book was first published, the key painting of his time would likely have been William Hamilton’s neoclassical 1794 depiction of Marie Antoinette being led to her execution in 1793. Whereas by the time of his own death in 1852, a key image would have been the anonymous daguerreotype photograph of ambitious miners toiling during the great California Gold Rush. In between, we appear to have our eccentric and solitary Xavier, exhibiting a kind of romantic self-absorption which had yet to fully find expression by others in the world of the arts.

William Hamilton’s 1794 portrait of Marie’s execution scene (Wiki Commons).
Anonymous photographic image, 1852 (Granger Archive).

So, far from writing a review of two books that were written over four hundred years ago, though there might be some of that involved here as well, my interest is in exploring the alluring concept of extensively travelling without going anywhere at all. One could just as easily include the great Laurence Sterne’s satirical notions in his Sentimental Journey, published a couple of decades prior to de Maistre, when Sterne was facing the death that took him away at age 54. But Sterne actually did travel through France and Italy in his sort of sequel to his unfinished masterpiece Tristram Shandy, whereas in the exotic case of the majestic ode to immobility penned by de Maistre, we might almost call his achievement A Mental Journey, embedded as it is in forty-two days of sheer indoor reverie and delightful cognitive digression. Like myself, de Maistre was capable of deriving extreme pleasure from travelling into the works of art he surrounded himself with.

The challenge of how to satisfy what I’ve heard of as the travel bug, wanderlust and journey itch (even if I’ve never personally experienced them) remains the same whether it is an externally enforced circumstantial quarantine and home confinement or if it’s a self-induced choice. In the case of the exotic M. de Maistre, we have a rare being who chose to capitalize on his seemingly poor turn of events by writing one of the most compelling and mystifying travel books ever undertaken. He demonstrated deftly that travelling around your own room can be a novel means of expanding your worldly perspective, even in the absence of the so-called world per se, while also seeking and finding the supposed peace of mind that the restless urge to travel customarily induces. Thus it is indeed accurate to depict his quirky little tome as an ode to travel without any movement, a motionless journey which can still result in an inspirational and cheeky experience.

He therefore chose to represent his state of stillness as what would traditionally be called a travel journal, similar in fact to Sterne’s own, and can almost prompt us to characterize him in terms similar to the modern youths who ubiquitously catalogue their daily life in obsessive Facebook, Twitter or Instagram jottings. His meticulously crafted tour of his living quarters might even be the precursor to our current interest in psychogeography. The difference, of course, between those youthful online posts and this deep thinker is that the former are facile, yawn-inducing and solipsistic, since they are literally about nothing, whereas the latter is almost profound in its digressive speculations on the meaning of movement, of stillness, of, well, almost everything.

Strangely enough, at least to my contemporary mindset, the author didn’t take his work very seriously, did not indeed even consider himself to be a writer at all. But his elder brother, a famous philosopher and counter-revolutionary named Joseph, was apparently so blown away by its obviously totally modernist sensibilities (I would even call them so prescient as to validly, and impossibly, be considered postmodern) that he privately published his kid brother’s odd meditations on the motionless state of travel.

The book was an instant success in 1794, and after leaving the French army to move to St. Petersburg and join the Russian army (his national allegiances being apparently as flexible as his other perspectives) he started to write his sequel in 1799, A Nocturnal Voyage Around My Room.

But he was unable to complete it for another twenty-five years, for reasons which strike me as completely obvious and understandable: he didn’t really have to write it, apart from satisfying a public appetite for his unique style of going nowhere. His confinement having ended, and never having considered himself a literary figure in the first place, he encountered that most colossal of writer’s blocks: why am I doing this, why should I do it, how can I do it? It took so long because he reasoned that he had no reason to do it, and he was not inspired by any actual physical travel sensibility, by that strange (to me) longing to be transplanted from a quotidian life to a wider world of supposedly shimmering marvels.

Indeed, for author Alain de Botton, a contemporary French thinker and advocate of actual travel (and who wrote the Preface to this glorious de Maistre tome), which he celebrated with suitable aplomb in his own Art of Travel, the mythology of motion is simple: “The pleasure we derive from travel is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel toward. What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home. Journeys are the midwives of thought.” For me, this useful and poetic insight is precisely why it took poor Xavier twenty-five years to complete his sardonic nocturnal sequel: his thought had been gloriously inspired and birthed precisely by virtue of the fact that he couldn’t go anywhere, much like so many of us today.

De Botton’s delightful introduction to de Maistre’s diverting little tome is, of course, embedded in his own assumptions about the art of travel, as perspicacious as they might be. He believes, for instance, “It is not necessarily at home that we encounter our best selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, one who may not be who we essentially are.” Perfectly sound reasoning from a good writer; however, for me it runs counter to the magical insights and flights of speculative fancy conducted by de Maistre, a wildly great writer who didn’t have an ounce of self-conscious authorial voice in his confined quarters to distract him from his waking dreams.

When his brother Joseph was appointed ambassador to the court of Alexander 1, Czar of Russia, Xavier was introduced to the Minister of the Navy, and appointed to several posts including director of the National Library and the Museum of the Admiralty. In 1812 he married a Russian lady, Mrs. Zagriatsky, who was related to the Czars, and he remained on in Russia even after the defeat of Napoleon. He actually did succeed in travelling physically quite a bit later on, living for a time in Naples before returning to St. Petersburg, where he died in 1852. Significantly, his Voyage book was so deeply entwined with our modern sensibilities of mobility that it was even dramatized for the theatre and was first performed in Zurich (most appropriately for me, as the home of dada) in 2013.

With a life lived on such a grand and thought-provoking scale as this, what need had he for the minutiae of the literary writer’s life? His actual lived life was already practically a palpable novel combining creative elements of both Flaubert and Tolstoy. So we are somewhat mesmerized when he looks at the everyday objects in his room, its furniture, artworks, clothing, and personal items, as if they were embodied scenes from a voyage to some strange land. Indeed, while reading him, I often felt as if I were also reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about an alien visiting our planet. Most astutely, he also praises his form of motionless travel largely because it does not cost anything, and for that reason it could be strongly recommended “to the poor, the infirm and the lazy.”

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784 Musée d'Orsay (Lumen).

His room itself, which he transforms into a kind of flat earth, is a long square shape with a perimeter of thirty-six paces. “When traveling through my room,” he shares with us, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there I set out obliquely towards the door, but even though, when I begin, it is rarely my intention to go there, if I happen to meet an armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and I settle down in it without further ado. Later, I encounter my bed, and thus continue my voyage.”  That travel "towards a picture" is perhaps the most notable thing about this unique author, for he manages to make us believe, throughout his unfolding aesthetic narrative of immobility, that our artworks can be open windows inviting us all to dream with our eyes wide open.

Throughout his shockingly abstract and obscure little treatise, de Maistre frequently pauses before this or that framed painting, print or etching, to marvel at the vistas depicted which he will not be able to enjoy visiting physically. He does, however, visit them psychologically, and in so dramatic a fashion that we are made aware of the salient and revolutionary changes in visual art occurring during his lifetime and immediately afterwards. He lived in a turbulent era, not just due to the post-Revolutionary period in France, but also due to the sudden arrival of alterations in public taste and artistic sensibility: the shift from idealized and mythical beauty of the classical and neoclassical styles, such as Hamilton’s, to the startling realism, naturalism and romanticist urges towards radical individualism contained in works such as those produced by the most famous artist in history, Anonymous.

Indeed, just as sudden in its drastic overhaul of artistic practice and taste would be the arrival of technical means of reproducing images which seemed to eschew the ancient craftsman-like skills of the artistic hand. De Maistre’s sequel, A Nocturnal Voyage appeared in 1825, only fourteen years before the invention of the camera, a French technological creation which would alter the course of painting, and indeed art history entirely, for the next two hundred years. Equally prescient, when de Maistre passed away, it was only eleven years before the poet Baudelaire would himself embody the upcoming age in so visionary a manner, virtually inventing the twin concepts of both modernity and the flâneur.

In his essay "The Painter of Modern Life" (1863), Baudelaire defines modernity by examining the interrelations of beauty, fashion, and lifestyle through the eyes of an artist. He sees beauty and modernity as intertwined, defining beauty as "made up of an eternal, invariable element . . . and of a relative circumstantial element." Modernity is this inconstant element, the "ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and immutable." Baudelaire believes that an artist can learn technical skills from old masters, but to make art beautiful, he or she must understand the nature of "present-day beauty." The beauty of modernity, comes from "its essential quality of being present."

In other words, its inconsistency, its variableness in each moment. The ability to capture the beauty of the present day, Baudelaire claims, will ultimately make art "worthy of antiquity." He suggests that artists broke away from the academic style of painting (i.e., classical scenes in classical clothes), for the very reason antiquity resonates with us today: that it was able to capture the beauty of its own time. He claims that late 19th-century artists cannot secure their place in history by painting someone else's present, only by depicting their own. This is something that de Maistre managed to accomplish almost majestically, by depicting not just their time, but inherently his time: his personal and solipsistic forty-two days in detention.

And yet, paradoxically, de Maistre was so much an emblem of his own time that, ironically, he speaks directly to us in our own time, serving as an involuntary emblem of sequestering and sheltering in place. Perhaps this is because he was so pivotal a figure, so dramatically transitional between one epoch and the next, that he literally embodies Michelet’s famous dictum that “Each epoch dreams the one that follows.” A further glance at the varied visual culture that birthed him reveals just how on the edge of modernity he really was, and thus, for us, how postmodern he sometimes appears to be. After all, the primary visual urge of his era, both in Europe and in the American colonies, was neoclassicism, which emerged in his youth in opposition to the perceived decadence of both the baroque and rococo styles.

The Desperate Man, Gustave Gourbet, 1855 Private Collection (Lumen).

It often is identified as a sensibility of sobriety and austerity that prefigures the French Revolution in a culmination of what they so modestly called the Age of Reason, or even more extravagantly, the Enlightenment. One of the key visual dreamers of this era was Jacques-Louis David, whose reverie-drenched 1784 painting Oath of the Horatii is indicative of a desire for a less ornate, though still mythical, style of representing core values. Still peculiar, however, is the looking backward urge during a period when scientific empirical thought was supposedly displacing religious superstition and authority, when one would have expected more of a looking forward mentality from an epoch usually hailed as the foundation of modern Western political and intellectual culture.

But it would be left to the upcoming cadre of naturalist artists, looming names such as the hyperrealist Gustave Courbet, he of the scandalous and still rather shocking Origin of the World (with its full-frontal female genitalia) to fully grasp the import of the transitional period in which an oddball such as de Maistre found himself cut adrift. Courbet’s style of almost photographic realism of natural subjects (not surprisingly, perhaps, coinciding with the earliest decades of photography) is a hallmark of both de Maistre’s fascination with his own quirky persona and our own age’s utterly solipsistic self-absorption. His self-portrait, The Desperate Man (from 1845, and produced seven years before Xavier’s demise) is but one prime example of the kind of pent-up energy that de Maistre must surely have felt during his banishment to the island of his own shipwrecked apartment.

    Oddly enough, for so modern an artist, Courbet didn’t much like the rebel label he was associated with, as his catalogue essay from the 1845 Paris Salon exhibitio, which first featured his intensely modernist portrait, reveals in a somewhat petulant entry: “The title of Realist was thrust upon me, but titles have never given a true idea of things. I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To be not only a painter but a man as well, in short, to create living art, this is my goal.” Such a statement could almost have been an advertising-campaign tagline for the uniqueness of his fellow Gallic rugged individualist thinker, de Maistre.

One has to admire the unusual traits of a culture such as the French, who have even chosen to honour the memory of this strangely gifted life-liver and immobile flâneur Xavier de Maistre by erecting a memorial monument to both him and his brother Joseph, the elder sibling without whom we would never have even known of the existence of this marvellous being. Their statues stand proudly and paradoxically, boldly celebrating who knows what, at the Castle of Chambéry, as if to extol the virtues of a truly unattainable travel destination: the future. Which is to say: our present.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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