The Art of Room Travel as a Cultural Resource
Fiona Stirling, Abertay University
In 1790 a Frenchman named Xavier de Maistre took part in an illegal duel. His survival was promptly rewarded by the courts with 6 weeks of house arrest. Confined suddenly to his home, as many of us now find ourselves amidst the COVID-19 pandemic a full 230 years on, de Maistre embarked on an adventure from the comfort of his dressing gown. Parodying the grand travel journals of the time he began to explore his own home, declaring it a new mode of travelling that would be of particular appeal to those on a low income, and anyone afraid of the bleak winds, quagmires, or pitfalls more traditional adventures might bring. These explorations were published 4 years later as a book titled Voyage autour de ma chamber. ‘Behold it, gentlemen: Read it!’ he declares on the opening page, ‘I have just completed a forty-two day voyage around my room’.
Cultural resources are activities which can be drawn upon for learning, healing, and meaning-making in day-to-day life (see McLeod, here). Within the goal-task-method framework deployed in pluralistic therapy, cultural resources can be seen as methodsthat hold particular meaning to the individual and allow a process of change to occur. As McLeod explains, this encourages ‘an attitude of therapeutic improvisation – making use of whatever resources are at hand’. As the fallout from COVID-19 progresses and home confinement for swathes of the population moves from ‘unimaginable’ to ‘reality’, I have found Voyage autour de ma chamber drifting back to memory as such a resource.
The book situates the reader with a description of de Maistres room: ‘It lies east and west, and, if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round. My journey will, however, be longer than this; for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan’.
Without rule or plan. This is a reigning mantra throughout the book as de Maistre illustrates beautifully the power of an imagination set free to roam, his own bouncing effortlessly from the delights of an armchair to the fundamentals of human existence. A key thread is his division of what he calls the soul and the animal – the physical matter of the body and the essence of the being within it, intertwined yet separate. The physical body explores the room while the mind is free to embark on a vast space of infinite travel inspired by the objects found. This, he asserts, means liberty cannot truly be taken away by confinement to the home – ‘as well might they consign a mouse to a granary’.
Taking heed, I have decided to embark on my own room voyage. My bags do not require packing, I prepare simply by adorning the recommended ‘travelling-coat’: a dressing gown. I have two to choose from. One is a fluffy grey beast that envelops me down to my ankles. The other, a misjudged gift from an aunt who thought me far shorter than I am, is hot pink and barely reaches my thighs – indecent at the best of times. de Maistre cautions it is important to choose ones travel garment wisely, ‘so great an influence has a coat upon the human imagination!’. I opt, then, for the grey beast, a sense of comfort in its shaggy material that allows me to feel cocooned and ready to wander.
I begin in my bedroom, which is rectangular. I would have liked to announce it was something more exotic, like a circle or a triangle, but if it were I’m not sure where I would put my bed.
It takes roughly 58 steps – toe to heel – to make a complete circuit of the walls. I say roughly as I estimated along the wardrobes rather than clamber atop them.
What direction the room faces I am unsure but I do know that in the mornings the sun hits the window and provides the birds a warm perch from which to sing to each other. Most of the time this cacophony of morning song is an irritant. Today, however, I am gladly reminded that the world continues to spin and when my wife peeks through the blinds to watch the uninvited bird choir I delight in her smile.
Occasionally, I hear the muffled shuffling of my elderly neighbors in the house next door. I’ve looked forward to that sound the last few days, sighed a relief, knowing their lives continue just beyond our shared wall.
There are books. There are a lot of books. I have been piling them up, waiting for a good time to read them. I have all the time now but I begrudge forever associating them with ‘this’. Why am I depriving myself with my stubbornness? I will read the books.
The vast proportion of the room is occupied by my bed. As I lay down it creaks with each movement because we assembled it ourselves from Ikea and said ‘I’m sure it won’t matter at all’ when we found ourselves two screws short. It mattered. But not too much. The bed is good enough. It is ok to be good enough.
Strewn around me are digital devices. Electronic tools that chirp and whistle to convince me I am still connected to the world. I do not feel connected. I feel entirely untethered. I expect I am not the only one.
de Maistre acknowledges, even celebrates, the impossibility of controlling one’s life travels, of dictating a smooth and effortless journey which avoids all trial: ‘in vain do I embark when all is calm; a sudden gale soon drifts me away’. And so I am reminded to accept being buffeted from mood to mood. I am reminded to accept struggling to name what I am feeling. Understanding will come, in time. Calm will come, in time. As will a return to the offices, shops, family gatherings, outside spaces, and everything else so absent right now. And in the meantime, I shall continue my voyage around my room.
‘Come then, let us start! Follow me. […] be ye unhappy, sick, or weary, follow me. […] Accompany me on my journey. We will jog cheerfully and by easy stages along the road of travellers who have seen both Rome and Paris. No obstacle shall hinder our way; and giving ourselves gaily up to Imagination, we will follow her whithersoever it may be her good pleasure to lead us.’