Journeys on Paper

by Aldo Spinelli

How many miles do we have to travel to call a simple displacement of our bodies a “journey”? Maybe we’re not asking the right question: the journey doesn’t lie so much in the distance but in the quality of the change produced inside and outside of ourselves…

Right from the start of the journey it’s pointed out that, to a good degree of approximation, our destination is located at a latitude of 45 degrees, with longitude unknown.

Nevertheless, we’re in Turin and more precisely in the Cittadella, the Sabaudian fortress that at the end of the eighteenth century was host to Pope Pius VI as he stopped off on his way into exile in France. A few years before, in the spring of 1790 to be exact, this very unusual journey took place in one of the apartments reserved for army officials, the tale of which made its author famous the world round. What kind of adventure could happen in a tranquil Piedmontese city and, above all, within the sturdy walls of a fortress? If we are to leaf through the first pages of the book – because ours is a narrated journey, a “journey on paper” – we zoom back in time and go into a small, west-facing room, a room that “if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round”.

A room that houses few furnishings, the bare necessities, to enable the autonomy and survival of the person locked in there.

And indeed the protagonist of the tale can’t come out of the room for forty-two days: he’s under house arrest because he fought a duel. He rests, meditates on the armchair, reads a page or two, and every day writes a chapter before moving towards the bed where

“during one half of a life-time we forget the annoyances of the other half”.

The identity of the protagonist, Xavier de Maistre, is spelled out directly above the title. And, with the pretext of A Journey around my Room, he shows his true aim right from the start: “is it not man’s eternal, insatiable desire wish to augment his strength and his faculties, to be where he is not, to recall the past, and live in the future?” To rock on the armchair and, while approaching the fireplace, recount, interpret and fantasize about the pictures on the walls because “of these joys none, to my thinking, is more attractive than following one’s fancies, as the hunter pursues the game, without pretending to keep to a set route”. Even though it is simply impossible to describe a picture in all its facets, the same way as it is impossible for a picture to exactly represent reality.

Then, by taking just one step, he finds himself before the masterpiece: “And what picture could be presented to you, gentlemen; and what spectacle, ladies, could be placed before your eyes more certain of gaining your approval than the faithful portraiture of yourselves? The picture of which I speak is a mirror, and no one has as yet ventured to criticise it. It is to all who look on it a perfect picture.”

The mirror doesn’t only faithfully reflect continual change. In its changing images, it reflects the true sense of this journey to perfection. Circumscribed by the walls of a room, the journey embraces the whole expanse of the author’s thoughts and desires: confined within four walls, he finds the perfect blend between the so-called “soul” (spirit, rationality, intelligence) and the “animal”, namely body, senses and emotions.

While this never-ending dualism may distract from objectivity, it is the mirror that takes the traveller back to reality and distances him from the fantastic flights of the books plucked from the shelves in the corner. Or it reminds the author of the balloon flight which had taken him to heights of 6,500 feet a few years earlier (on 5 May 1784). Or to another of his writings in which he imagined he had chosen to be a butterfly, flying carefree, having only to avoid obstacles, inside and out, ruled only by his whim, enclosed only by the skies.

And so, within the constraints of imprisonment, through the mirror of freedom symbolizing literature that speaks of literature and the journey bordering on utmost immobility, he sets out perhaps to achieve that perfection conjectured by Blaise Pascal:

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room”.