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Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW15


By Xavier de Maistre

Translated from the French by Andrew Brown

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Hesperus. 138 pp. Paperback, $13

Confined to his quarters for 42 days as punishment for dueling, the French soldier Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852) decided to undertake a journey around his room. By treating his bed, his armchair, the artworks on the wall and his small library as major tourist sites, he planned to reflect upon their history, their importance to him, and the philosophical questions that they brought to mind. Just as some Shelleyan romantic might stand before the grandeur of Mont Blanc or weep amid the ruins of the Parthenon, so de Maistre would thrillingly confront the ordinary objects around him -- and really see them for the first time. As he proved to himself, "The perceptions of the mind, the sensations of the heart, the very memories of the senses, are inexhaustible sources of pleasure and happiness for man."

William Blake said that one could "see a world in a grain of sand/ and a heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour." De Maistre's A Journey Around My Room (1795) and its sequel, A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room (1825), might be test cases for that proposition. Life, after all, gains value from the intensity of one's engagement with it. By acts of concerted attention, we can invest even the most ordinary activities or objects with meaning, purpose and satisfaction. "A bed," writes de Maistre, "witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human race acts out, successively, its captivating dramas, laughable farces, and dreadful tragedies. It is a cradle bedecked with flowers; -- it is the throne of love; -- it is a sepulchre."

As de Maistre embarks on "the long journey we still have to make if we are ever to reach my desk," he reflects on the blissfulness of lying warm under the duvet or seated before an evening fire, he finds that letters call to mind friends who died young just as a faded rose summons up the beloved who proved untrue, he notes the lessons in fidelity and kindness he has learnt from his dog Rosine and his servant Joannetti. Sometimes he even considers the poor living on the street outside in Turin or recalls the terrors of the French Revolution.

Anything is grist for this restless and digressive Tristram Shandy-like imagination because "there's no more attractive pleasure, in my view, than following one's ideas wherever they lead. " De Maistre takes up and considers various prints and paintings, including one of his mistress, over which he sighs -- until his servant complains that the portrait's eyes seem to follow him around the room, that it seems to smile at every visitor. Ah, reflects de Maistre, the fickleness of women! He studies a mirror and concludes that it is "a perfect picture, one with which it is impossible to find fault." In judging the arts, he decides that painting should be viewed as superior to music because it is less prey to fashion. "The paintings of Raphael will delight posterity just as they delighted our ancestors." (He was wrong about this -- Raphael seems over-sweet to modern eyes.)

One evening he sits down on the window ledge, stares up in the darkness, and launches into an aria on the sublimity of the starry heavens:

"Man, the ephemeral spectator of an eternal spectacle, raises for an instant his eyes to the heavens, and then closes them again for ever; but, during this fleeting instant that is granted him, from every point of the sky and from the very furthest bourns of the universe, a consoling ray of light sets out from every world, and falls onto his eyes, announcing to him that there is a relationship between that immensity and himself, and that he is an associate of eternity."

In his introduction Andrew Brown compares de Maistre to Descartes, who hunched over a stove in an inn and built up an entire philosophy (cogito ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am). The introspective de Maistre maintains that he is himself a dual being -- a soul and the Other, which he sometimes calls the Beast. Sometimes the two work together, but not always, for there are times when we surrender to the body and other times when the soul wings its way into spiritual realms or "the enchanting land of imagination." In particular, though, de Maistre repeatedly finds himself obsessing about the passage of time:

"O Time! Dread deity! It is not your cruel scythe that fills me with terror; I fear only your hideous children, Indifference and Forgetfulness, who turn three quarters of our lifespan into a long death." In the darkest nights of the soul, he cries out that "all that remains in the depths of my heart are regrets and empty memories; a melancholy brew, on which my life continues to swim, just as a vessel smashed by the tempest continues to float for a while on the stormy sea!" Time, he concludes, "is nothing more than a punishment of the mind."

But soon de Maistre is explaining how he'd like to make love to all the women in the world, indeed to all the women who ever lived; he's imagining conversations among the illustrious dead, or inviting the Dear Reader to sit down to breakfast with him; and finally, upbeat again, he's reminding us that "we should allow ourselves to laugh, or at least to smile, each time an innocent opportunity to do so presents itself."

A Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room may seem mere sports, literary jeux d'esprit. And yet their ancestors and progeny are many: Milton's Satan boldly announced that "the mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n"; novellas like Diderot's Rameau's Nephew and Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground examined, in microscopic detail, the rapid fluctuations of consciousness; the Russian formalists asserted that the essence of art lay in making the familiar seem new and fresh; and most recently those modern literary solipsists -- from Proust and Beckett to Nicholson Baker -- have dissected themselves and the quotidian world with unremitting, almost microscopic, delicacy. No, de Maistre is part of a long tradition. The English publisher Hesperus, which specializes in bringing out novella-length masterworks from around the world, deserves plaudits for adding these two little masterpieces to our reading lists. •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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