Looking for a cure to wanderlust amidst the pandemic?

September 3, 2020

A young French aristocrat from the 18th Century might have a solution for you

 International traveling has been put on halt since the beginning of the year, with countries imposing different levels of travel bans and closing its doors to international travel. Many people have began to ponder the nature of traveling and rethink the implications of borders and globalization. Many have also begun to (re-)explore places of interest within their home town /borders of their own country, or to travel virtually by surfing online or by watching travel documentaries within the confines of their home / room.

Interestingly, the idea of traveling within the confines of one room for an extended period of time (and how to do so) had already been proposed by a young French aristocrat many years ago towards the end of the 18th Century. Serving as a parody to the grand travel narratives common to his time, “A Journey Around My Room” (“Voyage autour de ma chambre”) by Xavier de Maistre is as an alternative travelogue that explores his journey around his room during a 42-day house arrest as a result of a duel.

By interacting with the furniture whilst meandering around his room, what began as a parody was later revered by many people as an introspective form of art. This alternative form of ‘room-travel’ nudges people to see familiarity in a new light, to view the presumed mundane objects through the lens of curiosity, humility and appreciation. Xavier de Maistre also mentioned the major advantage of traveling around one’s room: it does not cost anything, and thus it is an effortless and widely available form of spatial practice suitable for those who are cost-averse or too lazy to step outside the door. As people are encouraged to navigate within their own sanctum, it also removes concerns relating to the safety of the voyage, and it is hence a form of travel well-suited for the risk-averse and unadventurous.

One of the key insights from Xavier de Maistre’s work is that the pleasure we derive from traveling has more to do with our mindset than destination. Once we have become too familiar or comfortable with a certain place, we will gradually become blind to its surroundings. Xavier de Maistre’s experience in room traveling thereby successfully demonstrates how being confined in a room shall not inhibit the freedom to travel, as one can still rely on imagination as a means of escape. Traveling, in de Maistre’s sense, has become a mental pursuit with exquisite intricacy and curiosity of the observant. His philosophy of room-travel is firmly rooted in the idea of mind-body dualism, whereby he had conveniently referred to the mind / body as the soul / ‘the other’. He suggested that whilst ‘the other’ may be constrained by terrain, the soul can travel at will. This was further exemplified by, for example, how ‘the other’ might continue reading the words on the page while our mind wanders off and can’t recall a single word thereafter (Chapter 6); or when ‘the other’ made him fall off his armchair after hearing a knock on the door whilst his soul was in the midst of re-configuring the scene (Chapter 28). By reconciling the divergence between the captivity of the mind and body, it illustrates the parallels of movement. Set against the background of the long-running history of achieving a better self through the art of travel since the times during Ancient Greece, if the soul can embark on its own voyage, it would open up an inner world of freedom and self-actualization amid spatial confines.

Image for post 
Engraving by Cyprien Jacquemin (18??-18??) / Public domain (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xavier_de_Maistre.jpg)

It is true that de Maistre’s philosophy encourages one to nurture a mindset that allows us to appreciate minute details, hence making room-travel a viable option; it is nonetheless difficult to accept room-travel as a superior mode of travel. This would inherently depend on what does one value in ‘travelling’. A major difference between imaginary travel and actual physical travel lies in the fact that, in the latter case, you can be physically present at a location and be able to immerse yourself in the site with all possible senses. Plato suggested that Truth is superior to illusory presumptions in his cave allegory, and assumes truth-seeking to be something innately desired and essentially good. Whether one agrees with Plato’s view on Truth and Forms, there appears to be a general consensus that many people tend to see truth and authenticity as important factors. Therefore, to disagree with the notion of imaginary travel is to place the presumed authenticity of experience on a pedestal.

Authenticity in this context does not guarantee ‘authentic-authenticity’ as the site concerned might still nevertheless be tourist machinations. Yet, authenticity might also be understood as requiring physical presence at a concrete location, so as to perceive and presumably verify the existence of the site with one’s own perception. Hence, one important limitation of room-travel lies in the inability to offer this form of ‘authentic’ travel experience, which allows one to immerse in a tangible scene by utilizing different senses.

Imaginary-travel, in de Maistre’s sense, would also require a trigger induced by encountered objects, where such engagement will lead to associations formulated in the mind. Although imagination offers infinite new possibilities relating to travel, it would nevertheless be largely limited to your presupposed reservoir of knowledge. Hence, it would be difficult (or even unlikely) to imagine a journey composed of objects unknown to the traveler, and physical travel often enables the traveler to absorb new knowledge through physical exposure. Some may disagree by suggesting the possibility of someone who has had the chance to read every piece of information they can find about a destination, and can therefore recreate the scenes with precision. If so, would that person be exposed to anything new through physical travel? This may be analogous to the Mary’s Room thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson. Although Mary may have already learnt every fact about colors, when she is exposed to the color spectrum, she should still be possible to learn something new. Verification itself could be seen as acquiring additional knowledge. Physical travel can therefore amplify chances of exposure which cannot be done through imagination. Imaginary travel also reduces the chances of serendipitous adventures since it is often practised inside a safe environment / bubble and the imagined scenes are often an aestheticized image of the actual location, and blurs / negates the negative elements contained within.

As de Maistre’s philosophy of room travel encourages humility and observation, room travel still has its upsides and could reconcile with physical locomotion. Humility can be observed when one faces the sublime, for example that of grand mountains, immense seas, glaciers and waterfalls; so one might reach an epiphany of realizing how small man is in front of nature and becomes humble. People may also be triggered by scenes encountered on their way, which may sometimes be exemplified in passing by transit points like airports or bus stations.

In conclusion, although room-travel is plausible and heightens one’s perceptivity to the familiar, it nonetheless compromises a range of experiences which might be attained only through physical travel. When the stakes of yearning for authenticity remains high, imaginary travel continues to be deprived of this fundamental element. Hence, whilst room-travel is practical or viable option, it should not discourage people from outward travel. Room travel may only provide an alternative mode of traveling— encouraging people to explore possibilities through intensifying the experience of the familiar. However, one would still nevertheless be confined within a dwelling of their own, and using Plato’s allegory, be confined within the cave.