MAY 20, 2020
I have spent the last 42 days in a corner bedroom in my parents’ house, 3000 miles away from where I usually live. The shelves in this room are loaded with books and family photographs and my mother’s porcelain boxes and some ceramics I made at a summer camp in the Santa Cruz mountains when I was nine. When I say “some ceramics,” what I mean is a collection of soap dishes resembling a boy named Rodrigo from Mexico City, with flippy bangs and an angular build. He was beautiful, and in lieu of talking to him, I made gifts in clay for my family members in his form. With the help of some cabinmates, I learned just enough Spanish to approach him. I remember the moment vividly: he was standing by the stage at the bottom of the outdoor amphitheater where assemblies were held. Amid the redwood trees, with their scent of damp decay lurking in the heavy July air, I walked over and murmured hesitantly, but with a certain pride, “Hola. ¿Cómo está? Tú eres muy guapo. ¿Tienes una novia?” He laughed, and I smiled, and we never spoke again. I still consider it one of my greatest romantic victories. Oh, Rodrigo, where are you now?
This room I am in is not my childhood room, but it nonetheless contains many opportunities for time travel and daring passion — a muscle car calendar given to me as a Valentine, a set of clock hands with no face, a small beaded baobab tree, a framed picture of two children in their grandfather’s woodshop, a polaroid of five 12-year-old brace-faced girls piled into a pyramid. All of these objects are places to which I travel during these solitary, scary days. Spring was cancelled this year, and summer isn’t promising, but I can still embark on a significant journey.
In 1790, a 27-year-old Sardinian soldier in Turin by the name of Xavier de Maistre faced a similar prospect. He was placed under house arrest for 42 days for the crime of fighting in an illegal duel, with only his servant and his dog for company. Under confinement, he wrote one of the great adventure tales of the 18th century, Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794; translated by Stephen Sartarelli as Voyage Around My Room for New Directions, 2016). Inspired by Louis de Bougainville’s A Voyage Around the World (1771), Voyage Around My Room turns the banal into the mythic and confinement into an expansive, world-building passage.
The narrative starts small — satisfaction with the low cost of travel, the possibilities afforded by an ordinary bed (a “throne of love. A sepulchre,” where we spend half our lives “forget[ting] the annoyances of the other half”), the distances one can go by walking zigzag repeatedly through a room — but it quickly takes on more serious proportions. Browsing old letters reanimates a comrade who has died, remembering a former lover reactivates feelings of frustration, and reading offers endless possibilities for love and exploration and friendship. If his literary companions misbehave, he can just close the book. All of these relationships are utopian: in the space of imagination, lovers do only the best loving, friends are only the most loyal, other places only ever lush and inviting.
As our temporary confinements become increasingly long-term, we too may be looking at the rooms in which we find ourselves a bit differently than we did a couple of months ago. For those who are ill or at risk, home has become a nightmare. For everyone else, de Maistre’s project works as a fun prompt for passing time. In fact, de Maistre enjoys his voyage so much that he regrets being let loose early — “O why did they not allow me to finish my captivity!” I know what he means: I already sense that I will feel as if I am leaving this time of isolation somehow unfinished.
Yet I can’t deny the nagging feeling that all this remembering and fantasizing are also acts of desperation; in revisiting the worlds objects signify, another part of me knows there is no there there. De Maistre acknowledges that he comprises two selves — a self of matter, and a self of the soul “so disengaged from matter that we can let it travel alone whenever we please.” For the self of the soul, the objects to which he turns for solace in isolation are portals to an alternate reality, but for the self of matter, they are mere stand-ins for an irretrievable past, seducers into the belief that imagination can free us from captivity. There is a sense in quarantine that past and future dissolve into a never-ending present, that the past is retrievable and the future at bay. De Maistre phrases it as an “eternal, insatiable” human desire “to recall the past, and live in the future.” Clay Rodrigo, in other words, ultimately holds a false promise, as if by returning to childhood, I can erase the present or form the ideal future. (That said, real Rodrigo, if you’re out there, DM me.)
By turning his room into the world, de Maistre inverts the very notion of home. Likewise, we all may be finding that this is the trip we are taking this spring — this being at home all the time — and that the time before was the place we really call home. As much as I love to travel, these adventures around my room do not make me yearn less for the buzz of human circulation. Likewise, de Maistre knows that as thrilling as his adventure has been, it will become a distant memory the moment he opens his front door and exits at last: “Whilst I regret my imaginary joys, I feel myself consoled. I am borne along by an unseen power which tells me I need the pure air, and the light of heaven, and that solitude is like death.”
We can hope that when we are all released, whether by the State or by ourselves (secretly, slowly), the self of the soul will recall moments of the deep dive into imaginative life — it might even grieve for its lost solitude. I’m not so sure our story ultimately will be so romantic, however. De Maistre leaves the aftermath of his confinement open-ended. In my reading of the text, his matter and soul selves share a joint thirst for freedom, but matter ditches the soul as soon as it has the chance. “I thrill with expectation,” he proclaims: “In like manner the act of slicing a lemon gives you a foretaste that makes your mouth water.”
I too yearn for a lemon. Outside, everywhere, lemon trees taunt me. But what if the lemon is nothing like we remember it? Our soul selves compensate for this uncertainty not only by fantasizing about false promises like Clay Rodrigo, but also by engaging in the magical thinking that there is something familiar to which we can return. Meanwhile, our matter selves tend to blame our captivity anxiety on deprivation, frustration, and loneliness, because they are easier culprits than the dreadful sense that this new condition in which we find ourselves is in fact all there is, all there will be, maybe all there ever was. Who knows what de Maistre finally experienced when he stepped out that door? The term limit of our confinement differs from his, so maybe for the next phase of our isolation, we could muster the soul self to help the matter self realize that this is enough.
Stefanie Sobelle is the editor of art and architecture at the Los Angeles Review of Books and an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College. Her criticism has been published in Bookforum, the Financial Times, BOMB, Words without Borders, Jacket2, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, among other publications.