What are our everyday pandemic lives made up of?

By Durba Chattaraj

Many of us have been confined to our rooms for almost four months, and are thus experiencing a type of tedium and malaise that even Netflix cannot assuage. Perhaps it is time to draw inspiration from a slight, humorous book written in 1794 by Xavier De Maistre titled A Journey Around my Room.

Maistre was sentenced to 42 days of house arrest as punishment for participating in a duel, at a time when duelling was in the process of being outlawed. Stuck in his room, with no internet to distract him, he began to write his unusual little book, contemplating closely ordinary, banal things that he had rarely thought about before – his bed, his coat, the coordinates of his room.

He interspersed these observations about the banal with thoughts about the sublime – the soul, philosophy, the nature of art. A paean to the power of the human imagination, towards the end of his book Maistre writes, “They have forbidden me to go at large in a city, a mere speck, and have left open to me the whole universe, in which immensity and eternity obey me.”

Perhaps it is time for us to draw some inspiration from Maistre, and keep a little journal, make a little graphic novel, create a little bit of art, if only for ourselves. His book alerts us to the possibility that if we pay close enough attention, our everyday familiar world can actually become exciting and strange. Worth, in fact, a journey.

What are our everyday pandemic lives made up of? What are our rooms actually like, and what comes together to make them? In this age of supposed aatmanirbharta, how many countries and places and people are involved in making our walls, our balconies, our furniture, our electronics, our clothes, our selves?

How are we actually spending our days? What patterns can we see within our homes, our families? Who is cleaning? Who is cooking? Who is watching the children? How are we helping, or hindering? What are we cooking, and why? What moves us? What frightens us? What do we hope for, and what do we miss most? Who might be visiting our house now that people aren’t: peacocks, lizards, a parrot seeking a peanut?

What unexpected insights might emerge from a bit of self-reflexive thinking and writing? If we have pets, what better time to observe them closely and see what their days are actually like, and how they are riding out the pandemic? If we have children, what better time to do the same for them?

Here’s an excerpt from Maistre for inspiration. And as a reminder that it is only the most privileged – Maistre himself was an aristocrat, from a very elite French family – who have traditionally been able to undertake this kind of record-keeping in times of disaster. For while we brew our drinks and stew in our own juices, millions are trying to figure out where their next meal is to come from, after a long exodus home.

Xavier De Maistre|Engraving by Cyprien Jacquemin Public Domain

A Journey Around My Room

By Xavier De Maistre

What more glorious than to open for one’s self a new career, – to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unlooked-for comet blazing in the empyrean!

No longer will I keep my book in obscurity. Behold it, gentlemen; read it! I have undertaken and performed a forty-two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels; the certainty of being useful decided the matter. And when I think of the number of unhappy ones to whom I offer a never failing resource for weary moments, and a balm for the ills they suffer, my heart is filled with inexpressible satisfaction. The pleasure to be found in travelling round one’s room is sheltered from the restless jealousy of men, and is independent of Fortune.

Surely there is no being so miserable as to be without a retreat to which he can withdraw and hide himself from the world. Such a hiding-place will contain all the preparations our journey requires.

Every man of sense will, I am sure, adopt my system, whatever may be his peculiar character or temperament. Be he miserly or prodigal, rich or poor, young or old, born beneath the torrid zone or near the poles, he may travel with me. Among the immense family of men who throng the earth, there is not one, no, not one (I mean of those who inhabit rooms), who, after reading this book can refuse his approbation of the new mode of travelling I introduce into the world.

Eulogy of the Journey

I might fairly begin the eulogium of my journey by saying it has cost me nothing. This point merits attention. It will gain for it the praise and welcome of people of moderate means. And not of these only: there is another class with whom its success will, on this account, be even more certain.

“And who are they?” you ask. Why, the rich, to be sure. And then, again, what a comfort the new mode of travelling will be to the sick; they need not fear bleak winds or change of weather. And what a thing, too, it will be for cowards; they will be safe from pitfalls or quagmires. Thousands who hitherto did not dare, others who were not able, and others to whom it never occurred to think of such a thing as going on a journey, will make up their minds to follow my example.

Surely, the idlest person will not hesitate to set out with me on a pleasure jaunt which will cost him neither trouble nor money. Come then, let us start! Follow me, all ye whom the “pangs of despised love” or the slights of friends keep within doors, – follow me far from the meannesses and unkindnesses of men. Be ye unhappy, sick, or weary, follow me. Ye idle ones, arouse ye, one and all.

And ye who brood over gloomy projects of reform and retreat, on account of some infidelity, – amiable anchorites of an evening’s duration, who renounce the world for your boudoir, – come, and be led by me to banish these dark thoughts; you lose a moment’s pleasure without gaining a moment’s wisdom! Deign to 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 up gaily to Imagination, we will follow her whithersoever it may be her good pleasure to lead us.

Latitude and Topography

My room is situated in latitude 48° east, according to the measurement of Father Beccaria. 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. I shall even zig-zag about, following, if needs be, every possible geometrical line.

I am no admirer of people who are such masters of their every step and every idea that they can say: “To-morrow I shall make three calls, write four letters, and finish this or that work.” So open is my soul to all sorts of ideas, tastes, and feelings; so greedily does it absorb whatever comes first, that... but why should it deny itself the delights that are scattered along life’s hard path? So few and far between are they, that it would indeed be senseless not to stop, and even turn aside, to gather such as are placed within our reach.

Of these joys, none, to my thinking, is more attractive than following the course of one’s fancies as a hunter follows his game, without pretending to keep to any set route. Hence, when I travel in my room, I seldom keep to a straight line. From my table I go towards a picture which is placed in a corner; thence I set out in an oblique direction for the door; and then, although on starting I had intended to return to my table, yet, if I chance to fall in with my arm-chair on the way, I at once, and most unceremoniously, take up my quarters therein.

By the by, what a capital article of furniture an armchair is, and, above all, how convenient to a thoughtful man. In long winter evenings it is ofttimes sweet, and always prudent, to stretch yourself therein, far from the bustle of crowded assemblies. A good fire, some books and pens; what safeguards these against ennui! And how pleasant, again, to forget books and pens in order to stir the fire, while giving one’s self up to some agreeable meditation, or stringing together a few rhymes for the amusement of friends, as the hours glide by and fall into eternity, without making their sad passage felt.

The Bed

Next to my arm-chair, as we go northward, my bed comes into sight. It is placed at the end of my room, and forms the most agreeable perspective. It is very pleasantly situated, and the earliest rays of the sun play upon my curtains. On fine summer days I see them come creeping, as the sun rises, all along the whitened wall. The elm-trees opposite my windows divide them into a thousand patterns as they dance upon my bed, and, reflecting its rose-and-white colour, shed a charming tint around. I hear the confused twitter of the swallows that have taken possession of my roof, and the warbling of the birds that people the elms.

Then do a thousand smiling fancies fill my soul; and in the whole universe no being enjoys an awakening so delightful, so peaceful, as mine.

I confess that I do indeed revel in these sweet moments, and prolong as far as I can the pleasure it gives me to meditate in the comfortable warmth of my bed. What scene can adapt itself so well to the imagination, and awaken such delicious ideas, as the couch on which my fancy floats me into the forgetfulness of self! Here it is that the mother, intoxicated with joy at the birth of a son, forgets her pangs. Hither it is that fantastic pleasures, the fruit of fancy or of hope, come to agitate us. In a word, it is here that during one half of a life-time we forget the annoyances of the other half.

But what a host of thoughts, some agreeable, some sad, throng my brain at once,—strange minglings of terrible and delicious pictures!

A bed sees us born, and sees us die. It is the ever changing scene upon which the human race play by turns interesting dramas, laughable farces, and fearful tragedies. It is a cradle decked with flowers. A throne of love. A sepulchre.

Selected excerpts from A Journey Around My Room, Xavier De Maistre, translated from the French by Henry Attwell.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.