Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.
Originally published: 1795 and 1825 respectively
Edition used: Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, translated by Andrew Brown (London: Hesperus 2004)
Confined to his room for 42 days, the narrator undertakes an expedition around it.[i] His closely observed account of its content and disposition wanders off into recollections, fancies, speculations and other digressions. Thirty years later, and without the company of his valet or his dog, he undertakes a similar journey around a different room over the course of a single night.
These two humorous short tales gently mock the conventions of sentimental fiction in a way not dissimilar to Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). At the same time, de Maistre’s digressive manner owes something to Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) – Voyage not only alludes explicitly to the hobby horse of Tristram’s Uncle Toby, but also has a distinctly Sterne-ian chapter twelve, consisting of a lengthy ellipsis in the middle of which appear the words ‘the mound’ (17).
But what makes de Maistre’s diptych interesting to the scholar of fantasy lies elsewhere.
In Voyage, the narrator offers a pseudo-Cartesian metaphysics in which
man is composed of a soul and a beast. – These two beings are absolutely distinct, but so closely fitted together, or one on top of the other, that the soul must have a certain superiority over the beast to be in a position to draw a distinction between them. (9)
As evidence for this dualism, the narrator offers an example that seems to equate the beast with an autonomic, almost machinic, material substratum, and the soul with the imagination (while also offering a provocation to the reader of a book which seems incapable of fastening its attention on anything for very long):
When you read a book, sir, and a more agreeable idea suddenly strikes on your imagination, your soul straight away pounces on it and forgets the book, while your eyes mechanically follow the words and the lines; you come to the end of the page without understanding it, and without remembering what you have read. – This comes from the fact that your soul, having ordered its companion to read to it, did not warn it of the brief absence on which it was about to embark; as a result, the other continued to read even though your soul was no longer listening. (10)
Why would the explorer and adventurer need to leave his room, if the mere act of being handed a wet sponge with which to wipe clean the portrait of a lover can make his
soul sweep across a hundred million leagues in a single instant. (21)
Or if one can find in fictional worlds a spur to the imagination (51)?
From the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos – this is the vast terrain which I wander across in every direction at leisure; for I do not lack time any more than I lack space. It is here that I transport my existence, on the trail of Homer, Milton, Virgil, Ossian, etc.
All the events that occur between these two eras, all the countries, all the world and all the beings who have lived between these two limits – it is all mine, it all belongs to me just as much and just as legitimately as the vessels that entered the Piraeus belonged to a certain Athenian. (53)
What is refreshing about this advocacy of imaginative indulgence is its absolute lack of moralism. The narrator is clearly something of an amorous adventurer when unconfined, and so when (in chapter 39) his soul berates his beast
‘What!’ said my soul, ‘so that’s how it is: during my absence, instead of restoring your strength by having a peaceful sleep, and thereby making yourself more able to execute my orders, you have insolently decided’ (the term was a bit strong) ‘to succumb to transports of delight that my will had not sanctioned?’ (57)
it is singularly unconvincing, not least because his soul, before waking, had clearly been engaged in an erotic dream about Mme de Hautcastel. The narrator’s disavowal of his wet-dream and its physiological consequences follows precisely the same logic as that which underlies cyberpunk’s spurning of the flesh in favour of disembodied cyberspatial elation two centuries later – as does the narrator’s solipsism.
The narrator’s reveries turn to matters cosmological in two key passages in the sequel story, in which he sits astride his window sill and contemplates the night sky. While the combination of confinement and flights of fantasy is common enough – see, for example, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Jack London’s The Star Rover (1915) and those Gothic fictions in which a socially-entrapped heroine misinterprets mundane events as supernatural – these moments in Journey seem to hint at something specifically science-fictional: not so much the cognitive breakthrough conclusions of stories like Robert Heinlein’s ‘Universe’ (1941) or Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ (1941), which convert the profound ontological revelation of humanity’s cosmic insignificance into a plot twist, but something closer to Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937), in which the night sky observed from a hillside is subsumed into an escalating spiral of immensity. The response of Journey’s narrator to immensity is to proffer a thesis whose paradoxical nature acknowledges its own inadequacy. Chapter 16 reads:
The system of the world
I believe, then, that as space is finite, creation is also finite, and that God has created in his eternity an infinity of worlds in the immensity of space. (95)
And should one be tempted to misread this as something profound, the following chapter commences with the narrator admitting that he does not himself understand it
any better than all the other systems that have hitherto been hatched […]; but mine has the precious advantage of being contained within a couple of lines. (96)
The other eight entries I wrote were:
Godwin, Caleb Williams
London, The Iron Heel
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X
This period of confinement coincides with the punishment meted out to de Maistre for a duelling incident.