Xavier de Maistre – Voyage autour de ma chambre, 1794 Voyage Around My Room

x de maistre madame elisabeth vigee lebrun

Chapter 7

Doesn’t that seem clear enough to you? Here’s another example:

One day last summer, I was making my way on foot to court. I had spent the whole morning painting, and my soul, enjoying its meditations on painting, left it to the beast to transport me to the Kings’s Palace.

“What a sublime art is painting!” my soul was thinking. “Happy is the man who has been touched by the spectacle of nature, who is not obliged to paint pictures for a living, and who does not paint merely as a pastime, but is struck by the majesty of a beautiful physiognomy and the admirable play of the light that suffuses the human face with a thousand subtle hues! He attempts to approach in his works the sublime effects of nature. Happy too is the painter whom the love of landscape leads out on solitary excursions, who is able to express on canvas the feeling of melancholy inspired in him by a gloomy wood or a deserted countryside! His productions imitate and reproduce nature; he creates new dark seas and dark caves on which the sun has never shone: at his order, green copses emerge from nothingness, and the blue of the sky is reflected in his pictures; he knows the art of fanning the breezes and making the tempests roar. At other times, he offers to the eye of the bewitched spectator the delightful landscapes of ancient Sicily: you can see panic-stricken nymphs taking flight through the reeds from some satyr in hot pursuit; temples of majestic build raise their proud heads above the sacred forest that encloses them: the imagination loses itself along the silent roads of this ideal country; the blue horizons merge gently into the sky, and the whole landscape, mirrored in the waters of a tranquil river, forms a spectacle that no lagoon can describe.”

As my soul was reflecting thus, the other kept right on going – God knows where! Instead of making its way to court, as it had been ordered to, it drifted away so far leftwards that, by the time my soul had caught up with it, it was already at the door of Mme de Hautcastel, half a mile away from the royal palace.

I will leave it to the reader to imagine what would have happened if the other had entered all by itself the home of such a beautiful lady.

——-

Chapter 10

Don’t get the idea that, instead of keeping my word and giving a description of my journey around my room, I am merely beating about the bush and evading the issue; you’d be quite wrong. No, my journey is really and truly continuing; and while my soul, withdrawing into itself, was in the last chapter exploring the tangled and twisted paths of metaphysics, I was in my armchair, in which I had leant back so that its two front legs were raised two inches above the ground; and by leaning forward, I had imperceptibly come right up to the wall – this is the way I travel when I’m not in any hurry. Here my hand had mechanically taken down the portrait of Mme de Hautcastel, and the other was diverting itself by breathing off the dust with which the portrait was covered. This occupation gave it a tranquil pleasure, and this pleasure communicated itself to my soul, even though the latter was lost in the best plains of the sky. It is worth noting observing in this respect that, when the spirit travels thus through space, it is still attached to the senses by some secret link; as a result, without being distracted from its occupations, it can participate in the joys and pleasures of the other, but if this pleasure increases to a certain degree, or if it is struck by some unexpected sight, the soul immediately reassumes her place as quick as a flash of lightening.

This is just what happened to me as I was cleaning the portrait.

As the cloth wiped the dust away and revealed curls of blond hair, and the garland of roses that crown them, my soul, although far away in the sun to which she had transported herself, felt a slight quiver in her heart, and emphatically shared the pleasure of my heart. This pleasure became less indistinct and more intense when the cloth, in one single sweep, laid bare the gleaning forehead of that enchanting physiognomy; my soul was on the point of leaving the heavens to come and enjoy the spectacle. But if she had been at the Champs- Élysées, or attending a concert of cherubs, she wouldn’t have stayed there for even half a second, when her companion, taking an increasing interest in her work, decided to seize a wet sponge that was handed to her and immediately proceeded to draw it over the eyebrows and the eyes – over the nose – over the cheeks – over the mouth – ah, God! How my heart beats! – over the chin, over the breast: it took no more than a minute; the whole face seemed to be reborn and to emerge from nothingness. My soul came sweeping down from heaven like a falling star; she found the other in a state of enraptured ecstasy, and succeeded in increasing its bliss by sharing it. This strange and unforeseen situation made time and space disappear for me. I existed for a moment in the past, and I grew again, against the order of nature. Yes, here she is, that adored woman, it really is her, I can see her smiling; she’s going to speak, she’s going to tell me she loves me. What a gaze! Come, let me press you to my heart, soul of my life, my second existence! Come and share my exaltation and my happiness! – This moment was brief, but it was ravishing: frigid Reason soon regained control, and in the space of the twinkling of an eye, I grew a whole year older: my heart became cold and frozen, and I found myself on the same level as that host of indifferent people who weigh down the globe.

Xavier de Maistre, 1763-1852            Voyage autour de ma chambre, 1794 Voyage Around My Room. Translation by Andrew Brown. Published by Hesperus Press Ltd, 2004.

The French writer and critic Charles Saint-Beuve, 1805-1869, admired de Maistre’s technique of storytelling by digression, or “manière de confession d’ailleurs”. In the first chapter de Maistre explains the subject of his story “I have undertaken and completed a forty-two day journey around my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the continual pleasure I experienced en route, filled me with the desire to publish it;…” His journey starts at the armchair, observes the pictures on the wall, walks to his desk and concludes by the fire. That is the physical plot of the novella, but the narrative concerns a love affair with a Madame de Hautcastel. The story resulted from an incident in Turin where he was imprisoned for forty-two days in the citadel in Turin following a duel with a Piedmontese officer. De Maistre admired Lawrence Sterne and the absurdity of the inversion of space and time in the Voyage autour de ma chambre is a parody of the traditional travelogue. De Maistre was an army officer and an aristocrat, and also a painter of miniatures and landscapes with a sophisticated understanding of artistic ideas. Inspired by the ideas of Rousseau, his separation of his physical self, the other, and his emotional self, the soul, illustrates how pictures were perceived as sensitive mirrors of emotional states.

Image: Madame Élisabeth, (Élisabeth of France) (Elisabeth-Philippe-Marie-Hélène) 1764-1794, sister of Louis XVI, was guillotined during the French Revolution. Engraving after a painting of Madame Élisabeth, 1782 by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755–1842, Musée National du Château de Versailles

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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