Category: Non-fiction

Bernd Stiegler
Reisender Stillstand - Eine kleine Geschichte der Reisen im und um das Zimmer herum
[Stationary journeys - A short cultural history of travel in and around the room]

Review

All human unhappiness, as Pascal knew in the seventeenth century, stems from the fact that we do not stay quietly in our room. How much more that holds true for an age in which people are drawn not merely out of doors, but in vast numbers to far-off places, to new countries, foreign cities, unfamiliar regions. In doing so, they often forget an entirely different, no less exciting and instructive form of exploring the world. University of Konstanz professor of literature Bernd Stiegler reminds us of this other form of travel in his book, Reisender Stillstand (Stationary Journeys), which is devoted to the “history of travel in and around the room.”

What may at first strike us as an odd scholarly subject, to say the least, proves on closer inspection to be a very rich genre, a fertile field of cultural studies. The author seeks to define the basic assumptions of his study at the outset: The goal of living-room travel is to make foreign presumably familiar spaces, bringing the eye of an ethnologist to bear on them and “to investigate them as if this were a space entered for the first time, or at least seen with fresh eyes.”

A literal example of this notion is a book that initiated and lent its name to the tradition of stay-at-home expeditions, Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 Voyage autour de ma chamber. De Maistre had been sentenced to 42 days of house arrest and had used it to make a grand tour within the confines of his own four walls. In so doing he had discovered the utilitarian beauty of everyday objects, learned the history of the pictures hanging in his room, and found long-forgotten treasures in his library.

But his real discovery was a reversal of the belief that new and exciting things are to be found only in foreign and exotic places. Suddenly, out of the tedium of everyday life, alluring mysteries reveal themselves to the adventurer exploring his closely confined and supposedly familiar terrain. Unlike the way it is with the usual forms of tourism, this traveler’s destination is already familiar to him; only upon his detailed examination of it does it become terra incognita, and this, according to Stiegler, is what shapes the traveler’s attitude and produces a kind of two-sided figure – one of “movement and stasis, domestic and foreign, familiarity and distance.”

But these living-room journeys are a far cry from the kind of simple stay-at-home habit that remains ignorant of the world and all its charms. Stiegler documents de Maistre’s repeated references to “real” travel literature and his allusions to canonical adventure voyages, demonstrating that he knows them in detail. Still, these many discoveries he makes in his own household (and here Laurence Sterne, with his Sentimental Journey, is de Maistre’s forebear) are of less interest than the sensations produced in him by the (everyday) objects seen now with entirely new eyes. The trip around the room becomes a journey of the inner self. And the means for keeping one’s distance from these emotions is irony. Irony determines his relation to the world, to art, to himself.

Published during the final phase of the Terror in the French Revolution, the book was an unexpected best seller, followed not only by several reprintings but also by an Expédition nocturne autour de ma chamber by de Maistre himself, as well as numerous imitations, parodies, and sequels by other writers. Yet Stiegler is concerned not simply with the more or less serious successors to this admirable founding work, but also with the interconnectedness of a literary-cultural motif and the common features linking these often quite disparate texts from more than two centuries. He is not speaking of utopian designs or dream worlds, but of actual, ordinary, everyday rooms that can nevertheless be transformed and become veritable experiential spaces.

In his largely chronological survey, in twenty-one stages (plus an excursus on Jules Verne), Stiegler describes the different variations and possible forms of the living-room journey. There is for example the pilgrimage made, or simulated, in one’s home locale, i.e., far from the holy sites, a journey on which the faithful believer transforms “things into objects of contemplation and images of his own life.” Or journeys associated with the scintillating notion of theFrauenzimmer, by which we can mean a place, a group, or even individuals – namely educated, refined women like Sophie von La Roche, who in 1799 published a two-volume work on the subject of My Writing-Desk.

Up to the end of the nineteenth century, reports Stiegler, there appeared a multitude of “travels in miniature,” in which “the threshold of a room or a house or the boundaries of a town need not be crossed: One makes the tour of trouser pockets, a tent, or a desk drawer, the room by day and the room by night, one’s own library, or at most a large city like Paris.”

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the living-room journey gained a further dimension. Now, without ever leaving the room, one can actually embark on a virtual trip – to the internet hotel “Vue des Alpes,” for example – thus (so the advertisement says) enjoying a vacation in the mountains while staying home to take care of all the work that would otherwise remain undone. The new, unlimited possibilities could, according to Stiegler, lead to the “zero journeys” predicted by Edith Decker and Peter Weibel, a “substitution of the living room for the world outside.” Speed is supposedly the inescapable law, and one’s room is where the mad pace comes to a standstill. But before we lose ourselves entirely in virtual space, this book, richly illustrated and with plentiful suggestions for further reading, offers its readers one more good opportunity to think about living-room travel in its original form.
Matthias Weichelt

By Matthias Weichelt, 01.11.2010

​Matthias Weichelt is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sinn und Form. He writes for a number of publications including the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung".

Translated by Michael Ritterson