Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel, by Bernd Stiegler

Robert Mayhew on the vision, dignity and achievement of two centuries of armchair travellers

December 12, 2013

The term “armchair traveller” carries for most readers the same derogatory connotations as “backseat driver”, suggesting a conjunction of hypocrisy and false wisdom. In this hugely enjoyable book, Bernd Stiegler asks us to shake off these connotations to see the vision, dignity and achievement of two centuries of armchair travellers.

Truncating the longer history and broader genre of armchair travel and in fact attending to room travellers only, Stiegler begins with the work of Xavier de Maistre (brother of the better-known political theorist, Joseph), whose Voyage Autour de ma Chambre (1794) was penned while he was under house arrest in Turin as the consequence of a duel. De Maistre toured the objects arrayed around his room, chapter by chapter, the core interest being the way in which the microcosm of the room could disclose the macrocosm of the world from which he was debarred by diktat.

The first half of Traveling in Place pursues the intimations of de Maistre’s project through the course of the 19th century to the work of Jules Verne, showing that room travel became a remarkably fruitful genre in the era, with other writers moving out from de Maistre’s model to pen books about the plants in their rooms, the cellars of their houses and the views from their windows. All this was routinely encoded in the language of exploration: the room traveller was an explorer of new worlds akin to James Cook, or was traversing lands less known than darkest Africa; reversing the image, Christopher Columbus could be seen as nothing more than a flâneur of the oceans. The nub of the argument for 19th-century room travellers, then, was William Blake’s contention that a world could be seen in a grain of sand.

The second half of Traveling in Place moves on to room travel in the 20th century, and here the story becomes more fragmented, with the boundaries of genre becoming harder to ascertain. Thus, when Raymond Roussel travels from Paris to Rome in 1926 in a purpose-built van, writing incessantly about the seaside image in the top half of his pen rather than about the landscapes he is passing through, we can see that de Maistre’s room travel has been put into motion, the paradox being that its motion is irrelevant to the artistic outcome. When Stiegler moves on, however, to the pioneering cinema of Dziga Vertov, to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s literary experimentalism and to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ vexed relationship with anthropology as travel, the continuities with de Maistre become harder to detect. Indeed, the final sections of Stiegler’s account – which is divided into 21 “legs”, his own structure being that of a journey – address contemporary literary and artistic experimentation with ideas of close focus on small worlds of the everyday and its objects that seem to bespeak very different worlds from those from which the genre of room travel originated. What unites the 20th century and contemporary experimentation with room travel is that it moves on from finding a macrocosm in the microcosm to a sense that the voyage is one into the self and its struggle to find meaning, the paradox becoming existential rather than experiential, as it had been for de Maistre.

In sum, Traveling in Place’s achievement mirrors its subject matter, taking as it does one small room in the literary house and making of that microcosm an insightful window on to the macrocosm of the past two centuries. Just as backseat drivers can sometimes save us from a collision, so Stiegler shows us that armchair travellers have opened the worlds of the planet and the self to critical scrutiny.

Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel

By Bernd Stiegler, translated by Peter Filkins
University of Chicago Press, 264pp, £17.50
ISBN 9780226774671 and 6081151 (e-book)
Published 19 November 2013

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