Review of Traveling in Place by Bernd Stiegler

Armchairs Out for a Stroll
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Discussed in this review: Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel by Bernd Stiegler. University of Chicago Press, 2013, 264 pages. Buy at U of Chicago P or Amazon.

This is a curious, charming little book about a genre of literature I had never heard of: room travel. It is an English translation of a study written in German by Bernd Stiegler, a professor of twentieth-century German literature and of literature and media at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Not being a reader of German, I am going to assume it is an excellent translation and say thank you to the translator, Peter Filkins, a poet and teacher of literature. On to the book.

Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”)

Stiegler starts off his book with an account of the comic novel, Voyage Around My Room, by the French man of letters, Xavier de Maistre Voyage. De Maistre wrote the novel in 1790, when he was under house arrest for dueling; the novel was published a few years later. Confined and bored, he made the best of his situation, and in so doing basically invented the genre of room travel.

Armchairs Out for a Stroll
“Armchairs Out for a Stroll” (Photo Credit: Christopher Lance | flickr)

Room travel, I gather from the book, consists of meticulous accounts of small spaces that treat them, in generally whimsical fashion, as if they were countries or continents unto themselves and just as varied and interesting. Simple things, such as the exact measurements of a room, become matters of immense importance in room travel. Stiegler says, “de Maistre traverses his room, back and forth, back and forth, round and round.” I had never heard of de Maistre. I am grateful to Stiegler for writing about him.

The Christian Room Journey

Traveling in Place
Traveling in Place by Bernd Stiegler

The chapter of the book that will especially interest those interested in Christian history and religious culture is entitled, “Pilgrimages.” In it, Stiegler shows that to some writers, room travel became a sort of soul travel, as if the soul is a foreign land. The room provides landmarks or serves as a way station in travels through the spiritual life. He writes, “Each single object within the room that is a leg of life’s journey that should become the soul’s journey is an object for unremitting meditation on life as a journey.” He observes that in Christian-themed works in the room-travel mode, the writers tend to itemize objects in the room as if they are working through the beads of the rosary, and tells us of “the peculiar poetry of lists that we find among such Christian journeys.” As someone raised in a secular household, I found this chapter quite enlightening.

19th and 21st Century Rooms as Refuge

Even those of us who are not confined to rooms due to illness or house arrest (think of all the dissidents or actual criminals in our own day who are under some sort of house arrest) often engage in a sort of daily room travel.

For example, as a single person with no children and no romantic attachments, when I get home from work to my apartment in my small town, I engage in the same sort of routine that many of the writers Stiegler profiles did. I open the door and literally and figuratively lock the door behind me, leaving the hurly burly of the world behind and shutting it out. I turn up the heat, wash my hands, close the blinds, shed outer garments and settle into life in my little room for the night.

And just like many of the figures Stiegler discusses, I have a mental room within the room itself. As he tells us, many entries in the room travel genre in the 19th century depict objects in the room related to the life of the mind – correspondence and books laid out on a desk, shelves lined with books. In my modern version, the computer on my desk leads me into the sort of journeys to other worlds that many room travelers engaged in by writing travelogues set in distant lands they had never actually visited but knew only from written accounts they read of while remaining firmly at home. I daily travel the world by browsing through Twitter.

And one is happy in one’s little room. I have always loved the line of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, “my little body is aweary of this great world.”  Stiegler wonderfully conveys the satisfaction the writers of room travel account found in their small spaces, “in all the room travels of the nineteenth century, the near world remains a comfort despite its strangeness, becoming never a threat or menace but rather much larger, broader, more capacious and, not the least, richer.” As he says of the rooms of these writers who focused on their immediate surroundings and treated them as unexplored terrain, the familiar was “simultaneously constricted and endless.” So is the modern world – we are transitioning to an era of micro housing, with the worldwide web as gateway to the world.

Weaknesses of the Book

Traveling in Place has its flaws, despite its delightfulness. The chapter, “The Life of Plants,” which discusses books using the garden, and botany generally, as windows into larger questions of life does not really seem to connect to the first part of the book, which focuses on the room rather than the garden and the natural world. Had I been the book’s editor, I would have advised dropping this chapter.

The same goes for the chapter, “A Cinematic Baedeker.” This chapter, while interesting in itself (it discusses at length the films, film technique and theories of the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov) does not really have anything to do with the subject of the book, which is ostensibly armchair travel.

Ditto the chapter, “The Flâneur.” By definition, a flâneur is someone who gets out and about and does not remain at home in his room. Stiegler tries to persuade us that a flâneur is connected to the idea of getting to know one’s immediate surroundings and so fits in with the idea of minutely examining one’s closest environs. But that is a bit of a stretch. The flâneur is a sophisticated figure mad for new sights and sounds, and therefore one not likely to want to remain in a small room and rhapsodize about bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece.

Thus, the book sometimes loses its focus. The chapters on room travel illuminate literary history. Then we suddenly find ourselves plunged into the history of science or film history. Perhaps the book should have been given a different title to reflect these various foci.

Particularly Interesting Ideas in the Book

One especially interesting point in the chapter, “Journeys into the World as Text,” is that today, writers do not much treat rooms as emblematic of our own lives and souls. Rather, “literature turns into the production of a textual space that claims to be a space in the world.” That makes me feel rather empowered – even if few people read this review, I have, nonetheless, created a space in the world.

Stiegler can also be quite funny. Writing of phenomena such as average people via YouTube, blogs, or in other places on the Web, providing glimpses into their living spaces or even guided tours of such, “This is less voyeuristic than it sounds and more boring than perhaps one would reckon.” It is indeed striking how often book lovers, for example, post photos on the Web of their bookshelves and how writers now have to market themselves, celebrity-style, showing their writing desks or living rooms. It is not so much these days that the world is too much with us. Rather, your world is too much with me.

Should You Read This Book?

Absolutely. It may not hang together as a book, exactly. But each chapter has value as an essay. I learned a lot about Raymond Roussel (of whom I knew little) and about people of whom I had never heard, such as Michel Leiris and Sophie von La Roche. It never hurts to take a few hours to learn about European intellectuals (and this is a very, very Western-European-centered book with the exception of the chapter on Vertov).

This is an enchanting excursion into intimate spaces (sometimes anatomically intimate, as in the discussion of Timm Ulrichs’ film, The View Through: Through Me; An Endoscopic Journey).  Stiegler is a cultivated, widely-read man as much at ease with art history as with literary criticism.

Worth reading.