Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Man Who Was Never Bored

Here's an argument that you don't need to leave your room to travel and grow. From Dirda's review of A Journey Around My Room, By Xavier de Maistre, in this Sunday's Book World.

Confined to his quarters for 42 days as punishment for dueling, the French soldier Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852) decided to undertake a journey around his room. By treating his bed, his armchair, the artworks on the wall and his small library as major tourist sites, he planned to reflect upon their history, their importance to him, and the philosophical questions that they brought to mind. Just as some Shelleyan romantic might stand before the grandeur of Mont Blanc or weep amid the ruins of the Parthenon, so de Maistre would thrillingly confront the ordinary objects around him -- and really see them for the first time. As he proved to himself, "The perceptions of the mind, the sensations of the heart, the very memories of the senses, are inexhaustible sources of pleasure and happiness for man."

William Blake said that one could "see a world in a grain of sand/ and a heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour." De Maistre's A Journey Around My Room (1795) and its sequel, A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room (1825), might be test cases for that proposition. Life, after all, gains value from the intensity of one's engagement with it. By acts of concerted attention, we can invest even the most ordinary activities or objects with meaning, purpose and satisfaction. "A bed," writes de Maistre, "witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human race acts out, successively, its captivating dramas, laughable farces, and dreadful tragedies. It is a cradle bedecked with flowers; -- it is the throne of love; -- it is a sepulchre."

This review really changed my outlook on life. As I look here around my office space, I ponder the rich history of neutral-colored modular furniture. I think of the genius and creativity that it must have taken to invent tile carpeting. And if it weren't for the ergonomic chair, my ass nerves would surely have been pinched to oblivion by now...

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