“You’re a child,” repeated Clara. “You speak as you would in Europe, dear. And you have stupid scruples, just as they would have in Europe…life is free, happy and boundless, free from conventions and without prejudices and laws. At least for us…Liberty has no other limits than yourself…nor love anything but the triumphant variety of your desires. Europe and its hypocritical barbaric civilisation is a lie. What else do you find there but lies? You lie to yourself and others – you lie about everything that, in the depths of your soul, you recognise as the truth.
You are forced to pretend outward respect for people and institutions which you find ridiculous…you remain cowardly, attached to moral or social conventions you despise, condemn and which you know lack all foundation…it’s the permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires on one hand and all the dead forms and vain phantoms of your civilisation on the other that makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced.
In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality because every moment the free play of your strength is restrained, impeded, and checked. That’s the poisonous and mortal wound of the civilised world. With us, there’s nothing like that…everything is conducive to a free life and to love. What are you afraid of? What are you leaving behind?”
– Clara, femme fatale of Octave Mirbeau’s Le Jardin du Supplices (Torture Garden).
No less a personage than Oscar Wilde apparently described this book as “revolting…a sort of grey adder”, and once we get to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to disagree. The fact that both Wilde, a noted bon vivant and deliberate satirist and transgressor of traditional mores, and myself agree on this point should give fair warning to the skittish among us: this is strong stuff, particularly for the period, and should be approached with trepidation by the bourgeoise in mentality, the moralist, the uptight.
Still with me? Good, let’s begin.
After the usual welcome and informative historical introduction and analysis by Brian Stableford, we are transported to the frontispiece, which presents the bulk of the novel as a story within a story. A gathering of literati turns conversationally towards the idea that the driving force of civilization and human nature may actually be murder. This would seem to be a somewhat spurious premise at first sight, until you realize Mirbeau is pointing an acidic finger directly at the warmongering of nations and thier governments for the aggrandizement of domestic finance and other personal gain (i.e. land and possessions from their targets, voluntary surrender of freedoms and submission to government intrusion and martial law from their own citizenry).
At length, one “man with a ravaged face”, apparently unknown to the author relating this section, begins to interject with assurance his experience and perspective on the matter. And thus the tale begins…
Split into two major sections, Mirbeau’s non-traditional approach actually proves quite effective. Like a well constructed suite or symphony, each successive movement builds the narrative tension, suspending the reader with that unspoken question of where all this is going (and providing subtle intimations of just how horrible the end of all this will be).
In the first section (which is technically the second, after the wraparound of the frontispiece), we are introduced to our unnamed protagonist (who remains thus throughout the course of the proceedings, thus becoming an obvious cipher and allegorically, the reader him(or her)self by default).
Something of a con-man and perpetual middle management type, his primary method of subsistence is based on his college aquaintance of a political official. While some would be quick to use the usual euphemism of “getting by on connections”, this is more akin to a low level form of blackmail: he has something over on his “friend”, and continues to ride his coattails into minor prestige and a low level of notoriety and success through a succession of nepotistic “positions”. The official hates him, the narrator despises the official and himself, but it’s a living, as it were (most fellow stooges for a corporate entity, getting by on a diet of paper pushing, taking periodic measures related wholly to job justification, and relying primarily on bullsh*tting and charm for their pay will doubtless find some measure of identification herein).
In the end, seen as something of an embarrassment and an albatross, our protagonist is shuffled off to a mock position as a scientific expert in the Indies. Without even knowing what his supposed profession entails (as “embryologist”, though later events suggest a more proper designation as “icthyologist”), he sails off to Ceylon with funding that is expected, de rigeur for such government sponsored expeditions, never to see expenditure on the equipment or purpose ostensibly intended.
This one last dig at government waste out of the way, Mirbeau shifts tone with a literate mastery marked by a simultaneous subtlety and suddenness. For in the course of this journey (both literal and metaphorical, an archetypal if subverted hero’s journey ala Joseph Campbell), he encounters the fascinating Englishwoman Clara.
Flame haired and marked by occasional indications of her true, dark nature, Clara quickly gravitates from piquing the narrator’s interest to essentially enslaving him to her domination, through a gradual and ongoing reveal of her obsessions, as they embrace in a passionate and physical affair. On arrival at his intended destination, our protagonist finds himself so entwined in her web that he allows her to lure him along to her preferred home of exotic China, where awaits the perversities and pleasures of the titular Torture Garden.
“you see how (those) we accuse of being barbarians are on the contrary more civilised than us, being more deeply immersed in the logic of life and in the harmony of nature! They don’t consider the act of love as something shameful to be hidden. On the contrary, they glorify it, celebrating all its gestures and caresses…just like the ancients, for who sex, far from being an object of infamy and an image of impurity, was a god! You can see how occidental art as a whole loses out by being forbidden the magnificent expressions of love. Among us, eroticism is wretched, stupid and chilly. It is always decietfully presented as being sinful, whereas here it retains all the vital amplitude, all the throbbing poetry, all the grandiose trepidation of nature…but you’re just a European lover, a poor timid little soul who…has been stupidly indoctrinated with a fear of nature and a hatred of love by the Catholic religion. It has falsified and perverted the meaning of life within you.”
Now the book takes another leap in time, as we join the lovers post-separation, at some unspecified point down the road. Our narrator had attempted to separate himself from his obsessive submission to the pernicious influence of Clara and her appetites, which are soon to be shown in some detail. But despite recklessly joining a missionary expedition to distant lands, despite attempting to assauge his longing for her sensuous and lascivious caresses in opium, like a hero from Gautier, he only sees her, mocking him, drawing him back to her arms. And here we rejoin the lovers, upon the first flush of reunion.
Rather than welcoming him as one might expect of an absent lover, returned at last to the fold, she begins by relating the horrible and seemingly random fate of a heretofore unencountered third party to their affair, one Annie, who he remembers as astonishingly beautiful, but whom, as Clara relates, suddenly was stricken with elephantitis (oddly described as a form of leprosy), her beauty marred and driven to the point of suicide. Dazed by his long journey and horrified by this gruesome bit of news, he is dragged by Clara to one of her sick pleasures, which involves tormenting starving prisoners with offerings of rotten meat. And it only gets worse from here on out, folks.
In effect, despite the virtues and accuracy of her assessment of Western culture and arguments against the foolishness of its philosophic underpinnings and repression of the natural sexual instinct, Clara becomes exposed as something wholly other, a horrible extension of a Sadean, Nietzchean, even Randian philosophic aesthetic that revels in extremes and the suffering of others. Think of her as the sort of girl who gets off on the “torture porn” of today, becoming passionate over the demented and yes, evil excesses of such now-ubiquitous garbage as Hostel, Saw, or House of Wax. Despite a number of pleasing aspects to her physically and even philosophically, in the end, this woman is one sick f**k, and becomes wholly detestable therefore (but read on…).
What makes this particular book so maddening and the “vile grey adder” of Wilde’s aphorism (and please note, that was quoted in the course of his recommendation of the book to a fellow literati and aesthete) lies in the fact that it is quintessentially Mirbeau. In other words, even beyond his assured command of the art form and undisputed mastery of the art of wordsmithing, the book and its philosophical underpinnings are driven by fundamental truth, and an absurdist critique of the firmly held societal beliefs and accepted convention of belief, “order” and “good taste” of the era (and in fact, today).
With some real zingers delivered along the way and/or with the inanities of society and its mores presented reductio ad absurdam, any number of such deeply held “patriotic” sentiments and religiosities are skewered with due mercilessness: the march of colonialism, the corruption, usuriousness, underhanded double dealings and vile hypocrisy of capitalism and commerce, politics and government, bourgeoise morality, the hegemony of the Catholic church and self aggrandizement in all its forms are exposed to the light of reason and set aflame by the torch of satire with equal incisiveness and aplomb.
Nonetheless, and in spite all of this, the character of Clara presents something of a conundrum: is she a dedicated libertine in pursuit of personal freedom and the liberation of the natural sexual impulse, or a cruel and elitist Nietzchean fascist, whose pursuit of pleasure and freedom comes solely at the expense of that of others? To make matters even more muddled and stir the waters to an opacity of sediment, events would strongly point towards the latter: in her perverse delight at the sufferings of others (to the point where she crosses the line from observer into at least partial actor in this regard), Mirbeau presents something even more appalling than a standard Sadean anti-heroine.
For the pains that give her such shivers of (literal) orgasmic delight are not the delicious tortures of the boudoir and consensual liason, but in seeing (and in fact taking no small part in incensing) the suffering of prisoners, who whether for political variance with the ruling regime or for minor crimes, are given the undue and horrific punishment common to this day in Third World dictatorships and uprisings, or even in these very United States, under the auspices of an imaginary “war on terror”, the misnomer and violation of basic civil liberties and human rights that is the abominable “Patriot” Act and its very own Torture Garden of Guantanamo Bay. Worse, there is no ideological underpinning the simpleminded can utilize to create some fallacious “justification” for same – for Clara clearly admits she cares not why these unfortunates are being tortured and killed, and is in fact further inflamed with passion by the very intimation of their potential innocence and undeservedness for being put in this awful and final imposition.
Even among the long-suppressed scrawlings of Sade, the only novel that comes close to the depravity shown by this character is the abominable 120 Days of Sodom, a satirical and somewhat metaphorical celebration of the rich and powerful elites and their awful exercise of stripping the dignity and lives of those so unlucky as to fall under their purview. This is the line, people, where freedom and liberation cross over into dictatorship and horror, where the pleasures of breaking the imaginary and generally pointless taboos and sacred cows of societal convention and mores give way to a true and pure exercise of evil.
And the very seductiveness of her open and welcome sensuality, the very truth of a number of her assertions against prudishness, colonialism and the failings of Western civilization, make it all the more harder to reconcile the horrors and darkness that she celebrates and which serve to complete the picture of who she is as a person. Like Rachilde’s Marquise de Sade, Mary Barbe, her very likeability and correctness in a number of respects draws the reader into complicity with the contradictory deep seated wrongness of where her philosophical standpoints can lead us as individuals, or as a society. And there’s no better stimulus for re-assessment of thought, introspection and metacognitive analysis of where one truly stands than that.
Once again, I offer high recommendations to this work, for those who have ears to hear, sufficient stomach to tread the rocky waters into which it often leads, and the courage to take its implications as both exhortation and warning, and perform some much needed reassessment of who we are as human beings, and where we’re going as a society and world, before it’s too late to turn back.