“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.