Review: Torture Garden

‘Here and there in the indentations of the palisade, appearing like halls of verdure and flower-beds, were wooden benches equipped with chains and bronze necklaces, iron tables shaped like crosses, blocks and racks, gibbets, automatic quartering machines, beds laden with cutting blades, bristling with steel points, fixed chokers, props and wheels, boilers and basins above extinguished hearth, all the implements of sacrifice and torture covered in blood—in some places dried and darkish, in others sticky and red. Puddles of blood filled the hollows in the ground and long tears of congealed blood hung from the dismantled mechanisms. Around these machines the ground had absorbed the blood. But blood still stained the whiteness of the jasmines and flecked the coral-pink of the honeysuckles and the mauve of the passion flowers. And small fragments of human flesh, caught by whips and leather lashes, had flown here and there on to the tops of petals and leaves. Noticing that I was feeling faint and that I flinched at these puddles whose stain had enlarged and reached the middle of the avenue, Clara, in a gentle voice, encouraged me: “That’s nothing yet, darling… Let’s go on!”’

Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden is the most hideously brutal, debauched, splenetic, and disturbing piece of fiction I have ever encountered. It reads, on one level, as a catalog of the most odious, shamelessly rococo sadism known to imagination; but Mirbeau's vision is broader than that: ultimately, the novel is an allegory of political and moral corruption: a seething and merciless satire of the hypocrisies that blight the human race from beneath the sheep’s-clothing called ‘civilization.’ Wilde described it as ‘revolting’ and as ‘a sort of grey adder;’ his assessment is fitting: Torture Garden is an appallingly perverse, venomous, and decimating novel.

Written at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau’s scathing attack on the sanctimonious sophism of the governing elite is, at times, overpoweringly mephitic: it smells of pus and rotten meat and old urine; it tastes of bile and gall and shit. But intermingled with this miasma of death and miserable suffering, there is the insistent perfume of the countless flowers that Mirbeau has painted in luxuriant, almost indulgent, detail: and this is no paradox: because amid the corruption of life, amid the charnel-house and the devouring flies, there is a kind of haunted beauty that is fertilized by this horror and this filth: the blossoms of the Torture Garden are fed by the same flesh and blood that is flayed, molested, and slaughtered within it; the inescapable fact is that this beauty could not thrive without the repugnance that both envelops and is enveloped by it.

The plot details the exploits of a French debauchee who, after meandering through the vapid hypocrisies of political life in fin de siècle Paris, chances to meet a beautiful, recondite Englishwoman, Clara, at sea; deeply attracted to the veil of innocence that cloaks what he perceives to be a curiously ‘well-educated’ immorality, our narrator sets up house with her in her adopted homeland of China. It is only upon their visit to the Torture Garden, however, that our narrator comes to comprehend the sheer depths of Clara’s iniquity: of her lust, filth, and ultimate evil.

This is an incredibly challenging book; and while it has become a near-cliché to caution ‘the faint of heart,’ it is important to warn prospective readers of Torture Garden that, while nearly one-hundred-and-fifteen-years-old, Mirbeau’s masterpiece remains one of the more luridly depraved novels ever published. I’ve read Sade, Mandiargues, and others of their proclivity: Torture Garden, much more than rakish pornography, reduces their prurience to curiosity. But Mirbeau's novel exists in three dimensions: in Torture Garden we glimpse the malice that flickers within the heart of real evil, as page after page eviscerates the miserable flowers of bureaucracy, social imperialism, xenophobia, and moral hypocrisy while exposing their contemporary roots in the manners and mores of European ideas of 'civilization,' effectively contrasting them against a highly orientalized, 'barbarous' East that is ultimately more a mirror of the West than a foil. Some of the more disturbing episodes in the novel do not play out in the Torture Garden at all: the conversation between a British officer and a French explorer about the disposability of human beings—of Dum-Dum bullets and ‘civilized’ cannibalism, of the imminent goal of entirely eliminating both the physical and intangible existence of an abstract ‘enemy’—remain as strikingly and singularly appalling as any gruesomely reprobate episode detailed from within the Torture Garden itself: and this despite the obvious satire (or perhaps even because of it) with which the scene is suffused. These pages drip with blood, yes—but also with cyanide.

I have discovered that Torture Garden’s ability to shock, stupefy, and disgust loses little upon rereading, even as its message becomes more apparent. It remains unavoidably relevant; and while it may turn our stomachs and challenge our patience for debauchery, the compelling employment of revulsion is a major component of Torture Garden's success as an allegory, underlining repeatedly its express purpose: to awaken us to the moral dilemmas often left unexamined within a 'governed' existence, lest we should forget or—far worse—choose to ignore the half-buried incongruities used to measure deception and truth, murder and inevitability. It is not with mere irony, after all, that Mirbeau prefaced his novel thusly: ‘To the priests, the soldiers, the judges: to those people who educate, instruct and govern men: I dedicate these pages of Murder and Blood.’

With its airy exoticism and heartless cruelty, its juxtaposition of indescribably violent torture and indescribably beautiful flowers, its excoriating anger and its electrifying sensuality, Torture Garden is not merely a classic of the Decadence, but a classic of the human soul. These grotesque and poisonous pages have etched themselves, for both better and worse, indelibly upon my brain: and for the bravest of readers, they will open onto vistas of incomparable truth: for beyond the Torture Garden lies a beauty that cannot be grasped without first glimpsing the barbarity with which it is inextricably bound.


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