The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Octave Mirbeau The Torture Garden (1899) *

* (restored/Halloween countdown post #8)

 

‘Written at a time when all authoritarian “laws” of aesthetics and morality were being challenged (and breached) by anarchists, Decadents, Naturalists, Impressionists, and pre-Surrealists, The Torture Garden appended its vision of terminal outrage to the final year of the nineteenth century. The author, Octave Mirbeau (1850-1917) was an exceptional writer who combined intensity of vision with a lifelong commitment to attacking arbitrary, unjust authority. As a journalist Mirbeau railed against conservative art and political opinions as well as hypocritical public figures–which caused him to fight numerous duels. Till the end of his long career as a critic, novelist and playwright he was dedicated to permanent, sardonic, and vociferous rebellion against the status quo. He and his wife, a former actress and herself a luminary of wit and independence, held host to some of the most radical artists and writers of the day. After his death she made their estate a retreat and haven for indigent writers, artists, poets and sculptors possessing dreams and vision but little else.

‘As a critique of society The Torture Garden is an enduring inspiration: “You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”

‘Solely on the level of literary achievement, The Torture Garden’s beauty of language and imagery ensures our transport into a realm not of this earth. Its recitation of the names of exotic plants and perfumes lures us into an erotic dimension of limitless possibilities, conjured into being by the repressed underside of the human spirit–the reward at the end being the same as in the mythical Garden of Eden: self-knowledge…

‘Once described as “the most sickening work of art of the nineteenth century,” The Torture Garden is one of the most truly original works ever imagined. Beyond providing a richly poetic experience, it will stimulate anyone interested in the always-contemporary problem of the limits of experience and sensation. As part of the continuing struggle against censorship and especially self-censorship, it will remain a landmark in the fight against all that would suppress the creation of a far freer world.’ — V. Vale and Andrea Juno

 

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Covers

 

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Media


Guitry, Portrait d’Octave Mirbeau


Trailer for the film ‘Torture Garden’ (1967)


Europe’s largest fetish club, Torture Garden of London UK

 

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Further

Website of Société Octave Mirbeau (French)
Octave Mirbeau Society
Introduction to ‘The Torture Garden’ by Tom McCarthy
UTOPIANISM AND PERVERSION IN MIRBEAU’S LE JARDIN DES SUPPLICES
Octave Mirbeau’s ‘The Love of a Venal Woman’
Octave Mirbeau’s ‘Ravachol’
Octave Mirbeau’s preface to ‘Moribund Society and Anarchy’
‘The Torture Garden’ @ goodreads
‘The Torture Garden’ @ Satanism Community
Buy the book @ Amazon
Download the eBook for $1.00 @ Olympia Press

 

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Octave Mirbeau, Anarchist

by Nick Heath

 

At the end of the 19th century, many French writers were attracted to anarchism. Some of them were fascinated by the bomb attacks of “propaganda by deed” anarchists Ravachol and Emile Henry, and wanted to write a book that would be a literary bomb, destroying the foundations of the religion, the family and the nation state. For example, the Symbolists celebrated “free verse” as “anarchist verse”. Many, after achieving fame, abandoned any notion of anarchism.

One who did not was Octave Mirbeau. For him, anarchism was not a fashionable phase, or part of a misspent youth. He discovered the ideas of anarchists Proudhon and Kropotkin quite late in life after having been a writer for Bonapartist and anti-Semitic newspapers. From 1883 he began to change tack, editing Les Grimaces, a biting satirical journal. From 1885, he began to adopt more and more openly anarchist positions. He gave financial aid to anarchists in difficulty. He used his position as an influential writer to popularise the ideas of anarchism. He wrote The Strike of the Voters in the daily paper Le Figaro, where he called for abstention at the ballot box.

For Mirbeau, anarchism did not just mean revolutionising literature, but giving himself, his time and his money to it. He was the main financial supporter of the anarchist newspaper Les Temps Nouveaux, whose contributors included Paul Signac.

His works were the reflection of his anarchist commitment. Many of his works describe deprived lives the absurdities of bureaucracy and the corruption of power. L’Abbe Jules and Sebastien Roch were two extremely anti-clerical novels. The Diary of a Chambermaid is not just the tale of the corruption of the upper classes but of the rise to power of an anti-Semite. Luis Bunuel, the Spanish filmmaker understood this, and in his film of Mirbeau’s novel, he shows how the rise of fascism is linked to the ideas and values of the ruling class.

Mirbeau’s most notorious novel The Torture Garden is often dismissed as nothing more than a decadent novel of sado-masochism. In fact, this misunderstands its political message. Its dedication “To priests, soldiers, judges, men who educate, lead and govern men, I dedicate these pages of Murder and Blood” give the game away. Why are certain crimes illegal and not others? Mirbeau lists industry, colonial commerce, war, hunting and anti-Semitism as legal forms of murder.

Mirbeau often deals with power in his books. Not just how it is exercised over the individual but how it is internalised and how it is used by those who govern us. A passionate writer, he was one of those rare individuals who were able to reconcile social commitment with a total freedom of creation.

 

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Edy Legrand’s illustrations

 

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Book

Octave Mirbeau The Torture Garden
Olympia Press

‘Following the twin trails of desire and depravity to a shocking, sadistic paradise – a garden in China where torture is practiced as an art form – a dissolute Frenchman discovers the true depths of degradation beyond his prior bourgeois imaginings. Entranced by a resolute Englishwoman whose capacity for debauchery knows no bounds, he capitulates to her every whim amid an ecstatic yet tormenting incursion of visions, scents, caresses, pleasures, horrors, and fantastic atrocities.

The Torture Garden is exceptional for its detailed descriptions of sexual euphoria and exquisite torture, its political critique of government corruption and bureaucracy, and its revolutionary portrait of a woman – which challenges even contemporary models of feminine authority. This is one of the most truly original works ever imagined. Beyond providing richly poetic experience, it will stimulate anyone interested in the always-contemporary problem of the limits of experience and sensation. As part of the continuing struggle against censorship and especially self-censorship, it will remain a landmark in the fight against all that would suppress the creation of a far freer world. Written in 1899, this fabulously rare novel was once described as “the most sickening work of art of the 19th century.”‘ — Olympia Press

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Excerpts

This young man had so authoritative a manner and so bitter a tone, that it made us shiver slightly.“I was returning from Lyon,” he continued, “and I was alone in a first—class compartment. I’ve forgotten what station it was, but a traveler got on. I admit that the irritation of being disturbed when alone can bring about very violent states of mind, and arouse you to peevish behavior. But I experienced nothing of the sort. I was so bored with being alone that the chance arrival of this companion was rather a pleasure to me from the very start. He settled himself across from me, after carefully depositing his few bags in the rack. He was a bulky man, of common appearance, whose greasy ugliness shortly became obnoxious to me. After a few moments, I felt something like an insuperable disgust in looking at him. He was stretched opt heavily on the cushions, his thighs apart, and at every jolt of the train his enormous belly trembled and heaved like a disgusting mass of jelly. As he seemed hot, he took off his collar and sloppily mopped his forehead—a low, wrinkled and bumpy forehead, raggedly framed by a few short, sticky hairs. His face was merely a lumpy mass of fat; his triple chin a slack flap of soft flesh, spread on his chest. To avoid this unpleasant sight I pretended to look at the countryside, and forcibly tore myself away from the presence of this irksome companion. An hour passed. And when curiosity, stronger than my will, had drawn my eyes back to him, I saw that he had fallen into a deep and unprepossessing sleep. He slept, sunk into himself, his head drooping and rolling upon his shoulders, and his huge, bloated hands lay open upon the slopes of his thighs. I noticed that his round eyes bulged beneath creased eyelids, and that a bit of bluish pupil showed through a slit, like an ecchymosis on a scrap of limp veal. What insane idea suddenly flashed through my mind? Truly, I don’t know. For though I had been frequently tempted by murder, it lay in me in an embryonic state of desire,. and had never as yet assumed the precise form of a gesture or an act. Is it possible that the ignominious ugliness of this man alone was able to crystallize that gesture and that act? No, there is a more profound cause, of which I am ignorant. I arose quietly and approached the sleeper, my hands spread, contracted and violent, as though to strangle him.”

With these words, being a story—teller who knew how to get his effects, he paused. Then, evidently satisfied with himself, he continued:

“Despite my rather puny appearance, I am gifted with unusual strength, exceptional muscular agility, and extraordinary power of grip, and at that moment a strange heat unleashed the dynamic force of my bodily faculties. My hands alone moved towards this man’s neck—by themselves, I assure you—burning and terrible. I felt in me a lightness, an elasticity, an influx of nervous tides, something like the powerful intoxication of sexual desire. Yes, I can’t explain what I felt better than to compare it with that. The minute my hands were about to close upon this greasy neck, the man woke up. He awoke with terror in his eyes, and he stuttered: ‘What? what? what?’ And that was all! I saw that he wanted to say more, but he couldn’t! His round eye flickered like—a little light sputtering in the wind. Then it remained fixed and motionless upon me, in horror. Without saying a word, without even seeking an excuse or a reason, by which the man would have been reassured, I sat down again across from him and nonchalantly, with an ease of manner which still astonishes me, I unfolded a newspaper which, however, I did not read. Fear grew in the man’s eyes with every moment; little by little he recoiled, and I saw his face grow spotted with red, then purple, then it stiffened. All the way to Paris, the man’s stare retained its frightful fixity. When the train stopped, the man did not get off……” The narrator lit a cigarette in the flame of a candle, and from a cloud of smoke his phlegmatic voice was saying:

“Oh, I know well enough. I had killed him! He was dead of cerebral congestion.”

*—What is this rat torture?… my friend asked… And how is it that I do not know it?
—A masterpiece, milady… a pure masterpiece!… affirmed in a ringing voice the big man whose flaccid body was drooping in the grass.
—I understand, but how so…?
—A masterpiece, indeed! And you see…… you know nothing of it… nobody knows… What a pity!… How could you expect me not to be humiliated?…
—Could you describe it?…
—Could I? Certainly I could… I shall explain it, and you will make up your mind… Follow me well…
And the big man, with precise gestures that described figures in the air, spoke as follows:
—You take a convict, charming milady, a convict, or any other character—for it is not necessary for the success of my ordeal, that the patient be sentenced to anything—you take a man, as far as possible, young, strong, and whose muscles are well resistant… on the principle that more strength means more struggle, and more struggle means more suffering!… Very well… You undress him… Very well… When he is naked—is that right, milady?—You make him kneel, his back arched, on the ground where you hold him down by chains, riveted to iron collars that encircle his neck, wrists, knees, and ankles… Very well! I am not sure that I make myself understood?… You then make a small hole in the bottom of a large pot—a flowerpot, milady!—You put inside a very large rat, which should have been deprived of food for two days, in order to excite its ferocity… And this pot, inhabited by that rat, you apply tightly, like a huge suction cup, to the buttocks of the condemned man, with solid straps, attached to a leather belt, which encircles his hips… Ah! Ah! it takes shape!…
He glanced at us maliciously, from under his lowered eyelids, to judge the effect that his words had on us…
—And then?… said Clara, naively.
—Then, milady, you insert into the small opening in the pot—guess what?
—How would I know?…
The man rubbed his hands, smiled horribly, and continued
—You insert an iron rod, heated to a red glow by the fire of a forge… a portable forge that is right here, near you… And when the iron rod is inserted, what happens next?… Ah! Ah! ah!… Imagine yourself what should happen, milady?…
—Go on, old chatterbox!… ordered my friend whose small feet angrily kicked the sand of the alley…
—There!… There!… soothed the verbose torturer… A little patience, milady… Let us proceed methodically, if you please… So, you insert into the opening of the pot, an iron rod, heated to a red glow by the fire of a forge… The rat wants to flee the fire of the rod and its searing light… He panics, dashes, jumps and leaps, turns on the walls of the pot, crawls and gallops on the man’s buttocks, which he first tickles and then he tears with his legs and bites with his sharp teeth… seeking a way out, through the scrambled and bloody flesh… But there is no exit… or, at least in the first few minutes of panic, the rat cannot find any exit… And the iron rod, wielded skillfully and slowly, constantly approaches the rat…… threatening it… scorching its hair… What do you say to this prelude?
He took a few breaths, and calmly, authoritatively, instructed us:
—The great merit in this, is that this initial exercise must be prolonged as much as we can, because the laws of physiology tell us that there is nothing more horrible than the combination on a human flesh of tickling and biting… It may even happen that the patient goes insane… He screams and struggles… his body, formerly free in the midst of iron collars,, quivers, lifts, twists, shaken by painful shudders… But his limbs are held securely by the chains… the pot, by the straps… And the movements of the condemned man only increase the fury of the rat, which will soon be augmented with intoxication by blood… It is sublime, milady!…
—And in the end?… said, in a soft and trembling voice, Clara, who had slightly blanched.
The executioner clicked his tongue and continued:
—In the end—for I see that you are eager to know the outcome of this worthy and merry tale—in the end… under the threat of red-hot rod and excited by a few well-timed burns, the rat eventually finds a way out… a natural exit, milady… and how vile!… Ah… ah!… ah!…
—How horrible!… cried Clara.
—Ah! you see… I do not make you say it… And I am proud of the interest that you take in my ordeal… But wait… The rat penetrates, you know where… in the human body… by expanding it with its paws and his teeth… the hole… Ah… ah!… ah!… the hole he frantically diggs, as if in the ground… And it suffocates, at the same time that the patient who, after a half-hour of unspeakable, incomparable torture, at last also succumbs to blood loss… if not to excess of suffering… or a stroke of terrible madness… In all cases, milady… and whatever the final cause of this death, believe me that it is extremely beautiful!…
Satisfied, with a triumphant look of pride, he concluded:
—Is this not extremely beautiful, milady? Is this not truly a prodigious invention… a wonderful masterpiece, in a way classical, and one that makes you seek, unsuccessfully, its equivalent in the past?… I do not want to appear immodest, but grant me, milady, that the demons that once haunted the forests of Yunnan, never imagined such a miracle… Well, the judges did not want it!… I brought to them, as you perceive, something infinitely glorious… something unique in its kind, and capable of inflaming the inspiration of our greatest artists… They wanted nothing more… nothingmore!… The return to the classical tradition frightens them.… Not counting also all sorts of moral quibbles, quite painful to state… the intrigue, the extortion, the competitive venality… the contempt for the righteous… the horror of beauty… what do I know?… You would think, at least, that for such a service, they had made me a mandarin? Of course you would!… Nothing, milady… I received nothing… These are the characteristic symptoms of our decay… Ah! we are a nation done with, a dead nation!… The Japanese can come… we are no longer able to resist them… Farewell to China!…
He fell silent.
—-

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** David, Hi. Oh, I haven’t checked FB closely in the last couple, I’ll go find it. Gotcha on the reading aloud thing. I’m kind of the same way, but I don’t have a choice, alas. Later gator. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. Oh, course you met him. You met all the vintage greats, or so it sometimes seems. Amazing. Thanks about haunted game thing. It sure is fun. Maybe we can bring it to LA. I’m sure we’ll try. ** David Ehrenstein, Yes, your book. Everyone, The first chapter of David Ehrenstein’s very key book ‘Film: The Front Line 1984’ is about Jack Smith and highly recommended. And, while we’re on the DE topic, his FaBlog briefly takes on Dave Chapelle. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Well, yeah, best of luck to the lad, but Willy Wonka seems like a very massive stretch, but who knows, I guess. When’s the next full moon (?) a.k.a. thank you for that love! Love teaching everyone in the world to execute a flawless pirouette, G. ** Bill, Yeah, strange. No problem on whatever time it takes to do the post. Is the Joel Lane reissue from Serpents Tail? They seem to be doing some kind of ‘golden age of ST’ reissue campaign which will include my ‘Closer’ at some point. ** T, Hi, T. Juan Munoz, nice book, awesome guy, RIP. Thanks for being interested enough to get ‘Flaming Creatures’ under your belt. That’s the thing: I always have to fight off an allergy to massive books. It doesn’t make much sense, but allergies don’t. ‘2666’ is a definite read for some point. Ah, yes, control freak landlady. Urgh. But, hey, that is quite an ultra-sweet monthly rent you have there. Wow. Your wished for Thursday is now my goal in life. Beautiful, thank you. I hope your Thursday smokes a lot of 420 with your landlady. xo. ** Jeffrey Coleman, Hi, Jeff. I like Ira Cohen’s stuff, yeah. Especially his film ‘The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda’. And his cover art for Spirit’s ‘Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’ album. I hosted him once for a reading at Beyond Baroque back in the early 80s, and I thought he was kind of a creep personally, but no big. Yes, ‘Negrophobia’ is so great! ** Billy, Hi, Billy! Welcome! Oh, awesome, is your dissertation readable anywhere? I’m good, thanks, and I hope you are too. ** Okay. Today my blog’s Halloween celebrations turn bookish in the form of this restored post. See you tomorrow.

10 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Coleman

    Negrophobia rules, Dennis. I have The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda on DVD, I think. And that Spirit album. Yeah, he might be a creep. I’m sending Negrophobia to a friend, hope he likes it.

  2. Jeff J

    Hey Dennis – Enjoyed this post on ‘Torture Garden.’ The book has been on my radar forever, but I’ve never taken the plunge. I’ll try to correct that soon.

    Really dug the Jack Smith day previously, as well. It’s a shame so much of his work is still impossible to see.

    I finished the new Joy Williams novel and think it might be her very best. Every sentence sings and structurally it goes some very unexpected places. Plus it’s funny as hell. You been able to score it yet?

    I saw ‘Titane’ in the theater and while there were some scattered interesting scenes and moments, overall my reaction was close to your feelings about ‘The Lighthouse’ (which I still haven’t seen). I’m baffled by the film’s seemingly universal rapturous reception. You seen it?

    How did the event with Rachel Kushner go? I was set to attend, then work intervened.

  3. David

    I used to work at an S+M club in Brixton years ago… one night I was sent out to get hot drinks for the other members of staff. and management… as I arrived back with a tray filled with cups of tea etc… I slipped on the top step all the way down the entire stair case… and the drinks went everywhere… I wasn’t best pleased…. on telling the manager.. he said “oh don’t worry here have an ecstasy tablet…” when princess Diana died the same manager who was in floods of tears chose me to do the memorial bar (in another associated club in Soho) he had put candles etc all around… I was well pissed off as it was the bar with the least customers and so I couldn’t pilfer the till as much…. I had good sex whilst working in the Brixton club and saw the usual demented stuff going on… Cheers for this post 🙂

  4. T

    Hey Dennis! Damn, reading that passage with the rat made me feel all kinds of tingly. I really like the way Mirbeau writes about the body as well, for me a pupil like ‘an ecchymosis on a scrap of limp veal’ is one hell of an image. Might try to see if I can find the book in a library or something, now I’m in a place where French literature should by rights be on proverbial tap.

    Otherwise, I’m currently Paris-bound as I type this, where I shall be until Saturday afternoon/early evening I think! If you’ve any downtime between now and then, give me a shout, I think I’ll be hanging around the centre of town pretty much, but either way I have the navigo subscription pass thing so I can jump on a metro to wherever. Hope your week comes in for a most glorious finish under a painted sunset diorama that’s only slightly reminiscent of an ecchymosis splotch, xT

  5. David Ehrenstein

    Octave Mirabeau us a perfect follow-up toJackSmith
    As for Dave Cahppelle if he wants to mae amends he should consider starring in a revival of Hedwig

  6. Dominik

    Hi!!

    Thank you for today’s post! I adore exploring the different covers of books, so that part was a special treat.

    Haha, your poor love will have a hard time with me because my coordination is ridiculously shitty, but I’m up for the challenge. Thank you! Love going on a road trip to feel like Jack Kerouac, Od.

  7. Steve Erickson

    I continued my “non-canon” album listening with SQUEEZE yesterday. That was actually a substantial jump up from CUT THE CRAP – rather generic early ’70s rock, but you can hear how Yule got there from LOADED, and there are a few songs I’d return to. If it were released under Yule’s name rather than the Velvets, I’m sure its rep would be higher (although of course there are some contrarian hot takes calling it a great album.)

  8. Florian AF

    Hey again Dennis, meant to respond to this the other day, but I can only release a lot of my music these days online, hopefully I can get more physical releases in the future. My friend Drekka is helping me get a small run cassette release though.

    I have a long form single to one of the tracks uploaded however, here: https://uncertain.bandcamp.com/album/heart-of-roses

    And yeah, let me know what Gisele says when you can, or any other US things related to your work or Gisele’s. Thanks! Hope you’re enjoying your Halloween season.

  9. L@rstonovich

    Hi Dennis,

    It’s been a very long time since I popped in. I just want to say I’m reading “I Wished” and thinking about you and glad you wrote this. My life has been through a few upheavals since I was a regular here but I do believe I’ve come out even better on the other side. Much love- L

  10. Cal

    Hey Dennis,
    oooh cant wait to sink my teeth in this one. torture garden’s been on my list for a while. Have you read the most recent english translation of 120 Days of Sodom? I think penguin released it. it’s an interesting version. some how more accedemic? they really try to maintin the fact that its an incomplete manuscript, lots of foot notes too. I do miss the smutter language like calling Duc a “motherfucker” instead of an “incestor”

    i sent you an email so we can hammer out the details of a zoom call! really look forward to talking to you.

    all the best
    cal

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