Saturday, May 15, 2010

Flowers of Evil: The World of Octave Mirbeau

I want to give notice here at the beginning that in this short piece I am going to be specifically referring to Mirbeau's novel Torture Garden, and while his other works (both after and before the writing of this classic) can also be seen as indicative of the themes I will treat here, I only wish to refer to this one novel within the direct scope of this article. Those of you who are familiar with his other books will doubtlessly see, again, how the issues that I bring up here can be expanded to shed light on what he wrote before and after he committed Torture Garden to paper, but I think it is only fair that a monograph that is attempting to trace the links between decadent sensuality/symbolism and nihilistic despair should be confined to the most horrific and famous of his works. I believe that Torture Garden is well-stocked with enough material to justify many examinations of this sort....

Perhaps the most shocking thing in Mirbeau's work is not the careful cultivation of its exterior extravagances: its morbidity, bloodlust, homicidal urges, deviant sexuality and/or sensuality, and the 'pornographic' nature of its treatment of love. To me, what is even darker still is his treatment of the goings and comings of reality: the ways of men, their doings, their institutions, behavior, everyday psychology, etc. Mirbeau very early establishes, as a sort of sardonic instrument of his cynicism, the ability to picture the transactions and behavior of men, in all the 'normal' spheres of life, with a keen-eyed inversion of all values. In the novel Torture Garden, for example, we are treated throughout the first half of the book (it is split into two completely self-sufficient sections) with a picture of 'real' life in the France of the late 19th century that can not fail to arouse the bitterness of its readers: whether this was calculated or not, or whether the way in which Mirbeau (b. 1848) constructs this fictional epoch and its morals was propogandistic, is beyond my ability to determine, but the result is clear: he inverts all the 'normal' functions, behaviors, and proceedings of 'normal' life in order to tear away the veil of hypocrisy that most people bring (or brought, in his time) to their lives. This starts at the very beginning of the novel where, in a scene right out of Balzac, a number of 'illustrious' men, famous, respected, 'pillars of their community', in short, sit down after dinner over drinks and cigars to discuss the merits and inner workings of murder. More than one of the men present put forward the notion that murder - homicidal mania and the darkest instincts of violence - are at the very heart not only of all human behavior (including the 'kinder' instincts) but are at the center (and act as the single motivating force behind) all of humanity's efforts towards civilization. 'What would civilization be without the institution of murder?' asks one participant. A philosopher at the table then launches into an eye-opening examination of all the violent urges that men and women feel, and details knowingly their place in the fabric of 'polite' society. But again, the most shocking thing about this section of the book is not the theme that it is offering, or the cynical tone of the author, but rather the light-hearted way in which he treats of the 'darkest' and most occult subjects of human psychology. The inner world of man is transformed in Mirbeau's work into the patently obvious, and Mirbeau seems to say, again and again through his characters, his mouthpieces, that all of our hidden desires, all of our guilty urges, all of the dreams and fantasies and lusts for domination, cruelty, blood, revenge, power, the sensuality of corruption, etc. are not only well known to everyone but quite trite and commonplace: boring, really.

And through this, Mirbeau is also saying: everything else, every pretense towards goodness, innocence, holiness, kindness, the 'end-in-itself', the 'good-in-itself', etc. is not only a fake, a mummery, a forgery, a swirl of illusions, but also a harmful lie which is placed in society out of cruelty: it is used by the Powers to anesthetize the ignorant in order to securely stab them in the back. In Mirbeau's world, religion does not exist: it is an ancient tradition of usury and robbery, the church is a den of perverted thieves. In his novels the priests are among the most demonic of his sadistic villains. The government is a collection of highway robbers, megalomaniacs, and sociopaths sitting on the chest of the nation and sucking out its blood. Politicians are presented without the veils of nationalism or patriotism, they are seen as wretched slaves to greed and sensuality. Science is a crock, a sham, a mystery cult of ignorance. Love...well, love does not exist - or rather, we do not understand its mysterious nature. 'What difference is there between love and torture?' asks Clara, the 'heroine' of Torture Garden.

Many critics throughout the last hundred years have attempted to show how Mirbeau was only a echo of the Marquis de Sade: they trace his works to themes developed earlier by Sade, and they have shown the powerful influence that Sade surely had on his later disciple. But all of these arguments aside, Mirbeau is worth taking on his own merits, and his 'cynicism' or inversion of 'accepted' reality is actually quite innovative: it is colored by the times in which he lived, much like Sade's work, and it serves to demonstrate how the 'counter-culture' of cynicism has developed (in France, at the very least) since Sade's passing. In this sense it is also an invigorating display of late-19th century France's moral atmosphere. But instead of placing all of Mirbeau's inspiration at the feet of Sade, I think it would be much more realistic to consider the enormous influence Baudelaire must have had on the young writer, and I think Mirbeau's work, especially Torture Garden (first published in 1898), can be seen as the logical conclusion of following the ethics of the Flowers of Evil to their most trenchant extremes. It can be seen very easily that Mirabeau also owed a great deal to Poe - the 'imp of perversity' is mentioned more than once in this novel, and Poe's insights into the irrational nature of mankind's behavior (that is, the instincts and the unconsciousness) must have had a powerful impact on Mirbeau's own formulation of human motives. As in Poe's work, many of Mirbeau's characters seem to be possessed by or in servitude to forces, desires, or emotions completely beyond their control.

Sade, for example, was pushed to extreme limits of despair by his obsession with the links between morality and the nature or existence of God, and a large amount of his work can be seen in this light: as a type of rebellion against what he considered to be the hypocrisies of the Divine Nature or the laws of religion and belief. In Mirbeau's world, however, these questions and obsessions have been eliminated at the very beginning. Mirbeau, who was both a devoted atheist and a polemical anarchist, created a world in his fiction that is completely devoid of any religious or rigidly-determined spiritual instincts: God does not exist in his fiction, and the religious deities that he evokes, for example, in the pages of Torture Garden are all icons of perversity: behind their smiling faces lurks a darker, more realistic visage hidden away beneath masks of mysticism. The icons of Buddha in the actual Garden of the novel change, over the course of a day, from benignly grinning instruments of idle/innocent worship into symbols of decay, isolation, decadence, and death. One of the more harrowing scenes in the novel comes towards its bewildering closing, where the 'hero' of the story has been taken to an Oriental bordello, and where he half-glimpses, through a throng of ecstatic sybarites and prostitutes, a demonic seven-phallused bronze idol at the center of a dance, upon which writhing women impale themselves in an orgy of lust. In this scene all of the darker implications of his spiritual convictions represent themselves before him, and he sees the grim truth behind all of the 'religious' instincts of men and women: how they can be reduced, at the last, to completely primitive desires, cruel urges, and nightmarish needs. 'Blood,' says Clara, 'is the wine of love.'

And all of these views of society, man, and reality, are presented in his work not as tenets to be proven by examples from history, but as the actual background and foundation of his fictional world. It is all presented without a trace of irony: 'Here is the way things really are', Mirbeau seems to say, and then passes on to more important things. It is as if in seeking to create a fiction that adequately mirrored the real world, Mirbeau just stumbled upon a formula that enabled him to 'hold up a mirror to nature.' He almost effortlessly sinks to levels of diabolical cynicism that most other authors - no matter what their epoch - would have considered harrowing and later necessary to expunge by a bout of excessive moralizing.

But moral distinctions do not exist in Mirbeau's world: there is only cruelty, power, dominion, lust, slavery, submission, sickness, and beauty. Nothing is 'bad' in this world which increases the feeling of power, and life has no value whatsoever. No man is more important or more 'worthy' or 'better' than any other, no matter what his personal qualities are like or what his actions have been. Evil is the same as beauty, or rather, an instrument and avatar of beauty descending to this world. The Garden of this novel's title is a vast collection of plants, flowers, trees, and animals that the Chinese government has constructed and maintained in perfect equilibrium over uncounted ages: in the very center of this lush, fantastic, and deliriously beautiful landscape exists a field of torture and execution where all the most painful, ingenious and malevolent devices of cruelty ever invented reside. The flowers are washed with blood, the soil is tilled with the remains of corpses created by the pits of torture, and in this garden thousands of criminals or 'useless' citizens are made to feel the direst extremities of suffering. In the Garden, torture is an art which goes hand-in-hand with the cultivation of the life surrounding the instruments of death: flowers are grown upon the gallows themselves. And at the center of this Garden, the climactic torture device is a enormous bell that peals in intoxicating melodies - only the most important criminals are placed beneath it, and the vibrations of this divine music rips their sanity and life from them: they die utterly mad, raving or struck dumb, in an intolerable amount of pain. Mirbeau makes it very clear that the Garden is supposed to be considered as a symbol of life itself, and that the reserves of beauty, pain, suffering, and pleasure that the world holds for us are completely inseparable - or rather, that their threads are so finely intertwined/interwoven that we will never be able to separate them. In my most bitter moments, I tend to agree...

U. Amtey
5 October 2000