I am of the opinion that sadistic and masochistic impulses exist within everyone, but that often one or the other is more pronounced. What is interesting about these impulses, however, is that people are generally more comfortable with accepting, or acknowledging, the pleasure they experience as a consequence of their own pain than they are the pleasure gained from the pain of others. This is, you might argue, because the former is more socially acceptable; to enjoy being hurt, even to an extreme degree, does not suggest a kind of moral failing. Sadism, on the other hand, strikes us as sinister; it is linked in our minds to morally [or at least legally] impermissible activities such as murder, and is therefore deemed incompatible with a civilised society. Yet this does not mean, of course, that the pleasure ceases to exist, simply that we – the so-called civilised – endeavour to disguise it, we seek to mask it under the guise of curiosity, science, progress, righteousness, etc.
As someone who finds the suffering of others difficult to stomach I consider myself to have a very weak sadistic impulse, and yet one of my earliest memories is of playing maliciously with a small fly. I was on a bus and it was raining, and this had caused condensation to collect along the bottom edge of the window. When I spotted the fly I, almost absentmindedly, pushed it into the pool of water. Then I waited, allowing it to struggle. After a while I extricated it, only to push it back into the water at the moment at which, I imagined, it believed itself to be saved. I repeated this manoeuver until the fly stopped moving. And at this point I felt ashamed. Did I, however, feel ashamed because I had killed the fly or because I could feel society’s disapproving gaze burning into my back? Was I judging myself or was I scared of the judgement of others? Was my shame not, in truth, the realisation that I had allowed the mask to slip, that I had, in my naivety, allowed the ugly black cat to poke its head out of the bag?
Having read The Torture Garden, there is little doubt as to how Octave Mirbeau would have answered these questions. First published in 1899, his short novel opens with a group of men – who, owing to the private nature of their meeting, feel as though they have the freedom to express themselves without inhibition – discussing our – human beings – preoccupation with violence and death. Murder is, one of the men claims, ‘a vital instinct which is in us all.’ The reason our society has not descended into bloody anarchy is because we indulge this instinct – which is natural – by giving it ‘a legal outlet’, via war, colonial trade, hunting, etc. While this might strike some readers as being a drearily negative or cynical view of humanity, as someone who is drearily negative and cynical myself I was furiously, albeit metaphorically, nodding my head throughout.
However, not everyone indulges this impulse by means of actual physical violence. In some it finds an outlet via what Mirbeau calls ‘counterfeits of death.’ For his characters these ‘parodies of massacre’ are found in places such as the fair, where people shoot with ‘rifles, pistols, or the good old crossbow at targets painted like human faces’ and others hurl balls ‘knocking over marionettes ranged pathetically on wooden bars.’ In the present day one sees analogous behaviour in those who play unpleasant video games which involve butchering computerised civilians. It is, I believe, also the reason that many are so drawn to certain kinds of horror film, the torture porn genre in particular. Indeed, I have often had arguments with a friend of mine about this, a friend who watches and re-watches titles like Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, and so on. He is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deriving pleasure from these staged dismemberments and murders, precisely from these elements of the films, for what else do they have to offer? If he was disgusted – which is what I would consider a healthy reaction – he would avoid them, as I do myself.
“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder—immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughterhouse—humanity.”
While the discussion of these ideas is engaging, one does, after a while, reach a point where one yearns for some kind of narrative momentum. Fortunately, Mirbeau appeared to recognise this, and at the right moment introduces the character of the man with the ravaged face, whose story accounts for the rest of the novel. In this way, The Torture Garden’s opening section is a false beginning, is a kind of philosophical prologue that could be skipped, but which, I would argue, enriches what is to follow. The man, who isn’t named, is described as having ‘a bowed back and mournful eyes, whose hair and beard were prematurely grey.’ The ravaged face and prematurely grey hair is significant, because it suggests that something may have happened to age him, some distressing event that has impacted upon his physical appearance. This provides the book with some necessary mystery and excitement and motivates the reader to continue, for of course you want to find out exactly what occurred.
It is the man with the ravaged face who first brings women into the discussion. To have neglected them is, he claims, ‘really inconceivable in a situation in which they are of primary importance.’ This situation is, remember, our preoccupation with, and tendency towards, violence and murder, sadism and torture. His argument is that women in particular derive from these acts, or from the observation of these acts, not merely pleasure but a sexual pleasure; he, in fact, compares the actions of murder with those of sex, where ‘there are the same gestures of strangling and biting—and often the same words occur during identical spasms.’ One can guess, on the basis on this argument, that it is specifically the man’s experience with a woman that has changed him. Indeed, he confirms this himself a little later: ‘Woman revealed crimes to me that I had not known!—shadows into which I had not yet descended. Look at my dead eyes, my inarticulate lips, my hands which tremble—only from what I have seen!’ The name of this woman is Clara, and she is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature.
She is introduced as an ‘eccentric Englishwoman,’ who ‘talked sometimes at random and sometimes with a lively feeling for things.’ Yet despite the man’s intention to bed her she remains ‘impregnably virtuous.’ At this stage one considers oneself to be in familiar nineteenth century literature territory. There is the caddish gentleman with the ‘awkward past’, and the pure, but, one assumes, eventually willing, object of his desire. However, as already hinted, as The Torture Garden continues Mirbeau confounds your expectations, and makes of the woman the aggressor, the ‘villain’, and the man the love-sick, silly slave. Indeed, at one point Clara is compared to the dum-dum bullet, the notorious expanding ammunition that was designed to cause maximum damage in the intended target by creating a larger entrance wound and no exit wound.
Before continuing it is worth noting that there is much in the novel about deceit, about people seeming to be, or acting as, something that they are not. Clara is an example of this, of course, but there are many others. The man with the ravaged face, for instance, first meets her in the guise of a scientist, which is simply a cover for leaving France, where he has disgraced himself. Furthermore, the men who open the novel are said to ‘present only lies to the public.’ Indeed, The Torture Garden is, amongst other things, a political satire and the idea that powerful men are not honest about who they really are is frequently touched upon. On this, there is a fairly long section which features Eugene, a corrupt politician who is intent on getting to the top by any means necessary, but who the narrator threatens to expose by revealing to the public his true character. In contrast to man, nature is said to be only and always itself, for it lacks ‘the ability for improvisation.’ This appeal to nature reminds one that earlier in the novel the murderous impulse was deemed natural. Yet I don’t think that Mirbeau was necessarily advocating indulgence of this part of ourselves, rather simply pointing that we are constantly engaged in subterfuge, in running away from, or disguising, who, or what, we are.
I wrote that Clara is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature and have perhaps not fully backed up this claim so far. For the man with the ravaged face she is a ‘monster’ and it is her behaviour in China, where she attends and revels in various tortures, that justifies this description. I don’t want to linger over the barbaric acts themselves, not least because reading about, and revisiting, them makes me uncomfortable. What is important, in relation to Clara, who is a devout sexual-sadist, is that she finds them beautiful, sensual. To some extent I can understand this, for torture is a concentration upon the body, it is working upon the body with almost loving, but certainly intense, attention; it requires an understanding of the body, and a theatrical, quasi-artistic, approach to murder. [Take the torture of the bell, which involves placing a man inside a large bell and ringing it until he dies]. In any case, how should one understand this woman? Is she natural, uninhibited humanity? She says of herself that she is not a monster, or at least no more than the tiger or the spider is.
There is much more to The Torture Garden than I have touched upon here, and much more that I would like to discuss, but this review is in danger of becoming monstrous itself. I do, however, want to point out that the novel is not quite as heavy and intense as I have perhaps made it sound. I mean, certainly large parts of it are, but there is humour too. For example, in one passage a man who kills a young boy by fracturing his skull is outraged at being sent to prison: ‘They dragged me before some judges or other, who sentenced me to two months in prison and ten thousand francs fine and damages. For a damned peasant! And they call that civilisation!’ Later the same man is asked why he kills black people: ‘Well—to civilise them—that is to say, to take their stocks of ivory and resins.’ Ok, so it’s a dark humour, but it made me laugh anyway; and they are precious to me, those sniggers and smiles, because, although I agree with Mirbeau almost completely in his opinions and ideas and conclusions, I also believe [or have deceived myself into believing] that life isn’t only baseness and vulgarity and violent, barely restrained, impulses, that it provides less alarming enjoyment too, such as a well-written book and a few pissy jokes.