The Torture Garden, written by Octave Mirbeau in 1899, is one of the most extreme books ever to be published. Ostensibly dealing with the theme of torture as a refined art form in China, and depicting a dissolute bureaucrat led by an extraordinary woman into the depths of depravity, this is an absolute black humor critique of the values of Western Civilization with it duplicitous rules of social conduct and political power-brokering. A totally contemporary indictment of corruption in government, this work also lays bare the politics of the conservative scientific establishment and the evil inherent in bureaucracy. Additionally, the Colonialist mentality with its brutish institutionalized killings of natives and animals is vividly contrasted with the exquisite tortures of the garden
The glittering, fantastic Torture Garden itself has all the hallucinatory brightness of a dream straight from the unconscious–that fertile pool nourishing the uninhibited artistic imagination. There seems a direct lineage of descent from the horrific painted visions of Bosch to the written splendors of Mirbeau’s work. Both appear steeped in enigma and allusion, fed from the same inexhaustible springs of diabolical invention that well up from deep within the human psyche–the eternal playground of sex and death
The book offers a rare portrait of a woman of intelligence and sensitivity who progressively reveals greater dimensions of curiosity, courage, honesty and philosophic overview as she relentlessly pursues more complex and challenging experiences. In the process the much-vaunted corruption and worldly wisdom of the European male narrator is unmasked as paltry cowardice and worse still–moral conservatism that is pathetically shallow. His is a petty little soul and hers the soul of a great adventuress.
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