Extract from The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau
The Bagnio is built on the bank of the river. Its quadrangular walls enclose more than a hundred thousand square meters of land. There isn’t a single window, and no other opening than the immense door crowned by red dragons and fortified by heavy iron bars. The watchtowers, square towers surmounted by roofs with upturned edges, mark the four corners of the sinister battlements. Other smaller turrets are spaced between them at regular intervals. At night these towers are lit up like lighthouses, and cast around the bagnio, over the meadows and the stream, a revelatory light. One of the walls dips its solid foundations into the black, fetid, deep water, and is hung with slimy algae. By means of a drawbridge, a low door communicates with the stockade which extends to mid-stream and to whose piles many trade-junks and sampans are moored. Two spearmen, lance in hand, keep watch at the door! On the right of the stockade, a little cruiser, like our river patrol-boats, lies motionless, the mouths of its three cannons trained on the bagnio. On the left, as far as the eye can see along the river, twenty-five or thirty lines of boats mask the opposite shore with a jumble of variegated hulls, gaudy masts, rigging and grey sails. And from time to time, you can see those massive paddlewheel boats passing, propelled by wretches locked in a cage who painfully work them with their tense stiff arms.
Behind the bagnio, and as far as the mountain which girdles the horizon with a sombre line, extend rocky, rolling fields, here dirty brown and there the colour of dried blood, in which grow only scant acres, bluish thistles and stunted cherry trees that never bloom. Infinite desolation! Overwhelming misery! During eight months of the year the sky is blue—a blue washed with red in which the reflections of a perpetual fire glow—an implacable blue into which no chance cloud ever dares to venture. The sun parches the earth, bakes the rocks, and vitrifies the pebbles which burst underfoot with the crunching of glass and the crackling of flame. No bird defies this aerial furnace. Only invisible organisms live there—clumps of bacilli which, toward evening, when the bleak mists rise with the chant of the sailors on the sluggish stream, distinctly assume the shapes of fever, pestilence, and death. What a contrast with the other shore, where the fat, rich soil covered, with gardens and orchards, nourishes giant trees and marvellous flowers!
On the other side of the bridge we luckily found a palanquin, which carried us across the scorching fields almost to the bagnio, whose doors were still closed. A squad of police, armed with lances and yellow pennants, with great shields which almost covered them, held back the huge impatient crowd, which was swelling every minute. There were rows of tents where people were drinking tea, munching pretty bonbons and rose—or acacia—petals rolled in a fine scented paste sprinkled with sugar. In others, musicians played the flute and poets recited verses, while the punka, fanning the torrid air, produced a slight breeze which cooled their faces. Strolling merchants sold images, stories of famous crimes, models of torture and martyrdom, prints and ivories, curiously obscene. Clara bought one of the latter, and said to me:
“You can see that the Chinese, who are accused of being barbarians, are, to the contrary, more civilized than we; for they are grounded deeper in the logic of life and the harmony of nature! They do not consider the act of love a shameful thing that should be hidden. To the contrary, they glorify it, hymning all the gestures and caresses; just like the ancients, moreover, for whom the sexual organ, far from being an object of infamy and an image of impurity, was a God! You see how all Occidental art loses by the fact that the magnificent expressions of love have been denied it. With us, eroticism is poor, stupid and frigid. It is always presented in ambiguous attitudes of sin, while here it preserves all its vital scope, all its passionate poetry and the stupendous pulse of all nature. But you are only a European lover… a poor, timid, chilly little soul, in whom Catholicism has stupidly inculcated a fear of nature and a hatred of love. It has warped and perverted the sense of life in you.”
“Dear Clara,” I objected, “is it really natural for you to seek sensuality in decomposition, and urge Your desires to greater heights by horrible spectacles of suffering and death? Isn’t that, to the contrary, a perversion of that nature whose cult you invoke, in order perhaps to excuse whatever criminal and monstrous qualities your sensuality involves?”
“No!” said Clara, quickly, “since love and death are the same thing! And since decomposition is the eternal resurrection of life… Look—” Suddenly she interrupted herself, and said:
“But why do you tell me that? You’re funny!” And with a charming pout, she added:
“How provoking that you don’t understand anything! How is it you don’t feel it? How is it you haven’t already felt that it is—I don’t even say by love, but by the heightened sensuality which is the perfection of love—that all the intellectual faculties of man awaken and become more acute? And it’s by this sensuality alone that you attain the full development of personality. Look! In the act of love, have you ever thought, for instance, of committing a beautiful crime? That is to say, lifting yourself above social prejudices and all the laws—above everything, in fact? And if you haven’t thought if it, then why do you bother making love?”
“I haven’t the strength to argue,” I stammered, “and it seems to me we are walking in a nightmare. This sun… this crowd… these smells… and your eyes—ah, your torturous and lustful eyes—and your voice… and your penchant for crime… all that terrifies me, and it’s all driving me mad!”
Clara gave a little mocking laugh.
“Poor little pet!” she sighed, comically. “You won’t say that tonight, when you’re in my arms… and when I love you!”
The crowd was growing more and more restless. Bonzes crouched under parasols, laid out long red gowns, like pools of blood, struck frenzied blows on gongs and hurled gross invectives at the passers-by who, to counteract their curses, devoutly threw large pieces of change into metal bowls.
Clara led me into a tent all embroidered with peach flowers, made me sit down by her on a pile of cushions, and stroking my forehead with her exciting hand—with her hand which dispensed forgetfulness and intoxication, she said to me:
“My God, how long it takes, darling! Every week it’s the same thing. They take so long to open the door. Why don’t you speak? Do I frighten you? Are you glad you came? Are you happy to have me caress you, dear beloved little rascal? Oh, your beautiful tired eyes! It’s the fever—and it’s me too! Say it’s me. Do you Want to drink some tea? Do you want another hamamelis tablet?”
“I’d rather not stay here longer! I’d rather sleep.” “Sleep! How strange you are. Oh, you’ll see how beautiful it is! And what extraordinary… what Unknown… what marvellous desires it instills into Your flesh! We’ll come back by the river, in my sampan. And we’ll spend the night in a flower-boat. Wouldn’t you like to?” She lightly tapped my hands several times with her fan.
“But you’re not listening to me! Why aren’t you listening to me? You’re pale and melancholy. And, really, you’re not listening to me at all.” She snuggled up against me, sinuous and caressing:
“You’re not listening to me, wretch,” she went on. “And you don’t even caress me! Caress me, darling! Feel how cold and firm my breasts are.” And, in a hollow voice, her eyes darting green, voluptuous and cruel flames, she spoke like this.
“Listen! Eight days ago I saw an extraordinary thing. Oh, dear love, I saw a man whipped for stealing a fish. The judge simply said this: ‘One must not always say of a man who carries a fish in his hand: He is a fisherman’! And he sentenced the man to die under the iron rods. For a fish, darling! It took place in the torture-garden. The man was kneeling on the ground—imagine it—and his head rested on a sort of block… a block all black with old blood. His back and loins were bare; a back and loins like old gold! I arrived just at the moment when a soldier, having gripped his queue, which was very long, was knotting it to a ring riveted in a stone slab in the ground. Beside the culprit, another soldier was heating a little… a very little iron switch, at the fire of a forge. And then—pay attention to me! Are you listening? When the switch was red, the soldier whipped the man on the loins. The switch hissed in the air, and it penetrated far into the muscles, which crackled, and a little reddish steam arose… you understand? Then the soldier let the switch cool in the flesh, which bubbled up and closed over it. Then, when it was cold, he violently jerked it out with a single movement, along with little bleeding bits. And the man hurled frightful cries of agony. Then the soldier began again. He did it fifteen times! And I too, darling—it seemed to me that with every blow, the switch entered my loins. It was fierce and very sweet!”
As I was silent:
“It was fierce and very sweet,” she repeated. “If you knew how handsome that man was… how strong he was! Muscles like those of a statue. Kiss me, darling… kiss me!”
Clara’s pupils had rolled back. Between her half closed lids I could see nothing but the whites of her eyes. Again she spoke:
“He did not budge. It made little waves on his back. Oh, your lips!”
After some seconds of silence, she went on:
“Last year, with Annie, I saw something much more astonishing: I saw a man who had attacked his mother and then disembowelled her with a knife. It seemed, besides, that he was crazy. He was sentenced to the torture of the caress. Yes, my darling. Isn’t it wonderful? Strangers aren’t allowed to witness that torture, which, besides, is very rare today. But we gave some money to the guard, who hid us behind a screen. Annie and I saw everything! The madman—he didn’t seem to be mad—was stretched out on a very low table, his limbs and body were tied by stout ropes, and his mouth was gagged, so he couldn’t make movement or utter a cry. A woman with a grave face, not beautiful, not young, and dressed entirely in black, her bare arm circled by a broad gold band, came and kneeled beside the madman. She grasped him and set about her task. Oh darling, darling, if you could have seen! It lasted four hours… four hours, think of it! Four hours of frightful and skilled caresses, during which the woman’s hand did not relax a moment, during which her face remained cold and gloomy! The culprit died in a jet of blood, which splattered the entire face of the tormentress. Never have I seen anything so atrocious; and it was so atrocious, my darling, that both Annie and I fainted. I still think of it!”
With an air of regret, she added:
“On one of her fingers that woman had a huge ruby which, during the torture, flashed in the sunlight like a little red dancing flame. Annie bought it, but I don’t know what became of it. I’d like very much to have it.”
Clara was silent, her mind having undoubtedly returned to the bloody image of that abominable memory.
Some minutes later a murmur ran through the tents and the crowd. Through my heavy eyelids which despite me had almost closed at the horror of this tale, I saw gown after gown passing, and parasols, and fans, and happy faces, and accursed faces, dancing, whirling, rushing. It was like a burst of immense flowers, like a whirl of fantastic birds.
“The doors, darling,” cried Clara, “the doors are being opened! Come, come quickly! And don’t be sad any more. Ah, I beg you! Think of all the beautiful things you’re going to see, and the ones I told you about!”
I got up… and seizing my arm, she dragged me along, I know not where.