Introduction to The Torture Garden by Tom McCarthy
Novels that produce a physical effect upon their reader, sending jolts outwards from the spine to the remotest nerve-ends, tightening the throat and burning the ears, must number very few; and The Torture Garden must stand near the top of any list of these. Yet not only is it—in its extremity, its viscerality and violence—an uncommon or ‘exceptional’ work of fiction; it also sits neatly in the middle of what, when the dust of time has cleared and the staid realist novels of the early twentieth century have been forgotten, will be seen as a canonical mainline running between the counter-enlightenment visions of Sade and the post-industrial ones of Burroughs and Ballard. Perhaps it will even acquire the status, in the English-speaking world, of a kind of missing link.
If we are thinking about Mirbeau’s book in terms of its literary antecedents and offspring, its closest and most striking kinship has to be with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Published, like Conrad’s novella, in 1899, The Torture Garden employs the boxed-narrative structure that is central to not only Heart of Darkness but also Youth and Lord Jim. An anonymous narrator tells a story about a group of men sitting around a table—a safe, European one—listening to a story-within-the-story, a tale of far-flung exoticness and transgression that, for all its ‘otherness’, reveals an inner or home truth about the ‘civilised’ society in which the tale is being consumed. At the centre of Heart of Darkness‘s boxed narrative lies Kurtz, the super-cultured European with a heart more savage than the cannibals he lords it over. Mirbeau also places a Kurtz at the centre of his boxes—only his Kurtz is a woman. Rich and sophisticated, the English beauty Clara not only reveals herself, in the delight she takes in showing a male companion round a garden in which tortures of all kinds are practised, to be degenerate, rapacious and utterly corrupted, but also, in so doing, becomes for the primary narrator (her admirer), a ‘lustral creature through whom I was being revealed to myself as a new man’—that is, a mirror in which both he and, by extension, European civilisation in its entirety are shown in their true light.
At a rhetorical level, the language of The Torture Garden is stunning. A random scan of the text’s surface throws up word-clusters such as obscene, vile, throat, screeching, poison, pestilential, rotten, fever, decomposition, stench, fetid, entrails; or, later, dancing, whirling, rushing, burst, distorted, slash, split, mutilated, gaping; or, later still, diabolic, pullulation, swarmed, cadaverous, vermicular, tumour, convulsed, bulging. Yet alongside this sensual and immediate register runs a more expanded philosophical one. The Torture Garden should, to a large extent, be read as a potent anti-idealist tract—one that predates by several decades the great anti-idealist writing of, for example, Georges Bataille. For the idealist Hegel, the material world is there to be abstracted by the philosopher or artist into thought, into pure, sublimated concept. Hegel’s most famous commentator, Kojève, describes this sublimating process as a form of murder. It is hard not to hear an echo (or, again, pre-echo) of this description in the conversations of Mirbeau’s philosophers, poets and moralists who talk of ‘backs on the street which cry out for the knife’ or his explorer who envisages a bullet ‘which will annihilate what it hits, leaving nothing.’ Against this murderous idealism Mirbeau pits an equally—yet differently—murderous materialism that collapses concepts into writhing flesh. ‘Art! Beauty!’ shouts the fantastic Doctor Trépan; ‘It is a woman’s abdomen, open and all bloody, with the hemostats in place!’
That the narrator’s trip to the Far East is presented to the French government and public as a scientific journey is no accident: like philosophy itself, it is a quest for knowledge. And it is no less of an accident that Mirbeau couches this quest in utterly material terms: the narrator is sent to drag the pelagic ooze of the Indian seas and, ‘among the gastropoda, the corals, the heteropoda, the madrepora, the siphonophora, the holothuroidea and radiolaria… to discover the primordial cell… the protoplasmic initium of organised life.’ That his status as an embryologist is fake is an ironic double-twist, a sleight of hand: in fact, he does drag the ooze and find, among the rottenness and slime, an embryonic and originary form of the ‘developed’, ‘advanced’ life he’s left behind.
He finds it, of course, in the Torture Garden, a place that by its very nature is an orgy of entropic materiality. The excrement and blood of the tortured and the organic debris the crowd throws them is turned in retting vats into a fertile compost which is scattered on the plants, making them ‘vigorous and beautiful’—and the plants, in turn, provide a setting for the torture, generating more blood, excrement and debris: a perfect little eco-system. The Torture Garden is also a site of knowledge—knowledge that takes the form not of abstract taxonomising but rather of material revealing. Torture, for Mirbeau, is phenomenology itself, an aesthetic practise that is also an unfolding of what is: having stripped the skin back from his victim to reveal the flesh beneath it, a torturer lucidly explains that he knows ‘how to work the human body like a sculptor works his clay or piece of ivory, and evoke the entire sum, every prodigy of suffering it conceals, in the depths of its shadows and its mysteries.’
Yet it must be said that, for a novel centring on torture, The Torture Garden shows us relatively little torture ‘in the flesh’, as it were. Mostly (and here several parallels with Ballard’s Crash might be made), we arrive in the event’s aftermath, as bodies are being carted off and instruments cleaned, and behold instead fragments of skin and organs stuck to flowers. Flowers themselves are described in exquisite detail: their pistils, anthers, stamen, curled-back corollas. A synecdoche for the torture-acts we do not quite see and for the sexual organs barely concealed beneath the characters’ sweaty clothes, a simulacrum of the clothes themselves (Clara’s yellow dress is likened to a narcissus blossom), not to mention simulacra of birds, insects and reptiles too, and on top of all this a riotous antidote to Western science (whose horticultural practitioners give their own tame European plants statesmens’ names and therefore, the narrator argues, should themselves be executed), flowers orchestrate an elaborate set of correspondences, displacements and substitutions. They, perhaps, are the real subject and ‘action’ of the whole novel—and Mirbeau’s complex use of them anticipates, and perhaps to some extent facilitates, the central role that flowers will repeatedly come to play in the work of later writers such as Joyce, Nabokov and Genet.
Clara is a flower par excellence. Again and again Mirbeau writes of her ‘bust, swollen like the calyx of a flower drunk with pollen’ or her feet which poke out from ‘the perfumed calyx of her skirts’. She is, he tells us, ‘a flower of intoxication and the tasty fruit of eternal desire’; she herself, when she hears that as many as twenty males can pollinate one female flower, declares: ‘I’d like to be a flower’. Within the idealist-versus-materialist axis of the novel, Clara is the narrator’s (and hence Europe’s) soul, the sublimation of his thoughts and aspirations; and yet her soul is a ‘mass of putrefied flesh’. She is his soul ‘materialised in the form of sin’: sublime debasement, sublimation as debasement.
This is a paradoxical role to play, and a complicated one that carries Mirbeau’s use of Clara beyond a commonplace misogyny. The novel’s final sequence shows her overcome by what she has witnessed in the Torture Garden and, like Bergman’s silent heroine in Persona, assuming the world’s suffering herself. In these passages Mirbeau compares her to a pure, white anemone —before her servant’s cynicism and a monkey-statue’s phallus give the lie to her cries of ‘never again’. And yet, like Kurtz, whose soul Conrad likens to a cliff made of pure crystal, Clara does come to embody a kind of purity—the kind that has gone so far into corruption that it has almost come full circle. As I write this introduction, our government is helping transport people to locations outside Europe to be tortured in the name of liberty, reason and civilisation—in the name, also, of the stark, rationalised form of knowledge known as ‘intelligence’. For all her depravity, Clara is more ethically advanced than the good, average citizens who vote governments like this into power. If she is her male companion’s—and man’s—mirror, then she is one in which, to quote Bataille, ‘he can no longer recognise himself in the degrading chains of logic, but recognises himself instead—not only with rage but in an ecstatic torment—in the virulence of his own phantasms.’
Tom McCarthy (born 1969) is an English novelist, artist and literary theorist. His works include the novels Remainder (2006), and Men In Space (2007), and the critical study Tintin and the Secret of Literature.