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Octave Mirbeau's novel, Le Jardin des supplices (1899), is often analyzed with regard to the author's social and political involvement. Another perspective useful for understanding the novel is that of Mirbeau's aesthetics, influenced by his love of visual art and his work as an art critic. Following the lead of writers such as Thomas De Quincey and Charles Baudelaire, Mirbeau inscribes into his novel an aestheticization of torture, inviting the treatment of torture as an art and of Clara as the figure of the art critic. As such, the novel may be read as a commentary on the art world. (cfc)

Octave Mirbeau's fin-de-siècle novel Le Jardin des supplices (1899) has generated, and continues to generate, critical discourse intended to explain the cruelty of its scenes of torture. In treating the novel's content, scholars often relate Mirbeau's representations to the author's strong sociopolitical views.1 While these studies are entirely relevant and provide much-needed context for the novel, they nevertheless tend to neglect one aspect of Mirbeau's ideology: aesthetics. Indeed, criticism's relative inattention to Mirbeau's aesthetics is reflected in analyses dealing with the main female character. Some simply treat Clara as a sadistic femme fatale whose sexual deviance consists of becoming excited as a result of viewing cruel punishments.2 Others question this rather reductive characterization.3 Still others associate the portrayal of Clara with Mirbeau's personal views regarding women,4 even though sadistic and voyeuristic elements are not uncommon in literature of this period. While this character does indeed contribute to the evocation of the author's social and political beliefs, examination of her role also reveals a great deal about Mirbeau's aesthetics. This theme, though it may be secondary to Mirbeau's social and political commentary, nonetheless adds a significant dimension to the novel.

In addition to revealing Mirbeau's social discontent, the novel illustrates his beliefs about the roles of the artist and the art critic through representations of these two figures. The following reading of Le Jardin des supplices focuses on the figure of the artist and on Clara as the figure of the critic and relates these aspects of the novel to nineteenth-century aesthetics and to Mirbeau's own ideals, which are explicitly delineated in his art criticism. The lens of aesthetics ultimately permits an alternate understanding of the novel's scenes of violence as commentary on the art world, a familiar and important milieu for Mirbeau. [End Page 355]

Clara's cruelty forms the premise for the novel. In the Frontispiece, the narrator is one of many men discussing various forms of barbarity. Indeed, the entire plot of Le Jardin des supplices evolves out of the narrator's wish to prove that women are the cruelest of creatures. As a young man, and a failed politician, the narrator embarks for India where he is to fill a position as an embryologist, a sinecure obtained for him by a friend who, in the interest of his own political well-being, advises the narrator to leave France. En route to India, he encounters Clara, whose demeanor is initially subdued; nevertheless, he suspects that her sexual experiences may be more varied and unusual than her decorous behavior suggests. The narrator is so attracted to Clara that he abandons his plans for India, instead accompanying her to China. Here, his suspicion is confirmed as he learns that she participates in sexual adventures and has a proclivity for visiting the Chinese bagnio and for witnessing the torture of prisoners.

In the second part of the novel, the narrator returns to China following a hiatus of two years provoked by his distaste for life with the Englishwoman and their lover Annie. He abruptly learns of Annie's horrible death due to a disfiguring illness. In fact, Clara relishes the horrific details of the decline of their lover as she describes to the narrator the progression of Annie's disease. Despite the morbid subject of Annie's death, or perhaps because of it, Clara's sensuality becomes apparent in the representation of her actions and appearance, and her excitation is equally evident when she proposes that they visit the garden. The reluctant narrator acquiesces. They enter by way of the prison, where, among other prisoners, they see La Face, a well-known poet now degenerated into a howling beast. Continuing their excursion, the couple traverses the garden; scenes of torture succeed one another and Clara's sexual excitement grows. Finally, overcome, she faints and, as always, is taken to a brothel to recover. The novel closes with the narrator's ambivalence as he contemplates the innocent features of the sleeping Clara in their grotesquely sexual surroundings.

Artistic Ideals

Scenes in the prison and in the garden illustrate Clara's cruelty. They also evoke such preoccupations as the role of the artist and that of the art critic and establish a relationship between art and cruelty in the novel. Because Mirbeau's art criticism explicitly reflects his aesthetic beliefs, it serves as a framework for the analysis of representations of the critic and the artist in the novel.5 Mirbeau's values are evident, for instance, in his Notes sur l'art, essays published in 1884 and 1885 on painters such as Claude Monet, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Some key ideas introduced in these articles inform the study of aesthetics in Le Jardin des supplices. [End Page 356]

Mirbeau's art criticism is interspersed with criticism of the art world. He seems particularly committed to promoting originality and presents innovation as a necessary aspect of art. It is the artist's responsibility to transcend conventional forms and the critic's to appreciate novelty. Indeed, according to his piece on Puvis de Chavannes, retaining conventions for the sake of tradition undermines the evolution of artistic values and reduces the quality of art:

Dans nos écoles d'art, où la routine et le préjugé sont installés en des chaires de professeurs, où l'on s'évertue à briser, dans les vieux moules des théories imbéciles et des formules surannées, le génie individuel, et à détruire cette émanation subtile et mystérieuse, cette expansion libre du cerveau et de l'âme qui fait l'artiste, on nous montre encore, comme l'unique expression du Beau, imposée aux jeunes gens au travers des siècles, par toute une suite d'entêtements irréfléchis, l'Apollon du Belvédère ou quelque autre morceau de l'antiquité grecque.

(Notes 27-28)

In this attack on the aesthetic values systematically upheld by those entrusted with the formal education of artists, Mirbeau clearly advocates the artist's liberation from the outdated, rigid definitions of art and beauty that he sees as a threat to the creation of true art.

Mirbeau's appeal for innovation in art entails the understanding and appreciation of originality that set the art critic apart from other viewers who may dismiss a work for its unconventionality. In his essay on Renoir, Mirbeau touches on the public's ability to evaluate art and concludes that in matters concerning art of traditional form the public may very well be capable of aesthetic judgment: "On peut concéder que [le public] est apte à sentir et à goûter, lorsqu'il est en présence de formes acceptées et de procédés traditionnels. Le déchiffrement est fait, tout le monde peut lire et comprendre" (Notes 47). Artistic nonconformity, however, prevents the average spectator from understanding an artist's greatness: "Mais s'il s'agit d'idées nouvelles, de manières de sentir originales, si la forme dont s'enveloppent les idées, si le moule que prennent les œuvres sont également neufs et personnels, alors l'inaptitude du grand public à comprendre et à saisir d'emblée est certaine, et cette nouveauté l'étonne et l'aveugle" (47). Mirbeau's Notes sur l'art thus imply that in cases where form is unfamiliar the critic must intervene to show the public how to appreciate art.

Mirbeau's views on literary criticism support this idea of the art critic's role, for Martin Schwarz observes: "Selon [Mirbeau] la fonction du critique était d'imposer par tous les moyens à sa disposition, ceux d'entre les écrivains qu'il jugeait dignes d'attention. La fonction du critique était donc de créer des courants d'opinion, et non pas de les suivre" (178). Free of the limitations of conventionality, Mirbeau's ideal artist and critic comprise an avant-garde. Leaders [End Page 357] in thought and opinion, they shock holders of traditional values and provoke a questioning of those values, effecting change through art.6

Correspondences: Mirbeau, Baudelaire And De Quincey

Mirbeau's aesthetics are not without precedent, nor was Mirbeau alone in his use of transgressive images in his fiction. Indeed, Le Jardin des supplices exhibits many characteristics commonly associated with Decadent fiction.7 The novel depicts deviance from accepted reproductive norms, for instance, and evokes the Decadent archetype of the femme fatale, whose dominance implies gender-role reversal, female authority and male impotence, and entails the ravishment of male characters. Images of degenerate health also play a part in the novel's development, from Annie's death to Clara's closing incapacitation, and by way of the variously ravaged physical and mental states of the prisoners. Finally, Mirbeau's representation of the garden links nature's proliferation with death.

Like many Decadent authors, Mirbeau was attracted to the earlier writings of Charles Baudelaire. In his literary criticism, Mirbeau evokes Baudelaire as an example of poetic genius, as, for instance, when he writes a caustic assessment of l'Académie française, demanding: "Et n'est-ce point une honte que se donne l'Académie, en ajoutant à la liste de ses refusés, à Stendhal, à Balzac, à Gautier, à Baudelaire, à Flaubert, le nom de Leconte de Lisle?" (Ecrivains 1: 40). Reacting to Oscar Wilde's trial, in another article Mirbeau likens specific aspects of Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) to Baudelaire's writing, finding Wilde's similarities to Baudelaire more striking than previously suggested resemblances between Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans:

On a dit que l'art d'Oscar Wilde procédait de celui de M. Huysmans. Je n'ai pas du tout cette impression. [. . .] Oscar Wilde me semble plus spéculatif, plus curieux d'intelligence, plus familier avec les idées générales. Il manipule avec une plus grande dextérité le mécanisme compliqué des actions et des passions humaines. Par l'acuité de sa pensée, la hardiesse et l'étendue de son observation, il me paraît plus proche de Baudelaire. Autant que j'en puis juger sur une traduction, ce malheureux galérien est un des plus beaux tempéraments d'écrivain que je sache.

(Ecrivains 2: 47-48)

These seemingly tangential references to Baudelaire in fact reveal Mirbeau's fundamental admiration for the poet and confirm the influence of Baudelaire's writings on Mirbeau.

Baudelaire's own interests included texts by Thomas De Quincey, particularly Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), which Baudelaire commented, translated and liberally transcribed in Les Paradis artificiels (1860). Mirbeau's appreciation of Baudelaire's works thus also implies his familiarity with De Quincey's ideals.8 Indeed, Baudelaire's writings stimulated a collective renewal [End Page 358] of interest in De Quincey; Paul Bourget particularly promoted French understanding of the author through research conducted in England and resultant articles published in France. As Jean Pierrot notes in his fundamental study of Decadence: "The visit [Bourget] made to England during the summer of 1882, which provided him with the material for an article in La Nouvelle Revue later that year, was very much a pilgrimage in quest of De Quincey" (34). Mirbeau's close friendship with Bourget and his general involvement in the literary world certainly gave him occasion to become familiar with De Quincey's ideas, indirectly through discussion with his peers and perhaps through his own avid reading.9 Given Mirbeau's high regard for Baudelaire and the resurgence of De Quincey's popularity in fin-de-siècle French literary circles, as well as the two earlier authors' preoccupation with aesthetics, the juxtaposition of key works by Baudelaire and De Quincey with Mirbeau's novel may illuminate the role of aesthetics in Le Jardin des supplices. Moreover, these comparisons illustrate not only the literary tradition informing Le Jardin des supplices, but also the limits of Mirbeau's espousal of his predecessors' ideals and, therefore, his originality.

While common themes link all three authors, specific intertextualities relate the works of Baudelaire and Mirbeau.10 Passages in Mirbeau's novel particularly recall Baudelaire's well-known poem "Une Charogne" (1857), identified by Mirbeau as: "la pièce la plus spiritualiste du plus spiritualiste des poètes, le seul élan d'espoir chrétien qui ait peut-être jailli de cette âme tourmentée par le doute" (qtd. in Michel and Nivet 151). This characterization once more indicates Mirbeau's veneration for the earlier poet as well as the powerful effect of this particular poem on the author of Le Jardin des supplices. Indeed, Mirbeau adopted the poem's philosophy as a closing for his 1895 defense of Wilde:

Il n'y a que de la pourriture et du fumier, il n'y a que de l'impureté à l'origine de toute vie. Etalée dans le chemin, sous le soleil, la charogne se gonfle de la vie splendide; les fientes, dans l'herbage desséché, recèlent des réalisations futures, merveilleuses. C'est dans l'infection du pus et le venin du sang corrompu, qu'éclosent les formes, par qui notre rêve chante et s'enchante. Ne nous demandons pas d'où elles viennent, et pourquoi la fleur est si belle qui plonge ses racines dans l'abject purin.

(Ecrivains 2: 52)11

Moreover, Mirbeau's novel echoes the idea of regeneration through decay as well as related themes found in Baudelaire's verses. The association of woman with nature and death and the aesthetics of decay, in particular, coincide with Mirbeau's use of the term "charogne" to create a resonance with Baudelaire's poem.12

Allusions to the poem culminate in the transformation of Clara into a Baudelairean representation of the charogne: "Et de son corsage entr'ouvert, de la nudité rose de sa poitrine où, tant de fois, j'avais respiré, j'avais bu, j'avais [End Page 359] mordu l'ivresse de si grisant parfums, montait l'exhalaison d'une chair putréfiée, de ce petit tas de chair putréfiée, qu'était son âme . . ." (237). The narrator goes so far as to call her explicitly by this name: "'[J]e devrais vous tuer, et vous jeter ensuite au charnier, charogne!' [. . .] Je répétai, en lui meurtrissant le bras de mes mains forcenées: 'Charogne! . . . charogne! . . . charogne!'"


Another passage, Clara's recitation of La Face's "Les Trois Amies," clearly links woman and putrefaction through poetry. Although there is no specific use of the word "charogne" in this poem, its themes relate it to Baudelairean verses, with images similar to those of "Une Charogne" particularly apparent in the final lines of the third part:

   Et celle-là je l'aime parce qu'il y a quelque chose de plus mystérieusement attirant que la beauté: c'est la pourriture.    La pourriture en qui réside la chaleur éternelle de la vie,    En qui s'élabore l'éternel renouvellement des métamorphoses!    J'ai trois amies . . .


As in Baudelaire's "Une Charogne," where larvae indicate the continuance of existence and metamorphosis, decay begets new life.

La Face's ending indicates another topos common to both Baudelaire's poem and Mirbeau's novel: the representation of an aesthetically pleasing image as the outcome of an initially repulsive occurrence. In "Une Charogne" the final stanzas relate a woman to a carcass, predicting that she will one day resemble it; though the woman will decompose, the figure of the artist is exalted because he can preserve her fleeting beauty through his eternal art. The rotting corpse thus leads to an evocation of the lasting allure of art. Likewise, in Mirbeau's garden, blood from torture soaks into the ground, generating lush exotic flora. As in Baudelaire's "Une Charogne," death in Le Jardin des supplices leads to an artistic innovation, here represented by unusual vegetation, fleurs du mal.

While exotic plants may seem directly correlated to nature rather than to art, the novel's intersections with Baudelaire's poetic work enhance its artistic overtones and suggest that Mirbeau's flowers can be seen as art. Moreover, in this representation of monstrous plants, one might also see similarities to Huysmans's fundamentally Decadent novel A rebours (1884), itself greatly indebted to Baudelaire's works. Here, the protagonist cultivates plants that resemble tormented flesh:

Les jardiniers apportèrent encore de nouvelles variétés; elles affectaient, cette fois, une apparence de peau factice sillonnée de fausses veines; et, la plupart, comme rongées par des syphilis et des lèpres, tendaient des chairs livides, marbrées de roséoles, damassées de dartres; d'autres avaient le ton rose vif des cicatrices qui se ferment ou la teinte brune des croûtes qui se forment; d'autres étaient bouillonnées par des cautères, soulevées [End Page 360] par des brûlures; d'autres encore montraient des épidermes poilus, creusés par des ulcères et repoussés par des chancres; quelques-unes, enfin, paraissaient couvertes de pansements, plaquées d'axonge noire mercurielle, d'onguents verts de belladone, piquées de grains de poussière, par les micas jaunes de la poudre d'iodoforme.


These plants are among the specimens that comprise the last stage of des Esseintes's horticultural interest, which progresses from natural flowers to artificial ones, then to real plants that resemble other objects, such as flesh or the man-made materials used for artificial plants. This final evolution of des Esseintes's preferences suggests that vegetation can be representational just as plastic and pictorial art may be. Indeed, des Esseintes confirms this, stating: "les horticulteurs sont les seuls et vrais artistes" (138).

The development of des Esseintes's taste offers an important precedent for the artifice and the art of nature in Mirbeau's novel. Similar to real plants that evoke artificial materials, the exotic flowers in Mirbeau's novel seem denaturalized by their resemblance to other things: "Il y avait aussi d'autres fleurs, fleurs de boucherie et de massacre, des tigridias ouvrant des gorges mutilées, des diclytras et leurs guirlandes de petits cœurs rouges, et aussi des farouches labiées à la pulpe dure, charnue, d'un teint de muqueuse, de véritables lèvres humaines – les lèvres de Clara – vociférant du haut de leurs tiges molles" (222). Much like Huysmans's plants, these flowers are representational.13 Mirbeau's evocation of exotic flora nourished by torture thus signals an aesthetic proliferation by way of death and decomposition, as does Baudelaire's poem. Mirbeau ultimately diverges from Baudelairean aesthetics in suggesting the social responsibility of the artist and the critic and in presenting the use of art as a means of influencing society;14 nevertheless, frequent evocations of the charogne and the authors' shared theme of art from death create a correspondence between the two works and highlight the importance of art theory in Mirbeau's novel.

Le Jardin des supplices reflects some of Mirbeau's aesthetic ideals, particularly in the passages where Chinese torture is represented as an art. In addition to recalling Mirbeau's own involvement in art criticism, this analogy invites an examination of the aestheticization of torture and underscores Baudelaire's literary legacy. The correlation also calls to mind De Quincey's piece: "On Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts" (1827), which is valuable for the analysis of the relationship between death, art and the figures of the artist and critic in Mirbeau's novel.15

When De Quincey's narrator proposes to evaluate murder following the same criteria as in judging art, the playful work unmistakably establishes the association of death and art, as does Baudelaire's "Une Charogne." Yet, more explicitly than the poem, this essay introduces violence into the relationship; it is, after all, a question of murder, rather than simple decay. Clearly, a violent [End Page 361] aspect is also very present in Le Jardin des supplices. In one striking scene of the novel, for instance, a torturer bemoans the gradual loss of the traditional art of chastisement. His ideals and practice of torture as an art establish him as the figure of the artist; indeed, the Chinese torturer reaffirms many of the lamentations of the nineteenth-century French figure of the artist. He first observes a contrast between Western and Oriental methods of killing, and then, by marking his tradition as the aesthetically knowledgeable one, he suggests his own artistic superiority and the consequent isolation of the artist: "L'art, milady, consiste à savoir tuer, selon les rites de beauté dont nous autres Chinois connaissons seuls le secret divin" (206). After valorizing his aesthetic culture, elevating himself as an artist because of his special mastery of "the rites of beauty," he likens the Western world to the insupportable bourgeoisie: "[T]out ce qui rend la mort collective, administrative et bureaucratique . . . toutes les saletés de votre progrès, enfin . . . détruisent peu à peu, nos belles traditions du passé [. . .]. Nous sommes vaincus par les médiocres . . . Et c'est l'esprit bourgeois qui triomphe partout" (207). Through the character of the torturer, Mirbeau represents a critical view of the Western world for its social evils as well as for its lack of aesthetic appreciation.16

The contrast between East and West is not found in De Quincey's text, but a member of The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder expresses much the same sentiment as the Chinese torturer: "The world in general, gentlemen, are very bloody-minded; and all they want in a murder is a copious effusion of blood [. . .]. But the enlightened connoisseur is more refined in his taste; and from our art [. . .] the result is, to humanise the heart [. . .]" (39). Even though the torturer's perspective is that of the artist figure while De Quincey's work is written from the point of view of the figure of the critic, De Quincey's characterization of society corresponds to the vision of the Western world advanced by Mirbeau's torturer. Both authors suggest that certain superior individuals possess an ability to judge violence as art.

In his postscript to the piece, De Quincey insists that murder can be and is treated in the same way as art:

After the first tribute of sorrow [. . .] inevitably the scenical features (what aesthetically may be called the comparative advantages) of the several murders are reviewed and valued. One murder is compared with another; and the circumstances of superiority, as, for example, in the incidence and effects of surprise, of mystery, &c., are all collated and appraised.


Applied to Mirbeau's novel, this supports the torturer's view of torture as art; it also defines the role of the spectator in the garden as a critic. If the torturer is an artist figure, then Clara plays the role of the art enthusiast, resembling De Quincey's connoisseur of murder. [End Page 362]

Predictably, Clara's reaction to the torturer's musings differs greatly from that of the narrator: she finds the torturer's zeal amusing, while the narrator is horrified by the correlation of art to torture. In De Quincey's text as well, there are two divergent approaches to the aesthetics of violence. The earlier author's facetious representation clearly holds accountable the artist, in this case the murderer: "When a murder is in the paulo-post-futurum tense – not done, not even (according to modern purism) being done, but only going to be done – and a rumour of it comes to our ears, by all means let us treat it morally" (7). Once the act is accomplished, the spectator cannot share the blame: "A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can't mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way" (8). The artist is condemned for his act, but because the critic merely compares techniques and is not responsible for the deed itself, he or she escapes moral judgment.

Clara as the Figure of the Critic

De Quincey's treatment of the respective roles of the artist and the spectator provides a basis for the study of these figures in Mirbeau's novel. Accordingly, Clara's enthusiasm for torture can be understood as aesthetic acclaim; indeed, Clara agrees with the torturer's self-designation as an artist when she explains to the narrator: "Il aime son art, voilà tout! . . . Comme le sculpteur aime la sculpture, et le musicien la musique . . . Et il en parle merveilleusement!" (215). Yet Mirbeau's portrayal of Clara raises doubt vis-à-vis her capacity for aesthetic judgment. If she regarded the torturer as an artist of great talent, she would consider his discourse on art seriously, as she seems to do in the above statement. Shortly preceding her acknowledgment of the torturer as an artist, however, she reacts as if to a simpleton or a clown: "Est-il drôle, le gros patapouf! dit-elle . . . il a l'air bon enfant . . ." (215). These juxtaposed declarations illustrate Clara's characterization as an art critic and the simultaneous undermining of this characterization that develop concurrently as the novel progresses.

Clara's establishment and failure as a critic are indirect results of her denunciation of Western values. As justification of her predilection for scenes of persecution, in speaking to the narrator she criticizes the Western world for its lack of imagination and excessive reserve: "Elle m'avoua que l'Europe la dégoûtait de plus en plus . . . Elle ne pouvait plus supporter ses mœurs étriquées, ses modes ridicules, ses paysages frileux . . . Elle ne se sentait heureuse et libre qu'en Chine" (110). This dissatisfaction with European society echoes Mirbeau's personal wish for freedom from governmental and ecclesiastical rule. As Reginald Carr affirms: "Le Jardin des supplices must be understood not [End Page 363] as an exhibition of the morbid eroticism of a degenerate fin-de-siècle artist, but as the impassioned cry of disgust of a man who loathed contemporary civilisation and who tried to exorcise its hold upon him by paying it back in its own cynical and sadistic coin" (106). Clara's immoderate pleasure in viewing torture exemplifies the atheistic anarchist's values by representing an extreme outcome of European over-regulation and unnecessary governmental authority.17

Clara's rejection of Western control also excludes her from moral judgment by Western standards while reinforcing the novel's aesthetic approach to torture. Robert Ziegler aptly notes an impression of timelessness distancing the Orient from the Occident and affording a certain degree of liberation from Western morals (164). Further, the garden, "in which the free play of animal instincts is no longer inhibited by a knowledge of good and evil," becomes the locus of moral freedom (Ziegler 167).18 Clara thus can play the role of a connoisseur of torture immune to judgment of her morals and sexuality, but her abilities as the figure of the art critic remain open to analysis. Indeed, her indifference to all aspects of her life except the appreciation of the art of torture supports the primacy of aesthetics in the novel and illustrates some of Mirbeau's beliefs about art.

In Notes sur l'art Mirbeau insists on innovation in both the creation and the criticism of art. When Clara distinguishes her experiences in China from those she had in Europe, her statement implies the novelty of Oriental torture. In this manner, Mirbeau seems to propose that traditional Chinese practices could be considered as innovative when seen from a different cultural perspective; even though the torturer practices traditional art, it is new to the uninitiated Western observer. Moreover, given the doubts expressed in Notes sur l'art regarding the public's capacity for judging art and the consequent need to show the public how to appreciate art, it follows that the critic is indispensable for the understanding of the "new" art form of Oriental torture.

Though Clara seems to possess the familiarity necessary for the comprehension of the aesthetic worth of these practices, her admiration of Chinese torture lacks the depth inherent to Mirbeau's conception of good criticism. Art ultimately exercises a powerful physical effect on Clara when she loses consciousness as a result of her sensual agitation; this suggests that the critic's objectivity is not vital to judgment. Yet it also clearly renders Clara unable to fulfill the responsibility of guiding the uninitiated public to a comprehension of unfamiliar art. While subjective response plays a significant part in Mirbeau's own writings on art, Clara is unable to regulate sufficiently her own passions in order to fill the role of the critic. According to the essays, the critic should be able to "découvrir sous les procédés du métier, les sentiments intimes de l'artiste" (Notes 47). Contrary to this ideal, Clara's appreciation of art is limited to the experience of her own "intimate sentiments," having little to [End Page 364] do with recognizing the artist's emotions. In addition, her heightening sexual excitement links her to nature and instinctual reaction rather than to analytical expression. Indeed, the analogy of torture to art becomes problematic primarily when one considers the figure of the critic, a woman. Although Mirbeau's personal views on women are complex and sometimes contradictory, Clara exemplifies Mirbeau's classification of her gender as "incapable d'intelligence, de sensibilité" (Planchais 190). As such, she is unable to exercise true aesthetic judgment.19

Mirbeau's ideal critic, according to Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet, is one whose understanding of art stems not from any intellectual knowledge, but rather from feeling. The critic possesses "une sensibilité ouverte à toutes les recherches et innovations – à condition toutefois de sentir vibrer un homme et d'y trouver une expression esthétique personnelle" (210). Although open to innovation, Clara fails to satisfy the condition of connecting her experience with the artist. Her overly emotional response thus weakens her credibility as a critic, leading the reader to doubt, then, the validity of the torturer as a genuine artist and raising the question of the roles of the artist and the critic in the designation of works as art, echoing concerns expressed in Notes sur l'art.

The rejection of Clara as the figure of the critic reopens the issue of the artistic value of torture, which, in turn, calls for closer examination of the role played by the Chinese torturer. While the torturer unquestionably represents an artist figure, it is uncertain whether the analogy of torture to art is really as strong as it might seem at first glance. It is significant that the torturer describes his art as a tradition that is rapidly being lost despite his effort to preserve the practices. Further, the government plays a role in this art, as it provides the material, the prisoners, to the executioners, who are, moreover, increasingly chosen through political machinations:

Les bourreaux, on les recrute, maintenant, on ne sait où! . . . Plus d'examens, plus de concours… C'est la faveur seule, la protection qui décident des choix . . . Et quels choix, si vous saviez! . . . C'est honteux! . . . Autrefois on ne confiait ces importantes fonctions qu'à d'authentiques savants, à des gens de mérite, qui connaissaient parfaitement l'anatomie du corps humain, qui avaient des diplômes, de l'expérience, ou du génie naturel.


In a certain manner, the torturer's description of past artists corresponds to Mirbeau's aesthetic ideology; in his Notes sur l'art he appreciates works of those who possess "natural genius" (as does Eugène Delacroix) but also those who become artists through studies and practice despite a lack of true genius (Bastien-Lepage, for example). This section of the torturer's discourse, then, represents a critique of the art world, corrupted by favoritism and political concerns and having little to do with true artistic talent. [End Page 365]

In the continuation of his speech, however, the torturer diverges from Mirbeau's ideals when he allies himself with traditional practices, discrediting new art, sympathizing with those who reject artistic innovation:

Le moindre cordonnier peut prétendre à remplir ces places honorables et difficiles… Plus de hiérarchie, plus de traditions! [. . .] Car je suis un vieux conservateur, moi . . . un nationaliste intransigeant . . . et je répugne à toutes ces pratiques, à toutes ces modes nouvelles que, sous prétexte de civilisation, nous apportent les Européens, et en particulier les Anglais.


The torturer's stance, incongruous with Mirbeau's Notes sur l'art, undermines his characterization as a true artist; this indicates that although torture might be judged as an art in a certain cultural and aesthetic context, such evaluation becomes irrelevant as new art forms supplant the old. By trying to perpetuate tradition, the torturer is not creating art, but impeding its advancement.20

The falsification of the figures of the artist and of the critic reflects the extent of Clara's marginal humanity and suggests Mirbeau's discontent with society in general and the art world in particular. Clara accepts torture as art, revealing that she is not a fit judge, as her sexual compulsion eclipses her mental and emotional capacities. Enslaved by her intense need for stimulation, she is incompetent in her role as critic. Mirbeau's development of the female character effaces her initial complexity, created by her connection with some of Mirbeau's own ideals, such as the need for freedom from social and political restrictions and the place of novelty in art. As a result of the persistent association of woman with nature and instinct rather than with rational thought, Clara degenerates into a parody of a critic. As such, the portrayal of Clara's sexual preferences represents a perversion far removed from deviant eroticism. Rather, Clara's choice of stimulation suggests a perversion of aesthetic judgment, an affliction of Mirbeau's own milieu and of particular importance to him as an art reviewer and aficionado. Despite this pessimistic vision of the fin-de-siècle art world, Clara, errant critic and charogne, nevertheless prefigures a rebirth of aesthetics, representing Mirbeau's hope for the metamorphosis of decayed values.

Christina Ferree Chabrier
Comparative Cultures
Eckerd College
St Petersburg, FL 33711


1. Most critical works touch on Mirbeau’s social and political stances. See Martin Schwarz’s Octave Mirbeau: Vie et œuvre for Mirbeau’s views, including anarchism and [End Page 366] his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair. Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet also provide a great deal of related information.

2. Michel and Nivet cite one study of Clara in a 1919 medical thesis where she is analyzed as "une dégénérée hystérique avec perversion profonde de l’instinct sexuel" (609).

3. Jérôme Gouyette provides a comparison of Sadean and Mirbellian imagery. See also Enda McCaffrey’s section "Transcending sadism."

4. Michel and Nivet closely associate the novel to Mirbeau’s own romantic discords (607). Judith Vimmer and Alice Regnault, whom Mirbeau married in 1887, were the two most important women in the author’s life. Both relationships, however, proved difficult for Mirbeau, and particularly the rupture with Judith (181-86). On Alice Regnault, see 215-20; on their marriage, see 320-23; on marital discord, see 472-73. The couple’s fundamental differences produced tension manifest even after Mirbeau’s death when Alice published an article, falsely attributed to her deceased husband, presenting political and moral stances contradictory to Mirbeau’s true beliefs (920-22).

5. Christopher Lloyd notes that Mirbeau resists being labeled as an art critic, primarily because of the association of this appellation with pedantry (27-28). Nevertheless, as Mirbeau’s considerable writings and insight attest, the designation is appropriate.

6. C. Lloyd avers that Mirbeau "did not always reveal progressive tastes when writing about art. On the contrary, he described the work of Matisse as a ‘pauvre folie’ produced by a ‘paralytique général,’ and derided the perverse transformations which art nouveau inflicted on everyday objects" (27). It seems problematic, however, to judge Mirbeau’s criticism by what is now considered good art. Mirbeau’s progressiveness consists, rather, in his manner of viewing art as an evolution, each new current prefiguring art’s future.

7. The unreserved designation of Mirbeau’s novel as a Decadent work is questionable. (On the complexity of Decadence as a classification, see Perennial Decay.) Most critics characterize Decadence in thematic and stylistic terms traceable to Baudelaire’s aesthetics, and certain studies treat Decadence as a fundamentally moralizing movement seeking to reaffirm traditional values. (See Ridge.) The idea of Decadent literature as the vehicle for the moralization and social critique implicit to the reaffirmation of traditional values appears, however, to derive from a conflation of the reader’s moral reaction to a work and the author’s actual representation. The reader’s response discounted, Decadent works seem concerned with representation rather than judgment. (See Bernheimer.) In contrast, Mirbeau’s novel explicitly presents a critical view of Clara’s interest in torture, which then is linked to restrictive Western standards. In representing such social concerns (not, however, in the interest of traditional values), the novel distances itself from Decadence.

8. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s Journal (1887-96) represents Mirbeau speaking of an encounter with a traveler returning from the Orient, "qui lui a dit que ce qu’à écrit Baudelaire sur la fumerie d’opium, c’est de la pure blague, que ça procure au contraire un bien-être charmant" (8: 70). This entry, depending on one’s confidence in [End Page 367] the truthfulness of both Mirbeau and Edmond de Goncourt, may confirm Mirbeau’s familiarity with Baudelaire’s text. Certainly, the statement presupposes a literary audience’s familiarity with the work and suggests that such knowledge was assumed among literary acquaintances.

9. Bourget and Mirbeau’s friendship, initially strong, diminished over time; divergent literary values eventually caused its dissolution in 1889. See Michel and Nivet, particularly 390-93.

10. For comparable themes in Baudelaire and Mirbeau, see Soldà: "Octave Mirbeau et Charles Baudelaire: Le Jardin des supplices ou Les Fleurs du Mal revisitées."

11. Compare with stanzas 5-8 of the poem.

12. "Dans ces boutiques, sous ces tentes et ces parasols, de gros marchands, à ventre d’hippopotame, vêtus de robes jaunes, bleues, vertes, hurlant et tapant sur des gongs, pour attirer les clients, débitent des charognes de toute sorte [...]" (157); "Je crus que le cœur allait me manquer, à cause de l’épouvantable odeur de charnier qui s’exhalait de ces boutiques, de ces bassines remuées, de toute cette foule, se ruant aux charognes, comme si ç’eût été des fleurs" (159); "Et les odeurs soulevées par la foule – odeurs de cabinets de toilette et d’abattoir mêlées, puanteurs des charognes et parfums des chairs vivantes – m’affadissaient le cœur, me glaçaient la mœlle" (169); "Elle lança encore, à travers les barreaux, un menu morceau de charogne qui, tombant sur le coin d’un des carcans, lui imprima un léger mouvement d’oscillation... " (172); "Autour de lui, comme autour d’une charogne, bourdonnaient et tourbillonnaient des essaims de mouches… Mais, dans ce milieu de fleurs et de parfums, cela n’était ni répugnant, ni terrible" (202). (My emphasis. Page numbers throughout refer to the Gallimard edition.) Soldà treats many themes common to the two authors, but only briefly mentions this last quotation as an allusion to the poem (205).

13. Compare also Goncourt’s description of the flowers Mirbeau himself cultivated (Journal 9: 349-50).

14. On Baudelaire’s resistance to the use of literature to stimulate social and political change, see Rosemary Lloyd.

15. Given Mirbeau’s reliance on a translation for his reading of Wilde, it is debatable that he read De Quincey’s essay before its 1901 publication in France, but indirect influence through Bourget and others may have provided inspiration. Several critics briefly mention resemblances between the authors’ works. See Roy-Reverzy 42, note 26, and Michel and Nivet 610.

16. Mirbeau questioned the validity of art criticism and the worth of many popular artists: "En résumé, le mauvais goût prédomine dans tous les domaines artistiques. Les raisons en sont la médiocrité des conseils municipaux, des administrateurs des musées nationaux, et le manque d’intelligence et de perception de personnages haut placés, comme le ministre des Beaux-Arts, Georges Leygues. Toutes ces forces se combinent pour supprimer impitoyablement le génie" (Schwarz 186-87).

17. Mirbeau writes: "O homme de la Justice et de la Loi, tu es un hypocrite. Tu sais [End Page 368] mieux que quiconque [...] ce que c’est que l’amour. [...] Tu sais que c’est une chose souvent terrible, une atroce douleur de luxure, un supplice sous lequel la pauvre humanité râle de souffrance. Et pourquoi? ... Parce que l’amour a été détourné de son but – qui est la continuation de la vie, la perpétuation de l’espèce – par les lois civiles que tu sers et les lois religieuses auxquelles tu es asservi... et que ces deux lois victorieuses de la nature, ne vont jamais l’une sans l’autre. [...] Toutes les deux, par les entraves légales ou morales qu’elles apportent à l’amour, ont été les principales causes des perversions sexuelles qui désolent l’humanité et sont un crime véritable contre l’Espèce (Ecrivains 2: 181-82).

18. McCaffrey also notes that art itself is excluded from moral judgment (63). Through her presumed association with art, then, Clara is once more exempt from moralization.

19. McCaffrey affords Clara a certain degree of mental power that in turn allows her to achieve "aesthetic detachment"(65). There are indeed moments where a shift from physical to mental is evident, yet the cycle unfailingly returns to its origin in the physical. Further, a Kantian might say that Clara lacks taste. Because her liking of the torture scenes is tainted by her quest for the agreeableness that accompanies stimulation, her judgment is impaired by interest.

20. Much like L’Académie française, in Mirbeau’s opinion. See Sylvie Thiéblemont-Dollet, particularly the chapter "Le Journalist au service d’un art libre."

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du mal. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964.
Bernheimer, Charles. "Unknowing Decadence." Perennial Decay. Ed. Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff and Matthew Potolsky. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999. 50-64.
Carr, Reginald. Anarchism in France: The Case of Octave Mirbeau. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1977.
Constable, Liz, Dennis Denisoff and Matthew Potolsky, eds. Perennial Decay. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999.
De Quincey, Thomas. Works. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1863.
Goncourt, Edmond and Jules de. Journal des Goncourt: Mémoires de la vie littéraire. 9 vols. Paris: Charpentier, 1887-96.
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Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
Lloyd, Christopher. Mirbeau’s Fictions. Durham (England): U of Durham, 1996.
Lloyd, Rosemary. Baudelaire’s Literary Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
McCaffrey, Enda. Octave Mirbeau’s Literary and Intellectual Evolution as a French Writer, [End Page 369] 1880-1914. Lewiston (NY): Mellen, 2000.
Michel, Pierre. "Le Jardin des supplices: entre patchwork et soubresauts d’épouvante." Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 3 (1996): 46-72.
_____. Octave Mirbeau. Alençon: L’Orne en français, 1992.
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Mirbeau, Octave. Les Ecrivains. 2 vols. Paris: Flammarion, 1925-26.
_____. Le Jardin des supplices. Ed. Michel Delon. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.
_____. Le Jardin des supplices. Paris: Fasquelle, 1928.
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Petr, Christian. "L’Etre de l’Inde." Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 4 (1997): 329-37.
Pierrot, Jean. The Decadent Imagination, 1880-1900. Trans. Derek Coltman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.
Planchais, Jean-Luc. "Gynophobia: Le Cas Mirbeau." Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 4 (1997): 190-96.
Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Trans. Angus Davidson. Cleveland: Meridian, 1956.
Revon, Maxime. Octave Mirbeau: son œuvre. Paris: La nouvelle revue critique, 1924.
Ridge, George Ross. The Hero in French Decadent Literature. Athens (GA): U of Georgia P, 1961.
Roy-Reverzy, Eléonore. "D’une poétique mirbellienne: Le Jardin des supplices." Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 3 (1996): 30-45.
Schwarz, Martin. Octave Mirbeau: Vie et œuvre. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
Soldà, Fabien. "Le Jardin des supplices: récit d’une initiation?" Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 2 (1995): 61-86.
_____. "Octave Mirbeau et Charles Baudelaire: Le Jardin des supplices ou Les Fleurs du Mal revisitées." Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 4 (1997): 197-216.
Thiéblemont-Dollet, Sylvie. Octave Mirbeau: un journaliste faiseur d’opinion. Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 2001.
Ziegler, Robert E. "Hunting the Peacock: The Pursuit of Non-Reflective Experience in Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplices." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 13.1 (1984-85): 162-74. [End Page 370]

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