Book Review: The Torture Garden


The Torture Garden
By Octave Mirabeau

“Where you are going there is still more pain, more torture, more blood flowing and dripping on the earth, more contorted and torn bodies breathing their last on iron tables.”

What seems on the surface to be a novel of horror and depravity becomes a look at the decline of Eastern civilization and true passion as the mediocrity of Western “culture” is imposed on the world at large. Framed in the Victorian style of a “story within a story,” an intellectual conversation on murder, “the very bed-rock of our social institutions,” and the “joy of killing” becomes one man’s tale of a journey through the torture garden of a Chinese prison.

Where beauty and terror become synonymous, where pain and pleasure are united in a non-sexual union, these are the boundaries of the torture garden. The torture garden is the last domain of a world filled with vibrancy and uninhibited living. The garden beats with life which is a complete circle enclosed by death. Full of streams and fountains, rare birds and exotic trees and flowers, flowers that “do not indulge in sentiment. They indulge in passion, nothing but passion. They make love all the time.” As the straightforwardness and honesty of China is overtaken by European “refinements,” passivity reigns throughout the world. The sights and smells of the torture garden are lost, never to be experienced again. “We no longer know what flowers are. Flowers are violent, cruel, terrible and splendid … like love!” Love becomes a symbol for death. When death is removed from the world, likewise is love.

The torture inflicted within the walls of this “Eden” are well thought out, monstrously beautiful retributions for crimes committed against humankind. The beautiful and meticulously planned garden only enhances these acts, adding a strange yet fitting paradox. The beauty of death is reflected in the garden as the cries of the dying mix with the perfumes of strongly scented flowers, while the blood of the dead returns to the earth to nourish new life and stronger beauty.

In a pivotal conversation between a disgruntled Chinese executioner and the two Europeans in the story, East meets West in a neutral exchange of understanding and open conversation where both reach a sad understanding. The world is dying, being sucked of life, turned into a place where men are automatons, merely functioning, without any real drive or motivation. The tortures of the garden are being toned down, fading into obscurity. The ancient art is dying, replaced by landscapes of grey, a world of unabashed cruelty and denial of new, far greater tortures. “Art does not consist in killing multitudes. Art … consists in knowing how to kill, according to the rights of beauty.” There is no art in dropping bombs from thousands of feet in the air onto masses of people who will never know the cause of their demise. This is dishonesty at its greatest. To know the end of one’s life, the cause of one’s death and to experience that death fully, this is the basis of art.

Mirbeau had a vision of the future which, in the Twentieth Century, we can now see as incredibly insightful and accurate. Men are now restrained, isolated and locked within themselves. The freedom to experience life to its greatest potential has been eradicated. In our era, people, for the most part, live life devoid of passion, the passion which encloses the torture garden and all the pain and pleasure therein contained. 

In a strange but telling poem, Mirbeau sums up the philosophy of The Torture Garden:

“…I love her because there is something more mysteriously attractive than beauty: it is corruption. Corruption in which the eternal heat of life resides, In which the eternal removal of metamorphosis unfolds!”

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