Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Something from Nothing: Regenerated Narrative in Mirbeau's 'Le Jardin Des Supplices.' (Octave Mirbeau)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Something from Nothing: Regenerated Narrative in Mirbeau's 'Le Jardin Des Supplices.' (Octave Mirbeau)

Article excerpt

Facetiously dubbed by friend Georges Rodenbach "le don Juan de l'ideal,"(1) fin de siecle novelist and playwright Octave Mirbeau devoted much of

his tumultuous literary career to polemical campaigns against his perceived political enemies. Exchanging the pamphleteering of his youth - incendiary tracts in support of monarchists and anti-Semites - in favor of equally impassioned endorsements of Dreyfusards and anarchists, Mirbeau demonstrated that the volatility of his philosophy was matched only by its fire and extremism. Businessmen, Catholics, colonialists, foreigners, Bonapartists, women, and Jews all filed briskly past before being fixed between the cross-hairs of Mirbeau's inflammatory prose. Life-like plaster puppets, "figures d'hommes, de femmes, d'enfants, soigneusement articules et costumes, comme il convient" (Le Jardin 27), they acted as moving targets in Mirbeau's rhetorical shooting gallery.

In dismissing the breathtaking about-faces prompted by Mirbeau's ideological inconstancy, biographer Martin Schwarz has ascribed Mirbeau's enthusiasms and disenchantments to a critique of society that finally left the author convinced its institutions were hypocritical or flawed. "Comme seuls les extremes convenaient a sa nature, et que le paroxysme etait son etat normal, il s'adonna de tout son etre i une cause des qu'il l'avait adoptee" (Schwarz 34). Yet while he was driven by the absolutism and rigidity of the zealot, Mirbeau discovered around him nothing but the spongy ambiguity of self-interested expedience; "toujours sincere envers lui-meme" (Schwarz 35), he saw in others only the flaccidity of their greed and opportunism. The virulence of Mirbeau's attacks on armies, schools, and churches was provoked by a contemptuous disappointment born of his failed search for a natural reality, an originary something not yet adulterated nor susceptible of conversion into a medium of exchange. Seemingly grounded in the romantic platitude denouncing a society that cashed in idealism for criminality, that twisted the instinctual spontaneity of love into the deviance of mannerly repression, Mirbeau's beliefs reached back into a myth that posited "que la nature seule offre a l'homme des exemples salutaires d'harmonie et de beaute, et que le secret du bonheur est de l'aimer" (Schwarz 58).

Trafficking in fictions like the author who condemned it, society was seen as promulgating a value system that turned the vitality of nature into the deadliness of war, that changed love of God and love of country into a hatred of the self. In Mirbeau's early autobiographical writings (Le Calvaire 1887, L'Abbe Jules 1888, Sebastien Roch 1890), authenticity was linked with a phylogenic regression stripping away the artificiality of social precepts in order to reveal the natural impulses that were hidden underneath. Man, Rousseau's depraved animal, was able to recover a happy compatibility with his true self, "en se rapprochant des betes, des plantes, des fleurs; en vivant ... de la vie splendide ... qu'elles puisent aux sources de la nature" (L'Abbe Jules 204). Yet in Mirbeau's unproductive quest for some generative principle of life, he was led to embrace the same nihilism and to advocate the same program of institutional subversion that had motivated his defense of anarchists Jean Grave and Felix Feneon in the Proces des Trente in 1894. The paradoxical quality of Mirbeau's philosophy cannot be understood unless one first examines the theory underlying his writings, his connecting construction and annihilation, assertive individualism and disintegration into matter, the creative consciousness of the artist and his final dissolution, his becoming "une chose insaisissable, fondue dans la nature" (L'Abbe Jules 204).(2) Reiterating the familiar argument that life derives from death and creation from destruction, Mirbeau equated the dismantling of government with a metaphysic based on a suppression of identity and an extinguishing of consciousness: "on arrive plus aisement a fabriquer un Jesus-Christ, un Mahomet, un Napoleon, qu'un Rien" (L'Abbe Jules 203). …

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