Academic journal article Criticism

Sadistic Aestheticism: Walter Pater and Octave Mirbeau

Academic journal article Criticism

Sadistic Aestheticism: Walter Pater and Octave Mirbeau

Article excerpt

Clara, the English femme fatale of Octave Mirbeau's decadent novel Torture Garden (1931) (Le Jardin des supplices, 1899), takes a weekly stroll through an expansive garden to admire both the striking flowers and what she considers to be equally arresting, and sexually exciting, scenes of torture. The tortured bodies-mutilated Chinese convicts-are narrated as aesthetic objects, like the flowers. These flowers are described with attention to shape, color, and composition:

Irises rose up out of the water, their long stems bearing extraordinary flowers whose petals were coloured like old earthenware vases: precious glazes that were purplish blood-coloured; sinister purples; blue flames twisted with orange-ochre. . . . Some of them were immense and shrivelled up like cabbalistic characters.1

Composition and arrangement are also emphasized in descriptions of the torture scenes:

[A woman] with her legs spread, or rather torn apart, had iron collars around her neck and arms. Her eyelids, her nostrils, her lips and her sexual parts had been rubbed with red pepper and two screw-nuts crushed her nipples. . . . Another one, with head and shoulders tipped back, whose balance was maintained by a brass wire which bound his neck to his two big toes, was squatting with sharp and pointed stones between the bends of his shins. (TG, 184-85)

The bodies are angled and contorted with precision, meticulously trained and constrained like cultivated plants, gnarled and twisted like bonsai shrubs. The passage disregards the convicts' pain, focusing instead on their painstaking aesthetic arrangement. Although such scenes may reasonably elicit a visceral response from the viewer-horror or disgust, perhaps-how they provoke such a violently sexual response from Clara is not immediately clear.

As I detail in this essay, it is art, especially art's role as a signifier of class distinction, that lies at the heart of Clara's sadistic passion for torture. Clara's sadistic pleasure-which is intentionally deviant, a cultivated affront-is stimulated by the aesthetic values that she perceives in the torture scenes. Her bodily response declares, more convincingly than words might, her agreement with the torturer who claims that "art . . . consists in knowing how to kill, according to rituals of beauty . . . there has to be . . . variety, elegance and invention" (TG, 154).2 The writer we must address in order to understand how and why Clara links the aesthetics of torture with sexual pleasure is, perhaps surprisingly, nineteenth-century British aestheticist Walter Pater. Pater propounds key principals of aestheticism-such as the relationships between art, life, and social status, form, and matter-that Mirbeau would integrate into Clara's aestheticist epistemology. Pater also subtly and earnestly weaves into his aesthetics instances of grotesque torture, murder, and undertones of decadent sexuality, linking sadism and aestheticism in a manner that Mirbeau would manipulate with irony, self-consciousness, and extreme hyperbole. The resulting sadistic pleasure of Torture Garden is glorified above erotic, aesthetic, and moral normality and used for the purpose of class distinction, reproducing in flowerlike form the aesthetic status of the torture it is stimulated by. By briefly comparing Torture Garden to passages in The Marquise de Sade (1994) (La Marquise de Sade, 1887) by Rachilde-the pen name of Marguerite Eymery-and Against Nature (1922) (originally published as A rebours, 1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, I also demonstrate how sadism's floral aesthetics signify a broad trend within French decadent literature.

The active engagement between British and French writers during the final two decades of the nineteenth century is frequently considered in terms of France's influence upon British literature.3 The impact of English aestheticism upon French decadent writing is much less marked but may be exemplified by the case of Pater's work. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.