Graduate Student Department of English University of California, Berkeley

L'Affaire Mirbeau: The Torture Garden as Novel “on Strike”

What kind of social "work" exactly do we expect from art? Would it be possible to make art while refusing to do that work? Much of post-Structuralist thought about art and literature was launched around the slogan of the "death of the author"; this paper wonders what kind of (literary) production would answer instead to the "death of the artwork." And what could be said to happen to the working, writing person that survives the "death" of their "work"? I contend that the late decadent French novel Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden, 1899) by journalist, art critic, novelist, Dreyfusard, and sometime anarchist Octave Mirbeau, was an attempt to protest -- within the form of a novel – "the literary" itself. The novel consists of a patchwork of vignettes depicting extravagant scenes of corruption, sexualized violence, and wild, orientalist descriptions of flowers. This ostentatious content has bifurcated the novel's critical reception into readers that take the text's misogynistic and imperialist eruptions as accusing the author of these, and readers that see the novel as a critique of the degrading, hypocritical bourgeois culture parody. whose violence the author is trying to

I try to solve this problem by arguing that the novel is a self-parody of the author insofar as he (and the form of the novel he is working in) participates in and is contaminated by the culture he despises. I draw on Niklas Luhmann's theory of literature as a social system that makes possible a very particular kind of communication – event to explain what

specifically Mirbeau is trying to protest. Mirbeau's contemporary and fellow anarchist Georges Sorel gives an account of socialist activism centered on what he calls the "myth of the general strike" – the generalized refusal to do work – which I argue explains precisely the nature and structure of the violent gesture Mirbeau performs in writing this text: the novel is a working figure of the refusal to work -- a novel "on strike." I come to terms with the shocking content of the text by arguing that its development is governed by a precisely structured 'torture-system' (which I develop from some analyses in Barthes) that contradistinguishes – and then spectacularly crosses – metaphorically and metonymically ordered torture-logics. Comparing this model with Elaine Scarry's work on torture, I argue that Mirbeau's torture system has the effect of liquidating any 'secret' that pain could be used to produce out of its victim. Producing a novel without a "secret" – a self-consuming novel, continuously shredding itself of its secrets – is tantamount to saying: this is a novel that shreds itself of the undead author, whose absence guarantees its legibility. What remains as an image of literature at a standstill – or a text that slaps a consumer of literature in the face – something like a pornographic picture of an undead life, writing.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful