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Gene SCHAFER

Journal of Decadence

Octave Mirbeau

Le Calvaire

Once again I am struck by just how timely and apropos the French Decadents are to this day and age. Like Huysmans’ Là-bas, Octave Mirbeau’s Le Calvaire is essentially autobiographical, and peppered with observations and extrapolations about the meaning of life and existence based on the events we go through, and society and humanity in general. For example, anyone who still falls for the old BS about the “heroism” and “glory” of the military is STRONGLY directed to read chapter 2 of this book, ASAP.

But there are gentler observations and truisms as well: this in particular is something I’ve discovered to be truth in my own life, from how I met my wife, to friends (and situations) I’ve been meeting (or falling into) through other friends I’ve reconnected with via various social media, right down to the car I just happened to stumble across on the exact day my wife’s died forever (despite 2 1/2 years of serious looking, and dozens of fruitless test drives and car dealership negotiations before).

I find that I need to relearn what I used to know, that despite what they try to force feed you in the business world (or American thought in general), good things do not come to those “with a plan”, who actively strive towards a goal…they come to you seemingly by accident, and almost at random. The key is to be open to them when they arrive.

“is it not disturbing to think that our best friendships, which ought to result from long deliberation…which only a logical chain of circumstances ought to give rise to, are mostly just the instant result of chance? You are are home in your study, sitting quietly in front of a book. Outside, the sky is grey and the air cold. It’s raining, the wind is blowing, the street is dreary and muddy. Consequently, you have every good reason in the world not to stir from your armchair…yet you go out, driven by boredom, the want of something to do, you know not what reason, nothing at all…and a hundred paces on, you’ve encountered the man, woman, carriage, stone, orange peel, puddle of water that is going to turn your existence upside down. In my most agonizing moments, I have often thought of these things, and often have I said to myself, “yet if I had stayed at home, working, dreaming or sleeping on the evening when I met…in that…place where I had no business to be…none of what has happened to me would ever have occurred.”.

As this was initially posted elsewhere, a friend replied that he had just been having a discussion with someone about this very same topic the other night. He noted that the next question is: is this fate, chance or some guiding hand?

My reply was such:

That’s where things get a bit more metaphysical and touch on much larger issues – i.e., even if 2 people got together and decided “this must be the hand of God”, one could be Calvinist/deterministic in orientation, while the other could be more spontaneous, and cite “the power of prayer” – and that’s if both subscribe to that orientation in the first place.

You get the idea how many directions and tangents this could go in, when you bring in the various philosophical or religious standpoints and/or baggage people bring to the table with them. But regardless, I’ve always found this to be true, and the extent to which I’ve changed for the worse over the years is the extent to which my job(s) have pushed me towards that fruitless pursuit mentality, the “action” thing where you plot and scheme your way to imagined success (generally winding up beating your head against the wall and stressing yourself and loved ones out for little or nothing).

As I noted, perhaps it’s time to go back to some earlier Taoist roots, and become the more easy going man I used to be…because it STILL always comes down to being open to seemingly random chance and opportunity, mostly independent of my efforts. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there.

*

*

*

Innocence Spoiled – Sébastien Roch

one out there. * * * Innocence Spoiled – Sébastien Roch And so we come to

And so we come to another installment of the early Octave Mirbeau; a further entry in his de facto trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels of doomed young men bearing some measure of the author’s own persona and past experience, albeit with each coming to some untoward early demise – a closure which the long lived Mirbeau himself would be spared.

Sebastien Roch follows the titular character, a sensitive, artistically inclined and intellectually curious young man whose only crime was to be born of a petty bourgeoise with aspirations to higher social status, through the course of a brief and tragic life – a life driven and hemmed in

by the invisible fences of a ridiculous and hypocritical society and those who live by its mores.

Sebastien’s father, a widower and blacksmith (or ‘ironmonger’, as he is referred to herein) is a relatively successful small business owner who has attained some measure of standing among the townfolk of the small village the Rochs hail from.

While boastful, obtuse and prone to histrionics, things seem to run along a reasonable enough course until Roch is convinced by the petty prejudices of a similarly emptyheaded parish priest that his son could be his entree into higher social circles.

To accomplish this absurd if somewhat ubiquitous bourgeois desire, Sebastien is essentially railroaded into attending a Jesuit boarding school far from home, as the Jesuits were apparently seen as prestigious (any ideas that this odd conception rest solely in Roch’s own misguided mind are disproved by the fact that the school is in fact generally comprised of the progeny of nobility). But even beyond this going against any wishes or desires the boy might have for his own life and future, this proves a fatal mistake that determines the unhappy course of his entire life…

As the parental edict is handed down, Sebastien begins to see another side to the father he had formerly held in high filial esteem – one that repulses and distances him from his father for the first time:

“He felt his respect and affection for his father diminishing…he discovered that no exchange of similar emotions…was possible between them, so estranged were they from one another. Everything about his father’s actions disillusioned (him)…he noticed the way his father ate, greedily and messily…a host of tiny details…which revealed his lax habits and inconsistencies of behavior, so out of keeping with the rigid pomp of his principles…he suffered genuine physical pain seeing the degrading manner in which his father treated the boy apprentice…

The prestige of paternal authority…was gradually fading, destroyed bit by bit by…a thousand little intimate, debasing habits, whose ludicrousness and vulgarity no longer escaped him, afflicting him as if they had been his own. Hour by hour, the most precious parts of his own self perished…creating a new anguish, a bitterness and an unfamiliar sense of pity.”

When he moves in to the school, Sebastien quickly finds ostracism based entirely on his familial social stature. Mirbeau paints with vivid colors the raw, biting and long-lasting emotion of childhood rejection and clique:

“The voices and stares weighed heavily on little Sebastien, inflicting the physical pain of a multitude of needles stuck into his skin. He wished he could launch himself on this band of ferocious children and slap or kick them, or else soothe them with his gentleness, saying ‘you’re mad to laugh at me like that when I’ve done you no harm, when I so want to be friends.”

He quickly discovers the sorry fact that in the real world, the so-called ‘authorities’ offer no help in these sort of situations:

“The priest in charge…came up and joined the group. The boy felt he was saved: ‘He’s going to make them shut up and punish them,’ he thought. When the Jesuit had been told why everyone was laughing, he too began to laugh, but with a discreet, amused, patronizing laugh…Sebastien bent his head and moved away in despair.”

He recognizes in this unchecked if casual schoolyard bullying and ostracism a microcosm of society as a whole, recalling a friendly hunchback shoemaker from his hometown:

“The other lads laughed at him, following him through the streets: ‘Hey! Mr. Punch!” And the little hunchback fled on his short legs… Sebastien…(saw) analogies in their situation, similarities in their suffering now that he too was an outcast.

Poor hunchback! He was not spiteful or at all unpleasant either! Quite the contrary…so why that relentless assault…? He was obliging towards everyone, skilled and courageous; he liked to help and please others. He was always ready to lend a hand whenever anyone needed it…

Coudray, the carpenter, a sort of handsome giant, had hit the hunchback for no reason, for a laugh, to amuse the pretty girls, for they enjoyed cruel pranks that made him cry. He was so funny, his hump jolted so comically when he cried…and the huge fist of the carpenter… landed several blows on the hunchback’s hump. “Damn you, Mr. Punch!” “Why are you hitting me? You don’t even know why you’re hitting me. I suppose you think it’s clever, do you?” Then one morning, he had been found hanged in his workshop.”

He further finds the priests to be intrinsically both pompous and repellent:

“A monk crossed his path…he had a convict’s face, sly and begrimed…two other monks, thick-lipped, with the eyes of child-molesters, brushed by him…”

Sebastien gradually becomes accustomed to this daily mistreatment, but it still weighs on him profoundly:

“There was more harassment at school, but each episode became progressively less violent so that, in the end, it became a kind of intermittent, jovial raillery which made the pain more bearable. However, he felt very keenly the bitterness of social inequality in which he lived, acknowledged and persistent as it was. To be tolerated as a pauper and not accepted as an equal caused him great sorrow, a wound to his pride which did not heal, and he felt helpless to protect himself. The attitude in which the others left him made him more serious and thoughtful, almost old before his time…his eyes became shadowed, troubled.”

A painful, biting condemnation of the “status quo” results, one that all too many of us can find some degree of self-recognition in:

“Schools are miniature universes. They encompass, on a child’s scale, the same kind of domination and repression as the most despotically organized societies. A similar sort of injustice and comparable baseness preside over their choice of idols to elevate and martyrs to torment.

Sebastien was ignorant of the fact that there are conflicts of interest, rival appetites, which are innate and which cause all human societies to fight amongst themselves, but by observing and making comparisons, he soon determined his precise position in that world…motivated as it was by passions and concerns which, up until then, he had never even suspected. He found it deeply demoralizing.

His position was that of the underdog, a vanquished opponent…he understood that he must rely on himself alone, live a solitary, introverted life, act independently and seal himself off… but he also understood that such a renunciation was beyond his powers.

His generous, expansive, enthusiastic nature could not be confined within the narrow

psychological limits which he would be obliged to impose on himself. It needed air, warmth, light, a broad expanse of sky. While waiting for this light to shine, for this sky to open up, Sebastien continued to watch life pass him by against a background of blurred images and inexorable darkness.”

He notes with incomprehension how the group gravitates to “leaders” based mainly on wealth and family connections if not force of will, and decides to adopt the only sane policy, namely active disdain:

that “

tyranny was taken for granted. The vanities, ambitions and aspirations, secret or avowed, of this small, divided people, with its jealous coteries, all focused on his frail, awe-inspiring person…

Sebastien did not attempt to gain his sympathy by cowardly submission, nor to impose himself on him by means of revolt. He disdained him…and this made him cherish (his friends back home) all the more…He decided to keep out of the way of the teachers and… neither to seek their approval or arouse their sympathy…the priests’…ingratiating tone rang false to him. By their side he felt no sense of protection…they left him to his own devices in the recreation yard…where he wandered, usually alone and bewildered, wounded by the others’ joy, outraged by the roars of laughter exploding all around him as if to mock him all the more in his abandonment.”

Sebastien is eventually befriended by a sympathetic boy of noble extraction named Jean de Kerral, who nevertheless displays a disturbing lack of empathy at core, relating a “funny story” about his father:

“Do you know the story about Papa’s six hunting dogs and the baliff’s clerk?…Well, one day, my father was coming back from a hunt; he hadn’t caught a thing and was not at all pleased. As he got nearer (town), who should he see on the road but the baliff’s clerk. He’s a nasty clerk…he says bad things about priests, never goes to mass, and his family own a farm near the chateau, confiscated land bought cheap off us after the Revolution…a real nasty piece of work. Papa says to himself: ‘Since my dogs haven’t had a chance to hunt anything, I’m going to let them chase the baliff’s clerk.’

Funny, eh? He unleashes them, puts them on the scent, and the dogs are off…you can imagine…how the clerk bolted, feeling the dogs at his heels…he gets all tangled up in the reeds and brambles, rips his trousers, falls over, gets back on the road, his face all bloody, and escapes as fast as his legs can carry him towards (town). The dogs stick as close to him as if he was a hare….

Apparently it was really funny…he went into the church and barely had time to close the door behind him; he collapsed onto the flagstones and fainted away out of fear. Another second and he would have been caught and gobbled up by the dogs. They don’t mess about, you know those dogs…Well, the father of this nasty man took my papa to court and Papa was ordered to pay this nasty man 25 thousand francs because, after this joke of a hunt, his son had fallen ill and lost his mind. But Papa will get his revenge.”

Later, Jean invites Sebastien to his home for the holiday, which Sebastien’s father trumpets around town as a matter of pride. However, Jean’s father rejects the idea of letting a social inferior into their home, provoking this revelation:

“How he repented of having so obstinately nurtured that dream, not because longing for

community of children in which, by example and education, every form of servility and

magnificence had eventually led to these ruins, but because a new emotion was penetrating his soul and overturning all his ideas: something strong and warm, like a draught of wine. He had just seen Monsieur de Kerral, and he hated him. He hated him and those like him.

To these men, living amongst other men like beasts of prey amidst game, and of whom his father had spoken and told him several times that they were to be admired and respected, he compared those of his own kind, who toil to meet their daily needs…side by side, helping one another, working together to achieve tomorrow’s hopes; and he felt proud to have been born amongst them…

He found greater nobility in his father’s overalls…than in the insolent gaiters, the whistling whip…of this Monsieur who had despised him, and along with him all of the little people, the humble folk…Faced with the image of inner decay evident in the chateau, which was collapsing stone by stone, and that soil, exhausted from having nourished men without pity or love…this created in him a profound sense of joy…this thought of justice…was roused from its atavistic slumber and burst forth in this child’s soul, which though…innocent, was large enough…to contain (both) an immense love and immense hatred on behalf of all mankind.”

This discovery brings about a change in his behavior, and he finally stands up for himself, or more specifically, on behalf of others suffering unjust abuses:

“Bolorec was still in the same place…two pupils nearby were pestering him…Sebastien could no longer control his precipitate emotions. He yelled at them: ‘Leave him be!…He hasn’t done anything to you!” One of them advanced, hands on hips, threatening: ‘What are you wittering on about…filthy ironmonger.’ Sebastien leaped on him in one bound, knocked him over and slapped him several times saying: ‘Every time you even think of insulting me, you will get the same…you and the others.’

The beaten child got up in a pitiful state. ‘Yes, my father is an ironmonger,’ confessed Sebastien. ‘And I’m proud of him…he doesn’t set dogs on poor unfortunates.”

Like most intelligent children, he finds the rote nature and banal curricula of schoolwork to be somewhat less than stimulating as well:

“As his intelligence broadened…as the desire to learn developed in him, he grew ever more disgusted with schoolwork and this disgust grew to the point where the mere sight of his books caused him pain and irritation…In children, who are by nature keen, passionate and curious, what is referred to as laziness is often merely an awakening of sensitivity, a psychological inability to submit to certain absurd duties, and a natural result of the distorted, unbalanced education given to them. This laziness, which leads to an insuperable reluctance to learn, is, contrary to appearances, sometimes proof of intellectual superiority and a condemnation of the teacher…

What he was forced to learn bore no relation to any of his latent aspirations…once his homework was hurriedly dispatched, his lessons recited, none of what remained in his memory made him think, interested him or seemed to concern him…he was happy just to forget it all…(lessons) which he found repellent and whose uselessness oppressed him…in the real world there were things which beguiled him, astonished him…he divined something of the inherent mystery in the world about him, delicious to unveil…but they were determined to shroud it all with the thickest and grimiest of shadows…”

Later he discovers the power of true literature on his own, comparing his education unfavorably thereto:

“This was like the revelation of a new world for him…What a difference between that warm, colorful, vibrant language…where every word lived, breathed and sprouted beating wings… compared with the cold, creeping, grudging language of his schoolbooks, whose enslaved words and dull ideas seemed deliberately positioned in order to block his desire to know, to feel, to be inspired, like surly park-keepers, forbidding entry to a garden full of…splendid flowers and subtle birds, where the radiant sky can be glimpsed through swaying branches.”

the radiant sky can be glimpsed through swaying branches.” He also takes on the mentality of

He also takes on the mentality of Manifest Destiny and all those who would claim God on their side in justification of their own mass murders, land grabs and domination of others, rejecting firmly any “god” who could stand behind such:

“They were always talking about battles, savage hordes on the march towards destruction, blood and ruin; they showed him the fearful faces of drunken heroes, undaunted brutes, terrible conquerors, odious and bloody puppets…who symbolized Duty, Honor, Glory, Country, Religion.

And over this whole abject, mad hurlyburly of brutal assassins…there was always the image of…God…a kind of maniacal, all-powerful bandit, whose greatest pleasure was to kill, and who…traveled howling across space or else lay in ambush…brandishing his thunderbolt in one hand and his sword in the other.

Sebastien refused to admit this bloodthirsty demon as his God, and continued to love his own God, a charming…pale, blond Jesus, his arms filled with flowers, his mouth wreathed in smiles, blessing children, his gaze constant in its boundless goodness and inexhaustible compassion.”

He is a man who feels life intensely, which can be equally wonderful as horrifying in its implications:

“There was not a thought, an action, a word, that Sebastien did not live passionately: the senses and passions were so strong in him that he experienced them like an illness… everything affected him much more than it did other people and had an impact on all his faculties. It was enough for one of his senses to be stimulated for all the others to participate…quadrupling it, prolonging it.”

Unfortunately, he falls under the spell of the sort of prelate making the headlines with due

regularity these days. His instincts warn him of the priest’s ulterior motive:

“Why did Father de Kern’s presence cause him such violent embarrassment, a sort of strange, instinctive repugnance, a creeping of the skin, a nauseous fear, something abnormal, rather like the dizzying sensation he felt when he looked down into an abyss from the heights of a clifftop?”

Nevertheless, the older man seduces the boy by appealing to his desire to learn and his artistic leanings, teaching him music, reciting poetry and exposing him to the arts, until he lulls him into a false sense of security. One night, he achieves his goal, revealing the amazing hypocrisy and delusionality of a supposedly sacred institution that harbors and encourages these sort of situations:

“He had lured many others into that room…but none had made these deplorable scenes…little martyrs, little deflowered creatures, his startled prey, docile or anguished…Father de Kern approached Sebastien…in an imperious tone, (he said) ’You know you’re taking communion tomorrow.’

Sebastien leaped up…now he would no longer be

The effect of this sentence was electric.

able

to

do

so…he

alone,

like

one

of

the

 

damned…

‘But

I

can’t

now!’

‘And who will stop you?’ snapped the priest…’am I not here? confession?’

Can

I

not

hear

your

‘You!’

cried

Sebastien

with

a

surge

of

horror.

‘You!’…

I have the power to absolve you…however unworthy, culpable and

criminal I might be. I have not lost the sacred character which allows me…to give you back

peace of conscience and…purity of body.”

Scarred by his experience, Sebastien, still thwarted in his desire to learn music, makes this powerful analogy:

“Sebastien seizes the violin…plugs at the four strings, which emit shrill, discordant sounds… he stands foolishly before this violin, which in his hands, is no more than an inert, jangling instrument, and feels an infinite sadness at knowing that a soul lives in it…but that he will never be able to breathe life into that soul nor awaken that dream…Are you not like that violin?…have you not a soul, and do not dreams inhabit that void in your little brain? Who knows about that? Who cares?

Those who ought to make your soul resonate and your dreams take wing, have they not left you in a corner all alone like that violin abandoned on a chair, at the mercy of the first… passerby who, in order to amuse himself for a moment, takes hold of it and breaks forever the fragile wood which was made for eternal song?”

In a proactive attempt to cover for himself against any untoward revelations, the guilty priest spreads a false rumor of a homosexual relationship between Sebastien and his friend Bolorec, which gets him expelled from the school. The absurdity of logical appeals to established officialdom is seldom more amusingly put:

“If

‘Yes…I am a priest.

confession.’

‘No, father.’

‘You are wrong… mark my words, there is nothing more revitalizing than a good confession. M. Juste Durand confessed at least 6 times in 4 days…but what consolation he found too!’

same.’

‘But

you

wish,

I

can

take

you

to

he

was

expelled

all

the

‘Yes, but what consolation he found!”

Later, he ponders about what must drive both priest and Church in situations like this:

“Although, in normal circumstances, he was a good man, he had only one thought at that

moment: to prevent this terrible secret from getting out, even if that meant a flagrant injustice

or the sacrifice of an innocent, unhappy boy. However unimportant the child…even if they

managed to rewrite the story in their own favor, there would always be a lingering doubt,

damaging the proud reputation of the Order. It was vital to avoid that…”

On departing from the school, he sums up his experience:

“Deceit everywhere, wearing a (cassock). No, little children like him, poor, humble wretches…with no position and no fortune had nothing to hope for from those young, pitiless boys, corrupted from birth by all the prejudices of a hateful education; nothing to expect from those loveless, servile teachers either, kneeling before wealth as before a god.

What had he learned? He had learned pain, and that was all. He had arrived ignorant and pure; they were expelling him, ignorant and defiled. He had arrived full of naive faith; they were driving him out full of troubling doubts. The peace of mind…he possessed on entering that accursed house were now replaced by a horrible, devouring void, a burden of remorse, disgust and constant anguish. And that had all been accomplished in the name of Jesus!

…Oh, he knew all about their kind of love, justice and forgiveness! To earn it, you had to be rich and noble. When a person was neither…there was no love, no justice, no forgiveness. You were expelled and no one told you why!”

Musing about his classmates and the eternal cycle of social abuse and rejection to be found in schoolyards everywhere, he surmises that:

“What were they saying about him and this sudden, unforseen separation? Probably nothing.

A child leaves, and it’s all

over. On to the next.”

Sebastien returns home to find his father first ranting and acting out, and later shutting down, and treating him as a stranger in his own home. Set adrift, without goals or aspirations, he watches the days pass in aimless reverie…

so ‘Not really. I look, I think, and time passes. Yesterday…I watched an ants’ nest all day. You can’t imagine how beautiful and mysterious such a thing is…there’s the most extraordinary life going on in there, a great social structure that would be far more interesting to learn about…it’s another of the thousands of things they don’t teach you in school.’ …’That’s all very well…but you can’t go on living like this…people are beginning to whisper and say bad things about you…you must make up your mind to do something with your life.’ ‘True,’ sighed Sebastien…’But what can I do? There’s nothing that interests me.’

‘You

A child arrives: everyone throws stones at him and insults him.

must

be

bored.’

He finally comes to the realization of why his life went the way it did, which comes down to the sad fact that parents will inevitably try to relive and redeem their failed lives through the hoped successes of their progeny:

“I was a stimulus to my father’s vanity, the promise of social elevation, the impersonal

summation of his incoherent dreams and peculiar ambitions. I did not exist in myself; it was

he who existed or rather re-existed through me. He did not love me; he loved himself in me.

Strange as it may seem, I am sure that by sending me to school, my father, in good faith, felt that he was going there himself…receiving the benefits of a good education which in his mind ought to lead to the highest positions in the land. From the day when it became clear that nothing of what he had dreamed for himself (not for me) could be realized…I no longer existed for him at all.”

Sebastien further notes how his upbringing and education has instilled in him a timidity of thought that binds him to social convention and the upholding of the status quo, even as all measure of reason and logic rejects same:

“I cannot conceive…of a moral system for the universe, free of all hypocrisies or religious, political, legal and social barbarities, without being instantly gripped by the same religious and social terrors inculcated in me at school. However brief the time I spent there, however apparently impervious I thought I was to that depressing and servile education…its terrors and slavery have soaked into my brain and poisoned my soul. They have made me too cowardly to think for myself…

As for priests, they make me shudder. I can see the deceit in what they preach, the deceit in the consolations they offer…I feel that priests are only here in society in order to keep man steeped in his intellectual filth and to create out of the enslaved multitudes a flock of brute idiots and cowards…”

Finally, Sebastien comes to realize the innate futility of trying to help those who will not accept that help and are unwilling to change, and arrives at a profound understanding of human nature and society as a whole:

“I too used to want to devote myself to others…through pity and reason. I soon realized it was absurd and pointless…everything I see makes me despair and feel sickened. Fundamentally, all these people hate and despise one another. The bourgeoise hate the workers, the workers hate the tramps, the tramps seek out (those) more wretched than themselves…to hate and despise.

Everyone struggles to maintain the fatal exclusivity of his own class, to make even narrower the prison cell in which he shakes his eternal chains. I…have occasionally tried to point out to the miserable wretches the injustice of their condition and their inalienable right to revolt, tried to direct their hatred not lower but higher, but they only became suspicious and turned their backs…

There is an inertia, strengthened by centuries of religious and authoritarian atavism, which it is impossible to overcome. Man would only have to stretch out his arms for his chains to fall away; he would only have to move his legs for his ball and chain to break; but he will never make that gesture towards freedom. He has been softened up, emasculated…trapped in his moral abjection and slavish submission.”

In due course, the Franco-Prussian War breaks out. Rather than stirring an appropriate horror throughout the land, however, this stirs something else entirely among the nation… The cluelessness and underlying bloodthirstiness of the general populace here has strong parallels with today:

“Today a regiment…passed through (town)…everyone looks forward to it in a way I can scarcely understand and which it is impossible to share, but which is no less strong for all that it resides in the vulgar heart of the multitude. It is curious how the people respond to only two stimuli: religion and war, the two greatest enemies of moral development.

…The crowd swells, filled by the same wild instinct. It really is a crowd now and it strikes me as absolutely hideous. It seems to me that I never before grasped so clearly the unerring stupidity of this human herd, the powerlessness of these creatures, so immune to natural beauty. To make them crawl out of their holes, to put those broad, atavistic, brutish smiles on their faces, they have to be promised barbarous spectacles, degrading pleasures aimed only at the lowest and meanest among them.”

Even his gentle, sexually curious and devoted girlfriend Marguerite joins in on the mob mentality, becoming quite excited and aroused by the pomp and circumstance of the parading troops.

“I have never seen her like this before, so impatient, her eyes aglow and her whole body trembling with excitement, except when such behavior is directed at me…her gaze, now stripped of any shame, is a mixture of cruelty, savagery and submission, which strikes fear into my heart…she has submitted (to the pageantry of war and the battlefield) sexually.”

But Sebastien finds to his dismay that the shadow of the neanderthal resides within the breast of every man:

“I am gripped by emotion despite myself. It is neither pride, nor admiration, nor a feeling of patriotism; it is a kind of vague, latent sense of heroism, and whatever there is in me of the bestial and savage is awoken…and I am just like the crowd I despise. The same soul that horrifies me is inside me, with all its brutishness, its love of violence and killing.”

He confronts one young boy entranced with the potent wine of jingoist sentiment:

“…are you glad to be going into the army?…do you know what your “Country” is?’ He stares at me in astonishment. Clearly he has never considered the question.

‘…your “Country” is a few rogues who have taken it upon themselves to make you into something less than a man, less than an animal or a plant: a number…In other words, for reasons of which you know nothing and which are nothing to do with you, they’ll take away your job, your love, your freedom, your whole life.”

After being forced to gaze into this collective abyss encompassing both his societal intimates and himself, Sebastien can no longer enjoy their company as he once did, and finds himself more alone than ever:

“Madame…is not as intelligent as I used to think. She is full of bourgeois prejudices and meanness of spirit and understands nothing of the feelings gnawing away at me…we speak of meaningless, random things, the only things she can talk about…it is terrible never to have…a simple, straightforward soul…to whom you could reveal yourself just as you are, and who would respond to what you feel and think, correct your errors, encourage you and direct you.”

Nevertheless, he has one passionate fling with his beloved Marguerite, whose love and honest communication with each other in a physical sense brings one brief, solitary ray of light to the narrative, as he muses in the afterglow:

“He sensed…a slow regaining of his own sanity, a slow return of the senses to peace, a place for his injured heart to rest in calm and purity, with no dark, constraining horizons. He suddenly experienced again old feelings of enthusiasm and generosity…and a boundless love for those who suffer…he had never before seen how clearly how empty, useless and guilty his life had been, how it was constantly threatened by the vice of inaction…

‘I’m twenty years old and I have done nothing with my life…I must make up my mind not to waste my manhood in the same way as I’ve wasted my adolescence.”

Unfortunately, he soon finds the destiny he had been unable to envision as a fait accompli, when he encounters a meaningless death on the battlefield of a pointless war.

Ouch.

Strong stuff indeed. With Sebastien Roch, Mirbeau delivers one of the angriest of his missives, all the more disturbing for bearing the mark of autobiographicality. Is it any wonder that a boy who suffered similar experience to that described herein would later bear the disgust for societal blindness and stupidity so brilliantly and savagely skewered in novels like Diary of a Chambermaid and Torture Garden?

like Diary of a Chambermaid a nd Torture Garden ? Sebastien Roch ultimately works on two

Sebastien Roch ultimately works on two levels. As a narrative, it serves a tale by and for the outsider, the downtrodden, those who by choice or no stand outside the mainstream, the commonplace, those who fit into the petty cliques and live by and for the pettiness of accepted more. Those who envision a life beyond a continual striving up an imaginary ladder of achievement and “proof” that one is somehow “worthy” of ascension to the next level, culminating in a moderately “happy” marriage with a statistical 1.5 offspring, a modest house in the suburbs, dreams of a career in middle management and a sideline as a “soccer mom”. Those who understand that there’s a lot more to life than petty “ideals” such as these…

And as a manifesto of sorts, it delivers a resounding condemnation of such surprisingly contemporary topics as child abuse, exploitation, bullying, the whole overachiever culture that drives parents to push their children in extreme ways in the hopes of creating a sports hero or corporate leader, and the culpability of the Church and public authorities in allowing these sort of things to go on under its auspices (and in fact, actively covering them up for “the good of the Church”, to allow the institution to continue undaunted, retaining its imaginary “authority” and veneer of “respectability” at the cost of human lives and very souls).

In both of these respects, the book displays Decadence’s typically forward thinking and progressive (particularly for the time) understanding of human psychology, sociology, and politics – from the vagaries, conflicted desires and fallibility of the individual to the lowest common denominator atavism and abject stupidity of the group (ranging all the way from

small social circles to society at large and as a whole), dissecting equally the self and other with a refreshing sense of honesty, fearlessness and existential authenticity so noticeably absent in the ‘literature’ of today, designed entirely for commercial purposes and filled with a vapid emptiness at core.

While hardly a pleasant read, this makes Sebastien Roch a book more relevant than ever, and one that needs to be read as a sort of assigned curriculum for prospective parents, teachers, and religious leaders – one whose lessons bear a perfect and direct applicability to the societal blights of our own day, and whose warnings must be hearkened to.

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Torture Garden

“You’re a child,” repeated Clara. “You speak as you would in Europe, dear. And you have stupid scruples, just as they would have in Europe…life is free, happy and boundless, free from conventions and without prejudices and laws. At least for us…Liberty has no other limits than yourself…nor love anything but the triumphant variety of your desires. Europe and its hypocritical barbaric civilisation is a lie. What else do you find there but lies? You lie to yourself and others – you lie about everything that, in the depths of your soul, you recognise as the truth.

You are forced to pretend outward respect for people and institutions which you find ridiculous…you remain cowardly, attached to moral or social conventions you despise, condemn and which you know lack all foundation…it’s the permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires on one hand and all the dead forms and vain phantoms of your civilisation on the other that makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced.

In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality because every moment the free play of your strength is restrained, impeded, and checked. That’s the poisonous and mortal wound of the civilised world. With us, there’s nothing like that… everything is conducive to a free life and to love. What are you afraid of? What are you leaving behind?”

- Clara, femme fatale of Octave Mirbeau’s Le Jardin du Supplices (Torture Garden).

No less a personage than Oscar Wilde apparently described this book as “revolting…a sort of grey adder”, and once we get to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to disagree. The fact that both Wilde, a noted bon vivant and deliberate satirist and transgressor of traditional mores, and myself agree on this point should give fair warning to the skittish among us: this is strong stuff, particularly for the period, and should be approached with trepidation by the bourgeoise in mentality, the moralist, the uptight.

Still with me? Good, let’s begin.

After the usual welcome and informative historical introduction and analysis by Brian Stableford, we are transported to the frontispiece, which presents the bulk of the novel as a story within a story. A gathering of literati turns conversationally towards the idea that the driving force of civilization and human nature may actually be murder. This would seem to be a somewhat spurious premise at first sight, until you realize Mirbeau is pointing an acidic finger directly at the warmongering of nations and thier governments for the aggrandizement

of domestic finance and other personal gain (i.e. land and possessions from their targets, voluntary surrender of freedoms and submission to government intrusion and martial law from their own citizenry).

At length, one “man with a ravaged face”, apparently unknown to the author relating this section, begins to interject with assurance his experience and perspective on the matter. And thus the tale begins…

Split into two major sections, Mirbeau’s non-traditional approach actually proves quite effective. Like a well constructed suite or symphony, each successive movement builds the narrative tension, suspending the reader with that unspoken question of where all this is going (and providing subtle intimations of just how horrible the end of all this will be).

In the first section (which is technically the second, after the wraparound of the frontispiece), we are introduced to our unnamed protagonist (who remains thus throughout the course of the proceedings, thus becoming an obvious cipher and allegorically, the reader him(or her)self by default).

Something of a con-man and perpetual middle management type, his primary method of subsistence is based on his college aquaintance of a political official. While some would be quick to use the usual euphemism of “getting by on connections”, this is more akin to a low level form of blackmail: he has something over on his “friend”, and continues to ride his coattails into minor prestige and a low level of notoriety and success through a succession of nepotistic “positions”. The official hates him, the narrator despises the official and himself, but it’s a living, as it were (most fellow stooges for a corporate entity, getting by on a diet of paper pushing, taking periodic measures related wholly to job justification, and relying primarily on bullsh*tting and charm for their pay will doubtless find some measure of identification herein).

In the end, seen as something of an embarrassment and an albatross, our protagonist is shuffled off to a mock position as a scientific expert in the Indies. Without even knowing what his supposed profession entails (as “embryologist”, though later events suggest a more proper designation as “icthyologist”), he sails off to Ceylon with funding that is expected, de rigeur for such government sponsored expeditions, never to see expenditure on the equipment or purpose ostensibly intended.

This one last dig at government waste out of the way, Mirbeau shifts tone with a literate mastery marked by a simultaneous subtlety and suddenness. For in the course of this journey (both literal and metaphorical, an archetypal if subverted hero’s journey ala Joseph Campbell), he encounters the fascinating Englishwoman Clara.

Flame haired and marked by occasional indications of her true, dark nature, Clara quickly gravitates from piquing the narrator’s interest to essentially enslaving him to her domination, through a gradual and ongoing reveal of her obsessions, as they embrace in a passionate and physical affair. On arrival at his intended destination, our protagonist finds himself so entwined in her web that he allows her to lure him along to her preferred home of exotic China, where awaits the perversities and pleasures of the titular Torture Garden.

“you see how (those) we accuse of being barbarians are on the contrary more civilised than us, being more deeply immersed in the logic of life and in the harmony of nature! They don’t consider the act of love as something shameful to be hidden. On the contrary, they glorify it, celebrating all its gestures and caresses…just like the ancients, for who sex, far from being an

object of infamy and an image of impurity, was a god! You can see how occidental art as a whole loses out by being forbidden the magnificent expressions of love. Among us, eroticism is wretched, stupid and chilly. It is always decietfully presented as being sinful, whereas here it retains all the vital amplitude, all the throbbing poetry, all the grandiose trepidation of nature…but you’re just a European lover, a poor timid little soul who…has been stupidly indoctrinated with a fear of nature and a hatred of love by the Catholic religion. It has falsified and perverted the meaning of life within you.”

Now the book takes another leap in time, as we join the lovers post-separation, at some unspecified point down the road. Our narrator had attempted to separate himself from his obsessive submission to the pernicious influence of Clara and her appetites, which are soon to be shown in some detail. But despite recklessly joining a missionary expedition to distant lands, despite attempting to assauge his longing for her sensuous and lascivious caresses in opium, like a hero from Gautier, he only sees her, mocking him, drawing him back to her arms. And here we rejoin the lovers, upon the first flush of reunion.

Rather than welcoming him as one might expect of an absent lover, returned at last to the fold, she begins by relating the horrible and seemingly random fate of a heretofore unencountered third party to their affair, one Annie, who he remembers as astonishingly beautiful, but whom, as Clara relates, suddenly was stricken with elephantitis (oddly described as a form of leprosy), her beauty marred and driven to the point of suicide. Dazed by his long journey and horrified by this gruesome bit of news, he is dragged by Clara to one of her sick pleasures, which involves tormenting starving prisoners with offerings of rotten meat. And it only gets worse from here on out, folks.

In effect, despite the virtues and accuracy of her assessment of Western culture and arguments against the foolishness of its philosophic underpinnings and repression of the natural sexual instinct, Clara becomes exposed as something wholly other, a horrible extension of a Sadean, Nietzchean, even Randian philosophic aesthetic that revels in extremes and the suffering of others. Think of her as the sort of girl who gets off on the “torture porn” of today, becoming passionate over the demented and yes, evil excesses of such now-ubiquitous garbage as Hostel, Saw, or House of Wax. Despite a number of pleasing aspects to her physically and even philosophically, in the end, this woman is one sick f**k, and becomes wholly detestable therefore (but read on…).

What makes this particular book so maddening and the “vile grey adder” of Wilde’s aphorism (and please note, that was quoted in the course of his recommendation of the book to a fellow literati and aesthete) lies in the fact that it is quintessentially Mirbeau. In other words, even beyond his assured command of the art form and undisputed mastery of the art of wordsmithing, the book and its philosophical underpinnings are driven by fundamental truth, and an absurdist critique of the firmly held societal beliefs and accepted convention of belief, “order” and “good taste” of the era (and in fact, today).

With some real zingers delivered along the way and/or with the inanities of society and its mores presented reductio ad absurdam, any number of such deeply held “patriotic” sentiments and religiosities are skewered with due mercilessness: the march of colonialism, the corruption, usuriousness, underhanded double dealings and vile hypocrisy of capitalism and commerce, politics and government, bourgeoise morality, the hegemony of the Catholic church and self aggrandizement in all its forms are exposed to the light of reason and set aflame by the torch of satire with equal incisiveness and aplomb.

Nonetheless, and in spite all of this, the character of Clara presents something of a

conundrum: is she a dedicated libertine in pursuit of personal freedom and the liberation of the natural sexual impulse, or a cruel and elitist Nietzchean fascist, whose pursuit of pleasure and freedom comes solely at the expense of that of others? To make matters even more muddled and stir the waters to an opacity of sediment, events would strongly point towards the latter: in her perverse delight at the sufferings of others (to the point where she crosses the line from observer into at least partial actor in this regard), Mirbeau presents something even more appalling than a standard Sadean anti-heroine.

For the pains that give her such shivers of (literal) orgasmic delight are not the delicious tortures of the boudoir and consensual liason, but in seeing (and in fact taking no small part in incensing) the suffering of prisoners, who whether for political variance with the ruling regime or for minor crimes, are given the undue and horrific punishment common to this day in Third World dictatorships and uprisings, or even in these very United States, under the auspices of an imaginary “war on terror”, the misnomer and violation of basic civil liberties and human rights that is the abominable “Patriot” Act and its very own Torture Garden of Guantanamo Bay. Worse, there is no ideological underpinning the simpleminded can utilize to create some fallacious “justification” for same – for Clara clearly admits she cares not why these unfortunates are being tortured and killed, and is in fact further inflamed with passion by the very intimation of their potential innocence and undeservedness for being put in this awful and final imposition.

Even among the long-suppressed scrawlings of Sade, the only novel that comes close to the depravity shown by this character is the abominable 120 Days of Sodom, a satirical and somewhat metaphorical celebration of the rich and powerful elites and their awful exercise of stripping the dignity and lives of those so unlucky as to fall under their purview. This is the line, people, where freedom and liberation cross over into dictatorship and horror, where the pleasures of breaking the imaginary and generally pointless taboos and sacred cows of societal convention and mores give way to a true and pure exercise of evil.

And the very seductiveness of her open and welcome sensuality, the very truth of a number of her assertions against prudishness, colonialism and the failings of Western civilization, make it all the more harder to reconcile the horrors and darkness that she celebrates and which serve to complete the picture of who she is as a person. Like Rachilde’s Marquise de Sade, Mary Barbe, her very likeability and correctness in a number of respects draws the reader into complicity with the contradictory deep seated wrongness of where her philosophical standpoints can lead us as individuals, or as a society. And there’s no better stimulus for re- assessment of thought, introspection and metacognitive analysis of where one truly stands than that.

Once again, I offer high recommendations to this work, for those who have ears to hear, sufficient stomach to tread the rocky waters into which it often leads, and the courage to take its implications as both exhortation and warning, and perform some much needed reassessment of who we are as human beings, and where we’re going as a society and world, before it’s too late to turn back.

* * * Diary of a Chambermaid Regular Huysmans , probably my favorite author of

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Diary of a Chambermaid

* * * Diary of a Chambermaid Regular Huysmans , probably my favorite author of the

Regular

Huysmans, probably my favorite author of the fin de siecle French Decadent movement is Octave Mirbeau, scribe of the unforgettable confessional Le Calvaire and the mind blowing social critique that is Torture Garden. But one work we had not yet addressed is perhaps the one he is best known for. This is a story which had been filmed twice, and by two much beloved directors of the French Nouvelle Vague; often considered his literary apotheosis by the powers that be.

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And so, once again, we come to address the fallacy of general critical consensus. Because

while quite intense and fiery in spirit and full of important philosophical and social commentary, this narratively motionless and thinly disguised polemic of a work doesn’t hold a dimming candle to his true masterwork, the aforementioned Torture Garden

A surprisingly angry book, Diary of a Chambermaid is simultaneously if not incongrously quite amusing. Where both Le Calvaire and Torture Garden featured fascinating if not gripping narratives suffused with politicosocial and psychological insight, Chambermaid delivers dripping sarcasm on a modern scale, with a biting satire worthy of if not superior to that of Twain, Voltaire, Moliere and their ilk.

As the introduction notes, “In Mirbeau’s portrait of…the end of the 19th century we see a society…not so different from our own. The gap between rich and poor…is now writ large across the globe. The callousness of those who hold economic power is as vicious as ever.”

and again,

“Mirbeau…railed against…the arbitrary violence of the police and the parallel atrocities committed abroad in the…colonies… Everywhere he looked, evil was paraded as good. (Therefore) hypocrisy was his prime target.”

The framing story, such as it is, revolves around one Celestine, an earthy, lusty member of the working class who makes her way as chambermaid and servant to the well off, and her observations thereof. In the process, she comes to realize the inability of riches to buy happiness, and the sorry examples of humanity those who tend to bear the financial upper hand represent:

“…something inexpressibly sad, some unspeakable weight seemed to have descended on these two creatures, till I found myself wondering what purpose they really served by their presence here on earth.”

She also provides a mouthpiece for Mirbeau to speak to the folly of finery kept under lock and key, rather than being properly utilized and enjoyed. Moreover, he notes how this bizarre mindset cuts well beyond the rich to speak to any number of us, from the jewel and chinaware hiding middle class housewife right down to the peculiarly modern perversity of the average geek collector:

“Isn’t it curious the way people like this hide everything away? Bury their silver, their jewels, their wealth, their happiness, and instead of living happily and luxuriously, insist upon living as though they were hard up?”

Celestine comes to realize through her experience how impoverished the rich truly are when divorced of their possessions, which truly seem to sum up their entire being and raison d’etre:

“The sight of Madame, slumped over her empty cases, deader than if she had really died, because she was conscious of (it)…for what death could conceivably be more horrible, for a creature who had never in her life loved anything, but had always assumed that money could buy everything, even the things without price – pleasure, charity, love…”

And of course, she notes with derision the hypocrisy of the ostensibly “moral”, who make a huge show of shoving their supposed beliefs down everyone else’s throats, while their behaviors when they assume no one is looking show all this to be an abject lie:

“Since they are so fond of lecturing other people about their morals, and demand the most complete chastity from their servants, it is quite inconceivable that they should not be at

greater pains to conceal the evidence of their own sexual manias…

How they infuriate me, these ‘respectable’ people, with their…savage contempt for any girl who happens to ‘go wrong’, and their everlasting nagging about our moral behavior…of course, none of this prevents the master, despite all his morality, pulling you on to a sofa or bed as soon as he gets a chance, and as often as not…leaving you with a child on your hands. Then, of course, it’s up to you to do what you can if you can…and if you can’t, then you and the child can just starve, for all they care. It’s no concern of theirs.”

and later,

“After a few banal…exchanges about the more futile events of the day, the conversation… settled down to a discussion of standards of propriety in society. All these poor devils, these pathetic men and women, forgetting the looseness of their own lives, displayed a relentless severity towards anyone whom they suspected…of having…show(n) too little respect for those social standards which they alone regarded as binding.”

As with Huysmans in A Rebours, Mirbeau notes here how the rich were able to exploit the poor through military service, and builds a biting net of social commentary therefrom:

“(draft) conscripts were chosen by lot. But the sons of wealthy parents, if they happened to be selected, could buy themselves out. They would get in touch…with an agency or some individual, who on payment of a premium…according to the risk involved, would find some poor devil who was prepared to take their place in the army…and if there happened to be a war, die for them.

In short, it wasn’t only in Africa that there was a slave trade…the same sort of thing is going on today. After all, what are our registry offices (modern equivalent: temp agencies and job placement agencies) and public brothels (modern equivalent: strip bars), if not markets for the sale of human flesh?”

In a direct nod to our current economic situation, where major multinational corporations making billions pay 0% on taxes, while what remains of a ‘middle class’ gets squeezed on all sides by overpriced commodities, diminishing salaries, benefits and public programs:

“I really believe…that if they could steal money from the poor they would do it with pleasure, without turning a hair.”

He also speaks to the frankly bizarre penchant for the everyday worker, and particularly the impoverished, to be dazzled by the sort of glittering idolatry of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Keeping up with the Kardashians, et al:

“The most curious, and also the saddest, part of this story is that despite…all the infamous revelations (in the media)…the (common) people envy (the rich and powerful) even more than they look down on them. Despite…all the harm they do to society, despite everything that is crushed beneath the weight of their monstrous wealth, it is precisely their money that gives them a halo of respectability, even of importance.

People are prepared to bow down to them, to greet them more readily…if a visitor were to ask what places of interest there were to see in he neighborhood, I feel convinced…(they) would reply: ‘…we have (the rich and powerful)…they are atrocious people, but we are very proud of them.’

The worship of money is the lowest of all human emotions, but it shared not only by the

bourgeoisie but also by the great majority of us…even those who are practically penniless.”

Similiarly bizarre is the penchant for the abused to throw vehement support behind their abusers, with a mouth frothing defense of conservatism and the upholding of the ‘status quo’, as evinced in the despicable child murdering anti-Semite monarchist footman Joseph. When Celestine contradicts him on one of his wild rants against the republic and the Jews, he merely

“refused to listen to a word I tried to say. He just scolded me for being unpatriotic and not loving my country, and…went off to bed.”

How little things have changed!

But still, she eventually falls for this rather sorry specimen of humanity, noting how one becomes acclimatized to any situation, however bad, inclusive of people:

“As a result of seeing him every day, I no longer find him so old and ugly. Habit has the same effect on people as on things: it is like a fog that gradually obliterates the features of a face and hides its defects. After a while you don’t seem to notice that a hunchback has got a hump!”

There’s an interesting if satirically accurate assessment of how religion and faith tends to be the last if not only desperate refuge of the helpless:

“Without being particularly devout, I nevertheless believe in religion…maybe the rich can do without it, but for people like us, it’s an absolute necessity. I know there are some people who make use of it in funny ways, and that there are plenty of priests and holy sisters who do very little credit to it. But that’s not the point. When you are unhappy – and in our job we have more than our share of unhappiness – there’s nothing like it for helping you to forget your troubles…religion and love.”

Later, this is amended by experience, and how far workaday reality and people around us are removed from the ideals represented by religion and faith:

“What a church! …All you could see were faces brutalized by ignorance and embittered mouths soured with hate. Nothing but wretched creatures who have only come there to pray for God’s help against someone else…a horrible chill seemed to envelop me.”

Sure enough, the villagers are as petty, vindictive, and seeking to exploit each other for personal gain as everyone seems to be in our own age:

“You may well imagine I advised her to sue the lawyer and his wife…if it had been me…I’d have made them cough up, all right, hundreds and thousands, 10,000 francs at least…heavens, fancy missing an opportunity like that!”

The rich are obviously no better, having little regard for the lives and well being of their charges, who are forced by economic desperation to submit to their abuses. Seldom has the exploitation of the poor by the rich been explored as angrily as here:

“Solitude is…living in other people’s houses…who have no interest in you, who regard you as being of less importance than the dogs…from whom all you get are useless, cast-off(s) and leftover(s) already going bad…

With every word, they express contempt for you, their very gestures treat you like dirt: but you must never say a word – just smile and be thankful, or else you area considered to be

ungrateful and ill-natured.”

Later, she works for a famous novelist renowned for his psychological insight, who opines of the working poor that:

“I’m really not concerned with such people…they are too small minded, completely lacking in soul…they do not fall within the scope of my psychology.’

I realized at once that, in the circles in which he moved, no one with an income less than 100,000 francs a year was expected to have a soul.”

Through Celestine, Mirbeau addresses an issue quite familiar to part time workers, contract workers, consultants, temps or new hires, who are particularly stung by the lack of enforced allocation of sick and personal time:

“I’m always having to run up and down these confounded stairs just to satisfy the mistress’ whims. And before you’ve had time to sit down for a moment…ting-a-ling-a-ling, and off you go again. Even when you’re not well, the bell never stops. And when I’m like that, I get pains in my back that almost double me up, and tear my insides till I could almost shriek. But of course, that doesn’t matter to her…no time to be unwell, no right to be in pain. Illness is a luxury that’s reserved for our employers. As for us, we just have to keep going, and look snappy about it…keep going till we drop.”

When she protests at one employer’s attempt to get some “value added service” out of her by dumping unrelated extra work on her head without compensation:

“Your job, my girl,’ said the lady severely, ‘is to do what your employers tell you to…You seem to have a very rebellious nature.”

Just as with today’s labor market, agencies and employers see fit to attempt to brainwash their prospective employees into indentured servitude without complaint:

“People are quite wrong about the country,’ she insisted. ‘There are excellent situations to be found there.’

‘Excellent? That’s a good one,’ I interrupted. ‘In the first place, there’s no such thing as an excellent situation anywhere.’

…’I beg your pardon, Mme. Celestine…there’s no such thing as a bad situation.’

‘…only a bad employer (then).”

“Not at all…only bad (employees).”

And of course, as anyone who’s ever been in any tight spots knows, money buys influence, and trumps justice at any given turn:

“Alas, at the police station, they pretended it was nothing to do with them, and when I spoke to a magistrate about it, he advised me to forget all about it, because, as he explained:

“To start with, Mademoiselle, nobody is going to believe you. And quite right, too, I assure you. For whatever would become of society if servants started getting the better of their masters?”

In fact, the working class are so put upon, that Celestine develops a shock and emotional

vulnerability at being treated like a proper human being, and notes with remarkable insight that in order to have true empathy for others, one needs to have been on the losing side at some point themselves:

“If anyone speaks kindly to me, if they do not regard me as a creature belonging to another world, something (akin to) a dog…I immediately feel as though I were once again a child. All my bitterness and hatred…disappears, and I feel nothing but unselfish affection towards those who speak to me with humanity.

I know from experience that only those who have themselves suffered can appreciate the suffering of others, even if they are socially inferior to them…there is always an element of insolence and remoteness in the kindness of those who have known nothing but happiness.”

The apotheosis of the book, it’s central premise and thrust, can be summed up in Celestine’s assessment of society and the place of the working man here:

“No one has any idea of all the worries that servants have to put up with, nor of the monstrous way in which they are continually exploited. If it’s not the employers, it’s the registry offices…not to mention your fellow servants, for some of them are pretty foul.

No one has the slightest concern for anyone else. Everybody lives, grows fat, amuses himself at the expense of someone more miserable and hard up than himself.

However much the scene may change or the background be transformed, however different… the social setting…whether it’s in a cramped, middle-class flat, or some banker’s luxurious townhouse, you find the same beastliness, the same inexorable fate.

When all’s said and done, the truth is that a girl like me is defeated even before she starts, wherever she may go and whatever she may do…poor human dung, nourishing…the rich (who) use (it) against us. There is supposed to be no more slavery nowadays. But that’s all rubbish…in practice, (the working class) are simply slaves, with all that slavery entails – the moral degradation…the spirit of revolt that breeds hatred…it is the masters who teach servants to be vicious. However pure and simple hearted they may be when they start…they are soon corrupted…day by day, they begin to adapt themselves to it, for far from being able to defend themselves against it, they find themselves on the contrary obliged to wait upon it, pamper it, respect it.”

But throughout all of the polemicizing, there is a strong undercurrent of surprisingly passionate emotion, particularly in regards to sex. Some choice reminiscences:

“I gave myself to him completely, with a zest that held nothing back, with that feverish, inventive delight that tames and overwhelms the strongest men till they beg for mercy.”

“I had no sooner got into the room and locked the door than he flung himself upon me, and threw me brutally on the bed, my skirts in the air…really, what a bitch one can be sometimes!”

“I submitted to every sensual caprice, accepting, even outstripping, his wildest fantasies…and God knows, some of them were as frightening as they were extraordinary…more inventive and ferocious in his depravity than…a satanic priest!”

In its own way, Diary of a Chambermaid is just as shocking and intentionally “scandalous” as Torture Garden. Suffused with frank eroticism and unusually blatant discussion of the sexual impulse in all its variations, we are given a more modern picture than one might expect from a novel of its vintage.

No unrealistic Sadean fantasias of doohickeys and unnatural if not impossible couplings and sordid doings here – Mirbeau speaks of what Frank Zappa once amusedly referred to as “lonely person devices” and the many varieties and quirks of the erotic impulse, with a keen attention and insight to the unspoken perversities we publicly reject; those thoughts and desires that flash through our minds which we often choose to suppress for fear of some very realistic consequences to our relationships with those around us.

Unfortunately, as with the aforementioned masterwork, there is also a grimmer, more “acceptable” (in puritanical American terms, anyway) undercurrent of violence and even animal cruelty.

While utilized with clear narrative purpose and appropriately symbolic of the baseness mankind is all too oft capable of descending to, I for one could certainly have done without Celestine’s cruel taunting of the Captain’s pride that led to his killing (and consumption) of his beloved and affectionate domesticated ferret, or the twisted rapist and child murderer Joseph, who takes sadistic pleasure in prolonging the necessary killings of livestock used for the foodstuff of the chateau and its denizens.

As with Torture Garden, this exceedingly ugly flaw mars the otherwise perfectly entertaining and quite incisive portrayal of a world so far removed from the divine Edenic ideal as to be a complete inversion of what we are capable of, and which the best of us actively strive towards attainment of.

Despite its increased reliance on humor and frank depictions of eroticism, Diary of a Chambermaid differs from both Le Calvaire and Torture Garden in its white hot rage against social injustice and the wide net of social dissolution that follows in direct relation to the measure of economic inequality a given society allows itself to bear.

As such, it is often a difficult read, particularly as it is a book in which little actually happens. In effect, Celestine goes from one depraved, abusive, hypocritical employer to the next, very much in the mold of Sade’s Justine – though being more of a Juliette in spirit, she does not fare half so poorly throughout.

As strong willed as Rachilde‘s Mary Barbe but marked by a measure of centrist acceptance of poor social conditions, Celestine bounces back and forth in time between descriptions of her final employers and those she supported previously, and when she runs out of things to say about herself and the many situations she finds herself in, she describes the horrors of the job placement agency and the less fortunate, weaker willed girls who find themselves in still worse straits thereby.

Amusing, but equally biting, and with little true progression in narrative if not character, it’s hard to truly like this book: it stands more as a sort of political manifesto than a proper novel. The personages who people the pages within drift by interchangeably, forgettable ciphers of a sort as Celestine drifts through her working life, and in the end, the only change in her persona is a negative one.

While well written and certainly humorous in a pointed satirical sense, think of Diary of a Chambermaid more as a particularly well done political cartoon than a proper Decadent

novel, and its merits deserve to be judged on that measure alone. And in this respect, it’s a standout classic, more appropriate to our own times and where we’re allowing society to be taken than even the ones in which it was created.

In essence, what Mirbeau is telling us is what those of a certain generation and their children were sagely taught and instilled with, but which appears to have fallen entirely by the wayside in recent years due to some practiced psychological and politicosocial manipulation on the part of the powers that be, in order to cement and further their dominance and bring dissenters into line if not to heel with their insidious plans for our collective future under their absolute authority.

It’s a simple postulate, but one that demands centrality to the intelligent and rational among us, and any who would seek after personal and existential authenticity and autonomy.

“Question authority”.

And the rationale is even simpler.

Because you’re no better than I am. Because when it comes down to it, we are all equals.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Bunuel gravitated to this of all Decadent novels. Simultaneously amusing and absurdist, anarchistic and droll, it skewers pretensions on all sides of the putative fence, slicing and dicing all comers with an equally sharp edge.

And yet, for all that, it’s a warm novel, one that demands an equal sense of philosophical detachment (in that whatever you are, and wherever you stand, be it politically, socially, economically or in terms of religion and belief, expect to be dissected mercilessly and exposed for all the ridiculousness of your chosen position) and emotional empathy.

Because for all everyone’s failings and foibles, be they the many bourgeoise and wealthy employers or the impoverished servants, staffers and villagers that wend their way through Celestine’s life and memories, there is an equal sense of understanding, an acceptance that we are all imperfect and make the same mistakes, driven and misled by crazy and misguided opinions, victims of our own confused psyche.

Mirbeau understands anarchism to a far greater degree than the general public or those lunatics who let revolutionary polemic and the weight of connotation carried by the idea of “direct action” get in the way of the real message and value of the mindset, which is that regardless of all the bullshit we’re fed, irrespective of the artificial barriers we build up to separate ourselves from one another through location, economic status or what beliefs, faiths and political allegiances we ascribe to, we’re all on equal ground, and are all of equal value (or lack thereof, if you buy into a more Hobbesian, Schopenaueresque, right wing or satanic mindset).

We’re humans first and foremost, and there isn’t a one of us who can dare to claim superiority to the rest, like it or not.

In the grand scheme of things, it is this, and not any mistaken pie in the sky dreams of some sort of social uprising somehow overturning oppression and revealing as if by magic some long dreamt of utopia, that makes anarchism so “dangerous” to the powers that be, and the one thing that makes the philosophy of any value whatsoever. For what Babelesque edifice of “authority” and longstanding sociocultural more can stand in the face of such a simple and

honest truth?

And in the end, it is that, if nothing else, which makes Diary of a Chambermaid essential reading, and a true classic of fin-de-siècle literature.