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larvatus prodeo - l’homme aux rats
December 1st, 2009
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l’homme aux rats
Anarchist, Symbolist, insubordinate dreyfusard, man about town, Octave Mirbeau is an indispensable maître mineur of the Third Republic. His most popular work, Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, merited film treatment by the greatest Latin directors of all times, Luis Buñuel and Jean Renoir. His most scandalous novel remains unfilmable. In Le Jardin des supplices, which appeared in 1899, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau targeted fear and hatred, the twin foundations of bourgeois society, in a narrative arc traversing the terrain of desire and disgust to culminate in a strange sexual obsession.

Ever since Aristotle, the understanding of society has been founded upon regulation of sexuality. At the very outset of Politics the family serves as the cornerstone of its subject matter. Later on, at 1261a5-10, Aristotle defends family ties against Socrates’ proposal of community (κοινωνία) of wives and sons, decrying the latter as not only an impractical expedient, but also a threat to the unity of the state. In Nicomachean Ethics 1107a8-12, Aristotle places adultery (μοιχεία) next to theft (κλοπή) and murder (ἀνδροφονία) amongst actions that are always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. At 1148b27-30 he cites sexual perversion (τῶν ἀφροδισίων τοῖς ἄρρεσιν) as a compulsion akin to plucking out the hair (τριχῶν τίλσεις) and biting the nails and eating cinders and earth (ὀνύχων τρώξεις, ἔτι δ᾽ ἀνθράκων καὶ γῆς). Plato’s Socrates had sustained sexual equality by focusing on the soul in disregard of the body. By contrast, Aristotle could not conceive of any case in which the soul can act or be acted without involving the body. (De Anima 403a5-7 and 412b9.) The peripatetic political order was thus grounded in a rigorous construal of gender and its social sanctions.

Fear and hatred have circumscribed social orders since times immemorial. Their explicit acknowledgment as bases of governance traces back to the early Roman empire. According to Suetonius, Tiberius, the first Roman ruler to dispense with the republican façade maintained by his predecessor Augustus, responded to verses denouncing his reign with a quip “oderint, dum probent”, let them hate me, so long as they respect me. (De Vita Caesarum, Tiberius, 59.) His successor Caligula amplified this policy by trading respect for fear throughreverting to the words of the tyrant Atreus, as reimagined in the tragedy Lucius Attius: “oderint, dum metuant”. (Op. cit., C. Caligula, 30.) As the story went, Atreus, King of Mycenae, avenged himself against his brother Thyestes, who had seduced his wife, by killing Thyestes’ sons and treating him to a hearty meal, before announcing its ingredients. Yet in conveying Atreus’ boast in his First Philippic against Marc Antony eighty-five years earlier, Cicero had discounted fear as a foundation of governance:
Carum esse civem, bene de re publica mereri, laudari, coli, diligi gloriosum est; metui vero et in odio esse invidiosum, detestabile, imbecillum, caducum. quod videmus etiam in fabula illi ipsi qui ‘oderint, dum metuant’ dixerit perniciosum fuisse. For a citizen to be dear to citizens, to deserve well of the republic, to be praised, to be respected, to be loved, is glorious; but to be feared, and to be an object of hatred, is invidious, detestable, enfeebled, debased. And we see that, even in a dramatic narrative, the very man who said, “let them hate me, so long as they fear me”, found this principle ruinous to act upon.
In his moral treatise De Officiis I.97, Cicero amplified this thought by pointing out that it would seem improper if just men like Aeacus or Minos said “let them hate, if only they fear” (oderint, dum metuant) or “the father is himself his children's tomb” (natis sepulchro ipse est parens); but when Atreus speaks those lines, they call forth applause; for the sentiment is in keeping with the character. Thus Cicero, the old school republican, juxtaposed governance through hatred and fear with abridgment of bloodline through cannibalism, invoking the most powerful emetic in his opposition to rule through intimidation. And yet political modernity threw in its lot with Tiberius, if not with Caligula. Thus in his manual of governance, Machiavelli asked whether it was better for the ruler to be feared or loved. Considering the example of Julius Caesar, who obtained empire by liberality, he allowed that it was very necessary to be considered liberal when seeking to establish one’s rule; by contrast, liberality was dangerous, when aiming to maintain it. As long as the incumbent ruler could forestall contempt and hatred of his subjects, his rule was better served by their fear than by their love, for men would act as he wished if they feared him. Thomas Hobbes complemented Machiavelli’s princely precepts within a populist perspective, by singling out fear as the main motive for the social contract. Elaborating upon his disparagement of the state of nature as a war of every man against every man, in Chapter XIII of his Leviathan, Hobbes observed:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
In a cooler spirit, Max Weber diluted the Hobbesian prescription for total alienation of political autonomy to the sovereign, into his definition of the Gewaltmonopol des Staates. Weber construed the very essence of statehood as the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. While this monopoly might have originated in the primal fears of anarchy rehearsed by Hobbes, its scope and extent allow for the right to use physical force to be ascribed to other institutions or to individuals, inasmuch as the state permits it. Weber’s definition identified state not as the sole possessor of the right to use violence, but as its the sole source. Nonetheless, conspicuous production of private violence betokens a subversion of this monopoly. In the hands of Mirbeau, ambivalent witness to the anarchist propaganda par le fait, this production connected with the other primal social mandate.

Where Aristotle concerns himself with constructive agenda, Mirbeau approaches his subject by undermining its foundations. In his novel, this technique develops in the preliminary discussion of murder as the cornerstone of all human social arrangements, recounted in a rhythmic setting that reverberated with the prose poems of Charles Baudelaire. Having overstressed his domestic social network in the capacity of a political flunky, the anonymous globetrotting narrator traverses a Cantonese prison in the company of his sadistic sultana, egging him on towards the spectacle of ever escalating outrage:
—Écoute !… J’ai vu pendre des voleurs en Angleterre, j’ai vu des courses de taureaux et garrotter des anarchistes en Espagne… En Russie, j’ai vu fouetter par des soldats, jusqu’à la mort, de belles jeunes filles… En Italie, j’ai vu des fantômes vivants, des spectres de famine déterrer des cholériques et les manger avidement… J’ai vu, dans l’Inde, au bord d’un fleuve, des milliers d’êtres, tout nus, se tordre et mourir dans les épouvantes de la peste… À Berlin, un soir, j’ai vu une femme que j’avais aimée la veille, une splendide créature en maillot rose, je l’ai vue, dévorée par un lion, dans une cage… Toutes les terreurs, toutes les tortures humaines, je les ai vues… C’était très beau!… Mais je n’ai rien vu de si beau… comprends-tu?… que ces forçats chinois… c’est plus beau que tout!… Tu ne peux pas savoir… je te dis que tu ne peux pas savoir… Annie et moi, nous ne manquions jamais un mercredi… Viens, je t’en prie!—Listen!… I’ve seen thieves hanged in England; I’ve seen bullfights and anarchists garroted in Spain… In Russia, I’ve seen beautiful young girls whipped to death by soldiers… In Italy, I’ve seen living ghosts, specters of famine dig up and devour the bodies of cholera victims… I’ve seen in India, at river’s edge, thousands of beings, all naked, writhe and die in the horrors of the plague… In Berlin, one evening I’ve seen a woman I had loved the night before, a splendid creature in pink tights, I’ve seen her, devoured by a lion in a cage… All the horrors, all the human tortures, I have seen them… It was beautiful!… But I’ve never seen anything as beautiful… do you understand?… that these Chinese convicts… It’s more beautiful than everything!… You cannot know… I tell you, you cannot know… Annie and I never missed a Wednesday… Come on, I beg you!
Their journey bears strange fruit when the world-weary expatriate and his vaporous companion confront the extreme beauty of corporal punishment in a prison garden dedicated to its painstaking cultivation:

Auguste Rodin, lithograph for Le Jardin des supplices, Ambroise Vollard, 1902

    —Qu’est-ce que c’est que ce supplice du rat ?… demanda mon amie… Et comment se fait-il que je ne le connaisse point ?
    —Un chef-d’œuvre, milady… un pur chef-d’œuvre !… affirma d’une voix retentissante le gros homme dont le corps flasque se tassa davantage dans l’herbe.
    —J’entends bien… mais encore ?
    —Un chef-d’œuvre, en vérité !… Et vous voyez… vous ne le connaissez point… personne ne le connaît… Quelle pitié !… Comment voulez-vous que je ne sois pas humilié ?…
    —Pouvez-vous nous le décrire ?…
    —Si je le puis ?… Mais parfaitement oui, je le puis… Je vais vous l’expliquer, et vous jugerez… Suivez-moi bien…
    Et le gros homme, avec des gestes précis qui dessinaient, dans l’air, des formes, parla ainsi  :
    —Vous prenez un condamné, charmante milady, un condamné, ou tout autre personnage—car il n’est pas nécessaire, pour la réussite de mon supplice, que le patient soit condamné à n’importe quoi—vous prenez un homme, autant que possible, jeune, fort, et dont les muscles soient bien résistants… en vertu de ce principe que plus il y a force, plus il y a lutte, plus il y a lutte, plus il y a douleur !… Bon… Vous le déshabillez… Bon… Et, quand il est tout nu—n’est-ce pas, milady ?—vous le faites s’agenouiller, le dos courbé, sur la terre, où vous le maintenez par des chaînes, rivées à des colliers de fer qui lui serrent la nuque, les poignets, les jarrets et les chevilles… Bon ! je ne sais si je me fais bien comprendre ?… Vous mettez alors, dans un grand pot percé, au fond, d’un petit trou—un pot de fleurs, milady !—vous mettez un très gros rat, qu’il convient d’avoir privé de nourriture, pendant deux jours, afin d’exciter sa férocité… Et ce pot, habité par ce rat, vous l’appliquez hermétiquement, comme une énorme ventouse, sur les fesses du condamné, au moyen de solides courroies, attachées à une ceinture de cuir, qui lui entoure les reins… Ah ! ah ! ça se dessine !…
    Il nous regarda, malicieusement, du coin de ses paupières rabattues, afin de juger de l’effet que ses paroles produisaient sur nous…
    —Et alors ?… fit Clara, simplement.
    —Alors, milady, vous introduisez, dans le petit trou du pot—devinez quoi ?
    —Est-ce que je sais, moi ?…
    Le bonhomme se frotta les mains, sourit affreusement, et il reprit :
    —Vous introduisez une tige de fer, rougie au feu d’une forge… d’une forge portative qui est là, près de vous… Et, quand la tige de fer est introduite, que se passe-t-il ?… Ah ! ah ! ah !… Imaginez vous-même ce qui doit se passer, milady ?…
    —Mais allez donc, vieux bavard !… ordonna mon amie dont les petits pieds colères trépignaient le sable de l’allée…
    —Là !… là !… calma le prolixe tourmenteur… Un peu de patience, milady… Et procédons avec méthode, s’il vous plaît… Donc, vous introduisez, dans le trou du pot, une tige de fer, rougie au feu d’une forge… Le rat veut fuir la brûlure de la tige et son éclaboussante lumière… Il s’affole, cabriole, saute et bondit, tourne sur les parois du pot, rampe et galope sur les fesses de l’homme, qu’il chatouille d’abord et qu’ensuite il déchire de ses pattes, et mord de ses dents aiguës… cherchant une issue, à travers les chairs fouillées et sanglantes… Mais, il n’y a pas d’issue… ou, du moins, dans les premières minutes de l’affolement, le rat ne trouve pas d’issue… Et la tige de fer, manœuvrée avec habileté et lenteur, se rapproche toujours du rat… le menace… lui roussit le poil… Que dites-vous de ce prélude ?
    Il respira, quelques secondes, et, posément, avec autorité, il enseigna :
    —Le grand mérite, en ceci, est qu’il faut savoir prolonger cette opération initiale le plus qu’on peut, car les lois de la physiologie nous apprennent qu’il n’est rien de plus horrible que la combinaison sur une chair humaine des chatouillements et des morsures… Il peut même arriver que le patient en devienne fou… Il hurle et se démène… son corps, resté libre dans l’intervalle des colliers de fer, palpite, se soulève, se tord, secoué par de douloureux frissons… Mais les membres sont maintenus solidement par les chaînes… le pot, par les courroies… Et les mouvements du condamné ne font qu’augmenter la fureur du rat, à laquelle, bientôt, vient s’ajouter la griserie du sang… C’est sublime, milady !…
    —Et enfin ?… fit, d’une voix brève et tremblée, Clara qui avait légèrement pâli.
    Le bourreau claqua de la langue et il poursuivit :
    —Enfin—car je vois que vous êtes pressée de connaître le dénouement de cette admirable et joviale histoire—enfin… sous la menace de la tige rougie et grâce à l’excitation de quelques brûlures opportunes, le rat finit par trouver une issue… une issue naturelle, milady… et combien ignoble !… Ah !… ah !… ah !…
    —Quelle horreur !… cria Clara.
    —Ah ! vous voyez… Je ne vous le fais pas dire… Et je suis fier de l’intérêt que vous prenez à mon supplice… Mais attendez… Le rat pénètre, par où vous savez… dans le corps de l’homme… en élargissant de ses pattes et de ses dents… le terrier… Ah !… ah !… ah !… le terrier qu’il creuse frénétiquement, comme de la terre… Et il crève étouffé, en même temps que le patient, lequel, après une demi-heure d’indicibles, d’incomparables tortures, finit, lui aussi, par succomber à une hémorragie… quand ce n’est pas à l’excès de la souffrance… ou encore à la congestion d’une folie épouvantable… Dans tous les cas, milady… et quelle que soit la cause finale à cette mort, croyez que c’est extrêmement beau !…
    Satisfait, avec des airs d’orgueil triomphant, il conclut :
    —Est-ce pas extrêmement beau, milady ? N’est-ce pas là, véritablement, une invention prodigieuse… un admirable chef-d’œuvre, en quelque sorte classique, et dont vous chercheriez, vainement, l’équivalent, dans le passé ?… Je ne voudrais pas manquer de modestie, mais convenez, milady, que les démons qui, jadis, hantèrent les forêts du Yunnan, n’imaginèrent jamais un pareil miracle… Eh bien, les juges n’en ont pas voulu !… Je leur apportais là, vous le sentez, quelque chose d’infiniment glorieux… quelque chose d’unique, en son genre, et capable d’enflammer l’inspiration de nos plus grands artistes… Ils n’en ont pas voulu… Ils ne veulent plus rien… plus rien !…. Le retour à la tradition classique les effraie… Sans compter aussi toutes sortes d’interventions morales, bien pénibles à constater… l’intrigue, la concussion, la vénalité concurrente… le mépris du juste… l’horreur du beau… est-ce que je sais ?… Vous pensez du moins, je suis sûr, que, pour un tel service, ils m’ont élevé au mandarinat ? Ah bien oui !… Rien, milady… je n’ai rien eu… Ce sont là des symptômes caractéristiques de notre déchéance… Ah ! nous sommes un peuple fini, un peuple mort !… Les Japonais peuvent venir… nous ne sommes plus capables de leur résister… Adieu la Chine !…
    Il se tut.
    —Octave Mirbeau, Le Jardin des supplices
    —What is this rat torture?… my friend asked… And how is it that I do not know it?
    —A masterpiece, milady… a pure masterpiece!… affirmed in a ringing voice the big man whose flaccid body was drooping in the grass.
    —I understand, but how so…?
    —A masterpiece, indeed! And you see…… you know nothing of it… nobody knows… What a pity!… How could you expect me not to be humiliated?…
    —Could you describe it?…
    —Could I? Certainly I could… I shall explain it, and you will make up your mind… Follow me well…
    And the big man, with precise gestures that described figures in the air, spoke as follows:
    —You take a convict, charming milady, a convict, or any other character—for it is not necessary for the success of my ordeal, that the patient be sentenced to anything—you take a man, as far as possible, young, strong, and whose muscles are well resistant… on the principle that more strength means more struggle, and more struggle means more suffering!… Very well… You undress him… Very well… When he is naked—is that right, milady?—You make him kneel, his back arched, on the ground where you hold him down by chains, riveted to iron collars that encircle his neck, wrists, knees, and ankles… Very well! I am not sure that I make myself understood?… You then make a small hole in the bottom of a large pot—a flowerpot, milady!—You put inside a very large rat, which should have been deprived of food for two days, in order to excite its ferocity… And this pot, inhabited by that rat, you apply tightly, like a huge suction cup, to the buttocks of the condemned man, with solid straps, attached to a leather belt, which encircles his hips… Ah! Ah! it takes shape!…
    He glanced at us maliciously, from under his lowered eyelids, to judge the effect that his words had on us…
    —And then?… said Clara, naively.
    —Then, milady, you insert into the small opening in the pot—guess what?
    —How would I know?…
    The man rubbed his hands, smiled horribly, and continued
    —You insert an iron rod, heated to a red glow by the fire of a forge… a portable forge that is right here, near you… And when the iron rod is inserted, what happens next?… Ah! Ah! ah!… Imagine yourself what should happen, milady?…
    —Go on, old chatterbox!… ordered my friend whose small feet angrily kicked the sand of the alley…
    —There!… There!… soothed the verbose torturer… A little patience, milady… Let us proceed methodically, if you please… So, you insert into the opening of the pot, an iron rod, heated to a red glow by the fire of a forge… The rat wants to flee the fire of the rod and its searing light… He panics, dashes, jumps and leaps, turns on the walls of the pot, crawls and gallops on the man’s buttocks, which he first tickles and then he tears with his legs and bites with his sharp teeth… seeking a way out, through the scrambled and bloody flesh… But there is no exit… or, at least in the first few minutes of panic, the rat cannot find any exit… And the iron rod, wielded skillfully and slowly, constantly approaches the rat…… threatening it… scorching its hair… What do you say to this prelude?
    He took a few breaths, and calmly, authoritatively, instructed us:
    —The great merit in this, is that this initial exercise must be prolonged as much as we can, because the laws of physiology tell us that there is nothing more horrible than the combination on a human flesh of tickling and biting… It may even happen that the patient goes insane… He screams and struggles… his body, formerly free in the midst of iron collars,, quivers, lifts, twists, shaken by painful shudders… But his limbs are held securely by the chains… the pot, by the straps… And the movements of the condemned man only increase the fury of the rat, which will soon be augmented with intoxication by blood… It is sublime, milady!…
    —And in the end?… said, in a soft and trembling voice, Clara, who had slightly blanched.
    The executioner clicked his tongue and continued:
    —In the end—for I see that you are eager to know the outcome of this worthy and merry tale—in the end… under the threat of red-hot rod and excited by a few well-timed burns, the rat eventually finds a way out… a natural exit, milady… and how vile!… Ah… ah!… ah!…
    —How horrible!… cried Clara.
    —Ah! you see… I do not make you say it… And I am proud of the interest that you take in my ordeal… But wait… The rat penetrates, you know where… in the human body… by expanding it with its paws and his teeth… the hole… Ah… ah!… ah!… the hole he frantically diggs, as if in the ground… And it suffocates, at the same time that the patient who, after a half-hour of unspeakable, incomparable torture, at last also succumbs to blood loss… if not to excess of suffering… or a stroke of terrible madness… In all cases, milady… and whatever the final cause of this death, believe me that it is extremely beautiful!…
    Satisfied, with a triumphant look of pride, he concluded:
    —Is this not extremely beautiful, milady? Is this not truly a prodigious invention… a wonderful masterpiece, in a way classical, and one that makes you seek, unsuccessfully, its equivalent in the past?… I do not want to appear immodest, but grant me, milady, that the demons that once haunted the forests of Yunnan, never imagined such a miracle… Well, the judges did not want it!… I brought to them, as you perceive, something infinitely glorious… something unique in its kind, and capable of inflaming the inspiration of our greatest artists… They wanted nothing more… nothingmore!… The return to the classical tradition frightens them.… Not counting also all sorts of moral quibbles, quite painful to state… the intrigue, the extortion, the competitive venality… the contempt for the righteous… the horror of beauty… what do I know?… You would think, at least, that for such a service, they had made me a mandarin? Of course you would!… Nothing, milady… I received nothing… These are the characteristic symptoms of our decay… Ah! we are a nation done with, a dead nation!… The Japanese can come… we are no longer able to resist them… Farewell to China!…
    He fell silent.
    —Octave Mirbeau, The Torture Garden, translated by MZ
As a rodent, the rat is both taxonomically and etymologically dedicated to gnawing, rodere. Its intelligence and tenacity culminate in omnivoracity tending towards the extreme forms of cannibalism, qualifying this potentially docile and easily trained animal as an exemplary consumer in the wild. Since its inception 110 years ago, Mirbeau’s conjuration of rodential ass torture has gnawed and wriggled its way through the margins of respectable culture. In the run-up to World War I, it resonated in the paranoid dreams of Sigmund Freud’s Rattenmann; and in the aftermath of its sequel, it ascended from the fundamental chambers of human embodiment to the seat of its conscience, in motivating the greatest fear of George Orwell’s hapless Winston Smith.


In our own time, we find a more extroverted way of flaunting deceased rodents in a male posterior:


TRANSRATFASHION by Kristofer Paetau

…which after all, is only a contrapositive to the popular practice of not giving a rat’s ass.

Crossposted to [info]larvatus and [info]strange_tears.

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From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 18th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)

Mirbeau

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Bonjour,
Juste un mot pour vous signaler l'existence de la Société Mirbeau et du Dictionnaire Mirbeau (http://mirbeau.asso.fr/dictionnaire/). Des fois que vous seriez intéressé, à Harvard...
Mirbelliennement à vous.
P. M.
Pierre MICHEL
Société Octave Mirbeau
10 bis rue André Gautier
49000 - ANGERS
02 41 66 84 64
michel.mirbeau@free.fr
http://mirbeau.asso.fr/
http://michelmirbeau.blogspot.com/
http://michel.mirbeau.perso.sfr.fr/
http://www.scribd.com/groups/view/5552-
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