Of Tutus and Tortures

Thoughts on the Decadent and the Weird

Though the lines connecting Decadent and Weird fiction are many, resembling something of a tangled web whose only certain common ancestor is the Gothic novel, one of the primary concerns of both these traditions within fiction is a preoccupation with limits — the limits of bodily experience, the limits of the world’s possibilities, the limits of the physically possible. Intense moments of ritual sensory indulgence becomes the means by which these limits are tested, with results that range from the tragic to the comic. The ornate language of these Decadent plot conventions often resurfaces much later in a different costume and to achieve ends that are strongly related, but perhaps a slight sidestep onto a different path.

Moments in K.J. Bishop’s “The Etched City” interestingly evoke the heady delirium of the concluding carnal passages of Octave Mirbeau’s under-appreciated “Torture Garden.” Like Mirbeau’s narrator, Gwynne’s backstory is that of a fallen, amoral figure fleeing the past, for whom the carnal activities of erotic assignations and violent encounters seem all that is left of a once greater man. Present in both novels, too, are the ritualized and exhibitionistic acts of intercourse, often under the gaze of servant/slave figures and animalistic icons – this, likely, to suggest the limitations imposed by humanity’s animal heritage. But while Mirbeau seems to prefer leaving his characters suspended in a kind of post-coital nadir from which one might never awaken, Bishop cleverly tweaks this convention and draws upon the speculative elements in which her story is trafficking in order to juxtapose the ritualized intercourse with a strange “ecstasy of creation”: “[character] didn’t feel any objection about the onlooking chorus…the quest for carnal entertainment was only part of a larger, more complex pageant, one which could not sit within the compass of human passions” (281).

In the former, more realistic novel, such derangement is used to indicate simultaneously a kind of base damnation and subservience on the part of the protagonist, while Bishop introduces a speculative flavor to create a lingering sense of possibility and creation that yet remains ominous. Can the power to create be as unsettling as the power to destroy? By inverting or parodying Decadent sensibility, we’re able to see the ways in which writing with a focus on the sensuous can simultaneously ground us in our human experience and also put forth the question of what it actually means to experience something as a human. Are these carnal delights so many acts of transgression against established mores, a trap that pulls us down into our allegedly baser animal instincts, or a way of freeing ourselves from the trappings of human society, a kind of backdoor out of a social contract we didn’t necessarily sign? One eventually returns from the heights of ecstasy, an inevitable failure that constitutes perhaps the only truth available.

Torture Garden”, with its methodical, graphic, and inventive forms of torment as expiation, also noteworthily prefigures many weird works that feature obscure, ritualized forms of punishment — self-inflicted or otherwise — as a central theme. Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and others, Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Rodoreda’s “The Salamander” all come to mind, amongst others. The grisly torments inflicted upon the denizens of Mirbeau’s garden are used in a manner that is similarly abstract in terms of social/philosophical critique while remaining all too visceral in their thorough, often clinical descriptions. These excessive punishments are explicitly tied to the sensory pleasures in which the principals indulge:

‘Dear Clara,’ I objected, ‘is it really natural for you to seek sensuality in decomposition, and urge your desires to greater heights by horrible spectacles of suffering and death? Isn’t that, to the contrary, a perversion of that nature whose cult you invoke, in order to perhaps excuse whatever criminal and monstrous quality your sensuality involves?’ ‘No!’ said Clara, quickly, ‘since love and death are the same thing! And since decomposition is the eternal resurrection of life.…’”

Although Clara explicitly ties the two concepts of decomposition and resurrection together, the novel itself purposefully withholds any sense of renewal or hope. Any reading of “Torture Garden” from today’s perspective would (rightfully) point out some of the problems contained in the book’s blatant Orientalism, but the setting of the latter half of the book is indeed specifically chosen to evoke the alien, exotic, and strange as a platform for a society that differs in fundamental ways from the European setting of the first half. Here, in the Far East, a different world can be imagined. Although Mirbeau’s purpose is to conjure a world in which human society is honest with itself in ways unthinkable to the France of the late 19th century, rather than hypocritical in the cruelties it inflicts, his Orient is nonetheless an obvious fiction that is a mere half-step away from what might be properly called ‘speculative.’

The harsh dualities of truth and lies, pleasure and pain, etc, contained in Mirbeau’s exotic locale are, aptly enough, represented in the title itself. Perhaps the most important of these juxtapositions is the proximity of death and the indulgent act that creates life. In the specific case of Mirbeau’s novel, the indulgence of sex becomes a stunted failure to create. For Bishop, too, the pleasures of sex and the sensual fail to fulfill their promise in the manner we might expect, but nonetheless parody and revise our expectations such that creation does become possible, though not in ways we might expect. The convention of such a shocking, ornate, debauched scene is something of a commonplace to literature operating in a Decadent mode (though, admittedly, Mirbeau’s vision is substantially more extreme than most), but Bishop appropriates this trope for her own weird ends and imagines other ways in which such circumstances might play out for the delirious, crisis-laden principals. By transplanting the readers to Ashamoil, she conjures a world that is clearly meant to be alien to us, but it resembles in many ways the kind of fictionalized Orient described by Mirbeau and similar exoticism used by any number of related authors.

Another early and perhaps overlooked connection between the Decadent and the Weird can be found in a text that itself has quite a strange history — “The Tutu: Morals of the Fin de Siècle ” by Léon Genonceaux or, as the original byline would have it, “Princess Sappho” (a provocative transgression to be discussed later). A publisher by trade, Genonceaux also wrote this novel, described by its author Juan Goytisolo as “probably one of the strangest, and certainly one of the most fascinating…we find in it a clear presentiment…of the audacities of Jarry, Roussel, Breton, Ionesco, Queneau…” In “The Tutu” (and, perhaps to an even greater degree, “Torture Garden”), one can find many of the tropes that, like the physical book itself, seemed to disappear from literature for awhile and have resurfaced in the form of the body horror sensibilities of Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and others. “The Tutu” combined, perhaps in equal measure, the absurd excesses and bodily preoccupations of Decadent literature with the strange, otherworldly, and gleefully impossible — see, for example, Mauri’s meeting with God. Found within are sexual liaisons with conjoined twins, who are presented as monstrosities simultaneously revolting and arousing to Mauri and to whose body a substantial amount of textual detail is given. There is much ritualized sexual pageantry, cross-dressing, and a preoccupation with flatulence and mucous. As the Atlas Anti-Classics edition of the novel states on its jacket, “It is simultaneously a sort of ultimate “decadent novel” and outlandishly modern”. “The Tutu” presents many of the same themes as one can find in Mirbeau’s novel, and indeed one of the principal characters iterates ideas very similar to those uttered by Clara in the latter:

‘Resembling the common run of men is but an irony of fate. Remember one thing, and that is that life is only a Sensation, and that it ought to be an Extraordinary Sensation. There is no after-life. The soul is no more than the ferment of matter. Off you go, you’re troubling me. You make me happy.’”

There is an interesting similarity between this passage, uttered by Hermine (the protagonist’s female companion), and the previously quoted passage from Mirbeau’s novel, uttered by Clara, likewise the companion of that novel’s protagonist. They are, in fact, similar enough that there might be a temptation to accuse Mirbeau of plagiarizing or borrowing, except that “The Tutu” had not appeared to a very wide audience. Save for a few copies (presumably kept in private collection), almost all of its first print-run mysteriously disappeared until an edition was published by a small press in 1991. Genonceaux wedded his need to avoid attention, due to very real legal problems, with this confusion of identity by attributing the novel to “Princess Sappho”, paralleling the frequent transvestitism within the novel.

The Surrealists may have perfected the art of wedding between the horrifically carnal to the world of dreams, but such notions had earlier iterations found in previous works like “The Tutu,” paving the way for the speculative plot to be told in the language of Decadence. There was, on the part of both Decadents and Surrealists, an explicit orientation towards humanity’s limits, towards which protagonists were frequently “pushed” along a trajectory that would ultimately leave them stunted or destroyed in some way when they reached them, such as in the work of Bataille’s quests for a disappearing impossible, or, later, any number of Kafka’s works. But while these stories tended to end with and wallow in disappointment at humanity’s limitations, many more recent authors operating in a Decadent mode have introduced weird sensibilities to explore other ways out of these failures. And, indeed, Genonceaux explored these notions in a strikingly modern fashion.

Present too in Genonceaux’s novel is the sort of gleeful abandonment of logic – even dream logic – that would find an analogue in today’s Bizarro fiction or, perhaps, one of China Miéville’s less restrained works. Rather than shifting between “the real world” and the fantastical, there is no shifting to be done. Absurd meta- or pataphysical events present themselves with no forewarning, deliberately provoking the reader to search for a connection when there often isn’t one. Genonceaux is careful to tie events taking place in the world to the dislocated quality of de Noirof’s consciousness; his birth is described as a “mishap” and from his earliest days alive, his identity has been a slapstick array of confusion, mix-ups, and blank spaces never filled in.

So much of “Torture Garden” and “The Tutu” – along with the latter’s attendant confusions – relies upon a view of the protagonists as a ‘subject(s) in constant crisis’ to borrow a phrase from theorist Julia Kristeva. The reader meets Mauri in a state of confusion/crisis as early as the opening paragraph:

When he found himself in the street a fine, persistent rain, comparable to powdered water and so fine, so fine that it scarcely fell, so that it was difficult to determine whether it was coming from on high or rising up from the ground, an impalpable rain, like liquefied air-molecules, was cloaking the boulevard in a mist the gas lamps had trouble in penetrating. In something of a daze, Mauri de Noirof set off at random, halted, turned on his heels, and resumed his irregular progress, in his mind a vague recollection of the thing he had just for the first time done.”

Barely able to recall the preceding events (the first instance of what would turn into a recurring pattern), de Noirof is a character whose entire existence is beset with confusions, ahistoricity, and a lack of definition. His mother describes his birth as “a notable fit of absent-mindedness”, during which she doesn’t even realize she has given birth (it is only later in the evening that the realization dawns on her). An ensuing series of mix-ups, confusions, and galling degrees of neglectfulness proceed, in anarchic fashion, to form the crux of Mauri’s first days, and it is apparent that his life and interactions with the world (and beyond) have become characterized by this type of occurrence. In conversation with some acquaintances, he contradicts earlier facts of his life, flying in the face of what we think we know to be true up to this point in the novel:

‘I never was married. I’m beginning to live; I’ve no idea how old I am. And if I am old, then I’ve been here a long time, lying in this bed which I’m seeing for the first time.’…He could not recognise himself any more… ‘All the same I’d dearly love to know who I am’”

Mauri goes on, after being released from custody in an ensuing arrest, to forget the location of his possessions. It seems that hardly a page goes by in which we don’t learn that Mauri has forgotten something about either himself or the world around him. This inability to recall even the most fundamental details about his life and the world creates a sense of the subject as a consciousness in crisis, a resolution of which is withheld perpetually.

In these Decadent and Weird works, the cathartic moment of transgressive sensory indulgence epitomizes the crisis-self; its “little death” becomes a means of displacing itself into a better world or state of being that exists fundamentally at odds with the world as we know it. Conflicts between the protagonist and society, or between the protagonist and the limits of the physical world as we know it, seem to become a stand-in for a sense of constant conflict within the self, but the self cannot be combated so easily as the aforementioned external targets because it is in a perpetual state of crisis. Thus, a proxy war is waged; in some cases, the only way out (if there is one at all) of these confining elements is in turn through the debasement of the body, parodying in self-deprecating fashion the very limits one is pushing against. But sometimes, it’s the limitations of the world itself that end up being changed.

One reply to “Of Tutus and Tortures

  1. To extend this to perhaps more familiar weird territory, it should be remembered that one of the “bridges” between the Decadents and early weird fiction was Arthur Machen. While he was only loosely associated with Decadent writers and artists, his first weird fiction book (“The Great God Pan & the Inmost Light”) was published by Lane of the Bodley Head, with a frontispiece by Decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley, both of which were notorious for their association with The Yellow Book and Oscar Wilde, in various measures. It would be wrong to say that Machen was part of the crowd — but the association was deeper than a mere business relationship; Machen’s own views on reality, thresholds, and ecstasy as expressed in “The Great God Pan,” “The Inmost Light,” and perhaps especially the opening essay on sanctity and sorcery in “The White People” strongly dovetail the themes you’ve outlined, and as well Machen borrowed some of the imagery of the Decadents in works like “The Great God Pan” and “The Three Imposters; or, The Transmutations.” Where Machen really differs from the Decadents is his adherence to what he saw as the central, hidden mystery of life and religion — the ecstasy that lay behind and integral to all things, which man was blinded to, which he developed in his work “Hieroglyphics.” It’s a fundamental departure, I think, but not one that H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, or other of Machen’s followers really sought to develop in their own writing (although they did recognize it); where Machen sought to depict sanctity and sorcery, beauty and horror, weird fiction and Decadance tend to edge toward the darker aspects.