A short account of the anarchist politics and practice of French author Octave Mirbeau, whose works include The Torture Garden.
At the end of the 19th century, many French writers were attracted to anarchism. Some of them were fascinated by the bomb attacks of “propaganda by deed” anarchists Ravachol and Emile Henry, and wanted to write a book that would be a literary bomb, destroying the foundations of the religion, the family and the nation state. For example, the Symbolists celebrated “free verse” as “anarchist verse”. Many, after achieving fame, abandoned any notion of anarchism.
One who did not was Octave Mirbeau. For him, anarchism was not a fashionable phase, or part of a misspent youth. He discovered the ideas of anarchists Proudhon and Kropotkin quite late in life after having been a writer for Bonapartist and anti-Semitic newspapers. From 1883 he began to change tack, editing Les Grimaces, a biting satirical journal. From 1885, he began to adopt more and more openly anarchist positions. He regularly supported the work of the anarchist-communist Jean Grave. He was one of his best defenders in print following Grave’s trial over his work The Dying Society and Anarchy. He gave financial aid to anarchists in difficulty. He used his position as an influential writer to popularise the ideas of anarchism. He wrote The Strike of the Voters in the daily paper Figaro, where he called for abstention at the ballot box.
He explained the actions of Ravachol, pointing to the social reasons for them, whilst underlining their political limitations. At the same time, he helped out struggling writers like the clothing worker Marguerite Audoux, Neel Doff and Charles Vildrac. During the Dreyfus Affair he was extremely active, presenting many meetings and Paris and throughout France, never retreating before the threats of the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards. In these actions, he certainly made up for his previous life writing for anti-Semitic papers.
For Mirbeau, anarchism did not just mean revolutionising literature, but giving himself, his time and his money to it. He was the main financial supporter of the anarchist newspaper Les Temps Nouveaux, whose contributors included Paul Signac.
His works were the reflection of his anarchist commitment. Many of his works describe deprived lives the absurdities of bureaucracy and the corruption of power. L’Abbe Jules and Sebastien Roch were two extremely anti-clerical novels. The Diary of a Chambermaid is not just the tale of the corruption of the upper classes but of the rise to power of an anti-Semite. Luis Bunuel, the Spanish filmmaker understood this, and in his film of Mirbeau’s novel, he shows how the rise of fascism is linked to the ideas and values of the ruling class.
Mirbeau’s most notorious novel The Torture Garden is often dismissed as nothing more than a decadent novel of sado-masochism. In fact, this misunderstands its political message. Its dedication “To priests, soldiers, judges, men who educate, lead and govern men, I dedicate these pages of Murder and Blood” give the game away. Why are certain crimes illegal and not others? Mirbeau lists industry, colonial commerce, war, hunting and anti-Semitism as legal forms of murder.
Mirbeau often deals with power in his books. Not just how it is exercised over the individual but how it is internalised and how it is used by those who govern us. A passionate writer, he was one of those rare individuals who were able to reconcile social commitment with a total freedom of creation.
Slightly edited by libcom