Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Torture of a Hundred Pieces

In 1905, psychiatrists Adrien Borel and Georges Dumas - still young men - visited China. During the visit, Borel - and perhaps Dumas - witnessed an act of execution by torture, the Torture of a Hundred Pieces. Borel took photographs of this terrible act, and published them in his 1923 book Traité de Psychologie. Borel, a heterodox Freudian, would become a founder member of the Société Psychanalytique de Paris and a consultant at Sainte-Anne and Bichat hospitals; furthermore, Borel took a special interest in drug addicts and "aesthetes".

One if these "aesthetes" was Surrealist dissident Georges Bataille, who was 28 years old at the time. For reasons that are hard to reconstruct, Bataille underwent psychoanalysis with Borel. In his final book, Les Larmes D'Eros, Bataille writes that is was Borel who showed him one of the horrifying photographs. Bataille: "This photograph had a decisive role in my life." Employing yoga techniques, meditative contemplation of the photograph provoked ecstasy in Bataille, an ecstasy which he believed to mimic the state of mind of the victim.

In his biography of Bataille, Michel Surya writes that for Bataille the photograph was a substitute for representations of deicide:

"The victim at the stake, the hanged man in the garden of torture, the crucified man, the terror inspired by this appalling representation in churches, the terror of kneeling and trembling: Bataille retained all these images from his days as a believer as memories and perhaps even as a predilection. In doing its worst - the undignified and nauseating death of a God - Christianity no doubt rightly perceived the key that opens up its mystery, ambiguous and obscure as well as hallucinatory. Like Nietzsche, Bataille retained his love for this pitiful, naked God."

Recently, my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter performed a spontaneous act of bibliomancy, which suggested a different genealogy of Bataille's relation with Borel's photograph than Surya's emimently respectable descent from Christianity. Aurélie - she is named after De Nerval's Aurelia - pulled Mario Praz's 1930 book The Romantic Agony out of the book cupboard. It fell open on the first page of the final chapter, "Swinburne and 'Le vice Anglais'".

The chapter, which delves into British sadomasochist literature from the Romantic era, opens with an account of George Selwyn (1719-1791), a Member of Parliament, gambler and member of the notorious 'Hellfire Club' which held Satanic orgies at Medmenham Abbey. Selwyn had an obsession for witnessing criminal executions. Praz quotes Walpole's letters on Selwyn: "On the occasion of the ghastly execution of Damiens, who had made an attempt upon the life of Louis VX, Selwyn went specially to Paris, on January 5th, 1757, 'mingled with the crowd in a plain undress and a bob-wig', and 'when a French nobleman, observing the deep interest which he took in the scene, asked him: "Vous êtes bourreau?" he replied: "Non, non, monsieur, je n'ai pas cette honneur; je ne suis qu'un amateur."' Like the victim of the Torture of a Hundred Pieces, Damiens was convicted to death by dismemberment for an attempt upon the life of a member of the ruling aristocratic family.

The legend of Selwyn's obsession with executions had a powerful impact on French Black Romanticism. Many French novels of the 19th century featured sadistic Englishmen whose greatest pleasure was to attend executions. Praz mentions Edmond de Goncourt's 1882 Le Faustin and Pétrus Borel's 1833 Contes Immoraux, amongst others. In the first of the Contes Immoraux, an Englishman pays 500 francs to watch an execution from a window. Borel, who called himself Le Lycanthrope, was regarded as a forerunner by the Surrealist, and excerpts from his work would feature in André Breton's 1937 Anthologie de l'Humour Noir. (I've not been able to ascertain whether Borel the writer and Borel the psychiatrist were in any way related.) Another obvious example would be Octave Mirbeau's 1899 novel Le Jardin De Supplices, in which the protagonist delights in witnessing flayings, crucifixions and numerous tortures, all done in beautifully laid out and groomed gardens in China.

Thus, another genealogy of Bataille's contemplation of Borel's photographs suggests itself. This genealogy does not relate Bataille's practice to Christian mythology, but to the literary tradition of Black Romanticism.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

Interestingly there was a wider 'mainstream' romantic discussion of the effect of watching the spectacle of torture / execution. Joanna Baille also commented on the execution of Damiens the regicide and Adam Smith opens his Theory of Moral Sentiments with a discussion of the affective impact of watching an execution.

On Bataille I was always inclined to see the Chinese Torture Victim as a rupture with Christian sacrificial recovery of negativity, and so also as a rupture with the Hegelian model of Christ as exemplar of dialectical sublation. This is all pretty much a verbatim summary of 'Hegel, Death, and Sacrifice' (from memory written around 1955). In that article it is the Mexican Day of the Dead and the Irish wake that figure as models of suffering accepted qua jouissance rather than mourning. In line with Kristen's blog perhaps this is an instance of 'lumpen orientalism'?