Online presentation: Salome’s composition in context

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Circumstances of composition:

By the time of his 1891 return to Paris, Wilde had established himself as a successful man of letters and was a frequent guest of ascendant French poet Stephane Mallarme. Wilde’s presence at Mallarme’s mardis, colloquia of French literary luminaries, signaled his arrival to the ranks of the literary elite and provided him with a cadre of preeminent French writers (Marcel Schwob, Pierre Louys, and Andre Gide were his closest friends in Paris) whom he would soon consult during Salome’s composition. The topic of Salome held interest not only for Wilde but also for many of Mallarme’s associates; Wilde was the beneficiary of having been surrounded by some of the greatest French literary minds of the time who also happened to share interest in Salome. Wilde, Ellman writes, “pervaded Paris.” He was the “great event” of French literary salons, remarkable for his promiscuous consumption of opium-tinctured cigarettes and absinthe. Most salient, thought, was the extent of Wilde’s interest in Salome: he was nothing short of consumed. He held a knowledge of Salome iconography that was close to comprehensive and was reported to talk every day about her–women in the streets assumed her figure, and jewelry in shopfronts he imagined decorating her body. Wilde’s focus was singular. His treatment of Salome, however, was not originally conceived of as a work of theatre. First he experimented with prose, then verse, and then, one night after telling his rendering of Salome’s story to a salon of young French writers, wrote the story as a play. Even then, as a play, it was not necessarily a work of theatre; Wilde was initially reluctant to put the play on stage. Eventually, however, perhaps out of a desire to best Mallarme or to cast Sarah Bernhardt as the eponym, it was staged (Ellman). On the whole, it is important to understand Salome as a work composed in Paris with the aid and encouragement of a consortium of French writers.

Wilde’s Salome in context: the heritage of the story of Salome:

Wilde was not the first to treat the story of Salome. Indeed, his rendition is one among a legacy of works by such writers as Heinrich Heine, Gustave Flaubert, Mallarme, Jules Laforgue, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. The story’s ultimate provenance is found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, but Wilde’s Salome bears little resemblance: the tradition he inherited had expanded on the gospels so liberally that the story had become “fundamentally transformed” (Thrun 15). Wilde drew especially from Mallarme’s dramatic poem “Herodiade.” Mallarme is responsible for the recasting of the story of Salome as that of her “search for ideal beauty” and, more basically, for establishing Salome (Herodiade in Mallarme’s poem) as the central figure (Thrun 17). It is in “Herodiade” that such modernist points of interest as “existential isolation, human alienation, and rebellious modern individualism” take form, and it was under Mallarme’s framework of modernity that Wilde composed his account of the Salome story. But where Mallarme’s Herodiade remained mired in stasis, “a passive, artificial, self-absorbed, and conflicted figure,” Wilde’s Salome, with her shocking and resolute decision, “suggests the possibility of an individually-willed escape from the deadening ennui of Herod’s court” (Thrun 25). Wilde, then, is more optimistically disposed toward the human condition in modernity, more willing to embrace transgression as an appealing and worthy alternative to conformity to a stultifying morality .

Wilde also drew influence from Flaubert, who introduced Wilde to the idea of lust as a compelling analog to desire for the divine. In the historical novel Salammbo and prose poem The Temptation of Saint Anthony sexual desire and religious experience often intermingle. The Queen of Sheba tempts Anthony in Temptation and Salammbo’s entreaties to the goddess of fertility are couched in terms of the sex act–the prevailing image is that of an orgasm (Thrun 26). Wilde develops this trope in Salome. Her desire, unlike that of Flaubert’s characters, is absent of a metaphysical character: she wishes to join herself only physically, not spiritually, to the prophet. Found in Saint Anthony is a prefiguration of sorts of the conflict in Salome. At play is the tension between asceticism and concupiscence that drives so much of the intrigue of Salome. The Queen, like Salome, is at once the “heartbroken lover and the ruthless femme fatale,” and is that which tempts a religious figure. In Wilde, however, the paradigm is reconstructed (Thrun 29). His world is “post theological,” one which in the transcendence previously associated only with religion is obtainable through aesthetic and erotic transgression (Thrun 34).

In Huysmans’ A rebours Wilde found inspiration for Salome’s “smoldering sensuality and ruthless femme fatale qualities” (Thrun 34). Huysmans’ Salome was a “goddess of hysteria,” something of an antithesis to Mallarme’s conception of Salome as virginal and innocent. Des Esseintes in A rebours is transfixed by Moreau’s depiction of Salome. The paintings, and perhaps even the state they conjure in Des Esseintes, are a “mixture of sexual transgression and quasi-metaphysical sublimity” that hold similarity to the ecstasy of Salome’s kissing the prophet’s severed head. Des Esseintes achieves a kind of metaphysical ecstasy that is absent of a religion–it is purely aesthetic–in much the same way Salome’s climactic moment is not spiritual, but physical (Thrun 37). The “aesthetic ideal,” has been set as the equivalent “to the religious one” (Thrun 38).

Salome’s final monologue can be understood as the quintessence of aestheticism. She, in the words of Walter Pater, “‘burns with this hard, gem-like flame’,” and has, at least for a moment, lived in a complete ecstasy that is, again, notable in its absence of a traditional morality. It not despite of transgression, but because of it, that in Wilde’s Salome transcendence is achieved (Thrun 45). Nowhere is more apt Marx’s pithy statement: “all that is solid melts into air.”

Moreau’s Salome:

Discussion questions:

1. What fruit does an examination of Salome in light of our knowledge of the Queen of Sheba in Temptation bear? As noted above, there is unusual dichotomy at play: they are vulnerable, desirous, but also dangerous, embodiments of the femme fatale. What is the definition of femininity that is advanced–is there even one?

2. In Salome’s ecstatic final monologue she speaks of Jokanaan’s head as a “ripe fruit”; she is “hungry” for his body; his voice was “a censer that scattered strange perfumes” (Wilde 604). Her desire is couched in terms of the senses in a way that evoked the experiences of Des Esseintes in his palace of fine taste. Is it valid to assert that Salome and Des Esseintes have very similar goals–transcendence through a moment of complete aesthetic ecstasy?

3.  Is Wilde’s Salome an optimistic play? Does Salome successfully come to terms with her existential isolation, or is Wilde’s alternative to the framework of morality he resists unsatisfying?

4. Often in Salome it is mentioned that Salome is being observed: by Herod, by the young Syrian. But he by whom Salome wishes most to be observed, Jokanaan, refuses. “I do not wish to look at thee,” he says (Wilde 591). Is the act of looking transgressive? Again it seems that a reference to Des Esseintes, who spends so much of his time observing, is productive. (Note: on 604, Herod cries, “I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me.”)

5. Why is Salome so attracted to Jokanaan? Like the attraction of Raoule for Jacques, Salome’s desire for the prophet is seemingly unaccountable. He is remarkably unprepossessing and yet she is consumed by her desire. What should we make of this?

Works Cited

Thrun, Petra. Salome’s modernity: Oscar Wilde and the aesthetics of transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Markham, Ont.: Viking, 1987. Print.


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