The Princess, Persona, and Subjective Desire: A Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Salome

The Princess, Persona, and Subjective Desire: A Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Salome

Marcovitch, Heather

Oscar Wilde began to write Salome still enjoying, but being frustrated by, the critical attention given to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The summer of 1890 had been exhausting for Wilde: Dorian Gray had been published in shorter form, and Wilde had written many letters to disgruntled reviewers defending the work, reluctantly pointing out the moral qualities in an art form he had previously claimed was incompatible with moralistic purposes. The newspapers’ focus on whether Wilde lauded or deplored Dorian’s actions directed public attention away from the novel’s critique of image and desire. Dorian Gray actually is highly skeptical about the aestheticism Wilde represented in the eighties, treating it, as Richard Ellmann put it, as “not a creed but a problem” (310). Specifically, Wilde’s problem with aestheticism is that, following Pater, the self cultivates and expresses itself through both physical and intellectual experiences, and that gives rise to the danger that either the physical or intellectual experience will be valued at the expense of the other. Aestheticism allows individuals to transcend the Philistinism within their own culture, but it also narrows the cultural experiences open to them. In particular, aestheticism runs the risk of robbing sexual desire of its power by attempting to transform all walks of experience into contemplative acts.

Salome in fact extends this critique of aestheticism. Like Dorian, Salome is trapped in her persona-an aestheticized image of herself that she projects to the public-as an object of desire. Because Salome, like Dorian, can only function as an object of desire, she is afforded no psychic space to develop subjective desire. As Freud notes, the repressed endeavors to break through the pressure of the ego and either forces its way into consciousness or reveals itself through action (20). The resulting action invariably throws out of balance the ego’s role of stabilizing the individual; in other words, the individual’s desire becomes perverted. In Salome, Wilde gives us direct access to the princess’s perverted desire. (And this intimate view of Salome paradoxically makes her less attractive than Dorian Gray but slightly more sympathetic.) In the double play of worshiping and fearing Salome’s image, Herod’s court fails to take into account what she represses in order to project her image. The result is a Salome using the power gotten from her persona to destroy the very system that imbued her with this power.

Although Oscar Wilde began writing Salome in 1891, he had toyed with the idea of contributing to the vast body of nineteenth-century literature on the Biblical figure for some time. Wilde was familiar with the iconography that had sprung up around Salome in the decades prior to his drama, from Flaubert’s “Herodias” to Mallarme’s unfinished poem “Herodiade” to the Moreau paintings of Salome immortalized by J.K. Huysmans in A Rebours, to name a few. From the beginning, however, Wilde planned to distinguish his portrayal of Salome from those of the writers and painters before him. He found, for example, previous depictions of the princess by artists such as Leonardo and Durer unsatisfactory (Ellmann 342). The Salome of Wilde’s drama differs also from her previous literary incarnations. In Flaubert’s story, for instance, Herodias is the instigator of both Salome’s dance and request for John the Baptist’s head. Salome is merely a pawn in Herodias’s struggle for power with Herod in Flaubert’s story. Wilde, by giving Salome her own motive for dancing before Herod, gives back to the princess a measure of subjectivity that had been denied her since the Bible omitted her name from its tale of John the Baptist’s beheading.

Of all the previous depictions of Salome, the paintings by Gustave Moreau, and especially Huysmans’s description of them, influenced Wilde the most in his conception of the princess. According to Richard Ellmann, Wilde liked to recite the passages in A Rebours about the Moreau paintings (342). From the beginning, then, Wilde conceived of Salome in aesthetic terms. Wilde saw Salome as the representation of all the unspoken impulses and desires in Donan Gray. Yet Wilde takes his character of Salome further than he does Dorian. Not only does his Salome articulate the motivations that are kept concealed in Donan Gray, but Wilde gives her a justification for her actions that he deliberately keeps ambiguous with Dorian.

Indeed, Wilde’s conception of Salome attributes to her a great deal more subjectivity than Dorian. Originally, Wilde intended to call his drama The Decapitation of Salome and planned to have Salome become a saint at the play’s end (Ellmann 344). Although he abandoned that idea in favor of exploiting the legacy of Salome as a femme fatale, vestiges of the more hagiographic version remain in the play. Wilde’s Salome is an attempt to combine her iconic reputation with a more psychologically-based portrait. It is sometimes an uneasy mix in the play; the aesthetic discourse and intoning language of the play diverts from Salome’s character and encourages looking at her only as an image rather than as a motivated character. Jean Paul Riquelme, representing the views of several critics, argues, “Any interpretation that understands Salome’s language as realistic, that is, as a transparent vehicle for rendering the thoughts of a psychologically believable character, presents a distorted view of the play” (582). Such a view overlooks the point Wilde is making in the play about the dangers involved in treating Salome exclusively as an image. While Riquelme is right in cautioning against looking at Salome as realistic discourse, he dismisses the possibility that Wilde is juxtaposing psychological realism with aesthetic discourse in order to argue that, by privileging the effects of the language over its content, the audience commits the same errors against Salome that the other characters in the play do, appreciating her image at the expense of her subjectivity. Thus, in examining the consequences of such a view, Wilde includes the audience as being complicit in the fundamental problem of the play, overlooking the anger and destructiveness inherent in Salome’s persona.

For Salome in effect extends and complicates the argument Wilde puts forth in Dorian Gray, namely that when control over persona is taken away from the individual behind it, the individual’s desires and will threaten to pervert his or her persona. Moreover, Salome shows, as Dorian Gray did previously, that through the misreading of persona, an individual can assume a sort of power that threatens the established order of things. Salome in fact blatantly expresses the will, desire, and quest for power that Dorian Gray leaves ambiguous. As Christopher Nassaar notes, “Salome sheds Dorian’s inhibitions and emerges as an unrestrained sexual murderess” (35).

The character of Salome suggests that persona has a greater importance for the female performer. As a dancer and an icon of beauty, Salome is, as several scholars have noted, particularly susceptible to the male gaze. Furthermore, her status as a woman who can perform implies that her persona is vulnerable to chameleon-like change. After having written Salome, Wilde had hoped that Sarah Bernhardt would perform the role. As Riquelme points out, casting the middle-aged Bernhardt as Salome would have prohibited the audience from interpreting the play literally (583). Bernhardt, herself an example of a powerful and influential persona, would also have underscored his argument that Salome’s persona is what is under siege in the play. Presumably, as the audience looks at Salome, they would see not only Wilde’s character, but the Salomes of past writers and artists, as well as Bernhardt’s persona. Wilde’s Salome therefore is trapped within her own persona as the epitome of the modern femme fatale, and his play, rather than being a literal retelling of the Biblical story, becomes an exploration of the limits of persona and of its symbolic value.

In Salome, the moon serves as a metaphor for the empty canvas and for Salome herself. Like Dorian Gray, the moon assumes whatever significance the viewer attributes to it. In the play, the moon is a “dead woman” according to Herodias’s Page (552), a “princess” according to the Syrian Narraboth (552), a “mad woman” according to Herod (561), and “money” and a “virgin” according to Salome herself (555).2 These descriptions of the moon reveal the various watchers’ desires for Salome up to a point. More specifically, however, the descriptions point to the way their desires construct their respective states of mind. For instance, the “dead woman” of the Page’s vision can be attributed partially to a moment of prescience on his part (about either Salome’s or Narraboth’s imminent demise) and partially to his jealousy of Narraboth’s fascination with Salome. Herod’s image of the moon as a “mad woman” is based upon his uncontrollable desire for Salome. Indeed, his lust for her will eventually cause him to make the mad gesture of offering her whatever she wants provided she satisfies his desire. In light of Herod’s perspective, Salome’s view of the moon as both “money” and a “virgin” points to her awareness that her body, at least as far as Herod is concerned, has an exchangeable value.

Interestingly, the only figure who sees nothing in the moon but its own image is Herodias, who snipes at Herod that “the moon is like the moon” (561). In her refusal to interpret the moon, Herodias displays her unwillingness to acknowledge her daughter’s importance to these men and underscores her recalcitrance with admonitions to Herod that he “look[s] at her too much” (562). (It is worth noting that the Page is also upset when his loved one, Narraboth, “looks too much” upon Salome.) Salome poses a distinct threat to Herodias; as Herod has a history of taking the women he likes to look upon, the possibility exists for Salome to unseat her mother’s throne. For Herodias, then, Salome possesses a power through her desirability that has the potential to usurp Herodias’s position. Salome’s connection to the moon, then, threatens to destabilize the power held by the other woman in the court. Because of this threat, she is isolated from her mother.

Thus Salome is set up from the beginning as being a woman whose persona is a figure of iconic beauty and an object of sexual desire, and not much else. The danger in this, according to Wilde, is that Salome indeed has a will and desires of her own, but because of her position in the play has no outlet to express them. Hanna B. Lewis notes that “Salome is presented as a ‘fait accompli'” (129), and the reason for this is that the characters in the play have conspired to keep Salome from expressing her subjectivity. As an object of the gaze, Salome is kept inanimate and stagnant. But Salome’s status as an object is misleading. Since she cannot exert her own power in creating her own persona, her frustration and resentment cause her to seek other avenues for power. A persona, cautions Wilde, is neither static nor inanimate; it generates its own energies that, if not used to develop itself, may emerge in dangerous and destructive ways. Salome’s actions turn destructive because her limited ability to exert her will causes her power to be perverted.

Because of the emphasis Wilde places upon the act of looking, the play in large part attempts to negotiate between the dangers of looking too much and the dangers of not looking enough. As Brad Bucknell notes, “There is almost no one in the play who is not involved in some kind of projection, some kind of complex interplay between the eye and the object of vision” (515). Because this interplay takes the form of a narcissistic relationship with the self (in that the object of vision, Salome, invariably takes the form of the viewer’s desires), an excess of looking leads to destruction, as evidenced by both Narraboth’s suicide and Herod’s unwitting murder of Jokanaan. Looking at Salome for any length of time leads to the consumption of the self by its own desire. Salome, for instance, compels Narraboth to do her bidding with the promise of a future look, and Narraboth commits suicide because of his inability to cope with Salome looking at someone else. Looking at Salome is an attempt to own Salome, to turn her into the Salome each one who looks at her wants her to be. Salome’s persona is therefore malleable; the image she projects shifts according to the desires of those who encounter her. But Salome’s relationship to her own persona is refracted through the perceptions of the other characters. Since she is seen as an object of desire, the only actions she knows how to perform are those that stem from desire.

Of course, the only character who steadfastly refuses to look at Salome is Jokanaan. Jokanaan is often read as an oral rather than a visual character, but, while this is true to a great extent, Jokanaan is actually more image-sensitive than he is usually given credit for being. Jokanaan speaks in images; his prophecies of the coming of Christ are evocative word-paintings. “The son of man hath come,” he intones. “The centaurs have hidden themselves in the rivers, and the sirens have left the rivers, and are lying beneath the leaves of the forest” (555). More importantly, as Jokanaan is forced to engage with Herod’s court, his language becomes even more descriptive. He cries about Herodias,

Where is she who gave herself unto the Captains of Assyria, who have baldricks on their loins, and tiaras of divers colours on their heads? Where is she who hath given herself to the young men of Egypt, who are clothed in fine linen and purple, whose shields are of gold, whose helmets are of silver, whose bodies are mighty? (557)

Jokanaan’s aesthetic prose ties him to the men of Herod’s court, particularly Herod himself and, to a lesser degree, the Page. He speaks about Herodias in terms of commodities, categorizing her and by extension Salome as the sum of her material goods. This is where Jokanaan errs with respect to Salome and where precisely he makes the same mistake as Herod: by being unable to see Salome as anything other than a materialistic creature, he dismisses the passion and the rage underlying Salome’s actions and therefore underestimates her reaction to him.

For the one thing that characterizes Salome above all else is her resentment about being limited by her visuality, particularly when this visuality fragments her into fetishized parts. Herod, for instance, is fixated upon her mouth. To him, it is a symbol of sexual orality, and Herod heightens his desire of Salome by both infantilizing her and linking her mouth directly to intoxicating wine and fertile fruit. About the wine, Herod says, “Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup” (562), and, when he asks her to eat some fruit, he asserts, “I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit and then I will eat what is left” (562). With these requests, Herod makes clear that Salome is an object of desire that he, as king, has the power to consume sexually, by literally consuming the fruit and wine bearing the mark of Salome’s fetishized mouth. When Salome resists Herod’s advance by maintaining that she is neither thirsty nor hungry, Herod petulantly turns on her mother and then offers Salome Herodias’s throne to sit on. His implication is that if Salome allows her beauty to be exploited, then she can achieve the power of a queen. The power that Herod offers Salome is qualified, however, since she can only flourish by being bounded by the parameters of his desire for her. Moreover, Herod makes it plain that his desire, by focusing exclusively on her sexualized parts, dismisses Salome as a subjective entity. By treating Salome as an object, Herod neglects the fact that Salome too can see, can desire, and can use the power she possesses as princess of the court to her own ends.

When Salome focuses her desire on Jokanaan, she pointedly appropriates Herod’s seductive discourse, as if by doing so she gets to appropriate his power. Like Herod’s fixation on her mouth and teeth, Salome’s desire for Jokanaan takes the form of ever-increasing synecdoche, first concentrating on his body, then his hair, then his mouth. Salome also speaks in the aesthetic discourse used by the men in the play: “Thy hair is like the cedars of Lebanon . . . that give their shade to the lions and to the robbers who would hide themselves by day” (559). Salome purposefully ignores what Jokanaan is saying in order that she may look at him. Like Herod, Salome overlooks Jokanaan’s subjectivity in favor of an appreciation of his body, an aggressive move that she is clearly not that comfortable with, since she appears to be unsure of which tack she should take in her attempt at seduction. Jokanaan’s body, to Salome, is “white like the lilies of the field” (558), then it is “like a leper” and “like a whitened sepulchre full of loathsome things” (559), moving from an image of fertility to an image of decay. His hair is first “like clusters of grapes” (559), but Salome changes this description to “a crown of thorns which they have placed on thy forehead” and “a knot of black serpents writhing around thy neck” (559). In her attempted seduction, Salome draws her imagery from Jokanaan’s Biblical story. The leper is obviously Lazarus, raised by Christ from the dead. The “whitened sepulchre” is a reference to Christ’s criticism of the Jewish practice of painting tombs white in order to purify them; Christ chastises the Jews for this practice because the coat of paint provides a superficial veneer of cleanliness. He rebukes the Jewish elders by claiming that they “are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). With this allusion, Salome turns the words of Christ back onto Jokanaan, focusing not only on his surface qualities but implicitly accusing him of believing that her surface beauty necessarily conceals a degenerated interior.

Salome’s description of Jokanaan’s hair contains, besides the clear reference to Christ’s crown of thorns worn at the Crucifixion, another allusion to the Biblical story of John the Baptist. In the gospel according to St. Matthew, John is preaching in the wilderness of Judea, clad, as the First Soldier in Salome reiterates, in “camel’s hair, and round his loins he had a leathern belt” (554).4 The “knot of vipers” refers to the epithet “brood of vipers” hurled by John at the Pharisees and Sadducees, who insincerely request to be baptized (Matthew 3:7). In Salome’s description, however, the vipers are crawling around Jokanaan’s neck, threatening to strangle him. Salome mocks Jokanaan’s intolerance; the infidels that he sought to bar from God’s grace literally return to kill him.

When Salome shifts her gaze to Jokanaan’s mouth, the instrument for both his prophecies and his censures, she has no need to draw a Biblical analogy. Salome’s images of Jokanaan’s mouth are a mix of sensuality-she compares his mouth to pomegranates and precious stones-and, when she compares his mouth to the blast of military trumpets and the feet of a hunter, violence. As an object of sexual desire in Herod’s court, Salome is well aware that passion is fraught with danger, and Wilde also uses the combination to point out that every passion contains within it its own potential for destruction. It is in these successive attempts of Salome’s to seduce Jokanaan that Wilde inserts his most blatant autobiographical allusion. Constantly quarreling with Alfred Douglas and still well aware of the stigma attached to his relationship with Douglas, Wilde gives Salome the knowledge that passion is both unstable and dangerous. More importantly, though, as Eibhar Walshe notes, “Salome offends against a traditional system of male desire by articulating her own, independent desire for the body of the Prophet” (31). As Salome becomes more passionate, she also becomes more subversive, and her power over her own image (as the subject rather than the object of desire) palpably grows until Herod quashes it with his gaze.

When Salome uses Biblical analogies to describe Jokanaan’s physical attributes, she throws Jokanaan’s perception of her back in his face because, as Martine Thomas points out, Salome and Jokanaan “are unable to hear the meaning of their mutual words, since they only feel the resistance their words imply” (157). Salome uses Jokanaan’s reputation in order to construct her perception of him. Whereas Jokanaan reviles Salome based on his preconceptions of her as her mother’s daughter, Salome uses established preconceptions of Jokanaan to fuel her attraction towards him. But while Jokanaan limits his view of Salome to her persona, Salome refuses to dismiss him on account of his image as an infidel-hating ascetic. Salome sees in her fixation on Jokanaan’s image a way to attain the power denied her as a perpetual object. She too can manipulate perceptions in order to get the object of her desire, and, significantly, she can do so with a man outside of Herod’s court hierarchy. Salome’s attempted seduction of Jokanaan is an endeavor to find power outside of the court and particularly to find a form of subjective power, one in which her power is not dependent on the gazes of others.

Salome and Jokanaan thus relate to each other from their own isolated perceptions. Elliott L. Gilbert notes that the play is “a veritable taxonomy of solipsism” (145). Just as Salome is trapped within her visualization of Jokanaan, Jokanaan is likewise circumscribed by how he sees the princess. When he looks at Salome, he only sees Herodias. When Salome introduces herself to him, Jokanaan responds by crying out, “Back! Daughter of Babylon!” and continues, “Thy mother hath filled the earth with the wine of her iniquities, and the cry of her sins hath come up to the ears of God” (558). Jokanaan refuses to look at Salome because he has already seen her before. Salome’s persona, as far as Jokanaan is concerned, is not even her own-she is merely a reflection of Herodias. Jokanaan denies Salome the right to even have a persona that is identifiably hers, something Herod and his court at least grant her. His vision of her is one based on preconception. In other words, when he encounters Salome, his image of Herodias replaces any actual perception he might have of her. As Austin E. Quigley notes, Jokanaan’s “unwillingness to look at a woman as beautiful as Salome can suggest diminished ability somewhere, weakness as well as strength” (107). Jokanaan, trapped in his dark cistern, is correspondingly blinded by his idealism. By refusing to look beyond Salome’s persona, he shows himself to be complicit in the patriarchal structure of the court that has defined Salome by her image.

Salome’s request for Jokanaan’s head is thus predicated upon two things: her resentment of Herod’s incestuous desire for her and a more generalized resentment of the fact that she is constantly objectified, even and especially by Jokanaan. Herod, in order to cajole Salome into performing an erotically-coded dance for him, actually gives Salome the freedom to exert her will in whatever fashion she desires. Herod’s offer is in a sense a sign of defeat for Salome; unable to exert her will onto Jokanaan, Herod’s offer makes it clear that the only power Salome can have access to is through her position as an object of desire. Thus her request for Jokanaan’s head is a double attack against Jokanaan, for refusing to see her as an individual and not just as a type of royal harlot, and against Herod, for perpetuating her objectification in order to satisfy his own sexual desire for her. To Salome, both refusals to take her subjectivity into account have contributed to her request. As she says in her morbid address to the beheaded Jokanaan, “Well, thou hast seen thy God, Jokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou wouldst have loved me” (574).

Salome’s death, noted tersely in the play as a stage direction, ultimately points to the ambivalent light in which Wilde depicts her. Wilde portrays Salome as uncontrollable desire while also giving her motivation for such desire. In light of this ambivalence, Salome’s death appears to be less a punishment for her actions than the inevitable consequence of them. Salome dies because, like Dorian Gray, a persona left unchecked cannot be sustained. And, as Dorian’s final hypocritical gesture towards Hetty seals his corrupt behavior, Salome’s final monologue brings the expression of her desire to completion. Yet, like Dorian, Salome realizes that unbounded desire literally means that it will never be satisfied. She concedes, “Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion” (574). Salome’s desire, breaking free from the limits her persona imposed on it, ends up consuming her as well.

Copyright Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Winter 2004

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