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Salomé

Oscar Wilde

Important Quotations Explained

Part 5

Key Facts

THE SYRIAN: How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!

THE PAGE: Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from the tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.

THE SYRIAN: She has a strange look. She is like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. You would fancy she was dancing.

THE PAGE: She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly.

This dialogue opens Salomé. The play begins with two voyeurs, opening with a scene of looking that establishes, in some sense, the perils of the look. The Syrian marvels at the beautiful princess and the Page, mesmerized by the moon. Note the Page's first line, an injunction to look: "Look at the moon!" Salomé weaves an extensive network of metaphors around whiteness that links the moon, the princess, and the prophet. Here Salomé and the moon appear as consummate—and consuming—objects of the look. Indeed, Salomé already appears in the spectacle that immortalizes her: she wears a yellow veil, and one would "fancy" that she was already dancing. Though both the Syrian and Page first appear lost in their own reveries, their respective monologues soon interweave around the pronoun "she." The moon becomes a metaphor for the princess: she is a dead woman rising from a tomb, slowly moving and dancing a dance of death. Thus the Page repeatedly warns the Syrian against looking at the princess too much. Looking, and specifically looking for sexual purposes, is forbidden. If the Syrian looks, undoubtedly something terrible will happen. Importantly, not only does the male look at the female, but the female also looks back. As the Syrian muses, the princess has a "strange look"; the Page senses the significance of this female look more clearly: "You would fancy she was looking for dead things." This phrase of course parallels the Syrian's own fancy: "You would fancy she was dancing." Again, Salomé's dance is the dance of death, and, in dancing, she looks for dead things. Thus Salomé bears death both in her look and her role as the object looked at by the male gaze.

Oh! How strange the moon looks. You would think it was the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.

The Page marvels at the moon anew immediately before the raising of Jokanaan from the cistern. His vision provides yet another of the many elaborations of the metaphoric network—all organized around the color white—that twin the moon and Salomé. Here the dancing Salomé is mapped onto the image of a white female corpse. The princess's famous veil becomes a funeral shroud, and the veil's seductive, revealing tease appears reversed in the horrifying concealment of a dead body. Thus, in this treatment of two images, the body of the desired woman, seductively stripping itself of its coverings and baring itself under the (male) gaze, is at once a corpse that would shield itself from the indignity of being exposed and of being in view. The crossing of a sexual taboo—the step-father's incestuous gaze on the daughter—is twinned with the crossing of the taboo separating the dead and the living, a crossing that involves a fatal contamination of their respective realms. The image of seductive Salomé becomes the image of death, and looking at her sexually is analogous to looking upon death itself.

It is true, I have looked at you all this evening. Your beauty troubled me. Your beauty has grievously troubled me, and I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more. Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks.

Herod makes this confession when Salomé demands the head of Jokanaan, desperately begging the princess to release him from his word. Guiltily he believes that Salomé is punishing him for his look. Her "beauty has troubled him," and he has looked at her "too much". He resolves to withdraw from looking altogether, turning from both people and things. This withdrawal prefigures his disgusted retirement from the scene of the visible, where he puts out the palace torches and reduces the stage to darkness: "I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me." Herod would have nothing to do with the economy of desire, the games of voyeurism and exhibitionism that structure the play. Strangely he then delivers the play's only "Wildean" epigraph: "Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks." Instead of looking at things and being looked at, Herod would opt, hopelessly, for the fascinations of the mirror and masquerade. This escape is hopeless as the self's look in the mirror is of course hardly free of the game of looks between self and other.

Salomé, you know my white peacocks, my beautiful white peacocks that walk in the garden between the myrtles and the tall cypress trees. Their beaks are gilded with gold, and the grains that they eat are gilded with gold also, and their feet are stained with purple. When they cry out the rain comes, and the moon shows herself in the heavens when they spread their tails I will give you fifty of my peacocks. They will follow you whithersoever you go, and in the midst of them you will be like the moon in the midst of a great white cloud.

Among the gifts Herod offers Salomé in place of Jokanaan's head is his flock of white peacocks. These fifty peacocks join the chain of metaphors linked to the "clouds" that swathe the moon/Salomé. Though first the moon shows herself between their tales in the garden, the peacocks become, when scattered about Salomé, the clouds in the heavens themselves. This chain, once again determined by the color white, includes Salomé's veils, the fan that conceals her face, and the doves and butterflies that are her fingers. The choice of peacocks is hardly innocent, evoking the mythological origins of the peacock's fan in the blind eyes of Argus. In a sense, Herod offers the princess an array of blind eyes. The eye does not see but is decorative, ornamenting Salomé's forms of concealment (veils, clouds, etc.). One can detect differential repetitions of these key tropes throughout the array of Herod's fantastic treasures: the fifty moon-like pearls, the many eye-like gems, the moonstones, and the parrot-feather fans.

But thou, thou wert beautiful! Thy body was a column of ivory set on a silver socket. It was a garden full of doves and of silver lilies. It was a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory. There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. There was nothing in the world so black as thy hair. In the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music. Ah! Wherefore didst thou not look at me, Jokanaan?

Salomé makes this declaration of love to Jokanaan's head immediately after his execution, her address grotesquely animating him from beyond the grave. It rehearses, in the past tense, the praises she made earlier of the prophet's body—the litany that, despite his resistance, makes Jokanaan's body visible and beautiful. As earlier, her litany is organized around Jokanaan's peerless colors: nothing is whiter than his body, nothing blacker than his hair, and nothing redder than his mouth. Here, we can detect a chilling prefiguration of the prophet's decapitation in Salomé's praises, her metaphors returning—whether through color, contiguity, or otherwise—to the image of Jokanaan's head on a silver charger. Thus his body is a "column of ivory set on a silver socket," a garden full of "silver lilies" (the death flower) with their heavy bulbs, a "tower of silver decked with shields of ivory." Also of note here is Wilde's use of synesthesia or the confusion of senses. Jokanaan's voice is a "censer that scattered strange perfumes," and his image inspires a "strange music" in Salomé's ears. Synesthesia is of course a familiar trope of Symbolism, attempting to overthrow the hierarchy of the senses and in some cases to integrate them in the hopes of achieving a "total" work of art.

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