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Salomé

Oscar Wilde

Part 2

Part 1

Part 3

Summary

Jokanaan announces the coming of the Lord; the creatures of pagan myth are no more. Salomé asks if Jokanaan is the prophet whom Herod fears, the prophet who maligns her mother. A Slave enters and informs Salomé that Herod wants her to return to the feast. She continues to ask about the prophet. As Jokanaan preaches on, Salomé insists that she speak to him. All attempt to dissuade her, since it is forbidden to see the imprisoned prophet. Looking into the cistern, Salomé marvels at its blackness and its tomb-like quality. She plies the Syrian to bring the prophet forth. If he obeys, she will drop him a flower and smile at him from her litter tomorrow. The Syrian orders the Soldiers to bring Jokanaan forth. The Page compares the moon to the "hand of a dead woman seeking to cover herself with a shroud."

The prophet emerges, and Salomé looks at him. Jokenaan bids the abominable one, who shall die in his "robe of silver" before the people, to come forth. He calls for the woman who gives herself to the "lust of her eyes" and has given herself to Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Egyptians. Salomé exclaims that the prophet's eyes are terrible above all, comparing them to burnt holes in a Tyrian tapestry, dragon caverns, and "black lakes troubled by fantastic moons." He is a wasted "ivory statue," chaste like the moon. In vain, the Syrian attempts to pull the fascinated princess away.

"Who is this woman who is looking at me?" protests Jokenaan, bidding Salomé begone and cursing her mother. Salomé implores the prophet to speak on: his voice is like wine. He tells the "Daughter of Sodom" to seek out the Lord in the desert, to get behind her as he hears the beating wings of the angel of death in the palace. Salomé declares that she is "amorous of his body." It is white like lilies and mountain snows and is whiter than the roses of the Arabian Queen's garden, the feet of the dawn on the leaves, and the breast of the moon on the breast of the sea. Jokanaan curses her anew. Salomé declares his body hideous, leprous, like a "plastered wall" where vipers have crawled and scorpions nested, a whitened sepulcher. Instead, his hair enamors her, as if clusters of grapes from Edom, the cedars of Lebanon, and blacker than the night and the forest's silence. He refuses her. Salomé then declares his hair horrible, like a crown of thorns or knot of serpents. She desires his mouth, a "band of scarlet on a tower of ivory," a "pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory," redder than truper blasts, the feet of wine makers, temple doves, and lion hunters. It is like coral, the vermillon of Moab, and the Persian king's bow. She must kiss it. Begging Salomé to stop, the Syrian kills himself and falls between the prophet and princess. The Page laments his friend's death, the death he had foretold. He laments that he should have hid him from the moon. Salomé continues to ask Jokanaan to let her kiss him. He orders her to seek the Lord, refuses to look upon her, and descends into the cistern.

Analysis

Seduced by the prophet's "strange voice," Salomé has the amorous Syrian bring Jokanaan forth from his "tomb." Not surprisingly, she bends him to her will by enjoining him to look at her and then promising him a look. The same key tropes recur, prefiguring the dance of the seven veils: Salomé will look and smile at him through the "muslin veils," and the Syrian remarks on her "strange look", already smiling through "clouds of muslin." Again, the Page marvels at how the moon has become the "hand of a dead woman covering herself with a shroud." Again, the Syrian's seduction is his death. In vain will he attempt to keep Salomé from speaking and looking at Jokanaan, an attempt that culminates in the interposition of his corpse between the princess and the prophet.

The central encounter of this scene occurs between Salomé and Jokanaan, the prophet capturing the princess's look and the princess attempting, unsuccessfully, to solicit the prophet's gaze. As Salomé exclaims, the prophet's eyes are above all terrible, like black holes burned in tapestries, dragon caverns, and—in undoubtedly a reference to her attempt to seduce him—lakes troubled by "fantastic moons." The blackness of his eyes marks Jokanaan's refusal to return the enamored princess' gaze and to look at her. As he is lost in his preaching, the prophet is oblivious to everything around him. As Salomé attempts to "look closer," Jokanaan refuses to have the damned princess look at him with her "golden eyes" and her "gilded eyelids" and will neither look at nor listen to her himself. In some sense, the distant Jokanaan appears blind or at least indifferent to sight. The only sensory experience he invokes is that of hearing, and he hears only the voice of God. Jokanaan's "blindness" is part of what excludes him from the visual economy of desire that dominates the play. Apart from his denunciation of Salomé once again conjuring the dangers of the female look, it is hard not to hear a biblical echo of the scales that God causes to fall from the eyes of Saul. In any case, Jokanaan will refuse Salomé the look ("I will not look at thee, thou are accursed") that she will demand even after his death.

Salomé then goes on to litanize the prophet's body. It would be impossible to work through the decadent surfeit of poetic imagery here. The prophet and princess's encounter—one of the most beautiful scenes of the play—is organized in counterpoint between Salomé's litany of Jokanaan's body and Jokanaan's curses. Against the prophet's wishes, Salomé would confer on him, through her look and voice, an erotic body. Her praises proceed according to a violent logic of idealization and denigration, fixing on and extolling a part of Jokanaan, then cursing it upon his repudiation. Thus she moves from his body to his hair and then to his mouth. Her metaphors focus on color: the whiteness of Jokanaan's body that surpasses all whiteness, the blackness of his hair that surpasses all blackness, and the redness of his mouth that surpasses all redness. Again these metaphors of color evoke images of far, exotic, and vaguely ancient spaces: Arabia, Edom, Moab, Lebanon, Tyre. As in the works of Wilde's Symbolist contemporaries, they often involve synesthesia or the mixing of senses: thus Jokanaan's mouth is redder than the "red blasts of trumpets" that herald kings. Synesthesia would overthrow the hierarchy of the senses and, in some cases, aim at integrating them in the hopes of achieving a total work of art. Salomé's praises invoke cosmic personifications (the moon, the night), biblical imagery (the crown of thorns, the knot of serpents, the leprous body), images of nature (snow, roses, cedars, grapes), and the confusion of body parts (mouths and feet). The careful reader will draw much from these declarations of love. Ultimately, the princess ends with a demand that goes alongside her demand for Jokanaan's look, a demand that prefigures her fatal request of Herod in its rhythmic insistance: she will kiss him, even if he must die to satisfy her desire.

In comparison, Jokanaan's curses mime various forms of "biblical" speech. A consideration of these individual modes of speech (prophecy, condemnation, etc,) would undoubtedly yield much. We should at the very least pause on his oblique condemnations of Herod and Herodias. Throughout Jokanaan's rantings, Herod will appear as the monarch whose "cup of abominations" is full and who will die in the face of the people in his kingly robes. Salomé's images of the fallen monarch are of considerable interest for Wilde's audience, particularly when they later come to invoke notions of the king's vanitas. As for Herodias, it is not lost on us that the queen too appears guilty of the crimes of sight: she has "seen the images of Chaldeans limned in colors" and given herself up "unto the lust of her eyes."

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