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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: tenth anniversary issue

Embler, Weller
[Rage against iniquity],   pp. [79]-93 ff. PDF (18.5 MB)

Page 84

84      during the evening, Salome danced before
Herod a dance so alluring and seductive
that Herod, with uncontrollable
enthusiasm, promised to reward her
with anything she might wish. When she
asked for the head of John the Baptist,
Herod, overwhelmed at the magnitude of
the request, finally granted it, according to
the Gospels, only "for his oath's sake."
The order was given, and the executioner
performed the act, taking the severed
head on a salver to Salome, who, again
according to Saint Matthew, brought it to
her mother. John's disciples "came, and
took up the body, and buried it, and went
and told Jesus." Herod was covered with
confusion and remorse; but I do not find
that he ordered Salome put to death then or
We may now proceed to coordinate the
various artistic readings of the story of
Salome and St. John the Baptist. It is
tempting to use a chronological approach,
but if we are to understand the use to
which the legend was put in the cultural
context of the late nineteenth century, we
shall have to abandon the historical order
in favor of the interplay of the separate
themes in the larger design.
In the chapter entitled "The Tragic
Generation" in William Butler Yeats'
autobiographical Trembling of the Veil, the
poet records memories of his acquaintance
with Aubrey Beardsley. Victimage, says
Yeats, presents itself in many complex
forms; and "I ask myself if I cannot so
explain the strange, precocious genius of
This was not a literary insight. It was a
statement of fact about the life and work of
the "decadent" artists of the fin-de-siecle
who felt themselves doomed to be victims
of a society bent on elevating hypocrisy to
a way of life; and anything - drawings,
poems, plays, novels - that cried shame
by way of being itself "shameful"
infuriated the popular mind.
For the artistic sensibility of the time, the
legend of St. John and Salome was richly
symbolic. The Pharisees of Victorian
London were a generation of vipers eager
for the heads of any who interfered with
their ceremonial self-righteousness.
Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley were
convinced that they were preaching in a
wilderness, and they identified themselves
with the Baptist imprisoned in the cisterns
of Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee.
In reading Wilde's letters chronologically,
says W. H. Auden in his essay "An
Improbable Life," "there is an excitement
similar to that of watching a Greek
tragedy in which the audience knows
what is going to happen while the hero
does not." Though Wilde did not know
what was going to happen, he knew surely
that something was; for he was determined,
if not destined, to martyrdom. The life
of Jesus was of central interest to
Wilde, and it may be that he wished
consciously to imitate the sufferings of
Jesus, His humiliation, and His death. But
Wilde was not the new Messiah, whatever
illusions he may have had in the years
of his pitiful and terrible demise. He was
not the Christ of the 1890s, and to suggest
that he was would be to confuse matters
beyond spiritual endurance. No excuse can
be offered for the torment Wilde was forced
to undergo at the hands of the social order
of his time; but Wilde's was an artistic
sensibility, not a spiritual one. His preaching
and suffering in, as he saw it, the
philistine wilderness of Victorian London
corresponds more nearly to the legend
of St. John the Baptist than to the
life of Christ. For to Wilde, St. John
was the victim not so much of religious
persecution as of the vices of a brutish
and decaying society. In any case, it is
significant that Wilde should have chosen
to tell the story of John and Salome just
prior to the memorable fury visited upon
him by an age that must have seen much
of itself reflected in his writings.
As we have already noted, the
novel A Rebours by Joris
Karl Huysmans contains an elaborate
passage in praise of Gustave Moreau's
painting, Salome Dancing Before Herod.
Des Esseintes, the protagonist of A Rebours,
sits often in adoration before the painting.
"Writers," says Des Esseintes, "have never
yet succeeded in rendering the delirious
frenzy of the wanton, the subtle grandeur
of the murderess." For Des Esseintes,
only the painter Moreau had
realized at last the Salome, weird and
superhuman, he had dreamed of. No longer

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