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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 86

86      was she merely the dancing-girl who
extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an
old man by the lascivious contortions of her
body. . . . She was now revealed in a sense
as the symbolic incarnation of world-old
vice, a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse,
indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning
. . . all who come hear her, all who touch her.*
Huysmans may very well have been thinking
of Flaubert's Herodias when he said that
writers had not succeeded in rendering the
"subtle grandeur of the murderess."
Flaubert's Herodias is the story of the
conflict between the Romans and the Jews
at the beginning of the Christian era,
and Salome in Herodias is only the agent
set mechanically to carry out her mother's
wishes. For Moreau and for Huysmans
and for Wilde, however, Salome is the
central figure of the legend, a wily and
satanic temptress. In Moreau's painting
Salome carries before her in ritualistic
fashion a lotus flower, age-old pagan symbol
of fertility. The irony is not obscure.
The flower of divine birth has become the
"flower of concupiscence." With it and
with the "unholy charm" of the dance,
Salome stalks her victim.
When Wilde wrote Salome he intended, I
suspect, to show that a writer had at last
arrived who could render the "subtle
grandeur of the murderess." And it is in
Wilde's Salome that the full meaning of the
legend for his time was portrayed.
Salome's longing is the longing of the
depraved for innocence and purity.
Salome is fanatical in her desire at once to
possess innocence and to destroy it.
St. John is the victim, just as the saintly
Basil Hallward is the victim of the rage and
fear of the outwardly handsome, the
inwardly corrupt, Dorian Gray. Evil cannot
tolerate innocence except as it become
innocence itself, which might indeed
be its aim. (But I do not know this for
a fact.) Salome and her mother Herodias,
representing the corrupt society against
which St. John preached so eloquently,
have strong appetites for blood. Salome's
hunger for the lips of her desire is
satisfied only when they are innocent and
blood-stained, when they are dead, and
when the head is held in the hand that
ordered its severance.
'A Rebours, translated into English with
the title Against the Grain, Modern
Library Paperback, New York.
The drawings Aubrey Beardsley made for
Wilde's Salome are a measure not only of
his genius but of the depth of his feeling of
victimage. To use a phrase of Albert
Camus from his analysis of "dandyism"
in The Rebel, Beardsley's illustrations, like
the play itself, are a "cry of outraged
innocence." When popular indignation over
his drawings caused Beardsley to be
dismissed from the art editorship of
The Yellow Book, he became, according to
Yeats, "embittered and miserable" and
"plunged into dissipation." He was then
about twenty-three years old, the victim of
the society which he so impudently
pictured in his drawings and of the disease
of tuberculosis which was to take his
life three years later.
By all accounts, however, Beardsley's
friends, acquaintances, and fellow artists
admired his work and his person.
He had considerable charm and "a most
delightful smile both for friends and
strangers." For Max Beerbohm, "He was
always, whenever one saw him, in the
highest spirits, full of fun and fresh
theories about life and art." Even
Whistler, a difficult man to impress, told
Beardsley on one occasion (recounted in
The Life of James McNeill Whistler by
Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell), "You are a
very great artist," and when, at that,
Beardsley burst into tears, "All Whistler
could say, when he could say anything, was
'I mean it - I mean it - I mean it'."
Beardsley's drawings are not mere
sensuality as at first sight they might seem
to be. When studied, they become
intellectual commentaries on the
clandestine eroticism of the time. The
illustrations for Salome were in a sense
"fashionable" drawings, intended, like
cartoons, to be references to the age.
In mood they are brazen and impertinent,
and never sentimental; in one ("The
Stomach Dance"), the demonic interpreter,
the jester-like figure Beardsley so often
used to make pictorial comment on the main
characters, is sticking out his tongue,
either as a challenge to the viewer or a
gesture of disgust for the show going on
above him, perhaps both.
In the summer of 1892, Beardsley was in
Paris, and there he met the painter
Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898). Puvis
introduced him to his friends as a

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