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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 90

90      than by the meaning for his time of the
martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.
"Mysticism was alien to his soul,"
says Paul Henry Lang, "and he seized upon
the actual and visible only." Salome, says
Lang, is rendered "as a form of
observed realism and not as the result of a
painful and torturing experience." But the
fact of the matter is that Strauss chose
Wilde's story instead of the one told
in the Gospels, which was, for example,
Flaubert's source. (It will be remembered
that in the biblical account, Salome is not
the sybarite intoxicated with desire for
the lips of the Baptist, nor is there any
mention of Salome's having been put
to death at Herod's order.) In Strauss's
opera the accent is on the princess, her
sensuality, her perversity, her evil. There is
no hint of the commonplace in the music
that centers upon Salome; the "Dance of
the Seven Veils" is in itself a masterpiece,
and the motive of longing for innocence,
like the yearning of a purgatorial shade for
wholeness, hovers unfinished throughout
the opera until it is brought to full
expression in the final scene, at once a
longing and a fulfillment. One might
venture the thought that in the serenity of
the motive's consummation, the violence of
Salome's passion is transformed into a
beatific vision of innocence.
What its detractors failed to see in
Strauss's Salome is the powerful vision of
evil it presents. Though in the mode
decadent, the opera is preserved against
any taint of morbidity in the unflinching
directness with which it gazes upon evil
and records what it sees. "Disgusting," the
critics said, and "Fascinating," too.
Yeats in his Autobiography speaks of the
importance to his generation of writing
about subjects long forbidden and "to do
this not only 'with the highest moral
purpose,' but gaily, out of sheer mischief."
For Yeats the high moral purpose consisted
in recovering the "vision of Evil,"
obscured out of mind and sight by the
complacency of the times, perhaps
deliberately repressed by an aimless
optimism and a cloak of false innocence.
When the artist insisted upon facing the
Devil and all his works, the popular mind
was disgusted, fascinated, and indignant.
But to some artists, like Richard Strauss,
how the popular mind reacted made very
little difference. He was a realist and a
craftsman. He knew the abyss was there,
and he looked into it, very possibly with a
"high moral purpose," certainly with
irreproachable musicianship.
August Rodin (1840-1917) suffered more
than once from the attacks of calumniators,
as in the incident of the accusation
against him that he had molded his
Age d'airain (1877) from a living body.
This was manifestly untrue, as was later
demonstrated. When two years after the
false accusation Rodin chose St. John the
Baptist as a subject for a piece of sculpture,
he was inspired by the power of
innocence at the dawn of Christianity.
Rodin inclined more to origins and
beginnings than to the end of something;
and it is the revelation out of the desert,
the announcement of great things to come,
that he feels rather than the agony of
martyrdom. This faith in the vitality of
beginnings may indeed have been what
sustained Rodin through periods of
criticism and gave him the confidence
necessary to the creation of his immortal
works. It may be recalled that Flaubert
built his story around the idea that John
the Baptist knew it was his work to
announce the Messiah, not to be one.
In Herodias, John says, "I must decrease
that He may increase." And so in
St. Jean Baptiste the wonder is that Rodin
caught so well the features of the
precursor, eager in his stride, strong in his
faith that a revelation is at hand.
As we know, Stephane Mallarm6 had
contemplated a Herodiade (Salome) as
early as 1866. Though subsequently each
artist and writer was to interpret the
legend in his own way, Mallarmd's
"Scene," published in a magazine in 1869,
serves well as a conclusion, a last act,
as it were, suitable to all the various readings
and to the fin-de-siecle mood as expressed
in both art and life.
Many are the meanings assigned to
Mallarm6's Herodiade,' said to be his
"most accessible" and by the same critic
(Charles Mauron) one of the " 'most
submarine' poems in the French language."
But read with reference to what we now
know of the legend and the uses to which
it was put in the nineteenth century, it
seems to me a revealing literary expression
of the compelling search for spiritual
purity in a markedly impure world. It is not

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