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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 91

the victim of evil who is central to
Mallarmd's poem, nor the gross vulgarity
of a society bent on destroying its victims;
it is not evil incarnate in a lascivious dance,
not these but the desire of the tormented
soul for a gem-like spiritual serenity,
the will to wait for renewal, disdainful of
life, to wait, as Salome tells the Nurse in
the poem, "with eyes lost in Paradise."
When the Nurse discovers her, Salome is in
a tower in which she has, apparently,
imprisoned herself to "await a thing
unknown." The Nurse is surprised to
find the princess alive, and seeks to kiss
her hand. At that, Salome, in terror,
reminds the Nurse that a kiss would kill her
(not a kiss of betrayal but the kiss that
would transport her on the instant back to
the world of the flesh which she has
forsaken). Salome explains that even the
lions of the dungeon do not touch her,
for they have seen her pause by a
basin of jetting water, her reverie (which
they can read) fixed upon the hope of
purification. Even her feet, at which the
lions gaze, could at the moment of hope
"calm the sea."
The Nurse offers perfumes and Salome is
again frightened and commands her to
"Leave there the perfumes! Do you not
know / that I hate them." Only gold,
"forever virgin of aromatics" is compatible
with the "sterile coldness" to which she
has dedicated herself in her purgatorial
Salome is not yet ready for the thing
unknown. Often when she looks in the
mirror (which is likened to "cold water
frozen with ennui") she appears to herself
a "far-off shade"; but sometimes in the
"severe fount" of the mirror there are
dimly outlined ("sparse") dreams of
nudity, and she remembers that she was
Once again, out of habit, the Nurse, who
does not understand Salome's baptismal
longings, attempts to replace a lock of
unruly hair. "Stop in your crime / Which
chills my blood toward its source,"
Salome cries. What demon is it that urges
you to touch me. At this the Nurse
becomes aware that Salome is in another
world. "You wander, solitary shade,"
with "a new fierceness . . . precocious with
dread." Salome has willed her own
purgatory - "a new fierceness." Is it a
god for whom she waits, asks the Nurse.
No, Salome replies, it is for herself, for
herself in the fulness of purity.
In the last lines of the poem, Salome calls
to the moon and says that her "dream
will mount" toward her "sister eternal."
She knows, now, a "supreme joy."
Narcissus-like she has withdrawn into
herself and is "alone," in the solitude of
angels. When the Nurse asks whether the
princess is to die thus, Salome reassures
her that she will go to a land where
Venus "the eve long, burns in the
leafage"; but as the Nurse departs, Salome
says to herself, "You lie, naked flower / Of
my lips! / I await a thing unknown."
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle,
Sigmund Freud calls attention to a psychic
phenomenon of interest to us here.'
"The ego-instincts," he says in Chapter VI,
"spring from the vitalising of inanimate
matter, and have as their aim the
reinstatement of lifelessness."  Freud's
hypothesis of a death-instinct is well
known; what is not so often studied
is his development of the theory in
Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Libido
of sexual instincts is the Eros of poets and
philosophers and "holds together all
things living." On the other hand, "Our
recognition that the ruling tendency of
psychic life . . . is the struggle for
reduction . . . or removal of the inner
stimulus tension . . . is indeed one of our
strongest motives for believing in the
existence of death-instincts." The primary
tendency of the pleasure-principle is to
keep the "psychic apparatus as a whole
free from any excitation, or to keep the
amount of excitation constant or as low as
possible." Thus "the function so
defined would partake of the most
universal tendency of all living matter-
to return to the peace of the inorganic
Applying Freud's hypothesis to Mallarmd's
Herodiade, we may read Salome's ritual
of the tower to be an ardent desire for
release from the excitations of her guilt. To
be reminded of the lusts of the flesh by a
touch from the Nurse, to be reminded of
perfumes and of memories of her
beauty causes deep pain. What Salome
seeks in the mirror, substitute for the
water of baptism, is evidence of the
other half of herself, the sanctified, the

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