Without knowing its disease, the body still succumbs to disease. A civilisation’s flame dwindles to flicker, before snuffing. In The Hollow Men, T. S. Eliot wrote the world ends ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Eliot wrote of a tired death, a whimper at the end of weariness. Wilde culls a world with decadence. Only when the rotting flesh of Herod, Herodias, Salomé ferments do they whimper.
Reading Salomé, another of Eliot’s poems echoed: Journey of the Magi. One of the three wise men recounts meeting the baby Jesus. But through his opaque narration, we learn he witnessed not just Christ, but his world’s death. With Christianity came a revolution in values, a revolution in culture, a revolution in the world, but the old world, culture, values must die. The magi cannot become a Christian.
Salomé is concurrent with Christ. We hear Christ has, or has not, performed this, or that, many miracles. Importantly, Christ never appears. Wilde shows the birth of Christianity, but chose a source narrative absent of Christ. Wilde’s readers, presumably Christians or descendants of a Christian culture, are not given the chance to smile at Christianity’s birth. They are denied the presence of Christ. They are alone with the dying pagans.
Like Eliot’s magi, Wilde’s pagans sense the future, but cannot articulate it. They are like the New World native, who cannot tell the black mass on the horizon is a galleon. The moon augers ill, looking like a ‘dead woman’ and turning ‘blood-red’. Herod has imprisoned a prophet, Iokanaan (John the Baptist). Although more articulate than the moon, Iokanaan’s words require hindsight, available to Wilde’s audience, but denied to his characters. (And even Wilde’s audience will only comprehend broad strokes.) ‘Rejoice not,’ he says, ‘oh land of Palestine, because the rod that scourged thee hath been broken. From the seed of the serpent will come forth a basilisk, and the off-spring of the basilisk will devour the birds.’ Herod hears the prophet’s words, but cannot help bending them to his preconceptions. ‘The Angel of the Lord will smite him. And he will be devoured by worms.’ Well, this surely means Herod’s rival, the King of Cappadocia. ‘The wanton! The strumpet! … Let the captains pierce her with their swords. Let them crush her beneath their shields.’ He means Herodias, Herod and Herodias think. He actually means Salomé, who Herod himself will command pierced with swords. Herod hears, but cannot comprehend. Can we expect inhabitants of the old world to comprehend the shape of the new?
When Iokanaan talks of the ‘Saviour of the world’, the pagans of course do not know who this is. Perhaps the prophet means Caesar, emperor of the old world. No sooner is Caesar mentioned than his infirmity becomes apparent. ‘He suffers from gout … [H]is feet are like those of an elephant.’ How feeble does this sick man seem next to a healer of the sick. How insignificant does this King of Earth seem next to the King of Heaven.
Caesar ruled the world through might. Herod ruled by slaughtering his brother. Christ’s reign is of pacifism and resurrection. Power is not moving from one dynasty to the next. Power is transforming into something unrecognisable. Power moves from the body to the spirit.
Wilde’s honey-tongued descriptions are not merely sordid or decadent. Wilde focuses on them, because the characters obsess on sensuality. Theirs is a world where all value is bodily. The play revolves around one of the most famous strip-teases in history. (The Dance of the Seven Veils is never described, but something at least as lascivious seems necessary.) An act of sensuality ending in a beheading. Herod tries to divert Salomé’s bloodlust into a more acceptable hedonism. He offers treasures of parodic luxury. When she demands Iokanaan’s head, Herod offers fifty white peacocks whose ‘beaks are gilded, and the very corn they eat is gilded.’ She again demands Iokanaan’s head, so Herod offers a pearl necklace ‘like moons chained together on silver moonbeams’, a fan of parrot feathers and a robe of ostrich, a crystal ball, three turquoises which allow one to ‘imagine things that do not exist’ and ‘make women barren.’ All these treasures are the most the physical world has to offer. All are ridiculous. In demanding the head of Iokanaan, Salomé senses this, but not entirely.
At base, Salomé does not lust after Iokanaan. Rather, lust is the only way she can comprehend her fascination with this herald of the new era. ‘All other men filled [her] with disgust.’ She goes on to praise his physical body as an ‘ivory column set on a silver pedestal’. This is contradicted by common sense (he is an emaciated beggar) and her own words. After he denies her approaches, she says his body is like ‘the body of a leper’, his hair is ‘covered with mud.’ Only his lips does she continue praising, the most sensual part of the body still legal to show on stage.
She sees something different in this man, but cannot comprehend its nature. His force is spiritual, but she sees only the physical. The plot centres on her desire to kiss him. When he will not do so willingly, she will kiss his dead lips. Kissing a severed head is not merely forcing oneself on an unwilling party. Salomé reduces Iokanaan to a body, sans life, sans spirit. She wanted to kiss Iokanaan, and when she has, she has not. She does not kiss Iokanaan’s lips, but the lips he once spoke through.
Salomé, like all the pagans, missed the point. They could only miss the point. The revolution progresses, and the world abandons them.
Quotes taken from Vyvyan Holland's 1957 translation, from the The Folio Society edition.