[Disponible en español — The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web the following essay, which first appeared in the the January 2002 issue The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies, published by the Oscar Wilde Society. Thanks to Donald Mead, Chairman, The Oscar Wilde Society, for his assistance.]

The chaos of conflicting religious opinions that dominated the Victorian era is distanced, exoticized and reproduced by Wilde in his symbolist one-act play Salomé. That some aspects of this play reflect appearances of Victorian life has been recognized by many critics. Salomé has been seen variously as the New Woman (Beckson, Dellamora) and as Decadence personified (Ellmann, Gagnier, Shewan, Dijkstra), while Jokanaan has been interpreted as an embodiment of Victorian celibate Christianity. Bram Dijkstra has written of the general fin-de-siècle interest in Salomé that "Salomé's hunger for the Baptist's head thus proved to be a mere pretext for the men's need to find the source of all wrongs they thought were being done to them. Salomé, the evil woman, became their favourite scapegoat." In order for the spirit to triumph over the body, Salomé had to be executed "in a cleansing massacre." Her death became the triumph of the Victorian male over sexual temptation (p. 398). In one of his essays, Richard Ellmann astutely observed that Salomé and Jokanaan embody respectively the Pater and Ruskin strains in Wilde, while Herod reflects Wilde himself, caught between these two opposing influences and unable to decide which one to embrace ("Overtures," pp. 85-90). In the present article, my argument is that all the characters in the play, especially the minor ones, have Victorian counterparts and that the play, as a whole, is meant at one level to dramatize the entire religious landscape in Victorian England, presenting it to the reader in an exoticized manner.

I. In my analysis, I shall begin with the atheists, move on to the adherents of strange religions, then the Jews and Christians, and end with Salomé and her new religion of Decadence. The Cappadocian, for example, is an unmistakable echo of Nietzsche, whose fame had begun to spread throughout Europe by the time Wilde sat down to write his play. Thus Spake Zarathustra begins with a famous and central passage:

Zarathustra went down the mountain alone, no one meeting him. When he entered the forest, however, there suddenly stood before him an old man, who had left his holy cot to seek roots. . . .

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!" [pp. 4-6]

The Cappadocian strongly echoes this when he says: "In my country there are no gods left. The Romans have driven them out. There are some who say that they have hidden themselves in the mountains, but I do not believe it. Three nights I have been on the mountains seeking them everywhere. I did not find them. And at last I called them by their names, but they did not come. I think they are dead" (p. 584). Nietzsche's central statement on God is thus distanced, exoticized and injected into Salomé.

Aubrey Beardsley: The Black Cape from Salomé. This picture captures very nicely the Victorian dimension of Salomé, showing her extravagantly in the Victorian equivalent of the seven veils. [Click on image for larger picture.]

The chief representative of atheist rationalism in the play, however, is Herodias. When the Jews begin to dispute about their religion, she states impatiently: "Make them be silent. They weary me" (p. 594). A while later, when the Nazarenes start discussing the miracles of Christ, her response is much more vehement: "Ho! Ho! Miracles. I do not believe in miracles. I have seen too many. . . . How these men weary me! They are ridiculous!" (p. 595). Throughout, she dismisses and mocks the prophecies of Jokanaan, insisting on his execution. Atheist rationalism, supported by new scientific discoveries, was a strong intellectual current in Victorian England, and included such prominent figures as Mill, Marx and Hardy. At its most extreme, it not only dismissed religion but mocked and attacked it, as in the case of the Decadents. Pater's atheism and his quiet irritation with Christianity for its supposed suppression of the human spirit is quite apparent in The Renaissance, for instance, as when he writes in praise of Winckelmann:

On a sudden the imagination feels itself free. How facile and direct, it seems to say, is this life of the senses and the understanding, when once we have apprehended it! . . . How mistaken and round-about have been our efforts to reach it by mystic passion, and monastic reverie; how they have deflowered the flesh; how little they have really emancipated us! [pp. 118]

Aubrey Beardsley mockingly dedicates his highly licentious novel-fragment, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, to an imaginary cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. And the minor Decadent poet John Barlas embraces an aesthetic Satanism in his poem Terrible Love. Herodias, as a lesser Salomé, is another embodiment of Decadence in the play, and she reflects the extreme anti-religious attitude that was a prominent feature of this movement and which grew out of the current of atheist rationalism in Victorian England.

II. A CHRISTIANITY weakened during the Victorian period, there was a proliferation of new religions on the scene. Carlyle, for example, lost his Christian faith but propounded a brand of pantheism in Sartor Resartus and The French Revolution. Arnold reduced God to a power outside ourselves that pushes in the direction of morality but did not eliminate Him altogether from the picture. Yeats and Conan Doyle, among others, became ardent spiritualists. Many post-Darwinists, from Butler to Shaw, adopted the idea of creative evolution in various forms. And Huxley coined the term "agnostic." This chaos of new, often strange religious beliefs is again distanced, exoticized and captured in Salomé. The Nubians, for instance, who used to inhabit areas of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, have their own bizarre religion, described by one of them as follows:

The gods of my country are very fond of blood. Twice in the year we sacrifice to them young men and maidens; fifty young men and a hundred maidens. But it seems we never give them quite enough, for they are very harsh to us. [p. 584]

Salomé (who is nominally Jewish but who, like Herod and Herodias, is presented by Wilde as thoroughly pagan) refers to the moon as a goddess who "has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses" (p. 586). The young Syrian is entrapped siren-like by Salomé (the spiritual daughter of the moon-goddess Cybele) and worships her as a kind of deity, ultimately offering himself as a blood sacrifice to her, while the page of Herodias reacts to the princess with knowing terror.

Many of the Caesars of Rome were regarded as part divine, and this is stressed by Wilde through Tigellinus and Herod when they unconsciously use the titles of Christ in describing Caesar:

HEROD: What does that mean? The Saviour of the world.

TIGELLINUS: It is a title that Caesar takes.

HEROD: But Caesar is not coming into Judaea. Only yesterday I received letters from Rome. They contained nothing concerning this matter. And you, Tigellinus, who were at Rome during the winter, you heard nothing concerning this matter, did you?

TIGELLINUS: Sire, I heard nothing concerning the matter. I was explaining the title. It is one of Caesar's titles. . . .

HEROD: Wherefore should I not be happy? Caesar, who is lord of the world, who is lord of all things, loves me well. He has just sent me most precious gifts. Also he has promised me to summon to Rome the King of Cappadocia. who is my enemy. It may be that at Rome he will crucify him, for he is able to do all things that he wishes. Verily, Caesar is lord. [pp. 594-97]

When Salomé emerges from Herod's feast, she escapes not only from his lustful gaze but from an atmosphere of religious debate and confusion which repels her:

SALOMÉ: How sweet the air is here! I can breathe here! Within there are Jews from Jerusalem who are tearing each other in pieces over their foolish ceremonies, and barbarians who drink and drink, and spill their wine on the pavement, and Greeks from Smyrna with painted eyes and painted cheeks, and frizzed hair curled in twisted coils, and silent, subtle Egyptians, with long nails of Jade and russet cloaks, and Romans brutal and coarse, with their uncouth jargon. [p. 586]

The Egyptians, Greeks, barbarians and Romans evoke images of strange religions, for they are associated with the quarrelling Jews and seem quite comfortable in the atmosphere of religious multiplicity and confusion which the Jews create as they argue over the details of Judaism. They are introduced, moreover, against a background of religious disorder. When Herod promises Salomé whatever she may ask for if she will dance for him, he cannot withdraw the oath because "I have sworn by my gods. I know it well" (p. 600). Wilde does not focus on new religions or give them prominence in Salomé, however, for in the Victorian period none of them managed to attract more than a small group of followers: the confrontation remained fundamentally between atheism and Christianity. A second reason is that he himself proposes a new "religion' in this play, and does not want to place it on a level with these other religions; but this will be discussed later on in the essay.

III. Within the Christian faith, the Victorian age was one of great controversy and clashing opinions, and this is reflected in the life of its most prominent religious figure, John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman never once in his life doubted the existence of God or the basic tenets of Christianity: it was its creeds, doctrines and dogmas that were his main concern. At Oriel College, Oxford, he associated at first with the "Noetics," a fairly liberal group of churchmen who tended to criticize traditional orthodoxies, and whose approach to Christianity was rationalistic. He soon drifted away from them, however, towards friends like Hurrell Froude, Edward Pusey and John Keble, whose religious thought was quite different from the "Noetics' and who questioned the idea that the Anglican Church, as first and ideally conceived, was necessarily Protestant rather than Catholic. With his friends, he established the Oxford Movement, which was anti-rationalistic and anti-liberal in its religious thought and which took the via media — the middle way — between the Protestant and Catholic views on tradition and authority. Newman continued to drift towards Catholicism until in 1845 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He was a liberal Catholic, however, and was regarded with distrust by his fellow converts and by the Catholic Church in England and Ireland. In 1863-64, he and the Catholic Church were severely attacked by Charles Kingsley, an extreme and popular anti-Catholic divine, and he responded by writing his most famous book Apologia pro vita sua, the history of his religious life. The book was warmly received by the English public and Newman became a popular figure once again. In 1878 Protestant Oxford gave him an honorary fellowship. In 1879 the Catholic Church made him a cardinal. He died in 1890, untouched by Darwin's The Origin of Species and the entire evolutionary controversy.

This religious conflict within English Victorian Christianity, conveniently mirrored in Cardinal Newman's life, is exoticized and dramatized in the arguing Jews and Nazarenes of Salomé. These must be taken together, for they represent the Judaeo-Christian tradition in a pagan world. It is possible to speculate that Wilde meant them to represent the Protestant and Catholic churches respectively, like the Jews and Jebusites in Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. At any rate, their chief characteristic is religious wrangling. When Herod declares that Jokanaan is a man who has seen God, for instance, the Jews, who all accept the basic tenets of Judaism, nonetheless manage to come up with five differing opinions:

A JEW: That cannot be. There is no man who has seen God since the prophet Elias. He is the last man who saw God. In these days God does not show Himself. He hideth Himself. Therefore great evils have come upon the land.

ANOTHER JEW: Verily, no man knoweth if Elias the prophet did indeed see God. Peradventure it was but the shadow of God that he saw.

A THIRD JEW: God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in everything. God is in what is evil, even as He is in what is good.

A FOURTH JEW: That must not be said. It is a very dangerous doctrine. It is a doctrine that cometh from the schools at Alexandria, where men teach the philosophy of the Greeks. And the Greeks are Gentiles. They are not even circumcised.

A FIFTH JEW: No one can tell how God worketh. His ways are very mysterious. It may be that the things which we call evil are good, and that the things which we call good are evil. [p. 594]

The Nazarenes, when Christ is mentioned, also display confusion and disagreement, and this is compounded by the Sadducees and Pharisees, two Jewish sects who disagree about the existence of angels, among other things:

FIRST NAZARENE: This Man worketh true miracles. Thus, at a marriage which took place in a little town of Galilee, a town of some importance, He changed water into wine. Certain persons who were present related it to me. Also, He healed two lepers that were seated before the Gate of Capernaum simply by touching them.

SECOND NAZARENE: Nay, it was blind men that He healed at Capernaum.

FIRST NAZARENE: Nay, they were lepers. But He healed blind people also, and He was seen on a mountain talking with angels.

A SADDUCEE: Angels do not exist.

A PHARISEE: Angels exist, but I do not believe that this Man has talked with them.

FIRST NAZARENE: He was seen by a great multitude of people talking with angels.

A SADDUCEE: Not with angels. (p. 595)

Aubrey Beardsley, La Toilette from Salomé. Again, Beardsley places Salomé in Victorian surroundings,
with books by Sade and Zola on the shelf. [Click on image for larger picture.]

Another pillar of Christian morality in Victorian England was John Ruskin, whom Ellmann associates with Jokanaan. Ruskin, whom everyone referred to as a prophet, believed and preached that art and morality are inseparable, indeed that the importance of any work of art should be measured by its moral and spiritual impact on the beholder. The function of art is to create better human beings, to elevate them morally and strengthen them spiritually. Ruskin remained celibate throughout his life, although he did marry a distant cousin, Euphemia Gray, in 1848. After marriage, Ruskin explained to Effie that many early Christians had spent their entire lives in married celibacy, that children would interfere with his work, and that consummation should be delayed for six years or so. He did take her to live in Venice, however, where she displayed a distinct love for dancing and masked balls, and for pleasure and flirtatiousness generally. Although she was never unfaithful to him, Ruskin sometimes felt betrayed by her misconduct. The marriage was annulled in 1854 when Effie fell in love with John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and Ruskin's friend, whom she subsequently married. Later in life Ruskin fell in love with another young girl, Rose La Touche, and proposed marriage to her in 1866, but her response was that she needed two and possibly four years before she could answer him. He waited in agony but never received an answer; Rose La Touche died young, soon after the end of the fourth year, and Ruskin continued to mourn her death for many years afterwards, as he records in his diary.

It is easy to argue that Jokanaan evokes Ruskin. As Ellmann has observed: "Behind the figure of Jokanaan lurks the image of that perversely untouching, untouchable prophet John whom Wilde knew at Oxford. When Jokanaan, up from his cistern for a moment, cries to Salomé, "Arrière, fille de Sodome! Ne me touchez pas. Il ne faut pas profaner le temple du Seigneur Dieu," a thought of Ruskin, by now sunk down into madness, can scarcely have failed to cross Wilde's mind. . . . Jokanaan is not Ruskin, but he is Ruskinian as Wilde understood that pole of his character" ("Overtures" p. 89). In my view, Jokanaan is not only Ruskinian but is also Wilde's presentation of Christianity as a religion of sexual repression. I have put this idea forward at length in my critical study of Wilde, Into the Demon Universe (pp. 94-101), and in subsequent essays, and shall only give a brief recapitulation here. Jokanaan has a hidden lust for Salomé that betrays itself in the language he uses, which often has an unconscious sexual meaning. He refuses to look at her, and voluntarily returns to his symbolic dark underground cistern rather than accept her advances, however, for — Ruskin-like — the idea of sexual contact with her horrifies him. At the same time he is obsessed with her, as with her mother previously. and continually condemns them both. His end — a severed head, eyes closed, sexually consumed by Salomé —really captures his essence, for he possesses the object of his desire but will never be aware of the fact. As Salomé says to the head: "Ah! Wherefore didst thou not look at me, Jokanaan? Behind thy hands and thy curses thou didst hide thy face. Thou didst put upon thine eyes the covering of him who would see his God" (p. 604) Jokanaan uses Christianity as a shield against sexual contact, which he nonetheless unconsciously longs for. As Rodney Shewan has pointed out, Wilde's most famous critic, Richard Strauss, viewed Jokanaan negatively. Shewan has also argued that Jokanaan's "self-esteem is unattractive, almost blasphemous. . . . With his bombast, his priggish-ness, and his prurient anatomization of Herodias, he can hardly be taken seriously as the voice of the new spiritual kingdom" (p. 136). Through Jokanaan — the chief representative of Christianity in the play — Wilde sought not simply to exoticize Ruskin but also to discredit and dismiss Christianity as a prelude to presenting us with his own "religion." The fall of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and of Newman and Ruskin, in the play leaves the stage empty for Wilde to fill the void.

IV. Salomé, Wilde's main character, embodies the Decadent movement of the Victorian fin-de-siècle, but set in a faraway land in biblical times. Wilde associates her with the pagan moon-goddess Cybele, who jealously guarded her virginity, was served by eunuch priests, and murdered her lover, the holy king Attis, after he mated with her (or tried to, depending on the version of the myth). It is Cybele who is the light of the world while Salomé is the incarnation on earth of that light for a brief moment in history. Wilde's play is a kind of Black Mass in which Salomé is presented as a counterpoint to Christ. She is born as the result of a demonic Virgin Birth (Herod insists that his wife is sterile) and brings the world a new gospel of love and complete sexual liberation. Jokanaan's prophecies are often ambiguous and can be read as prophesying the coming of Salomé, with gender confusion, as when he cries out: "So the day is come, the day of the Lord, and I hear upon the mountains the feet of Him who shall be the Saviour of the world" (p. 594). But what does come is Salomé, who dances with naked feet on blood, then both preaches and practises a gospel of total sexual freedom. In Wilde's eyes it is she who is the Saviour of the world, liberating it from the falsities of Christian love. "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death. Love only should one consider" (p. 604), she declares chillingly to the grisly blood-soaked head of the dead prophet, thus redefining the word "love' blasphemously in completely sexual terms and insisting on the relentless pursuit of sexual love even at its most perverse. And like Christ, she is murdered at the end for preaching and practising the gospel of love uncompromisingly, but attains immortality in the minds of people — and the hearts of the Decadents.

In Salomé Wilde presents us with the entire Victorian religious landscape exoticized, but is uncompromisingly on the side of the atheists. As a Romantic mythmaker, however, he weaves together a paradoxical aesthetic "religion" of evil and gives it centre-stage in this landscape. In the final analysis, Wilde presents himself as the Saviour of the world, offering the Victorians an aesthetic Satanism, a mythical "religion" of complete sexual freedom that sanctifies all the various forms of perversion, and accepts the hard core of darkness that he discerned in the depths of the human soul. In Salomé Wilde wanted this "religion," and Decadence in general, to stand at the end of the nineteenth century's quest for truth. It is a "religion' that quickly destroyed Wilde, and that Kurtz, a few years later, was to embrace in the jungles of Africa in that post-Decadent masterpiece, Heart of Darkness.

Illustrations

The drawings by Aubrey Beardsley illustrate Salomé in the John Lane, The Bodley Head, edition of 1912. The wood engraving by Louis Jou illustrates Salomé in the Georges Crès et cie, Le Théâtre d'Art, edition of 1917.

Works Cited

1. Beckson, Karl. London in the 1890s: A Cultural History. New York: Norton, 1992.

2. Dellamora, Richard, "Traversing the Feminine in Oscar Wilde's Salomé." In Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender in Power. Ed. Thaïs E. Morgan. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers UP, 1990, pp. 246-264.

Cohen, Philip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. Rutherford, NJ.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.

Dijkstra, Bram, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

_____. "Overtures to Salomé'. In Oscar Wilde: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985, pp. 77-90.

Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986.

Hart-Davis, Rupert, ed. Letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

Nassaar, Christopher S, "Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé" The Explicator 53:4, 1995 pp. 217-220.

Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Ed. Oscar Levy. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. — An Oxford World's Classics paperback.

Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Shewan, Rodney. Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Third Edition. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1994.


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Last modified 24 December 2005