It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means. In truth, yes, I know it.
—Oscar Wilde, Salomé
When Oscar Wilde wrote Salomé in 1891, English law banned play performances involving biblical characters. Even without such forbidden material, the spectacle of a young girl kissing the lips of the severed head of the man whom she loves—to say nothing of Aubrey Beardsley’s lurid, anatomically precise, intersexual illustrations—guaranteed censorship. Even Wilde wanted to hide Beardsley’s drawing of the moon spoofing Wilde’s fat face. The story of Salomé remains one that Wilde wanted not to tell, even though he also wanted to tell it. “I live in fear of not being misunderstood,” he once confessed.
More than a century after Wilde penned Salomé, I asked my mother whether her father had been gay. I had little memory of my grandfather: he died when I was seven. My few encounters left me with the recollection of a boyishly shy man who stared quietly, said little.
“Oh, no, he wasn’t gay,” Mom said with certainty. I said nothing, sensing hesitation.
I wonder if the conversation that was to define my relationship with my mother would have gone differently face-to-face. Over the phone, three thousand miles away, sitting on a faded white chenille bedspread that seemed too New-Englandy for my Los Angeles hotel room, I listened as Mom answered from New York. Sometimes her voice dropped to a whisper, then rose, ranging almost as widely as Salomé’s in the Richard Strauss opera. Salomé, who performs the dance of the seven veils for her stepfather—a man who asks her to bite into an apple so he can see the imprint of her pretty little teeth in it—seems as monstrous as he. Tossing off her last veil after a sinuous performance, Salomé requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, proceeding to kiss its lips and inquire soulfully why he won’t look at her. Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations turn her into a sadist; in one, both she and the prophet (called Jokanaan, the Hebrew for John, in Wilde’s version) sport snaky locks, Medusa-style.
An oriental dancing site refers to Salomé as “a young woman who was beautiful, talented, and deadly. She could have been a villainess in a modern-day James Bond movie!”1 But the same site references DeAnna Putnam’s finding: “the original Greek word used in the New Testament account” calls Salomé “a korasion, meaning a little girl not yet old enough to have breasts or menstruate. Also, the word used for the dancing done by Salomé in the original Greek is orxeomai, which not only means dance, but playful goofing off of young children.” Putnam concludes Salomé is more Shirley Temple than mature seductress. Wilde’s text suggests the same: there’s a plaintive quality to Salomé’s final questions when she is holding Jokanaan’s head in her hands, the note of a child, a little girl who only wanted the man’s head because he’d been so mean. Besides, Mommy, the girl seems to intimate, how else could she manage to kiss his lips if his head weren’t in her hands? Why won’t he open his eyes and look at her?
Salomé doesn’t get death. Wake up, Jokanaan! Stop teasing me!
In Mark 6:21-9, Salomé asks for the head of John the Baptist, but only because her mother tells her to do so. As the gospel relates, “the damsel” obediently hands over the prophet’s head to Mom. But Oscar Wilde’s Salomé wants the head “for mine own pleasure,” she tells her horrified stepfather, Herod. Her mother eggs her on, but you get the feeling Salomé can’t even hear her. The girl’s too focused on the object of her desire, namely, Jokanaan’s head. Like a little girl, she wants what she wants when she wants it.
I’m reminded of one of my children throwing a tantrum when my husband inadvertently ate a cherry tomato off the child’s plate. When the kid screamed, we offered another tomato, but the breathless, raging, blue-in-the-face child wanted only that particular tomato, the tomato that had already been swallowed. No other tomato would do—so my husband affected to cough it up, clandestinely producing a different tomato, and instantly soothing our little savage. Salomé’s just the same. Herod must give her exactly the gift she requests—nothing else. Forget “the largest emerald in the whole world,” which he tries to palm off on her instead of the severed head. Forget his peacocks with gilded beaks. Forget sapphires, moonstones, amethysts. “Give me the head of Jokanaan,” she repeats three times. The final scene, when Salomé kisses Jokanaan’s dead lips, is typically staged with rivers of blood and vampirish glee. But in the girl’s pouty “I will kiss it now!” and in her haunting, repeated question of why her beloved Jokanaan won’t look at her lie the tragedies of early childhood: no urge can be controlled, and the great mysteries of life, love and death, cannot be comprehended. She isn’t taunting Jokanaan when she tells him to open his eyes. She doesn’t understand that he can’t. The permanence of death has yet to dawn on her.
When Wilde’s Salomé first sets foot onstage, she’s just a kid trying to escape. She’d never even have met John or become remotely interested in him if she hadn’t been trying to get away from her lecherous stepfather and from the sexual urges he stirs in her just-pubescent, unwilling soul.
Wandering out of the feast looking pale, she tells no one in particular how strange it is that the husband of her mother looks at her, how she doesn’t understand why he does. But in truth, she then confesses, she does. The tragedy is yet to come, namely, that she will never escape those feelings he’s stirred up by looking at her with “his mole’s eyes under his shaking eyelids.” She hopes, believes, for the moment, that she really has eluded these unwelcome urges. “How sweet the air is here! I can breathe here!” Back at the feast, the Jews from Jerusalem are “tearing each other in pieces over their foolish ceremonies,” and the barbarians are drinking and drinking and spilling their drinks, and the Greeks are all dolled up in weird makeup.
No mother with her child’s interests at heart would allow her young teenaged daughter in a room with that bunch of perverts, not with the National Guard surrounding her, but Salomé sits among them all, the “silent, subtle” Egyptians with their “long nails of jade” and the “coarse” Romans with “their uncouth jargon.”
The girl’s seen and heard way too much. Her innocence shows in her belief she can exist outside the experience of being desired by her stepfather, and in her delight at seeing the moon: “She is like a little piece of money. You would think she is a little silver flower.” Salomé recognizes her own beauty and worth in these descriptions of the moon—and perhaps half-realizes that she’s considered something to be bought and sold, with as much power to resist as a flower. Still, she strains to regain the way she felt before Herod’s roving gaze and the behavior of the drunken guests effected an emotional rape. Their lust penetrated her, but she tries hard to reject it: “The moon is cold and chaste,” Salomé says, the minute she is outside, her admiration of the celestial body obvious, “I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin’s beauty.” Despairingly, Salomé continues, as if willing herself to return to the time when she had no awareness of sexuality: “Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses.” Her longing to escape defilement, to push it away, is, of course, doomed. The young Syrian, Narraboth, stares at her with obvious longing, and the booming voice of John the Baptist emerges from the nearby cistern. The answer to the question of what to do with all her disturbing lust presents itself immediately. Salomé asks if the prophet is an old man and is told he’s quite a young one. The moment she claps eyes on Jokanaan, she’s smitten: “I am amorous of thy body!”
When I asked Mom whether her dad were gay, I had yet to see the photos she passed to me as soon as I returned to New York, describing them as something her own mother had wanted, specifically, “pictures of our little girls growing up.” The family, my mother, then fifteen years old, her sister, a year younger, their fifty-something artist father, and thirty-something writer mother, had walked to a section of uninhabited beach in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where they vacationed in the summers.
As I gazed unbelievingly at the first photograph, my mother explained she was dancing with seaweed in her hands. Handing it to me, she smiles, hoping for my approval. I see the arc of kelp over her head, swinging in the breeze like one of Salomé’s veils. In the photos, my mother, like her sister, is naked, breasts and pubic hair showing, one graceful, high-arched foot in half toe, the other leg drawn up, foot pointed. You can see Mom’s ballet training. You can see her face, smiling, trained in the direction of the camera. You can see her closed eyes, the sun on them, the sun on her body. You can see her peekaboo attitude: that drawn-up knee hides nothing. You can see, also, she’s that girl who’s trying to escape. The closed eyes to what’s happening. The closed eyes to her father’s open ones photographing her nakedness. The closed eyes to all else: when he touched her. When he became anything but a father.
As she handed me the photo of herself, my mother’s eyes stayed wide open, round, smiling, expecting, yes demanding, praise. Her breasts in the breeze, her lady parts on display, she was, despite all evidence to the contrary, just a little girl, a Shirley Temple, and I, her look telegraphed, had to play the role of the mommy who would admire this present she is giving me of a pretty child dancing—wasn’t it nice? Wasn’t she pretty? Wasn’t she a good dancer? Even though the photo “might be a little x-rated for your children,” she later remarked. But not for me. The x-rated part, her furtive, voracious glance tells me, is the part I’m supposed to, well, enjoy.
Running away from the feast into the cool, evening air, attempting to invest the moon with the purity the girl has lost, Salomé of course fails to stave off desire. Temptation is temptation. Wilde observed the only way to get rid of a temptation was to indulge it. Salomé’s next line of defense proves his point. She cannot help but notice how the young Syrian gazes at her. His infatuation with her, combined with the seductive force of her stepfather’s looks, of the drunken lecherous talk of the feasters, possesses her. She engages in what a Freudian would call “identification with the aggressor.” In order not to feel assaulted, she becomes the assaulter. She smiles seductively at the infatuated Narraboth, who is begging her not to ask him to bring Jokanaan out of his cistern. With hypnotic force, she orders, “You will do this thing for me, Narraboth. You know that you will do this thing for me.” Then she promises: “And to-morrow when I pass in my litter by the bridge of the idol-buyers, I will look at you through the muslin veils, I will look at you, Narraboth, it may be I will smile at you. Look at me, Narraboth, look at me.”
The transformation from maidenly shyness to adolescent desire is begun. Hiding her face after leaving the banquet hall, trying for salvation from the moon, she now releases, as if she could rid herself of it, the full force of the eroticism stirred in her on Narraboth, who keeps begging her to go back to the palace but is fated to watch her mounting erotic fascination with Jokanaan. But Salomé’s first glance at Jokanaan remains a final attempt to retrieve her innocence: “I am sure he is chaste as the moon is,” she cries. Jokanaan, anything but enthusiastic at the spectacle of Salomé introducing herself, calls her “daughter of Sodom” and orders her to get away from him. Undeterred—unable to do anything but follow the demands of the urge now dominating her—she says his voice “is as wine” to her. Narraboth falls on his sword, but the single-minded Salomé barely notices; she can’t keep her eyes from Jokanaan, and repeatedly expresses a desire to kiss his mouth. That constantly repeated demand, plus her insatiable yearning to gaze at him provoke nothing but enraged rejection on his part.
The romantic moment of instantaneous adoration—“I saw thee and I loved thee”—is rarely destined for a happy ending. I saw the same profound need to worship in my mother’s head-over-heels plunge into her second marriage. She’d fallen for a New Englander I’ll call Ted, a nice guy with a sailboat. At first, I thought everything would be okay—until I discovered, on the back of her bedroom door, enough photos of Ted and his sailboat snapped from every angle, mostly during sunsets, to cover the entire top half of the door. A candle stood beneath on a little table. Yes, this was a shrine. The local god was coming over for dinner, because she wanted him to meet her daughter, me, that is.
Ted glanced at the shrine and shivered. “It’s sick,” he said. Fluttering around him, Mom poured him a glass of wine. Unlike Jokanaan, he did not shout out, “By women came evil into the world!” or similar sentiments. Ted was easy to please. He loved wine, a decent meal, and kindness. I saw, during that meal, how he, like almost everyone but me, had no idea what he was getting into. He giggled. The two of them loved Tom Lehrer, so we listened to Tom Lehrer, ate salad and drank lots of red wine. As the evening wore on, I felt more and more a fifth wheel, finally retiring to the bathroom, where I could read a book. Ted giggled and Mom giggled back. At the time, he found cute, especially after a glass or two, Mom’s insatiable urge to gaze at him. Stars in her eyes, she’d left behind her New York apartment, her friends, her dance classes, for a tiny Boston studio and the chance to devote herself 100% to Ted.
Salomé’s dance lasted seven veils; Mom’s marriage, seven years. When it was all over, she and I were sitting in a Thai restaurant, she blaming her adoration of Ted on her adoration of her father, and me trying to decide between Tom Yam Gai and Pad Thai. I couldn’t get her to stop talking long enough to read the menu. At the crescendo of her diatribe about how selfish Ted had been, how she’d failed to see his selfishness, because she’d never questioned her own father, also selfish, I tried to soothe her. I wasn’t about to tell her Ted had just wanted the occasional nanosecond to himself.
“Well, it’s often the case that daughters love their fathers,” I said. A look of astonishment crossed her face.
“Did you love Dad?” she asked, her arch expression barely concealing rage. Not “your father,” even. “Dad,” which is what I called him, hadn’t been on my mind at that moment, but thoughts of him and of his death from lung cancer came rushing back. Mom didn’t like to say his name, and in her mouth, “Dad” sound like an insult. Please, her big blue eyes pleaded, reassure me that you did not love my ex-husband, whom I hate. Reassure me you hated him as much as I did, because if any of your love went to him, then you stole it from me.
My mother has a way of losing her head completely, showing her deepest desires in a rush of self-exposure, usually just to me. With others, she has the sense to keep a veil or two on. To me, this 96-year-old little girl just complained in her most recent letter that two of the other old ladies in her assisted living residence, one of whom didn’t like my mother’s outfits and the other who was crabby, were on vacations with their families. Now, Mom confided, she’d have “no one left to hate.”
There’s considerable evidence for the Shirley Temple, as opposed to the hormonally supercharged, version of Salomé in Wilde’s play. What turns Salomé on the most is what turns on the small child: looking and being looked at, hiding, trying to express love by taking things in, either by looking or by eating. Salomé’s longing to kiss Jokanaan is almost an afterthought, desired most when he turns her down, and less the expression of mature desire than the urge of the small child to put something in its mouth.
Meanwhile, Jokanaan, the holy man, the ascetic, the “chosen of the Lord” is—like an awful lot of holy men—obsessed with sex. As Salomé stands in the garden, trying to catch her breath and forget the feast, Jokanaan starts trumpeting prophecies, catching Salomé’s interest with, “Where is she who having seen the images of men painted on the walls, the images of the Chaldeans limned in colours, gave herself up unto the lust of her eyes, and sent ambassadors into Chaldea?” Right away, Salomé knows he’s talking about her Mom, about what Mom likes to look at, and the lust of Mom’s eyes. Jokanaan doesn’t let up. He catalogues Herodias’s sins: “Where is she who gave herself unto the Captains of Assyria, who have baldricks on their loins, and tiaras of divers colours on their heads? Where is she who hath given herself to the young men of Egypt, who are clothed in fine linen and purple, whose shields are of gold, whose helmets are of silver, whose bodies are mighty? Bid her rise up from the bed of her abominations, from the bed of her incestuousness . . .”
If Salomé ever had a hope of breaking free from overwhelming sexual desire, that hope evaporates in the wake of Jokanaan’s stimulating declamations. They’re both prisoners, he in his cistern and she in her desires; the state of imprisonment becomes the fate bringing them together Still, she hopes to get away by falling in love with him. But Jokanaan objects to Salomé looking at him, “with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids.” He tells her to go look for “the son of man,” and she can only ask, “Is he as beautiful as thou art?” When Salomé unleashes upon Jokanaan the lust of which she’s mostly been the passive victim, she distracts herself. Desire now seems outside of herself.
To look at Jokanaan remains her chief desire, closely followed by an obsessive wish to kiss him. A typical teenager would move to find a place where the two could stop talking and start touching. This is never Salomé’s approach. Emotionally, she’s a child, perhaps less than five years old. Physically, she’s mature enough to tempt Herod, her stepfather, the young Syrian, Narraboth, and all those wild guests at the feast. Her emotional state and behavior are characteristic of women who have been sexually abused. Adult hormones run through the veins of such women, but their erotic lives remain infantile. For all her verbal sexual wishes, she never lays a glove on that unwilling prophet.
“Oh, no,” Mom said of my grandfather, “He wasn’t gay. There’s something I’ve never even told my sister . . .”
I held my breath through the confession. Da, my grandfather, “liked little girls. He loved to see their eyes light up when he told them stories.” Mom said of her own relationship with him that “we were chummy.” By this, she meant he had touched her where no father should touch a daughter, “but never,” her voice rose extremely, “on the vagina,” just on the bottom, and—another vocal rise that made me think of Salomé pleading with John the Baptist to look at her, just look at her—“I never felt threatened at all!” Mom remarked that her relationship with her father had been “a little unusual.” Other people wouldn’t understand. She showed me photographs of her taken by her mother when she was a babe in arms and up to about age two. In very few of them is my mother wearing clothes. Two pages of a cherubic, naked mom with a wreath on her head, dancing until the wreath falls down around her ankles, dominate the book. These were done for a sculptress, but Mom looks like Salomé without her veils. She learned young to pose, dance, and be the center of attention.
She was thrilled to show me her photos. Doing so meant we were chummy. The story of her father had been her “gift” to me she said, weeping, when she learned I had confided in a cousin who did not keep my confidence. The secrecy of Mom’s gift, the idea of her information as a “gift,” which made her close to me in what she seems to regard as a snuggly way, was just what I could not stand; I really had to tell someone, to get away from the creepy feeling I was getting from Mom.
My mother did not behead me, instead demoting me. I’m sure she’s never trusted me since I shared our secret with my cousin. She let me know she felt she had no idea who I was. I wasn’t to enter her apartment when she was not there—secrets seemed suddenly to have sprouted there, and she was mad at me and would not share them. I never wanted to share sexual secrets with my mother and indeed she wasn’t interested in my reason for confiding in my cousin—namely, that our fathers, like her own, had molested us.
Mom’s father remains, in her view, entirely different from “your dad,” a being for whom she had real contempt. There was to be no comparison—how dare I?
I understood the intense rage of Mom, who believed she’d bonded with another little girl over a shared big secret—then that traitor, namely me, had ruined the gift by revealing it. She wanted that gift concealed, wrapped in a veil or two. My mother, incidentally, loves to give gifts, but hates to receive them. Scarves I’ve sent, food, gets handed over to her friends, whom she’ll never allow to pay in a restaurant. Gifts unnerve her. I think they make her aware of her greed and of secrets she wants to keep from herself.
Some say Wilde wrote Salomé in French strictly from a hope to have it performed in France, with Sarah Bernhardt in the lead. He said French was a beautiful musical instrument he wanted to use. But I think putting up a wall of French between himself and his topic allowed this native speaker of English born and raised in Dublin, who spent much of his adult life in London, a way of not quite seeing the things he was portraying, terrible, serious things nobody expected from this wit of the Western World. In a single respect he resembled Lena Dunham: a whole lot of exhibitionism masks the real story.
From Herod’s and Salomé’s naked sexual desire to Wilde’s repeated use of the word “incestuous”—anything but usual in a play of the 1890s—to Beardsley’s exquisitely pornographic drawings, the play seems remote, exotic, a fantasy supporting a bunch of melodramatic New Testament figures wandering around a Symboliste ancient Judea: not, like Wilde’s comedies, drawn from life. Wilde masked his life all too well: his bewildered friends tried, as he read the play aloud, to find the amusing parts. Wilde was crushed. His friends apparently hadn’t expected the king of conversation, the wit-meister of fin de siecle London, to write a play without a single wisecrack. No puns, no plays on words, no dandies.
But the characters in Salomé arise from Wilde’s life—Herodias is a dead ringer for his mother, Herod as randy as his father, Salomé as impulsive as his lover Bosie, and then there’s Wilde’s dead sister somewhere in the background, the one who died before she hit puberty, the one Wilde and his brother Willie adored. “I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse,” reads the Song of Songs (KJV 5:1), the text from which Wilde borrows the most in Salomé’s lovelorn appeals to Jokanaan. “We have a little sister and she hath no breasts,” it continues (8:8), in phrases evocative of his love and heartbroken mourning for the sister who died so young.
I can’t remember a time when my mother wasn’t showing off her body one way or another—she posed, she did high kicks walking down the street, she casually threw off the covers, revealing a naked body after a nap, when my brother and I were in the room, and we both looked away from her spread legs. A letter from her psychiatrist reveals that she showed me her vulva after my brother was born, supposedly by way of explaining where he came from. I remember only her longing to be looked at, admired. I couldn’t stand looking. Herod, trying to persuade Salomé to dance for him, promises, “I will give thee the throne of thy mother.” My mother’s greatest secret, which she shared with me and expected me to enjoy, was that her father had given her the throne of his wife.
One night in a rented room in Paris, Wilde started writing down a poem he’d been telling some young French writers. He’d seen a Rumanian acrobat dancing on her hands and thought of having her dance the role of Salomé. After a fevered stretch of writing, he went out to the Grand Café, which had a gypsy orchestra. Wilde called the leader over and said, “I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain. I want you to play something in harmony with my thoughts.”2 The orchestra leader complied; the audience was properly shocked, Wilde went back to his room and finished the play. But that never stopped him from losing his head to Bosie, his lover, whose demands ultimately resulted in the trials that landed Wilde in prison and made him an outcast.
Such stories as Wilde told in a disguised way, as I am telling more openly, do tend to render the teller an outcast. To hear them is to approach all that remains repressed. But the truth of them is as real as Oedipus stabbing out his eyes with his mother’s brooch only after a final good long stare at her naked body. What do you do when the last veil has fallen?
1 &lgt; http://www.shira.net/sevenveils.htm >
2 Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987), 324.