The Princess, Persona, and Subjective Desire: A Reading of Oscar Wilde's Salome

Article excerpt

Oscar Wilde began to write Salome still enjoying, but being frustrated by, the critical attention given to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The summer of 1890 had been exhausting for Wilde: Dorian Gray had been published in shorter form, and Wilde had written many letters to disgruntled reviewers defending the work, reluctantly pointing out the moral qualities in an art form he had previously claimed was incompatible with moralistic purposes. The newspapers' focus on whether Wilde lauded or deplored Dorian's actions directed public attention away from the novel's critique of image and desire. Dorian Gray actually is highly skeptical about the aestheticism Wilde represented in the eighties, treating it, as Richard Ellmann put it, as "not a creed but a problem" (310). Specifically, Wilde's problem with aestheticism is that, following Pater, the self cultivates and expresses itself through both physical and intellectual experiences, and that gives rise to the danger that either the physical or intellectual experience will be valued at the expense of the other. Aestheticism allows individuals to transcend the Philistinism within their own culture, but it also narrows the cultural experiences open to them. In particular, aestheticism runs the risk of robbing sexual desire of its power by attempting to transform all walks of experience into contemplative acts.

Salome in fact extends this critique of aestheticism. Like Dorian, Salome is trapped in her persona--an aestheticized image of herself that she projects to the public--as an object of desire. Because Salome, like Dorian, can only function as an object of desire, she is afforded no psychic space to develop subjective desire. As Freud notes, the repressed endeavors to break through the pressure of the ego and either forces its way into consciousness or reveals itself through action (20). The resulting action invariably throws out of balance the ego's role of stabilizing the individual; in other words, the individual's desire becomes perverted. In Salome, Wilde gives us direct access to the princess's perverted desire. (And this intimate view of Salome paradoxically makes her less attractive than Dorian Gray but slightly more sympathetic.) In the double play of worshiping and fearing Salome's image, Herod's court fails to take into account what she represses in order to project her image. The result is a Salome using the power gotten from her persona to destroy the very system that imbued her with this power.

Although Oscar Wilde began writing Salome in 1891, he had toyed with the idea of contributing to the vast body of nineteenth-century literature on the Biblical figure for some time. Wilde was familiar with the iconography that had sprung up around Salome in the decades prior to his drama, from Flaubert's "Herodias" to Mallarme's unfinished poem "Herodiade" to the Moreau paintings of Salome immortalized by J.K. Huysmans in A Rebours, to name a few. From the beginning, however, Wilde planned to distinguish his portrayal of Salome from those of the writers and painters before him. He found, for example, previous depictions of the princess by artists such as Leonardo and Durer unsatisfactory (Ellmann 342). The Salome of Wilde's drama differs also from her previous literary incarnations. In Flaubert's story, for instance, Herodias is the instigator of both Salome's dance and request for John the Baptist's head. Salome is merely a pawn in Herodias's struggle for power with Herod in Flaubert's story. Wilde, by giving Salome her own motive for dancing before Herod, gives back to the princess a measure of subjectivity that had been denied her since the Bible omitted her name from its tale of John the Baptist's beheading.

Of all the previous depictions of Salome, the paintings by Gustave Moreau, and especially Huysmans's description of them, influenced Wilde the most in his conception of the princess. According to Richard Ellmann, Wilde liked to recite the passages in A Rebours about the Moreau paintings (342). …