Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The "Strange Music" of Salome: Oscar Wilde's Rhetoric of Verbal Musicality

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The "Strange Music" of Salome: Oscar Wilde's Rhetoric of Verbal Musicality

Article excerpt

Walter Pater once proposed that all art aspires to the condition of music. Oscar Wilde's drama Salome harbors that aspiration, but in a deliberately equivocal fashion, casting verbal music as a seductive but ultimately futile venture. Wilde dramatizes this divided standpoint to suggest, in literary form, how interpretive subjectivity is conditioned by a representational mandate that can neither be fulfilled nor denied.

SALOME: Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.

Oscar Wilde, Salome

In the closing moments of Oscar Wilde's drama Salome (1893, 1894), the matter of verbal music finds its nearest approach to explicit mention. Having performed her dance of seven veils before the lecherous Herod, Salome comes to reflect on her dancer's reward--a silver platter bearing the head of the prophet Iokanaan--and she speaks of a "strange music" that had attended, in her imagination, the living presence of the prophet. Alarmed by the new silence, she laments, "There is no sound. I hear nothing" (327-28). [1] Fled is that music, indeed, but I suggest that Salome's final remarks, proffered in the absence of that music, only confirm a strange musicality that has informed the drama all along. In one sense, this claim has a simple historiographic justification: Wilde himself indicated the "recurring phrases of Salome, that bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs" (Letters 590), and his numerous references in this vein clarify that his association of Salome and verbal musicality is not m erely a passing one (Letters 331, 475, 492). But to clarify what interest we might bring to this association of music and words, we need to find a richer basis than the fact of Wilde's own consistent affirmation. That basis lies in the formal implications of a verbal-musical connection. I argue that the idea of verbal music arises in Wilde's Salome to illuminate the nature and limits of any will to critical interpretation. So even as this discussion aims to spotlight an aspect of Wilde's play that has received virtually no critical attention, it also aims to demonstrate the generality of theoretical provocation at hand in Wilde's literary practice.

There have been earnest efforts to comprehend music and words within a seamless unity; but Wilde was not one for earnest efforts of that sort, and I do not try to locate an authentic musicality in the words of Salome. Instead, I suggest that Wilde's concern in his Salome is to enact and also to destabilize the very idea of a verbal-musical conjunction, to evoke an array of interpretive cruxes brought out precisely through his work's equivocal aspiration toward the condition of music. The strangeness of the play's dramatic music--the very interest of this dramatic music--inheres in the unstable dynamism of the transpositional aspiration itself. In this respect, Salome's verbal music is not about the communion of words and music. Instead, it is about the attractions and the inevitable precariousness of formal correspondences, artistic transpositions, encoding and decoding. The action of Salome, presided over by a reflective moon, engenders a staging of critical reflection as such, bringing manifold issues of i dentity and difference into a carnival of inverted imaging and shaky introspections. So the work implies a comment on the uncertain condition of interpretation. In Wilde's approach to the conjuring of verbal music, nothing succeeds like failure.

This redemptive approach to failed aspiration seems prescient in the light of the personal disasters that awaited him. In a letter of early June, 1897, written a few weeks after his release from a two-year imprisonment with hard labor for acts of gross indecency, Wilde reviews his literary career by invoking the terms of subjectivity, objectivity and aesthetic formalism that will organize this discussion:

One can really, as I say in Intentions, be far more subjective in an objective form than in any other way. …

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