- Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: Disorienting Orientalism
Oscar Wilde’s one-act play Salomé occupies a puzzling place in the late nineteenth-century discourse of Orientalism. One sign of Orientalism, according to Edward Said, is “the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient—its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness—into a separate and unchallenged coherence,”1 all of which seem to characterize Wilde’s drama of excess. In Salomé, we have familiar binary oppositions: sensuality/spirituality, the Jew/the Christian, Salomé/Jokanaan, the Orient/ the Occident. The Jewish royal family embodies Oriental sensuality and irrationality; the outrageousness of Salomé’s desire and cruelty upstages the lascivious tyrant and his promiscuous wife. Religious disputes among Jews are belittled as meaningless babble. Herod’s kingdom of Judaea is like a treasure island full of perfume and incense, jewels and exotica. The “Oriental clichés” Said speaks of in Gustave Flaubert’s novels—“harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls and boys, sherbets, ointments, and so on”—hold equally true for Wilde’s play.2 Salomé seems to be every inch an Orientalist work.
Given all its Orientalist characteristics, it is odd that Wilde’s Salomé has seldom been regarded as such. Largely dismissed in earlier criticism as a mere pastiche of previous Salomé materials from the Bible to French symbolist works,3 the play has gained “its rightful degree of prominence in the Wildean canon” only in recent decades.4 The re-evaluation of the play has mainly to do with the ascendancy of feminism and queer studies since the 1970s, and with the rehabilitation of Wilde as sexual martyr for “the love that dare not speak its name.” Critical opinions vary as to the [End Page 361] nature of Salomé’s sexuality and Wilde’s attitude toward it. Undeniably, the play reveals a great deal about late Victorian constructions of gender and sexuality, in comparison to which, Orientalism seems to be a minor issue. Furthermore, it may sound out of place to speak of Orientalism for such an iconoclastic work, hailed by some critics as an audacious expression of female or gay sexuality. Wilde’s marginal status as sexual dissident and Irish in imperial London further complicates the matter, as discourses of gender and race share the logic of an inferiority/superiority binarism. If Salomé were charged with Orientalism, which has not happened so far to my knowledge, then the ready defense would be Wilde’s positioning himself with the “subaltern” Salomé.
The complex relationship of Wilde’s Salomé and Orientalism remains to be explored. Salomé is rather an anomaly in the works of Wilde, whose forte was in the comedy of manners set in high society of Victorian aristocracy. Wilde was in no sense an Orientalist, who “teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient.”5 Yet the images and ideas of the Orient in Salomé rely on common assumptions and prejudices about this exotic land current at the time. As sacrilegious as it may sound to the apostles of “Saint Oscar,” Salomé is Orientalist in its makeup. To adopt Said’s categorization, Salomé operates on “latent Orientalism,” or shared ideas about the Orient at an unconscious level as the Other of Europe that informed any European living in the period.6 As Said asserts, influenced by Michel Foucault’s idea of the subject as social construct, a Westerner “comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.”7 Thus in his study of Orientalism, Said prioritizes the author’s historicity over his or her individuality. In the case of Wilde studies, the importance of the playwright’s individuality tends to overshadow his share as a European; Orientalism in Salomé has not been properly considered. It is this dynamic of Wilde as both a European and an individual that makes Salomé Orientalist, but not quite. Wilde’s position as a gay playwright unsettles the Orientalist discourse that the play reinforces at the surface level, conditioned by Wilde’s subjection to latent Orientalism and English patronage. Salomé, I would argue, is an Orientalist play that questions the very premises of Oriental discourse. [End Page 362...