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1 Dancing on the Threshold: Wilde’s Salomé between Symbolist, Decadent, and Modernist Aesthetics By the time Oscar Wilde got to the story of Salome, such writers as Heine, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Laforgue, and Huysmans (together with Moreau, Regnault , and other visual artists) had already fundamentally transformed the sparse biblical account of John the Baptist’s martyrdom in the gospels of Mark (6:14–29) and Matthew (14:1–12). From the tale of a nameless, innocent daughter who obediently helps her power-hungry mother get rid of her dangerous personal and political opponent John the Baptist, who had denounced Herodias’s incestuous marriage to Herod, the story had morphed into a lurid tale of dangerous female sexuality and cunning, physical passion, and pathological perversity. It focused on the daughter herself, who had by now regained the name ‹rst given to her by the ‹rst-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (the ‹rst written historical record of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and death at Herod’s court, c. 93).1 As far as the gospel writers’ accounts were concerned, Wilde “complained of the docility of the Biblical Salome, who simply obeys Herodias , and, once she receives the head, conveys it to her mother. The inadequacy of this account, Wilde said, ‘has made it necessary for the centuries to heap up dreams and visions at her feet so as to convert her into the cardinal ›ower of the perverse garden’” (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 344). Such scholars as Françoise Meltzer (Salome and the Dance of Writing) and Megan Becker-Leckrone have analyzed the intertextual and “fetishistic” obsessions with the ‹n de siècle Salome ‹gure, which have much to do with the mystery and “secret-effect” of her irreducible narrative, which produced “a twothousand -year-old game of textual telephone” (Becker-Leckrone 242, 251). Yet “[t]he dancing daughter we envision in the twenty-‹rst century is a 15 product of the mythic ‹gure created by Wilde and Strauss” (Skaggs 125), not the biblical one or any of the other Salomes created during the European ‹n de siècle, when the Salome theme was “so prevalent in painting, literature , and music of the French-oriented Decadence, 1870–1914, that it has to be considered a signi‹cant cultural phenomenon, a symptom” (Rose, “Synchronic Salome” 146).2 This chapter starts with the premise that simply looking at Wilde’s Salom é in the nineteenth-century context disregards the truly innovative, subversive , forward-looking features of his play.3 Salomé’s and Wilde’s erotic and aesthetic transgressions embody central fantasies and fears of Western cultural and philosophical modernity far beyond the ‹n de siècle. Hence my analysis does not merely reconstruct the obvious historical chain of in›uence on Wilde’s play and weigh his debts to predecessors, as other scholars have done, but offers a critical assessment of some of the major intellectual and aesthetic ‹gurations that broadly prepared and in›uenced Wilde’s conception and helped Wilde create a seminal text for the modernist aesthetics of transgression.4 Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade” and Salomé’s Modern Aesthetic Idealism Wilde’s Salomé is a peculiar dramatic character. Profoundly isolated and alienated from others in her vaguely biblical yet timeless world, ruthless to the point of murder, obstinate and self-determined, touchingly vulnerable and soaring to lyrical heights of both hatred and love in her obsessive pursuit of pure beauty, Wilde’s princess inspires horror and fascination in equal measures. For Salomé’s con‹guration as an existentially lonely, misunderstood lover of ideal beauty, her contradictory character traits, and her symbolic scenic counterpart in the play, the moon, Wilde is particularly indebted to Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade.” First conceived as a verse drama to be performed at the Théâtre Français but recon‹gured as a dramatic poem after its rejection, “Hérodiade” was Mallarmé’s self-declared masterpiece and obsession for over three decades. Despite multiple revisions, the piece remained un‹nished at the time of Mallarmé’s death in 1898. Fragments were circulated among the symbolist maître’s adoring friends and associates in Paris, however.5 Of these, “La Scène: La Nourrice—Hérodiade” is the most relevant for Wilde’s version, since it contains the most extensive characterization of Hérodiade and most closely expresses the symbolist aesthetic that attracted Wilde. It was also the only one published during Mallarmé’s and 16 Salome’s Modernity Wilde’s lifetimes. Wilde...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780472027545
Print ISBN
9780472117673
MARC Record
OCLC
741691759
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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