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BOOK REVIEWS Wilde's Salome Karl Toepfer. The Voice of Rapture: A Symbolist System of Ecstatic Speech in Oscar Wilde's Salome. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. 182 pp. $37.95 ALTHOUGH HARDLY POPULAR in the sense that it appeals to a wide audience, Wilde's Salome has nonetheless enjoyed a more complex and extensive translation history than any other drama written in the last 100 years. Other plays may lay claim to a far larger total number of productions, but Salome is unique in its capacity to transcend national and linguistic boundaries. More than likely, its appeal to sophisticated audiences has to do with the "modern sensibility." Interestingly enough, Strauss's 1904 operatic production (which is itself something of an anomaly within the opera repertoire) attracts more attention than the play. Why Salome should appeal and attract so much attention from devotees of the drama, opera buffs, and Wilde enthusiasts is not a simple question to answer. Is it, as is frequently claimed, because the play celebrates "an extraordinary movement of decadence in literary imagination "; or is it, rather, more a critique of "perversity"? Should it be evaluated as a lesser achievement than Wilde's social comedies, or should it be adulated as one of his greatest dramatic works? In short, is it one of the best things Wilde wrote or one of the worst because so much of its language seems absurd? Virtually all the scholarly probes of Salome have been into the motives behind its writing, its psychological dimensions, and the multiple influences of Huysmans, Flaubert, Mallarmé and Materlinck. This latest study delves specifically into its configurations of language. In the passionate soliloquies that Wilde wrote for Herod and Salome, his euphuisms echo the linguistic crisis in Victorian literature brought about by the new comparative philological attitudes imported from the Continent. Such attitudes may help explain how Wilde could pen the line "And now the moon has become blood," the words Herod utters in an anguish of foreboding over the bizarre agreement he has entered into with Salome. The stated purpose of this less than exciting study is "to develop a theoretical perspective for understanding the instability of dynamism defining the notion of system as it relates to various phenomena assumed to resist systemization: meaning, desire for meaning, desired meaning (ecstasy)." All too often, Toepfer is a bit prolix, yet he can also 89 ELT 36 : 1 1993 be clear and readable in those areas where concepts and experiences he refers to are complex and rarefied. He confesses to "loving" Salome, that such love prompted him to use it as an exemplary text about which to weave his own linguistic hypotheses. He examines the conditions under which language in the play "constructs" ecstatic experience. He focuses on Wilde's text as a complex Symbolist "system" of relations between rhetorical devices and attitudes toward language. After identifying components of the system, he provides a theoretical model for understanding the power of language to "construct" specific emotional states. The dramatic nature of Salome, he posits, indicates that, contrary to popular perception, ecstasy is not beyond language but in it. Toepfer is guilty of subordinating the text of Salame to a theoretical ambition which places greater value on an analysis of rhetorical devices than on analyses of character, theme, and biographically distinct motives for Wilde's writing the play in the first place. In his preface he acknowledges that Salome concerns him not because of what it reveals about people, but for what it reveals about language. He admits readily that he likes to read or "look" at a literary work as if he were looking at stars through a telescope, which, as the bromide has it, may be like looking at the trees and not seeing the forest. Painstakingly he explores aspects of repetition of words and phrases insofar as they do not connote the same meanings in different contexts or time parameters. When he gets into the "Distribution of Negatives," he notes that of the 1180 sentences in the text, 261 (approximately 22%) contain negatives, from which he draws all sorts of conclusions. Occasionally he overburdens the reader with his analyses of aphorisms, epigrams, and metaphors. Toepfer makes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 89-90
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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