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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kissing John the Baptist and Flirting with the Lord

I've never read Oscar Wilde's Salome.

I'm sure I'm not the only person to ever say that, but I, at least, find it rather shameful.  I was an English major (the first time around) in college with a focus on British Literature, and I've read practically everything else by Wilde, and from that branched out to read his contemporaries.  We have several lovely copies of the play on our bookshelves, including a rare, privately bound copy illustrated by John Vassos.  Yet, somehow, I've never gotten around to reading this work, one of his most celebrated and one of his most reviled.

We all know the story of Salome.  The beautiful princess, stepdaughter (and niece) to King Herod, who danced for a prize considered grotesque even by his standards--the head of the prophet, John the Baptist.  In Wilde's version, Salome lusts for the prophet and is rejected, only able to sully his lips with a kiss once he is dead, his head severed from his body and brought before her on a silver shield.

Perhaps I've avoided reading the work because of my purist tendencies.  I dislike seeing Shakespeare or Opera brought into contemporary sets, the modernization of dress and emphasis, the mechanical vulgarity of our times inflicted upon the natural vulgarity of theirs. Wilde, after all, did not simply retell the Gospel version in his play.  He created his own monsters in Herod and Salome, or at least, he released them.

This is not a story that would have been flaunted in Victorian society.  In a time when table legs were decorously hidden, one didn't discuss virgins stripping themselves lasciviously before their stepfathers.  One didn't discuss lusts that carried one to kiss the lips of  dead desires.  Wilde not only chose to discuss these things, but chose to dramatize them.  Why?

Wilde lived a risqué life that is now remembered for three things:  His writing, his sexuality, and his end.   There was nothing bland about any of this.  His writing is witty and urbane.  His sexuality, frowned upon to the point of public punishment, is an acceptable vice in our world.  His end is now the acceptable prejudice, for he chose to end it by living up to his jest.  "The Catholic Church is the only one worth dying in".

What has this to do with Salome?  Here is a relationship that is against nature, that of a King who takes his brother's wife as his own while lusting for the daughter. Here is a worldly beauty, the girl herself, performing a dance that moves men beyond reason.  Here is reason, imprisoned and unheeded, silenced at last by the death of conscience in exchange for an empty promise that seemed important until it was fulfilled.  Yet, even in this final silence of death, beauty and reason kiss.

Wilde was fascinated by Beauty.  It drew him again and again toward Catholicism.  He found the ritual and formality of it appealing to him, the ultimate aesthete.  There is much that has been written and said on this subject, and I am far from the expert to expound this any further.  Yet, the corrupted beauty of Salome, so appealing in both the dance and the unveiling, dimmed before the appeal of the Prophet, John the Baptist. His voice rose from the pit, condemning the corrupted beauty, condemning the unnatural relationship, condemning the failing conscience.

Perhaps that is why I haven't read this play. We always want what we can't have, and what we shouldn't.    What woman, especially in an age so intrigued with sexuality, wouldn't like to be as beautifully enticing  as Salome?  Who wouldn't wish to be as powerful as Herod?  To give up such earthly desires is to give up an appealing wistfulness.  While I might draw the line at kissing a severed head, there are certainly earthly prizes that lure me to violate my conscience. Yet, it is Beauty that draws me back.  It is Reason, the knowledge of the ultimate loss, that lends me the strength to keep my focus on what is true and good.

It is the Church that provides this Beauty, in her chants and rituals, in her vestments and art, in the Holy Sacraments of her altars.  It is the Church that has adopted Reason to shape our conscience, to teach us how to discern the corrupted beauty from that of Truth.  It is the Church that won the heart, and mind, of Oscar Wilde in the end, long after his eyes and ears had paid Her homage, and, I have hope, it will be Wilde who is able, one day, to greet John the Baptist and Our Lord with a Holy Kiss, when the veil before him at last falls.

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