Alex Falzon, Le nozze alchemiche di Salomé. Oscar Wilde e la tradizione ermetica [Salomé’s alchemical wedding. Oscar Wilde and the hermetic tradition], Pisa, Pacini editore, 2007 (174 pp., 15,00 euros).
by Elisa Bizzotto
The myth of Salomé, amongst the most representative of Decadence, allowed Wilde to gain visibility and enter literary discourse at a European level. Such cross-cultural dimension was pursued in his most famous tragedy not simply through the linguistic medium – as everybody knows, Salomé was originally written in French and then translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas – but more intricately through intertextual and subtextual strategies.
Both the latter are specific fields of investigation of Alex Falzon’s fine volume Le nozze alchemiche di Salomé. Oscar Wilde e la tradizione ermetica, that examines Salomé’s rootedness in coeval and past Western culture by emphasising its diffused allusions to Hermetism, with a special focus on alchemy. Salomé – Falzon argues – is “a ‘revolutionary’ play not only at a strictly formal-expressive level, but also for the disquieting message, of an allegorical-alchemical nature, that the author has hidden underneath the deepest structures of the text” [my translation].
As a matter of fact, “revolutionary” seems to be an appropriate definition not only for Wilde’s work, but also for Falzon’s essay, which unravels an unsuspected cluster of allusions to alchemic codes and procedures within Salomé, thus offering the possibility of illuminating readings. Falzon draws special attention to the mythopoeic value of such hermetic presences, which were typical of the European fin-de-siécle (the most immediate example within British culture being W.B. Yeats’s imaginary portrait “Rosa Alchemica”) and paved the way to the mythical method of Modernism. Hence Salomé emerges as a text ready for the twentieth century, as well as necessarily conclusive – as the second chapter “Un requiem per i vittoriani” (A Requiem for the Victorians) makes clear – of the previous age. The latter issue is interestingly discussed in relation to the character of Herod, who combines autobiographical with symbolic and symbolist inspirations.
In the third chapter, “La Confraternita dei Senza Padre” (The Fatherless Brotherhood), Falzon discloses copious Masonic implications in Salomé. Wilde, as his father before him, was a Freemason, quite conversant with the occult imagery and Pagan-Christian syncretism of the Order, both of which are traceable not only in Salomé, but also in the Poems and in Vera, or the Nihilists. With these necessary premises in mind, in the remaining part of his study Falzon embarks on a fascinating close reading of the tragedy that opens up unexpected hermeneutic paths. As he declares, his analysis aims at pointing out how the alchemic allegory interacts with the deepest structures of the text and throws new light on them, thus offering explanations for episodes hitherto either considered “obscure” or too facilely dismissed as “symbolist”. This is especially highlighted in chapter 5, “Il giglio e la rosa” (The lily and the rose), that re-interprets the central role of the Moon in the tragedy in order to prove how its presence keeps dramatic time by conforming to the three conventional stages of the alchemical process. Whereas alluding to the three lunar phases, and thus to the vegetal cycle of birth, death and resurrection, in fact the recurrent black, white and red chromatism related to the Moon reflects the Nigredo–Albedo–Rubedo sequence of the opus alchymicum. In the same way, the semantic field of sphericity, also insistently present in Salomé, is seen as an allusion to the circularity of the alchemical transmutation and to the Alchemical Vase, wherein conflicting principles co-exist and generate the Rebis, or philosopher’s stone, the product of a marriage of opposites. Another intriguing connection to the hermetic tradition is represented by Salomé’s dialogism with the Song of Solomon, a reference text for exoteric scholarship ever since the Renaissance.
Chapter 6, “I sette sigilli di Ermete” (The seven seals of Hermes), expands the idea that the seven alchemical operations (Calcinatio, Solutio, Coagulatio, Sublimatio, Mortificatio, Separatio, Coniunctio) find transposition in precise moments of Wilde’s drama. Obviously enough, such transposition culminates in the dance of the seven veils, read by Falzon as a mystical and exoteric performance, a metaphorical uncovering of Salomé’s – i.e. the Moon’s – soul to Herod – i.e. the embodiment of Saturn. Moreover, the dance enacts the seven stages of the alchemic process by means of their correspondence to the seven planets of the old world, starting from the Moon-Salomé and ending up with Saturn-Herod.
The last chapter, “L’uomo rosso di Edom” (The red man of Edom), focuses on the chromatism of red associated to Wilde’s Herod, the most crucial figure of the drama in Falzon’s view. Red is perceived as synaesthetically alluding to the process of warming, and thus to the activation and working out of alchemical practices that are present throughout the text but reach their climax in the description of Herod, corresponding to the distillation of the Elixir Vitae through Rubedo, or the Work in Red. Many are the examples of the isotopy of red as linked to Herod and Falzon is particularly persuasive when showing the pertinence and relatedness of this chromatic connotation of the Tetrarch to various exoteric doctrines which stem both from Hermeticism and heretic Christianity. In Falzon’s view, Herod is a syncretic figure, close to the Antichrist, that catalyses unstable harmonisations of opposites through hermetic, and in particular alchemic, procedures. On these bases, Herod is finally interpreted as a mediator, whose closeness to different rituals allows him to conflate the Hebraism of Jokanaan and the Hellenism of Salomé.
Already noted by Ellmann, but analysed in depth only by Falzon, such dissolution of the Hebrew-Hellene binary in Herod represents an important interpretative clue that contrasts with accepted notions of Salomé – for example in Edward Burnes’s essay “Salomé: Wilde’s Radical Tragedy” (1994) – as illustrating the defeat of Paganism by Judaic-Christian order. This and other critical tenets, convincingly advanced as they are, deserve attention. It would not be surprising in fact to see Le nozze alchemiche di Salomé become a classic of Wilde criticism.