Jennifer Spitzer: Unveiling the Dance of the Seven Veils, Oscar Wilde and the Power of Myth-Making

Perhaps the most memorable moment of Wilde’s Salomé (1891), apart from the princess’s necrophiliac love scene with the disembodied head of Iokanaan at the close of the play, is the dance of the seven veils. When we think of Salomé, we conjure an image of a young woman in oriental dress, peeling layers off her supple figure in some manner of striptease in front of a king and his rowdy guests.  In her chapter on Salomé in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin De Siècle (1990), Elaine Showalter teases us with a provocative reading of the dance: Salomé “drops seven veils to reveal the mysteries of sexual difference, creativity, and the psyche” (144). Showalter speaks of unveiling, but the problem with this interpretation is that Wilde’s text teasingly withholds all description of the dance, relegating its textual presence to a terse parenthetical stage direction: “(Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils)” (92). Wilde offers no description of Salomé’s body or the movements it executes, or how the veils that adorn her are used in performance. What the dance is and what it looks like is left to the imagination of the interpreter, a textual lacuna that is arguably the source of the play’s challenging open-endedness.

Earlier interpretations of the Salomé story lavished descriptive detail on the dance as the climactic event of the story.  In Joris-Karl Huysmans’s A Rebours, the aesthete protagonist, Des Esseintes, summons the dancing Hebrew princess of the Gustave Moreau paintings to exhilarating life in a moment of ekphrasis:

Salomé, the left arm extended in a gesture of command, the right bent, holding up beside the face a great lotus-blossom, glides slowly forward on the points of her toes, to the accompaniment of a guitar whose strings a woman strikes, sitting crouched on the floor.

Her face wore a thoughtful, solemn, almost reverent expression as she began the wanton dance that was to rouse the dormant passions of the old Herod; her bosoms quiver and, touched lightly by her swaying necklets, their rosy points stand pouting; on the moist skin of her body glitter clustered diamonds; from bracelets, belts, rings, dart sparks of fire over her robe of triumph, bestrewn with pearls, broidered with silver, studded with gold….

She is almost naked; in the ardor of the dance the veils have unwound themselves, the brocaded draperies of her robes have slipped away; she is clad now only in goldsmith’s artistries and translucent gems. (51, 55)

Des Esseintes envisions the precise movements of Salomé’s body, the expression of her face, and the sumptuous costume of jewels that clings to her body after the robes and veils are stripped away.  The static painting becomes a vividly erotic performance replete with musical accompaniment and an array of props and ornamentation.  In this epiphanic moment, Des Esseintes claims to see the “dim, obliterated figure, lost with her mysterious fascination in the far-off mist of the centuries,” as she really is: the “symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice…a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse” (52). If Salomé is momentarily afforded embodiment and animation through the ekphrastic energies of the text, she is quickly converted back into symbol, into the timeless realm of world-old evil and vice so typical of fin-de-siècle descriptions of the femme fatale.

Richard Ellmann tells us that Wilde was enamored of Huysmans’s homage to French decadence, and particularly of the passages devoted to Moreau’s paintings of Salomé, which were foundational to Wilde’s interest in the subject matter (342). But as Wilde’s drama pays homage to Huysmans’ text, it also frustrates expectations established by A Rebours by leaving the dance descriptively opaque. To truly appreciate this moment of textual opacity is to recognize the play’s fetishizing of sight and vision established through an endless catalogue of prohibitions against the act of looking, through an inexorable circulation of gazes, and through a surfeit of ornate poetic figures that resist at every turn the possibility of a stable referent.  When in the opening scene the Young Syrian projects upon the moon the image of a dancing princess with little white doves for feet, he creates anticipation for a spectacle that doesn’t quite materialize in language, except in the form of a terse parenthetical aside.  The repetitive warnings of the Page of Herodias to The Young Syrian not to look at Salomé, “You are always looking at her. You look at her too much.  It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen” (69), as well as Iokanaan’s insistence that Salomé cover herself with a veil, intensify the desire for erotically charged spectacle. Wilde seems to delight in the frustration that his text provokes by insistently foreshadowing an event of explicit visuality that occurs off the written page.

Wilde insisted that Aubrey Beardsley was “the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is and can see that invisible dance” (Letters 348). The tantalizing remark highlights Wilde’s adherence in Salomé to the ideals of French symbolism, whereby the dance is valued for its symbolic rather than mimetic potential.  Critics who have emphasized what the dance reveals (about female sexuality, for example) have not adequately considered the play’s obedience to a symbolist ideal of indirect presentation. The profusion of similes and metaphors that dominate the play’s incantatory dialogue emphasizes the imprecise yet evocative qualities of language. When the Young Syrian fixes his gaze on the princess at the beginning of the play, he becomes rapt at the sight of her and conveys his admiration through a series of similes: “The Princess has hidden her face behind her fan! Her little white hands are fluttering like doves that fly to their dove-cots. They are like white butterflies. They are just like white butterflies” (71). The catalogue of figures is a device used throughout the play whenever one character speaks of his or her object of desire.  In this particular scene, the Young Syrian focuses on a single part of the love object, Salomé’s hands. There is a sliding between figures, a metonymy, which as it proliferates raises questions about the relationships between the figures themselves: how is a butterfly similar to a dove?  And does the multiplication of figures bring the reader any closer to visualizing Salomé?  While seeming to close the gap between signifier and signified, the adverbial “just” merely accentuates the instability of meaning produced by excessive figuration.

After describing her hands, the Young Syrian moves from part to whole, through a more comprehensive but equally unstable list of similes: “She is like a dove that has strayed…She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind…She is like a silver flower” (72). The figurative comparison of Salomé’s hands to doves generates the comparison of Salomé herself to a dove, which in turn generates other similes. In this series, the figures used are even more incommensurate, a difference that is underscored by a typographical shift from commas to ellipses.  As Chad Bennett points out, Wilde’s play makes it impossible to conceive of the desired body outside of the use of ornamental language: each poetic refrain marks a cumulative attempt to render visible the beloved, to construct the body of the beloved piece by piece through descriptions of individual body parts (298). And yet the generic and seemingly endless catalogue of figures does more to distance the reader from the body of the beloved than it does to bring it forth. What seems evident is that the play emphasizes the evocative and lyrical qualities of language rather than its potential to represent an object outside of itself. The intensely artificial and ornamental style conceals Salomé’s body, which remains at a tantalizing remove—each layer of figurative description becomes yet another veil.  Read in this light, the dance of the seven veils is a meta-theatrical figure for the linguistic and theatrical circumlocutions that the play performs: rather than reveal the hidden or bring the invisible to light, the dance of the seven veils stages the theatricality of diversion and masquerade.

If veiling is a form of figuration that renders inaccessible objects of desire, then the dance of the seven veils can be thought of as performing a similar function as the ornate poetic language of the text—concealing rather than revealing bodies. Veiling blocks erotic access to bodies, but it also stimulates and intensifies desire.  When Salomé tries to coerce her admirer, the Young Syrian, into showing her Iokanaan, who has been imprisoned in the cistern by the Tetrarch, she tells the Syrian:

You will do this thing for me, Narraboth.  You know that you will do this thing for me.  And tomorrow when I pass in my litter by the bridge of the idol-buyers, I will look at you through the muslin veils, I will look at you…(75)

Empowered in this scenario with the gaze, Salomé is no more accessible to the Young Syrian than before; rather her power to generate desire lies in her ability to be concealed behind veils, just as in the earlier scene, her power to seduce lay in her concealment behind a fan.  The same relationship between veiling and desire obtains for Iokanaan, whose imprisonment in the cistern is the source of his desirability for Salomé.  Salomé longs to close the distance between herself and her beloved: “I would look closer to him… I must look closer at him” (77). The implication is that looking closer will satisfy the erotic urges that have been generated by distance and concealment; but is looking closer even possible? As Brad Bucknell pointedly asks: “Is it possible to talk about seeing Salomé?” (503).

The insistent prohibitions against the act of looking in the play merely highlight the playful yet frustrating scenario that Wilde has constructed, for language, with its potential to distance rather than figure, may not in fact close the gap between subject and object of desire. Struggling to keep her daughter from the prying eyes of her husband, Herodias issues stern warnings to Herod: “You must not look at her! You are always looking at her” (80). But such prohibitions merely intensify the desire for erotic spectacle on the part of Herod.  Herod is besieged by signs of impending destruction all around him and petitions Salomé to dance for him as a form of distraction, as well as a demonstration of his power: “I pray thee dance for me. I am sad tonight. Yes; I am passing sad tonight…Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech you” (89). Anticipation for the dance of the seven veils is then intensified through a prolonged exchange of petitions, prohibitions and refusals among Herod, Herodias and Salomé. But for all of the play’s excessive figuration, the dance is contained within a laconic stage direction: “(Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils).” The terseness of the line offers the illusion that the reader knows what the dance is, that it has a textual or visual history that would make it legible, and thereby fill in the gap left by the absence of descriptive detail.  By naming the dance and leaving it without description, Wilde gives it official status as the bearer of an immediate cultural resonance. But the dance of the seven veils has no textual history: it is a Wildean invention, one that has become so firmly entrenched in our systems of representation that it seems ancient, original, untraceable even.  In the small gesture of a name, Wilde manages to renew the mythic potential of an already mythic story.

After the dance, Herod boasts of his triumph over Herodias:

Ah! Wonderful! Wonderful! You see that she has danced for me your daughter.  Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give you your reward. Ah! I pay the dancers well.  I will pay thee royally.  I will give thee whatsoever thy soul desireth. (92)

To be sure, there is no evidence that the dance was erotic, and some performers and directors have chosen to interpret it as chaste, awkward or graceless rather than sensual. Herod’s “Wonderful” serves as the only evaluation of Salomé’s performance.  The fact that Herod consents to grant Salomé whatever she wants before the dance proceeds—a significant difference between Wilde’s version and previous incarnations of the tale—seems to deprive the dance of its motive force: the seduction of Herod.  Thus, the dance that Salomé agrees to perform after Herod has offered her half his kingdom, the dance that obligates the Tetrarch to surrender the one object he values, the head of Iokanaan, materializes within the text in a single stage direction, causing the reader to wonder if the dance is truly pivotal to the overall outcome of the play or if the surrender of the prophet’s head is already a fait accompli. In spite of the text’s fetishization of gazes and its foreshadowing of erotic performance and nudity, it offers no great reveal, no grand striptease in which the mysteries of the female body are disclosed. In refusing to be explicit, Wilde leaves the reader, director or performer to interpret the dance as she sees fit.  Such a striking absence of textual detail at a climactic moment of the play renders Brad Bucknell’s observation that the “Salomé story is embedded in our visual imaginations so effectively that, in a way, she…can be thought of as a sign of the visual as such” (503), highly ironic, for Wilde’s text is devoted to a visual opacity that preserves intact Salomé’s status as inaccessible object of desire.

Some critics have considered this lack of description of the dance to be a structural defect of the play, in that it leaves far too much room for interpretation by directors, actors or dancers.  But one could also argue that this absence of detail is where the play opens up for interpretation and where the dance of the seven veils emerges as something akin to myth.  If the dance has transfixed us with its imaginative power, it is precisely because this Wildean invention lacks description: the dance of the seven veils is not a failure of representation but an achievement in myth making.  Wilde’s play instructs us throughout that if we look too closely at the body of the dancing woman, if we penetrate beyond the layers of symbol and surface, we destroy not only the powerful illusion that is art, but also the vague, ill-defined thing that is myth.  If Wilde’s version of Salomé survives its competing versions, it is in part because the dance it names and then refuses to describe remains textually opaque, hidden in veils as it were, as a moment of performative plenitude that has inspired, and also frustrated, generations of directors, dancers, and performers.

Bibliography

Bennett, Chad, “Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: Décor, Des Corps, Desire”, ELH 77.2, 2010, p. 297-324, Project MUSE, Web.

Bucknell, Brad, “On ‘Seeing’ Salomé”, ELH 60.2, 1993, p. 503-526, JSTOR, Web.

Ellmann, Richard, Oscar Wilde, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, Print.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl, A Rebours, New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1969, Print.

Showalter, Elaine, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin De Siècle, New York, Penguin Books, 1990, Print.

Tydeman, William and Steven Price, Wilde: Salomé, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, Print.

Wilde, Oscar, “Salomé”, The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, London, Penguin Books, 2000, Print.

–The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, eds., London, Fourth Estate, 2000, Print.

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