On the 1st May 1945, in a Bunker in Berlin, Magda Goebbels, the caring and loving mother of six little children, killed them all one by one using six capsules of poison. After that she killed herself along with her husband, the well-known propaganda minister of the Nazi regime. In her last letter she wrote: "I don't want to live in a world where there is no national-socialism". The world without national-socialism, as we all know, is a much better one. But Mrs. Goebbels didn’t know this. She knew she was part of a world which had ended, and she didn’t want to live to see the new world which was going to replace it.
We find something similar in the tale of Salome. The first references to it come from the bible, although indirectly. Here it is referred that Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and roman ally, murdered his brother and then married his wife, Herodias. This marriage was seen by many of his subjects as being incestuous and immoral. It is said that Herod imprisoned John the Baptist, one of the most critical voices of Herod’s marriage and government. Herodias, upset because of these critics, asked her husband to kill the prophet, which Herod refused because he was afraid of provoking an uprising. Herodias then convinced her daughter to dance for the tetrarch and make him promise her anything she would ask him for. The daughter obeyed and danced for her uncle and stepfather, who had to keep his promise. In this biblical story the name of Herodias daughter is never mentioned. We find it for the first time in the apocryphal texts, where it is written that Salome, daughter of Herodias, after this episode married and had a long life with many children. The main characters of this story are thus Herod and Herodias.
It is in the 19th century that Salome turns into an important character. Heinrich Heine and Gustave Flaubert pick up the biblical tradition and describe Herodias as a vengeful and cruel woman, while maintaining her daughter as a secondary and somehow naïf character. The painter Gustave Moreau is the first to change this interpretation, painting Salome as a femme fatale who dances for Herod. In this painting, Salome holds a lotus flower, which is a symbol for purity, but also for Egypt, India, and for the Orient before the colonization. It is almost like the Orient being served on a silver plate for the amusement of the Occident, which covets it without ever getting to understanding it – as we can see every day, if we just open the newspapers or hear the news broadcast. This new Salome was very popular and opened new possibilities of interpretation. In the novel “À rebours”, Joris-Karl Huysmans describes Moreau’s painting thoroughly. This novel, very well known because of the absence of a plot, which was replaced by the detailed description of the society of that time, as Marcel Proust did a few years later, was one of the greatest best-sellers of the end of the 19th century. One of his most avid readers was Oscar Wilde, who even mentions it indirectly in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
In 1896, Oscar Wilde wrote the play “Salome”, which popularized another version of this story. Here, Salome acts of her own decision and has her own well-defined features. She is usually seen as a symbol of lust, luxury and will.
Her first appearance on stage contains already what will come next: Salome comes out of Herod’s palace and seeks the fresh air at the terrace. She says that she is tired from life, from decadence, from the lascivious gazes from her uncle Herod. Immediately she recognizes or wants to recognize in the full moon the purity of a virgin. This is an important issue, since all the other characters talk about the full moon as being threatening and monstrous. This purity issue shows how Salome, from the very beginning, is tortured by the decadence of the world in which she lives in. Short after that we hear the voice of John the Baptist, who speaks very roughly about this same world and announces the coming of the Messiah. Salome, in despite of what the guards are telling her, insists in hearing this voice, which tells her about new things, which meet her preoccupations. And when John the Baptist tells the worst things about her mother Herodias, about Herod, the life in the palace and in the whole province, the first words of Salome are: “keep on talking, your words are music to my ears” and “keep on talking and tell me what I should do”. This is a moment of deep and profound identification between John the Baptist and Salome – both want the path of renouncing the material world and embracing the spiritual one which opens before their eyes. Here starts Salome’s drama. Because she recognizes in these words the truth and the promise of a new world, the promise of her salvation, she wants to follow this path and still, she has no means of doing it. She is conditioned by that which she knows, for this world which she lives in and hates, but still is her world. And although she wants to follow this new truth and her own salvation, she lacks the tools for doing it. Her means are limited. The only way she knows of being in communion with someone is seduction. Salome, who cares so much about her purity and who can’t stand the looks of the tetrarch of Galilee, suddenly wants to give herself to John the Baptist. She starts saying that his body is beautiful. John answers with mystic words and rejects her strongly. She then tries to correct herself, says he is right, it is totally inappropriate to speak about his body – what really is beautiful, is his hair. He rejects her once more. She corrects herself again, the hair wasn’t it, it was the mouth. Each time Salome seems like a small child, wanting to please and using the tools she possesses. That is the problem. Salome and John the Baptist don’t speak the same language. The whole scene shows the impossibility of communication between them, these two people whom we had seen so deeply connected a few moments ago.
Here starts Salome’s inner transformation. John the Baptist is sent again to his prison cell, Herod and Herodias enter the stage along with the rest of the court. For a long time we see and hear the discussions between the couple, Herod feels constantly the presence of something strange like wings, a cold wind, signs of changes. But he doesn’t know what they mean. He is afraid, worried, the whole court is worried. They start a discussion over some rumors about the arrival of the Messiah, and whether these prophecies which cross the whole province are liable or not. All discuss, all argue, all get lost. Salome alone listens. She hears everything and speaks no word. Herod wants to be with her, asks her if she wants some wine, something to eat, and she remains uninterested and enclosed in her introspection. Suddenly, when Herod asks her to dance, she unexpectedly consents. She dances, ignoring the protest of her mother. At the end, she asks for the head of John the Baptist. Herod hesitates, tries to convince her to ask for something else, but she asks only for the Baptist’s head. Herod has no choice but to give her what she wants. The head is given to her on a silver plate. Salome breaks her silence. She holds the head, caresses it, talks to it. She says: “if only you had looked at me! If you had looked at me you would have loved me!” and in front of an horrified audience she kisses its lips. Immediately, Herod orders the guards to kill her and stop this monstrosity. Curtain falls.
Interesting is to see in Salome the consciousness of her ruin. She knows she belongs to a world that is doomed to end. She knows this world is going to end, and she with it. More than that, she has the conscious of not being able to see the new world which is going to come, because she can’t understand it. Since her first appearance on stage she thinks of death, in renewal, in purity, in a new world more pure and less conspurcated. She believes to recognize it in the words of John the Baptist. But she soon realizes her limitations. She is perfectly conscious that she is going to die, as John the Baptist, and as her known world. She wants at least to die embracing the world she would have liked to know, as if for one time they would speak the same language. Salome now symbolizes thus not only desire and luxury, and gains a more universal dimension which symbolizes the consciousness of the human condition itself, the consciousness of one’s own downfall, the Untergang of the historical moment. In this perspective, she is no longer a tale of seduction anymore, and joins the gallery of those crystallized essences which are the myths, like Antigone, Icarus or Oedipus.
Mrs. Goebbels liked the world which she lived in and didn’t want to know the other one she knew was coming. That is called fear. Salome rejects the world which she lives in, she feels the urge of change and wants to know the one that is coming. But she can’t, and she knows it. I call that the dramatic consciousness of the Untergang.
On the 4th April 1968, reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated. Five years before he had made the famous speech “I have a dream”. Like Salome and unlike Mrs. Goebbels, Martin Luther wanted to see a new world born. And like Salome, he died before he could see it. Martin Luther King had perfect consciousness of the limitations of the human condition. But his contribute was his unbreakable believe that humanity itself can grow beyond those limits and transform them, excelling them and growing with them. That is called dream.
I find these two aspects of major importance. Because dream without consciousness is fragile, and consciousness without dream is limitation. This lucidity is even more important if the moment we live in turns to be a joint between two worlds, like the one we are possibly experiencing now. Like Salome, we know we live in a world of decadence and misery, war and social injustice. We don’t understand, and don’t know what comes next. Is it the Messiah, Obama, a new war, the end of Israel, the end of hunger in the world? No one knows. Let it be us, and not time, to decide what comes next.
Quoting Alvaro de Campos, one of the heteronymes of portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa:
“I am nothing. I shall never be anything. I cannot wish to be anything.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world”
Ines Thomas Almeida
Berlin, 15th April 2009