by Isador H. Coriat, M.D.
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The Psychoanalytic Review, Volume 1, by National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (U.S.)
The episode of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, as related in Mark, is merely an amplification of the incident as described in Matthew.  In both narratives it is stated that the execution was carried out for political and religious purposes, as John had condemned and declared unlawful and incestuous the marriage of Herod to his brother's wife. Josephus gives practically an identical account of this episode, while Graetz in his history of the Jews refers to the story of bringing the severed head of John upon a platter as a "mere myth." In the Gospels it is the mother of Salome who requests her daughter to ask for the severed head of John as a compensation for her dancing, but Wilde, in dramatizing the episode, makes Salome ask for the head directly without any hint from her mother, in order to harmonize the reconstructed narrative with his conception of a sadistic impulse. In any event, however, neither in the Gospels nor in the historical accounts was the execution of John the Baptist carried out for more than a religious or a political purpose. Wilde, however, with his insight into sexual perversions and into the polymorphous sexual instinct of man, because he was himself a sufferer, made an innovation in his dramatic treatment of the legend as a sadistic episode. In his tragedy of Salome, he portrays the daughter of Herodias as a sadist and her desire for the head of John the Baptist is not for religious or political revenge, but to fulfill her sadistic desires.
This is a bold invention, but certain hints of a sadistic trend in Wilde himself, who, as is well known, was a victim of homosexuality, can be found in other of his published writings. In the "Picture of Dorian Gray," for instance, the hero of the novel found a "horrible fascination" in reading about the tortures and the "awful and beautiful forms of those whom Vice and Blood and Weariness had made monstrous or mad." Likewise in the "Ballad of Reading Goal," there are distinct hints of sadistic feelings in the stanza --
"Some kill their love when they are young
And some when they are old:
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with hands of Gold."
It is not surprising that since Wilde was able to give so clear and vivid a portrayal of homosexuality in the "Picture of Dorian Gray," because he himself had strong homosexual tendencies, that he should at the same time be aware of the fact that sexual perversions are frequently polymorphous and that in his own homosexuality there were strong elements of sadism. It is this sadism which he portrayed in "Salome." Thus the tragedy becomes in a sense autobiographical in the manner that the homosexuality of "Dorian Gray" was autobiographical. In fact, the play was produced in Paris about a year before the famous libel action which sent Wilde to jail for two years. In this beautiful tragedy Wilde clearly indicates the intimate relationship between sexuality and cruelty.
Sadism is less common in women than in men. It is likewise more difficult to understand sadistic tendencies in woman, because woman is sexually less aggressive. However, the unconscious roots of sadism exist in women as well as in men, but woman has more successfully sublimated her aggressive sexual attitude, due, no doubt, to the repressive effect of society from the earliest dawn of history. Sometimes, in women, this repressed sexual aggression will break out in a social conflict, for instance, the actions of the militant suffragettes in England.
In tracing out the dialogue of the tragedy, the evolution of the sadistic tendency of Salome, which was completely satisfied only by the actual lust murder of John the Baptist, is clearly indicated. Salome's sexual feeling is evidently aroused by Herod, for in her first appearance she utters the words -- "I will not stay. I cannot stay Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mule's eyes under his shaking eyelids? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that." Her first sexual interest in John is worked up with terrible intensity from the words "Speak again Jokanaan. Thy voice is like music to mine ear," to the erotic reiteration of "I am amorous of thy body ... There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. Suffer me to kiss thy mouth. I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan."
After the oath of Herod and when the feast begins, Salome dances with naked feet in the blood of the young Syrian who committed suicide earlier in the course of the play and for whom she had a certain amount of erotic affection. This dancing with naked feet in human blood is another evidence of her sadism which for the first time has overcome her resistance. The height of sadistic ecstasy is reached when she bends over the cistern to watch the execution of John and when she cries out to the execution, "Strike, strike, Naaman, strike I tell you." Her sexual excitement here coincides with her wish to see pain and suffering.
When Salome seizes the severed head she then shows the acme of her sadistic ecstasy -- Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well, I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. ... Ah, Jokanaan, thou wert the man that I loved alone among men. All other men were hateful to me. But thou wert beautiful! ... There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. There was nothing in the world so black as thy hair. ... I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Jokanaan. I love only thee. I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. ... I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire."
The tragedy ends with a last wail of sadistic ecstasy as the aggressive aspect of the libido has become completely satisfied. "Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood? Nay, but perchance it was the taste of love. But what matter! What matter? I have kissed thy mouth."
Her sadism is not understood except as an act of horror and she is killed by the order of Herod. So ends the short tragedy, but it remains as one of the finest examples of the portrayal of the sadistic impulse in literature and it could only have been written by a man who had himself within him well marked sadistic feelings as he had of homosexuality.
1. Mark, Chapter IV, V, 17 et seq; Matthew, Chapter XIV, V, 17 et seq.