THE SADISM IN OSCAR WILDE'S "SALOME"
by Isador H. Coriat, M.D.|
Salome, by Oscar Wilde
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 --
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.
Excerpt from "The Erotic Motive in Literature"
Let us now take up the other two partial impulses, sadism and masochism, noted by Freud, and see their effect on the literary work of a man in later life.
"The repression of the sadistic impulse," says Dr. Brink, "produces not its annihilation but merely its transfer from consciousness to unconsciousness. And there, withheld from the neutralising influence of conscious reasoning, the impulse and the phantasies derived from it are not only preserved without deterioration but may even grow in vigour and intensity. Thus, despite the fact that in many instances the individual's conscious life is apparently singularly irreproachable, nevertheless this life is lived coincidently with an undercurrent of impulses of anger, hate, hostility and revenge and their corresponding phantasies" (Morbid Fears, page 291).
This would account for the tales of horror we find in Poe, Kipling and Jack London. Today we do not always assault or kill our enemies. Literary men do so by depicting scenes in literature where this is done. Jack London describes fist fights in which he is always defeating his enemies. It is said that in real life he boasted of his abilities as a fighter.
Pfister, in his Psychoanalytic Method, formulates a law from an earlier work of his, as follows: "The repressed hate of certain individuals forms phantasies out of suitable contents of experiences, either actual or imaginary, according to the laws of his dream-work, by which procedure it creates for itself imaginary gratification. This gratification of complex comes about through the mechanism of a disguised wish, directed towards the injury of the hated person, being represented in the content of the waking dream as realised."
This explains the literature of hatred and how authors come to put their enemies in books and poems. Such works are traceable to the sex sadistic instincts of childhood. We find sadism in books reeking with curses. Ovid's Ibis, directed against the person who was to blame for his exile, is a good example; it is one of the most bitter invectives in literature. We also understand now the significance of the imaginary punishments inflicted by an author upon his enemies. The severe chastisement inflicted by Dante in his Inferno upon his enemies represents the poet's wishes carried out in his imagination to gratify him for his inability to fulfil his repressed hatred.
Literature abounds in hostile and satirical portrayals of the author's enemies. In ancient Greece we have many examples, the best known probably being the caricature of Socrates by Aristophanes, in the Clouds.
Elizabethan literature, especially the drama, gives us portrayals of fellow authors. Ben Jonson attacked the dramatists Marston and Decker in The Poetaster (1601), and they retaliated in Satiromastix. The most familiar example in English literature of an abuse of enemies is Pope's Dunciad. Then we have Byron's poem "The Sketch" directed at the maid he considered responsible for his wife's desertion of him, and Shelley's bitter diatribe "To the Lord Chancellor" against Lord Eldon, whose decree deprived the poet of his two children. Richard Savage's poem "The Bastard" against his alleged mother for neglecting him, her illegitimate son, is not as well known as it used to be. An author who was past master at the art of lampooning his enemies was Heine, and his attacks on Count Platen in the Pictures of Travel are among the most bitter in literature. All these attacks follow one principle; the author finds an outlet of his repressed hatred, and the desire for vengeance not being always possible in a physical sense, in modern times gives rise to phantasies of vindictiveness. The sadistic impulses of childhood are the sources of such literary works.
Take the portrayal of Thersites in the second book of the Iliad. This notorious character was surely some real person whom the author knew and despised and on whom he wreaked vengeance by drawing him. He was some man of Homer's own time, centuries after the Trojan War, and his type is as common today as it was in the days of Homer. The poet no doubt felt a grievance against some prattler and nonentity he knew, and pilloried the man for posterity; the personal note appears throughout the whole passage. Thersites is described as ill-favoured beyond all men, bandy-legged, lame, round-shouldered, largely bald. He tries to rebuke his betters, and Odysseus admonishes him severely, calling him most base of the Greeks, telling him not to have the names of kings in his mouth and threatening to strip and beat him. Thersites received a welt on the back and sat down, crying. Then notice how Homer puts his personal feelings still more into the mouth of the Greek who laughed and said that Odysseus had done many great deeds but this is the best he had done in that he had stayed this prating railer. Homer thus punished some man he did not like. It is rather odd that those who maintain the theory of the impersonality of the epic poem do not apply a little knowledge of human nature in studying literature, as this is often of more value than scholarship.
Lists may be compiled of nineteenth century novels, where the authors drew as villains their enemies. Often these are fellow authors. Dostoievsky put Turgenev into The Possessed in an unamiable light, under the character Karmazinoff. George Sand introduced lovers of hers with whom she had parted in her novels, and Chopin and De Musset have been drawn by her for us. Balzac righted his grievance against his critic Jules Janin by putting him in the Young Provincial in Paris. The motive of vengeance figures considerably in literature, though at times a malevolent mischievous instinct drives the author on, as when Dickens drew Leigh Hunt under the character of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. Sadistic instincts are of course primitive, and where in ancient times a man might have put his enemy out of existence, today he can kill him only in imagination. The man does not have to be a personal enemy, but may be some character in real life who represents an idea or follows a course of conduct that the author thinks reprehensible. Demosthenes, Cicero, Milton, swift and the author of the Junius letters knew how to castigate their enemies. Hugo's attacks on Napoleon in his Chatiments and Napoleon the Little are among the most bitter in literature.
An excellent analysis of hatred is found in Hazlitt's Pleasure of Hating, where he shows hatred is a real instinct and needs satisfaction -- it is a remnant of savage days. Hazlitt's attack on Gifford presents many opportunities for the study of the psychology of hatred.
There are other cases of sublimated sadism in practically all literature where pain is described. The author displays a craving to see people suffer even where he sympathises with them and he satisfies that craving by drawing them in their agonies. Take Flaubert's keen interest in describing the torture and sufferings physically inflicted on Salammbo's lover Matho. There is hardly anything more sadistic in literature than the conclusion of Salammbo.
Sadism is often sublimated into interest in contests. One of the most ancient examples we have of such sublimation is in Pindar's Odes, where contests in Greek games are described and the victors praised. We have sadism, in fact, in all tales of competition where someone is vanquished.
The sadistic trait is the source of the glee with which people watch someone in a moving picture being beaten or hurt. It is the cause of the pleasure and interest we find in reading of executions, battles and physical suffering. There is nothing strange in tracing all this to the delight we had as children in torturing animals. This is a partial sexual impulse and is sublimated in most of us in later life and finds expression in our literature.
It is held that masochism is usually found side by side with sadism. Literature is also rich in sublimated masochism. Many authors are apparently only happy in their woe. They find delight in torturing themselves and in recounting their sufferings. Many of them were not as unhappy as they persuaded us to believe. The whole school of woe that had its origin in Rousseau and that was prominent in the early decades of the nineteenth century was full of sublimated masochism. Hence it has been called insincere. Byron and Chateaubriand were regarded, though not justly, as affecting woes they never really felt. Some of the sonneteers who imitated the Italians before and even during the Elizabethan period wrote about woes they never felt. This is, however, not the usual thing, and the greatest Elizabethan sonneteers like Shakespeare, Spenser and Sidney described real troubles.
Another phase of sublimated masochism is the attempt to torture one's self to solve puzzles and problems, and vex one's self more for the sheer delight in unravelling difficult situations than for the pursuit of knowledge. Note how children like to solve puzzles in newspapers. Poe, who had the sadistic instinct in sublimation, also had the masochistic impulse. We are familiar with his interest in reading cryptograms and with his paper on the subject. We remember his essays on studying persons' characters from their autographs. His stories of ratiocination like the Gold Bug,, the Murder in the Rue Morgue, the Purloined Letter are examples of sublimated masochism. His Dupin, the detective is an example of a man who likes to annoy himself. Sherlock Holmes is the best known modern example. Indeed the interest in tales of mystery and detective stories shows the power of the masochistic instinct in human nature.
Still another example of sublimated masochism is found in stories and plays where the idea of self sacrifice and penance figures. Dante's Purgatorio is a good illustration of the author's masochistic tendencies as the Inferno is of his sadism. He who tortures himself whether to follow the laws of society or to fight them is masochistic. Hence the tales of martyrs and heroes and idealists all betray the sublimated masochistic impulse. Both the rebel and the conformist, because they embrace torture, one might say almost willingly (though they really cannot help it), are masochistic. All literature describing these types show that the author has a keen interest in this satisfaction in one's suffering, and are the results, if Freud is right, of the author's infantile delight to suffer, which became later sublimated.
Rousseau describes the pleasure he received from beatings, and this masochism is seen in his Confessions, where he tells us of his woes with apparent enjoyment in them.
All this is significant. Freud says: "Children who are distinguished for evincing special cruelty to animals and playmates may justly be suspected of intensive and premature sexual activity in the erogenous zones; and in a simultaneous prematurity of all sexual impulses, the erogenous sexual activity surely seems to be primary. The absence of the barrier of sympathy carries with it the danger that the connections between cruelty and erogenous impulses formed in childhood cannot be broken in later life." (Three Contributions -- Page 54.)
There is then a connection between the sadism and masochism of early infancy which is related to sex, and the sublimations in art of those impulses. People who can hate fiercely or are vindictive or have a tendency towards cruelty or who like to torture themselves are as a rule of strong sex impulses.
in the garret, in the kitchen bred,
To The Lord Chancellor