“Salome full of untimely grace, Lilith of the dark valley of our forgotten fears, I salute thee, yet thou shalt not eat of me.” Arcan Shahem
It had been someone so close, yet so invisible, like a shadow in the darker corners of a room where steps were heard, shuffling to and fro, from wall to wall. Such was she who haunted the mind of the dissolute ascetic hiding inside the temptress of his undisclosed youth. Oscar Wilde had perhaps understood her as the sickness of man, and above all, as a Pandora wrought in the irons of a church built on the ruins of the heart. She, a twisted bone of contention, reviled and revived to be sentenced again and again, a heretic and a tyrant sealed in the body of a Sybil, contorted by the desire of the untouchable, tortured by the vanity of a child risen to the alter, a crown of thorns, none even slightly scratching her wrinkless brow, for ever smooth, intolerant to age. Her hands bore no signs of experience, not even the imprint of an identity, make belief effigy of sin boiling in the frigid cerebellum of perverted priests, yet so real to her inaccessible lover. New to the world each morning, like dew drops anointing the spider’s web, she absorbed light, not a pearl but a lagoon trapped between the impregnable shoulders of mountains.
How could one instant suffice, the glint of a gaze, as innocent as it was criminal, reaching the defunct factories of guilt with a galvanising impulse? How the wheels began to grind the worn meat of a pacified fool, neither man nor beast, a forlorn insomniac moaning in the hot sands of his shameful dreams, a Jordan berried between unseen frontiers as he tore the glows of the night, sweating a boil shaped like she, this flower of grace and disgrace, red opalescent, humid and savage, her tongue glistening in the penumbra of a mouth his lips could taste even as he turned inside his cloak soaked with muck, he the scourge renting against heaven day and night. In this dismal kingdom of his, she increased in power, unscathed by the seraphs’ terror gales, their trumpets spewing gravel and spite, the voice of god straight from the bowls. A god, but so unconvincing to her, whose father, a Tetrarch, lay himself and his treasures below her heels. Neither time nor space recognised this form, her sovereignty not residing within her, but in the weakness of those who wanted her more than the salt of life. Could it be…. did she pursue the reflection of a soul in the lakes encased between limbo and a faint idea of paradise? What paradise if not the loveless embrace of her absolute abandonment? This was Salome, the limpid, fulgurated memory of an incarnation, her essence inaccessible to the living, insufferable to the dead. No soul could leave this body, for they had once been welded into one. Was it a body or armour wrapped around an intolerable craving? She was famished, suffused by the dolour of starvation, while abundance enveloped her. She suffered. Yet no one had ever seen a tear gather and trickle down her cheek that looked like pale golden enamel when she rose from her milky waters, surrounded by the ebony palms of her maids lifting the translucent robe to receive her.
Once he wandered far from his cave, incapable of peace. In the thickness of the bushes, he slid like a snake. It was then he caught her sweeping her balcony. She had believed herself entirely alone and had delighted in this mundane shore, not calling for her servants as all persons of her station did. Clad in such fine silks was she that the mild sun of early morning melted all obstruction to the beauty of her shape. As if naked, bathed in this light like a Cherry blossom, her petals turning to vapour around her, she moved with the breeze, so light, so fluid. She leaned, she observed, searching like a falcon for the impurities tarnishing the pink marble her feet hardly touched. She proceeded, having no tools, with her hands, the sensitive extensions of a being that would not be fathomed, but hastily despised by the pious, the bigot and the sycophants and the maids that knew her corporeal being better than any lover. He pondered against his will. Had she had any lovers? What if this living image of decadence was still an innocent? What if she who danced like a whore before the elders and their hosts was as virginal as the mother, so the story goes, of the messiah? She kneeled and continued wiping the floor, seemingly lost in reverie. What would a daydream be like in this head where furies incessantly demanded sacrifice? Here standing before him, so far above him… and each the victim and the judge of the other; the inescapable justice of a nature so incomprehensible to him, so unknown to her.
Why lust after such a man, a man denying all frailty, all satisfaction, all reasonable sense of loss. Was it for a beauty she could never attain, under this apparel of neglect, dirt, dereliction, abstention, and vulnerability? This object of desire, so oblivious apparently to her allure…rendering her thus into an object of contempt, the instrument of a revenge on men, but perhaps and foremost on a world in which all purity must be soiled or imprisoned. And was not she pure, so pure as he whose freedom she envied immeasurably? And of him what was known? What could such a being fear from a faithless girl? What could he dissimulate in a body that would have passed for a rock had it not crawled among scorpions and snakes? Why this obstinacy in the rejection of such an open gift as the unadulterated and ‘unadulterous’ avowal of a king’s daughter? Did not the desire for super-natural ecstasy dwarf the simple concupiscence of a disturbed adolescent? How could possessing a mortal body for the time it takes a magpie to pick a glittery jewel from an open trunk, be of any interest to a man enthralled by unearthly wonders? He travelled through cities of diamonds as he curled up like a foetus in a hollow, shivering, unable still to forget the cold blades of the desert after sunset. How he swore against that unbearable cold, thinking himself alone. Then she would appear to him, as physical as he was then, his only escape, not god but a whore as holly as the so called Christ.
His head shone, still, as it hanged from the bloodied hand of his executioner. But Gustave Moreau had wished him to illuminate our dark constellation, as Salome seemed to keep it suspended like a magic lantern, with her unflinching eye. For the Baptist had become the opener of the way, and had led the lamb to the slaughter. Not far from the scene, Puvis de Chavannes had built him as a force of nature made from the fibres of Apollo, brought to his knees, yet somehow standing impassively, almost exhorting Thanatos, tree of knowledge about to fall to the puerile whims of an ancient Lolita. It was that moment when heaven and earth were ripped apart, in the pupil of a mother’s eye, where pure hatred, not love, made the world go round. A hatred some say of such purity, it could be taken for love…yes so dangerously close to love, all the more dangerous for being almost what it could only oppose and continuously fail to annihilate. Who was the Baptist, an ode to the adulation of reason at the mercy of pride, an inversion of humility, an obscene lie facing his nemesis in the pitiful hope of obsequious redemption. To the morbid rests of a breathless form he preferred the delectable manna of the spirit. One temptation displaced another. Only his thoughts could betray him for this resolve was tainted by doubt, more than doubt, a cascade of indomitable phantasms, mirroring those of his anima. Thus they faced each other, unwilling to relinquish, only willing to vanquish. They did as would later, in many guises, Martha and George in who is afraid of Virginia Woolf, Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or inversely Stanley and Blanche in a Streetcar Named Desire, and where did it begin…Ophelia blighted by Hamlet, Ariadne abandoned by Theseus, Medea betrayed by Jason, Eurydice lost to Hades by the distraction of Orpheus, Adam, Eve, Lilith, and some deluded piping tom salivating on a cloud… because the truth be told, theirs was a marriage made in heaven to be consummated in hell, not because of god’s side kick condemnation but because of a tragic flaw in the psyche of each desperate player. Where romantic love was praised through poetry, poetry only compensated us for the absence of love. To be the guarantor of romantic feelings, one had to be in full possession of a believable narrative, believable enough … The dialogue had really been an interminable series of monologues. Nevertheless, far from a duet, this was an opera. Even Strauss ensured the renaissance of this truth in one single act. Salome and Jochanaan perish in some ironic mortal embrace where the base passions are revealed and punished unequivocally in a parody of righteousness.
But here, at a time undeclared, they faced each other, one so ridiculously powerless, yet the evidence of an empire impossible to conquer, the other, so powerful, yet the evidence of an empire showing all the signs of decay prior to an ineluctable end. Yet both failed themselves and one another equally. What would the man have wished had he been a Herodias, or a Herod, and more intriguingly, had he been a Salome? Of all places, he woke on the tip of an iceberg melting slowly subjected to Aphrodite’s hair dryer blocked on maximum heat. A metropolis many had called a white flame among golden cinders, and where the first caravels had departed for the shores of overflowing wealth. What that place had been but a palace, a city of luxuries overlooking the Atlantic, the Venice of Portugal. This was where he had encountered his deepest fear, the stillness of complete self-absorption, not arrogance, the certainty of a slow amalgamated victory. She Salome shivered in the under belly of the city, shivered with uncontrollable excitement, prone to bursts of anger, an infant underfed and trained to kill, a predator in the guise of a prey. An entire city had collapsed under her spell. But what was the reality of this terror, this underlying truth that could not be spelt out by the linguists of this world?
She had appeared as a giant puppet mistress of the masked puppeteer to the gang of masonic grave diggers, the mask of the red death entering unnoticed, slipping his ‘equestrial’ hooves in the fine velvet slippers of haggard kings and austere queens, the dry rivers of the medina, the final rays pouring through the rubies and sapphires of Ogival windows. As she lifted her arms in awe of a unique idol, a guard echoed her with a long silver sword, above the frail weathered neck of a mumbling saint. Who could have cared for his admonitions, in the light of his uncouth verity? Was not his sickness also hers? The table was laid for the feast, but Herodias played her uncanny part, and having introduced a sinister idea in the malleable mind of the woman-child, a man would die abruptly, fulfilling the first chapter of a violent prophecy. A mother envious of her own daughter, eager to punish the insolent progeny by framing her in the infamous role of a depraved and diabolical socialite, had gained posterity in quite an ambiguous way. Yet hers was no match to the immortality of her monstrous child. What did Salome see in the mirror? The face of a mother while she cumbered her soft hair, while her eyes broke through the skin, cutting deep grooves into her body, laying spider’s eggs into her psyche, slowly burying her vulgar emotions into the young flesh of her own blood, so hateful was she of a being that would soon usurp her position, steal the affections of the king, and humiliate she, who had borne the fiend.
Far from being over, her reign, that of the daughter would begin again in the recess of the collective consciousness. The new moon rose. In her invisibility, she contained the inflating tides of the seas below the hardest strata of our globe. As he cried in his pitiful hovel, she glided, having mounted a mare as black as coal. She wondered, what could this sound be, where did it come from? She waited immobile as a statue, in the starry darkness. She absorbed the plaintive song of a creature and pondered on the most efficient way of capturing such a mysterious prey. How could he have imagined his groans and uncontrollable convulsions would be the source not of piety but utter fascination? How could he have conceived of such an absurdity, his back pitted into the rock she was moulding herself into, as if to be penetrated by every wave of pain rising and falling inside his mangled skeletal being?
She would hold a platter not long from now, his head severed, heavy lids closing his piecing eyes, this insolence she had admired and despised. Caravaggio showed her looking away from her trophy as if in disgust. Now in full possession of her prize, yet how meaningless, all of the promises vanished in the act of martyrdom imposed by the wretched. His murderer only just dropping the head like a long awaited parcel. Behind Salome, another hand rose like a ghost, yet more physical for its weight in ill thoughts, a sordid apparition, like a Siamese twin, the instigator of a deadly plot, avid for an innocence blatantly lost. The spectre of a historian calling himself Flavius Josephus, an impostor no doubt, but still…spoke of her too, and how once the Shulamite, turned a soiled veil of Isis, had embraced the head of a hermit, as to kiss the lips then blue with the frost of inertia. Like the mad Prince of Denmark, she stared in the blank eyes of a skull still clad in the leather of life just passed. King Solomon had implored her in the verses of Song of Songs, “Return, return, o Shulamite”…”My soul troubled me for the chariots of Aminadab”. Now, the wheels broken, still revolved at the bottom of a well, lacerating the limbs of wingless angels fallen hither. So obsessed was she, the head was swathed like a new born and enshrined into the royal bed. They say she bore no child, barren only by the failure of her husband who, like Philip of Macedonia before him, afraid of the bestiality of his consort, would plunder further afield. His own appetites were satiated in the languorous furnace of nubile slaves, so horror stricken was he at the thought of sharing his couch with a dead head nestled by the heaving breasts of his bride. Worse still, Herodias had taken the habit of inserting hairpins in the tongue of the abject thing. It grew larger and greener each day, like the offshoot of a succulent. She Herodias did so for fear of a stray burst of condemnation by the man even Herod had named a prophet. Salome’s children therefore did not descend from her bloodline. It may be that John sang like a caged bird as she slept by his side or as it is presumed, his head, as the head of Orpheus, had found itself lodged between the thighs of a Demeter. Salome had made herself chaste in the exercise of her passion for the wild man who haunted her dreams until she herself was victim of a sudden fatal accident.
These were rumours. Even when alive, Salome had become immortalised in the formaldehyde of a myth baring her name, her features and her voice. She danced by herself, imagining Dionysus visiting her private chamber. And how then could a mere mortal enrapture her? But this man, himself a legend in his time, rivalling her own, how could she, knowing of him, let him be adored by any other, let alone a divine figure jealous of its own image, of no value to her, so ingrown the visceral humours of nature in every part of her…the face of an angel, so Titian had painted her, the red cape of Magdalena covering her round shoulders, and the presence of a child she seems to have noticed as her head tilted towards him or her, to listen…But her eyes not once could leave the solemn expression of Jochanaan as his head lay in her arms resting from celestial torments. She hesitated then. She had been taught by the philosophers how the cranium being the seat of the mind, the body must necessarily be the root of all other properties of our being, the weakness of mankind, the source of sin, of the rages of carnal fixation. How saved she felt then, enamoured with an ideal, the vestiges of divinity falling into her lap. There was no mother above her here; she was the mother eternal and pure, her son, the hallowed apex of her only god. With this gift from the earth, yet the magical talisman by which her access to higher spheres was assured, no power could surpass hers. Yet this she would keep a secret, so she liked to believe.
In a dream she had seen a castle and wished to find her way to it. She had tried to get closer from every side but all were dead ends until a girl about her age, a nomad from an unknown land had emerged from a small tent by a high wall of thorny trees. She asked “do you want to go to the castle?” Astounded, and as astonished by such a strange emotion, Salome answered, forgetting about etiquette, duties, pageantry and all of the attributes of her class that would, at this point, have impeded her progress. There was a low mud brick hut. The girl pointed to its semi circular portal. It was a dark hole and although the princess was generally fearless, having nothing to fear, a needle pricked the back of her mind. She darted at the girl who watched on with utmost curiosity, so over-dressed was she for such an escapade in the backwaters of her kingdom. Salome noticed a shadow creeping from beyond the wall. The sun was setting much faster than usual. She sensed urgency and pressed on. Almost as she had entered than she had already reached the other side. In real time, this would have amounted to less than half a second, a physical impossibility. In addition, the castle she had peered at from a long way away had evaded her. This tested her logical mind for which no man would give her credit. Caligula too would later show a rare talent in this art.
A secret. We could tell from the snide smile on her delicate face, from those eyes that no longer needed to lie, and while Lucas Cranach painted her so, he however did not forget how, while she may have admired herself as the sole owner of a vanquished rebel, he, though separated from the mortal enclave, from the gut and bile of a living moribund, sang like Solomon to his impossible love. But we wondered suddenly, who was he looking at? …As if there had been a mirror between the dreadful couple and us. What could his gaze reach but hers? And who then was the Medusa? She no longer seemed so certain, and he, although expiring still, was not adrift but absolute in the certainty of his and her fate, for they were intertwined forever, a hierosgamos below the surface of a tomb. Nor was it Yahweh ’s retribution that led her to the frozen river of Jordan, a fluke phenomenon that was attributed to the aftermath of an unpredicted eclipse, despite Ptolemy’s attempt at hiding his findings relating to the motions of the Pleiades wherefrom had surged the dark messenger…burnt thereafter with the entire library.
She stepped over the mistiness of the ice sheet that broke almost instantly. The surface, chiselled into perfect triangular shapes, whirled around her, dragged into the depth. Her head hovered for a moment; no scream came out of her as her eyes looked estranged from the scene of horror, so oblivious was she, to her own body. For she was married to the Baptist in such a way that no matter could rupture her living form from the fantasy of her perfect counterpart. Like a fluorescent blade, one chunk swerved with immediate effect. Her head stilted, gasped at last and vanished, leaving but a few droplets of blood, so precise and clean had been the cut. It fell into the lower channels, revolving, a lost planet, until a wall, a very old wall covered in shells, oil deposits and algae, stopped her, right below the first gateway to the port of Lisbon. There, under the Atlantic tumult, she waited for the shadows to wreck havoc. Before that, her dreams would infiltrate the unspent thoughts of builders, monarchs, architects, and traders, the councils to proprietors, the clerks and their masters, the doctors and their book keepers, the high clerics and their sheep, enticing them to erect a magnificent city for the sole pleasure of razing it to the ground by succumbing to the laws of she that had been sold to man to do as he pleased by a deluded patriarch. Then what was natural law was seen as oceanic hysteria, nature’s folly, in whose terrible dominion could be seen a reflection of our pride and our envy.
Who would dare defame her, having heard of the effect of her subterranean invention and her allegiance to the lunar court? She hid from all men, from mothers and their children, from birds and worms, her beauty ravaged by centuries of bitterness, and the agony of her bodiless love. A poet had claimed a preceding incarnation of Salome had been wedged headless in the volcanic womb that once had burst open like a pestilent bulb below the Atlantean continent. Now, he said, the hermit’s skull protruded from her rotten belly, a stillborn she tried endlessly to expel. It did not budge. It had grafted itself into her, as incomplete as she was. “How ironic”, the poet had written, “the head of a saint in place of what the church had proclaimed to be the origin of the fall” These awful pangs of birth led only to more excruciating pain and thus it was that on a clear morning of 1755, Salome vanquished her fate and spewed out from her putrid concavity the tumorous object of her devotion. As she had sank like a tower once, so did the domes and the spires of an entire city and its inhabitants, decades of labour and knowledge annihilated, swallowed into her gaping throat as her head then unlocked from a lower strata, and John’s of the wilderness, rolled down deeper valleys, enflamed by the lava licking the crumbling borders of Lisbon, a world among worlds.
A woman she was not any more than he a saint. Both inventions set against one another, most of all, set against themselves. We saw two pillars in the distance. How pleasing it was to think they held the vault. Two eyes had watched us once, now hollow. Instead of tears, sand fell continuously, two lines, two pillars of sand, one silver, the other red, holding nothing save the passing of life.
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2015