Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome: A Tragedy in One Act, is a rather twisted reimaging of the beheading of John the Baptist. The overarching narrative of the play is the desirability of a moon-paled beauty named Salome, King Herod’s step-daughter, who is herself overwhelmed by a single man’s lack of interest in her. Like lycans maddened by the light of a full-moon, almost all men in this play are transformed into lunatics when her silvery countenance tantalizes them. She despises and uses all such lunatics for her own ends, but there is one who is impervious to her glimmering gray, delicate dance — John the Baptist — or Jokanaan as he is known in the play. Herself maddened by his lack of love for her, she desires his lips — literally. She demands his head on a silver platter and, in the end, satiates her own lust by tasting the bitter draught of his cold, dead lips.

In my opinion, this brilliant but short and twisted play presents the clear minded, hungry thinker with something more to chew on than Wilde meant to serve on Herod’s platter. Though this play is all but unknown to most, there is a single statement among Salome’s closing words that bodes well for our contemporary world, “the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”[1] I think such a statement would be welcomed with wide arms by most of our society. But I also think it would not be rightly understood, either. Depending on the type of love that is meant within this statement can make it a misleading idea that leads people to negate the real power of death or can guide considerate people to understand the foundational, full, and eternal power of Love. It is for this reason that I think defining what kind of love presented by Wilde and answering whether or not it is a mystery greater than death is of the utmost importance. And once this riddle is solved, an even greater point can be addressed, a daring claim of Salome that builds from the initial claim of love’s mystery being superior to death’s, “Love only should we consider.”[2]

The form of love which Wilde uses throughout his play is a very limited one. When he speaks of love, it is very much what many in the contemporary world mean by the word, sexual desire. We live in an age when the mystery of love is reduced to the degraded sexual appetite that clouds each line in Wilde’s play. But this is such a weak form of love when it is not buffered by something greater. If nothing else, any adult should know the sheer insanity that drives the sexual desire of some. Also, it is plain that many allow sexual desire to lead them to neglect their obligations to family and vows to their spouse. Sexual desire which leads to erotic love does have the power to bring people together and to help couples overcome many of life’s troubles. It even can have the power to help a couple fight the griefs of death. Erotic love is a blessing from God when rightly used. But even in occasions when erotic love does work for good, it is because even greater forms of love keep it under control.

Considering the definition of Wilde’s love, now it should be asked anew: is erotic love a mystery greater than death itself? When held up against death, I think the faultiness of Wilde’s thoughts expressed via Salome become more obvious, for it is the vulnerability of death that heightens the passion of erotic love, makes lovers want to hold their embrace tighter and longer and fight off, or forget for at least a moment, the inevitable separation. With this in mind, it seems to me that Salome is mistaken. Love and death, in a very real way, work together in this life to heighten the power of one another. If nothing else, Salome has to eat these words in her closing line when the onlooker discovers it is only by death that she is able to taste the love that she longed for when she kisses the severed head of Jokanaan. By the end of the play, Wilde does not offer love as a mystery greater than death; rather he shows that the marriage of love and death is an even more profound mystery than either, for erotic love is all the greater when it struggles against death and death is all the more painful when it divides lovers.

For Wilde’s characters and the characters who have set the status quo of the modern world, love (at least of the erotic kind) is certainly a mystery and, as Salome dares to say, this mysterious “Love only should we consider.”[3] It is this line that I think is the most important of the whole play, for it claims that erotic love should be the controlling motivation of one’s life. But the erotic desire on display in Salome is too fickle to be the only thing considered in life. However, when Salome’s statement, “Love only should we consider,” is understood from a context outside of the play, when what is meant by love is more than erotic love, I think such a statement is perfectly true, and that is why this is the most important line.[4]

There is a kind of love whose mystery can be considered alone and should be considered above all other loves and death itself, for it is the source of all love and the defeater of death. There is a love that is the only sure guide and pure desire. This love’s mystery is the very mystery of existence, including but not limited to sex, for sex is only one part of love, and not the most important nor the most mysterious. This love is a person and the beginning of all being. This love is, as Dante says in the closing lines of his Divine Comedy, “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”[5]

The Mystery of Love

More than the invisible rings of Jupiter

Is the mystery of love to the mortal eye.

But more mysterious than a lover

Is the Love whose breath is eternal life.

 

Up, up, up, far beyond the ether,

Far beyond the grasp of mankind,

Far beyond his mortal eyes,

Beyond the minds of all people

Is the answer to the great question —

A question of which the heavens sing,

A question with which the waters teem,

A mystery for which all voices ring,

“Who?” we cry! “Who?”

“Who painted the sky?

Who fastened its lights?

Who poured out the seas?

Who molded the earth?

Who shaped the beast?

Who made water and thirst?

Who formed the atom?

Who fashioned physics?

Who fathomed the fathoms?

Who?” we cry! “Who did this?”

This mystery is greater than death,

Greater than lust, greater than sex.

This mystery is the Love

Whom Dante saw on high,

Far past the realm of Jove,

In the furthest reaches of paradise

Where the scent of a white rose

Pierces all the holy and baptized.

He is the Love that moves

The sun and the other stars,

The Great Mystery who defines

Who, what, and why we all are.


Citation Information

Donald W. Catchings, Jr., “The Mystery of Love,” An Unexpected Journal: Mystery 6, no. 1. (Spring 2023), 169-174.


Endnotes

[1] Oscar Wilde, Salome: A Tragedy in One Act (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1909), 122.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, the Paradiso, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003) 3.33.146.