Monday, August 30, 2010

The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner

Today, August 29th, is the day that the Church has chosen to remember the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, or as the feast is sometimes picturesquely known, ‘The Beheading of the Forerunner.’ It’s a fairly minor feast day (except apparently in Puerto Rico, whose patron saint is St. John the Baptist, and perhaps some other places) so most of us probably didn’t observe it today. But the story of John’s death is a powerful one, and well worth writing about. It’s one of the Christian feast days- like Good Friday, and like the Feast of the Holy Innocents- that remind us, painfully and starkly, of the magnitude of human evil, and the darkness that our species is capable of.

Many of us probably find it difficult- I find it almost impossible- to think about the Beheading of St. John strictly through a biblical lens. When we think about John’s death, we almost inevitably think of Oscar Wilde’s play, ‘Salome’, which makes the story come alive for us through vivid poetry that’s alternately ethereally beautiful and horrifyingly dark. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The best art, after all, has the same source as scripture has; like all good things, it comes ultimately from God, and whether or not Wilde’s version of the story is true in every detail, it conveys powerful truths to us; it serves the function, in other words, that myths are intended to serve. It might seem strange to call Mr. Wilde a Christian poet, but it’s none the less true for all that. Oscar Wilde’s famous ‘aestheticism’, and his often expressed view that art and morality had nothing to do with each other, were, I think, never something that he truly accepted at the deepest level of his being. While he converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, he was haunted by Christ for a lot longer then that, and there are deeply moral, and deeply Christian messages running through so much of his plays, poems, and short fictions. ‘Salome’ is no exception. The play is sometimes called ‘pornographic’, which would be annoying if it weren’t so absurd. I detest real pornography with a passion, and it saddens me that so many people nowadays, especially young men, patronize this kind of unnatural, antisocial and immoral rubbish, but as Justice Potter Stewart once said, ‘This is not that’, i.e. ‘Salome’ is not by any stretch of the imagination pornographic. On the contrary, it’s a deeply moral play, and a deeply religious one.

I’d call it a deeply religious play because it gives us a demonstration of what Bulgakov, in his ‘The Master and Margarita’, calls ‘the seventh proof of the existence of God.’ Namely, the demonstration of God through the demonstration of his opposite. The seventh proof relies on an evidential step: amassing evidence that this world is an evil place, in which people and other beings routinely exploit and abuse one another in truly horrific ways. It relies, then, on an intuitive sense; it asks us to accept that the magnitude of evil in this world is greater than what we would expect in a strictly materialistic and naturalistic world, and that we can explain the amount and degree of evil in this world only by postulating an agent of supernatural evil, the devil. And it relies, finally, on philosophical and theological reasoning, to infer the existence of supernatural good from supernatural evil. For shadows are only comprehensible if there exists such a thing as light; shadows are the absence of light, and the existence of shadows testifies to the existence of light. As another great twentieth century work of fiction ruminating on the nature of good and evil put it, “It is folly to think that in the triumph of evil there could be a winning side, in terms of anyone’s gaining anything by it. Without good to oppose it, evil is simply meaningless.’ Precisely, and this is why- according to Bulgakov, and I think correctly- the existence of supernatural evil implies the existence of supernatural good. Intuitively I accept the existence of supernatural evil- and the amount of evil in this world tells me that such an agent must be truly awesome in his power, intelligence, in the force of his will and in the ability to master nature and the world. “He doeth great wonders, such that he maketh fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men’ (Revelation 13:13). If there exists an even greater source of supernatural good, and it’s not hard to deduce why there must, then that source must be truly eternal, truly unbounded and unlimited by the laws of nature, truly perfect in power, in goodness, in vision, and in love, and truly a being ‘greater than which none can be conceived.” And as St. Anselm said, “You, Lord God, are this being.”

‘Salome’, like ‘Titus Andronicus’, is a deeply religious play in that it portrays for us- brilliantly and vividly- the horrific nature of a world from which God is absent. It gives us a snapshot, as clear as glass and as bright as the morning sun, of the City of Man in all its glory. And through our revulsion at what human beings are capable of doing to each other, at the magnitude of our capacity for lust, greed, hatred and pride, we are sent running away from the City of Man like frightened toddlers running away from a bear at the zoo. And when we run away from the City of Man, we sooner or later find us running towards its opposite pole, the only ultimate alternative to that city: the eternal, perfect, and superlatively beautiful alternative of the City of God.

Wilde’s play ‘Salome’ consciously echoes images from the ‘Song of Solomon’, that enigmatic book of the Old Testament which can be interpreted- correctly, I think- as a paean to romantic love, as a celebration of the erotic, as a prefiguration of the Ever-Virgin Mary, and as an allegory of the love of Christ for his people. Captivated by passion, Salome speaks thus to St. John as he stands before her in chains:

"Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut in twain with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the gardens of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red. The red blasts of trumpets that herald the approach of kings, and make afraid the enemy, are not so red. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of those who tread the wine in the wine-press. It is redder than the feet of the doves who inhabit the temples and are fed by the priests. It is redder than the feet of him who cometh from a forest where he hath slain a lion, and seen gilded tigers....:

But Wilde cleverly twists the imagery of the Song of Solomon, turning all that beauty to ugliness, by putting these verses into the mouth of Salome, a young woman for whom love and hate are inextricably tied together. She desires John the Baptist, and when she can’t have him, all her love turns to hate, and she wants to destroy him. The biblical narrative said that Salome was prompted by her mother to ask for St. John’s head: “And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist” (Mark 6:24). But Wilde makes the decision to ask for John’s head the fault of Salome herself, prompted by her bitter anger, and by her longing to destroy the man who spurned her caresses. He shows us, brilliantly, what eros, sexual and erotic love, can become when it’s separated from caritas, the love that seeks the good of the beloved, and not one’s own good. These two kinds of love were intended to be connected to each other, to be tied together within the context of romantic relationships. And when we separate them, as our society risks doing with its increasing acceptance of casual sex, we risk unleashingly truly dangerous storms of passion that set us against each other and against our own deepest natures, that drive us apart instead of bringing us together. As C. S. Lewis said, if you try to make eros into a God, she will become a demon. Wilde’s portrayal of Salome is a great example of this, a great portrayal of the nature of passion when it becomes centered on our own good and our own desires instead of on the good of our beloved, and a warning to his time- which in its way had even more erotic sin then ours, as the widespread prevalence of prostitution shows us- as well as to all times since.

Of course, in Wilde’s portrayal, Salome was a victim as much as a perpetrator of evil, and as guilty as she was, greater still was Herod’s guilt. The biblical account doesn’t make this especially clear- it says that Herod was ‘pleased’ with her dancing: “And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod, and them that sat with him…” (Mark 6:25). In Wilde’s play, however, it’s very clear, and explicit, that Herod lusts after Salome, and that his desire to see her dance is rooted in sexual desire. This desire, one can quickly see, was incestuous; in truth, it’s triply incestuous, for Herod and Salome were related in three different ways (due to the Herod family’s long history of practicing incest, and to Herod’s incestuous marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias). Salome was simultaneously the niece, the grand-niece, and the stepdaughter of Herod, and if you wanted an explicit biblical text warning of how evil and unnatural incest really is, you couldn’t pick a much better example (which may be part of the reason that this episode made it into the very short, and very concise, Gospel of St. Mark.) If Wilde was right and Salome secretly desired John, then the fact that she was presumably the object of sexual molestation by her stepfather/uncle/grand-uncle hints that she may have been a victim as much as a perpetrator of evil. We’ve learned over the centuries that people who are victims of abuse often become abusers themselves- a glance at the crime stories in the newspaper tells us that much- and personally, I can’t think of a much better example of the power of evil to beget more evil, or a better testimony to how much this is truly a fallen, and corrupt world.

Beyond just the relationship (which isn’t even suggested in the Bible, but which Wilde makes clear) of Salome and John, the connection of Herod and Salome, then, makes it clear that this is a story about sexual sin and the dark side of sexual passion, as much as it is a story about political tyranny and the death of a prophet. Herod, inflamed with wine and tempted by incestuous desire; Salome, frustrated in love and willing to turn all her lust into hate; Herodias, willing to leave her husband and enter an incestuous relationship with his brother; all of them show us Romantic love, at its best, is a mirror of the love that exists between the Persons of the Trinity, and between God and man. But when we separate the physical aspect of love from its spiritual and emotional aspects, when we separate desire from affection, when we separate the good that we seek for ourselves from the desire to seek the good of the person we love, then we open the door to a set of stairs that lead ever downward, into the black cellar where Herod’s executioner went to seek John the Baptist, carrying an axe on his shoulder and wearing the tetrarch’s Death Ring on his finger.

Down those stairs lies the path to the central square of the City of Man, the city founded by ‘the love of the self even to the contempt of God,’ and Herod’s pained cry at the end of the play, “I have committed a great crime, a crime against some unknown God’, tells us all we need to know about that City. Wilde’s play, and the biblical text on which it is based, give us all the reason we ever needed to set our feet in the path leading away from that city, and to start walking- as far as it may take us, as difficult as the path might be, up the highest mountains and through the hottest deserts- towards that other city, the City of God, which stands forever ‘as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Revelation 21:2), in a permanent and perpetual symbol of the beauty of true, genuine, and sincere romantic love.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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