[SOR] Kelley Eskridge’s “And Salome Danced”
Having spent far too much time complaining about genre culture’s unhealthy addiction to meta-textual writing and the VanderMeers’ decision to demonstrate this dependency in the form of back-to-back deconstructed folk tales, Sisters of the Revolution continues to goad me with yet another deconstructive short story about the magic of creativity. Thankfully, Eskridge’s story is better conceived, better written and considerably sharper than either Nnedi Okorafor’s charming attempt at cultural mediation or Eleanor Arnason’s misguided ode to the glories of linguistic imperialism.
In fact, while Sisters of the Revolution has yet to improve upon the levels of intelligence and political engagement displayed by its opening tale, “And Salome Danced” is by far the most viscerally powerful piece of writing to feature in this anthology so far. The reason for this power is that, rather than trying to draw on our attitudes towards society and culture, Eskridge’s story goes straight for the crotch: Yup… “And Salome Danced” is too sexy for its shirt… too sexy for its shirt… so sexy it blows straight past outdated heteronormative assumptions about sexuality and starts picking a fight with binary conceptualisations of gender.
The story begins amidst auditions for what we assume must be a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The viewpoint character is referred to throughout the story as “Mars” but neither their gender nor their sexuality is ever specified. What we do know about Mars is that they are an intensely clever theatre director who has all sorts of fascinating things to say not only about the text of the play but also the process of designing and staging a play:
I do not so much envision the play as experience it as some sort of multidimensional gestalt.
This may sound rather a lot like pseudo-academic bullshit but Mars’ opinions about theatre do make quite a lot of sense and they also serve to establish the character as someone who sees the world in quite a detached and theoretical manner. Mars’ detachment is also made obvious when their friend and stage-manager Lucky starts displaying signs of sexual attraction to one of the actors auditioning for the part of John the Baptist:
Lucky shifts in her seat next to me. We exchange a look, and I see that her pupils are wide.
“Is he worth dancing for, then?”
She squirms, all the answer I really need. I look at the resume again, Joe Sand. He stands calmly on stage. Then he moves very slightly, a shifting of weight, a leaning in toward Lucky. While he does it, he looks right at her, watching her eyes for that uncontrollable pupil response. He smiles. Then he tries it with me. Aha, I think, surprise little actor.
Aware that the actor is trying to use his sexuality to swing the part, Mars shuts him down only for him to ask whether they have yet to cast the part of Salome. The following day, the exact same actor turns up to audition for the part of Salome, except that now they are going by the name of “Jo Sand” and their somewhat gender-neutral voice and physique is tending more towards the feminine than the masculine. After the audition, Sand uses her sexuality on Mars and this time gets the reaction she was looking for:
Her eyes are Salome’s eyes: deep blue like deep desire. She is as I imagined her. When she leans slightly towards me, she watches my eyes and then smiles. Her smell goes straight up my nose and punches into some place deep in my brain.
At this point, it is probably worth stepping back from Eskridge’s story and considering the source material.
Salome is inspired by the Biblical story of Herod’s daughter. According to the Book of Mark, John the Baptist ran afoul the Roman Client King of Judea when he proclaimed Herod II’s marriage to Herodias to be unlawful. Herodias then ordered the arrest of the prophet and encouraged her young daughter to dance for the King as a means of manipulating him into cutting off the prophet’s head.
Salome is quite a famous Biblical character in so far as she exemplifies the then-popular idea that male sexual desire is something that originates in women rather than men. This understanding of male sexuality is what underpins humanity’s lamentable tendency to blame women for the actions of lusty, adulterous, predatory, and sexually incontinent men.
Written on the cusp of the 20th Century, Oscar Wilde’s Salome is equidistant between the traditional practice of blaming women for male desire and the current tendency towards viewing male desire as a dangerously irresistible force comparable to something that might be produced by either a vampire or a werewolf. Wilde’s play draws on both approaches to human sexuality but transforms Salome from a passive receptacle of other people’s passions to a thinking sexual being struggling with her own set of desires.
Wilde’s Salome opens with the titular character taking a shine to John the Baptist, a wild-eyed prophet who responds to her request for a kiss with an unworldly scorn. Thwarted, Salome surrenders herself to Herod’s long-standing desire and dances the dance of the seven veils in return for a hasty promise to deliver her the head of John the Baptist. Exploiting her father’s lust, Salome kisses the severed head of the man she wished to bed making her predator and prey, a victim and a victimiser. The piece is often thought of as a tragedy as both Herod and Salome are destroyed by their obsessive desire for something that is profoundly other. This brings us back to Eskridge’s story.
The meta-textual element of “And Salome Danced” is a commentary upon both Wilde’s play and the crisscrossing sexual gazes that form its thematic spine. One of the more rewarding ways of approaching Wilde’s play is to consider it not just a meditation upon human sexuality, but also upon human conceptions of the divine as John’s sexless Judeo-Christianity is juxtaposed with the rip-snorting Pagan sensuality of Salome and the moon motifs that follow her throughout the play.
Eskridge recognises that the bond between the Baptist and Salome is about more than sex when she suggests that one character might be able to play both parts. In fact, Sand’s name resonates not only with the shifting sands of their sexual identity but also with variant pronunciations of the Baptist’s Hebraic name of Yehochanan. Thus, Eskridge wants us to be mindful not only of Salome’s complex sexual energies but also of the ways in which these energies intersect with the divine: Jo Sand is Salome, but could just as easily be John the Baptist:
I look at our cast and I know that something impossible and dangerous is trying to happen; but all I really see is that suddenly my play – the one inside me – is possible. She’ll blow a hole through every seat in the house. She’ll burn their brains.
As the play progresses, the bond between Mars and Sand seems to grow ever more intense. Eskridge writes engagingly about how the various actors assemble their parts based partly on their experiences and partly on Mars’ delicate coaching but Sand’s character refuses to settle into a particular shape and Mars begins to get frustrated, at which things start to change:
As I grow more disturbed, Jo’s work becomes better and better. In those moments when I suddenly see myself as the trainer with my head in the mouth of the beast, when I slip and show my hand is sweaty on the leash – in those moments her work is so pungent, so ripe that Jo the world-shaker disappears, and the living Salome looks up from the cut-off T-shirt, flexes her thigh muscles under the carelessly torn jeans.
I love the use of the words ‘ripe’ and ‘pungent’ in this paragraph.
It signals not only the fact that Mars has been dragged out of their emotionally-detached comfort zone, but also a connection to something uncomfortably real. Even when we do talk about sex, we seldom acknowledge its smells and Eskridge’s decision to deploy words like ‘ripe’ and ‘pungent’ propels us not only into the realm of the senses, but to a corner of that realm whose existence we dare not recognise in speech. This isn’t about anything as psychologically or socially mediated as love, desire, or lust… it’s about something far simpler and more terrifying.
As the performance approaches, the cast and crew relax and begin chatting amongst themselves. As the conversation flows back and forth, the charismatic Jo starts holding court and Mars watches her speak as their mind starts to wander:
Images of streets filled with androgynous people and people whose gender-blurring surpasses androgyny and leaps into the realms of performance. Women dressed as menmaking love to men. Men dressed as women hesitating in front of public bathroom doors. Women in high heels and pearls with biceps so large that they split the expensive silk shirts. And the central image, the real point: Jo, naked, obviously female, slick with sweat, moving under me and and over me, Jo making love to me until I gasp and then she begins to change, to change, until it is Joe with me, Joe on me – and I open my mouth to shout my absolute, instinctive refusal – and I remember Lucky saying it is if you think you might want to sleep with it – and the movie breaks in my head and I am back with the others. No one has noticed that I’ve been assaulted, turned inside out.
This is not just sexual hunger, it is hunger so intensely primal and atavistic that it precedes identity. This isn’t about a man desiring a woman, a woman desiring a man, a person desiring someone of the same sex, or someone yearning to transgress their usual sexual boundaries… it’s about a hunger that makes all talk of identity categories irrelevant. This is desire that rips through human comprehension like the unfiltered word of God. This is the voice that was heard by John the Baptist and whispered in Herod’s ear. This is the hunger that burns as it devours.
While “And Salome Danced” engages with the idea that our identities serve only to mediate our desires, it also considers the dangers inherent in being given everything you desire. This resonates with the fact that Salome winds up being destroyed by her victory over John the Baptist but it also recalls Michael Haneke’s adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher.
The film revolves around a teacher at a conservatoire who, despite being middle-aged, lives with an aged mother who continued to treat her like a child. Infamously standoffish and cruel to her students, the woman’s mannered exterior belies an inner life consumed by transgressive sexual fantasies. These fantasies soon coalesce around a young engineering student who arrives at the conservatoire and makes friends with a fellow student. Insanely jealous, the piano teacher fills the young woman’s pockets with shards of glass leading to a confrontation with the engineering student who admits his attraction and tries to initiate a sexual relationship only to be told that the piano teacher will only agree to have sex with him if she satisfies a shopping-list of masochistic fantasies. After some consideration and soul-searching, the student consent to the teacher’s demands but making these fantasies a reality does not so much satisfy the piano teacher as leave her both spiritually and psychologically bereft.
What the piano teacher discovers is that there is real danger in getting what you want. Our identities don’t just rest upon what we are and what we do, but also upon the things that are denied us both by circumstance and experience. The piano teacher is able to function because her unpleasant and static persona is supported by vast reserves of sexual hunger and transgressive fantasy. Once those fantasies are made a reality, they cease to be something impossible that sustains and become something mundane that needs to be fitted in between piano lessons and shopping trips.
Wilde’s Salome and Herod experience the same cataclysmic piercing of their identities and this is the fate that awaits Mars should they surrender to Sands’ entreaties. Sand’s Salome is a creature of silk and razor blades… all the better for slitting wrists and leaving beautiful corpses.
While I very much enjoyed reading “And Salome Danced”, I am mindful of the fact that a lot of my affection for the story comes from the fact that I have a lot of time for Wilde’s play. However, moving beyond my attachment to the source material, I find a story that touches on a load of fascinating ideas and includes some excellent sentence-by-sentence writing but without ever coalescing into the shape of an arrow pointing either at the source material or ourselves. Beautiful, but weightless.