The Ecstatic Moment: Mysticism and Individualism in The Ecstasy of St. Teresa and Salomé

“My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbô, a Saint Thérèse who worships the moon.” — Oscar Wilde

When I first conceived of a final project, I thought of expanding the post I had written on Monsieur VenusThe Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and the Anatomical Venus. I have always been captivated by Bernini’s Ecstasy, and it has proved to be a compelling Renaissance counterpoint to the Decadent texts of the fin de siècle we have explored this quarter. I was extremely surprised, however, when I learned that Wilde, in correspondence to Charles Ricketts—a prominent artist, stage designer, and contemporary of Wilde—stated: “My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbô, a Saint Thérèse who worships the moon” (Ellmann 376).  In this letter to Ricketts, Wilde secretly lamented Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Salomé and expressed his distaste for them (Ellmann 376).  Though Wilde acknowledged their artistic merit, he had originally hoped for the accompanying prints to be in the style of Gustave Moreau—full of “jewels and sorrows” (Ellmann 376).

The Climax, Aubrey Beardsley

Although Wilde’s vision for the Salomé illustrations remained unfulfilled, his statement regarding Salomé certainly calls for analysis. Salomé’s character has had a complex history; she has been continuously transformed through a number of treatments in myriad media. Wilde’s play only serves as one example in a long lineage of Decadent interpretations by those like Mallarmé, Huysmans, and Flaubert. By correlating Salomé with Salammbô and Teresa de Avila, Wilde establishes Salomé in the mystic tradition and offers a new way of understanding her story.

This new lens, however, is not without complications. Some view the climactic finale of Salomé as an unsatisfying deux ex machina in the vein of other Decadent works, like Huysmans’s A Rebours or Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine; others argue that it functions as the necessary punishment of a scheming, destructive femme fatale. Yet in Salomé’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression, Petra Dierkes-Thrun suggests that in this ending “Wilde effectively transforms [Salomé] into an unforgettable modern icon of transgression, extreme aesthetic affect, and erotic excess” (Dierkes-Thrun 43).  In Wilde’s version, Salomé is reinvented as an example of triumphant, ecstatic individualism.

In light of this radical new reading, it is hard to reconcile the goals of mysticism with an individualistic interpretation of Salomé.  In this post, I explore the implications of mysticism and ecstasy and apply them to the cases of St. Teresa de Avila and Salomé. I rely on visual representations to help reconcile the challenges of interpreting the conflation of the spiritual and sexual, as well as the individual and the Other, in Teresa and Salomé. Ultimately, I seek to understand Salomé’s place in the mystic cannon.

According to Max Weber, mysticism, in its most basic form, is “primarily the quest to achieve rest in god and in him alone” (Weber 545).  Weber suggests that deep contemplation and the cessation of earthly desires are necessary to a mystic life, and that “by these paths, the mystic achieves that subjective condition which may be enjoyed as the possession of, or mystical union with, the divine” (Weber 545). Thus, mysticism ultimately desires to subvert the self by establishing the self in relation to the divine. In this, the mystic essentially becomes a vessel for something larger than the self­—the self surrenders its precedence to a greater entity.

This relinquishing of the self, however, is not without reward. The mystic becomes privy to a new form of gnosis, a knowledge that “may be derived from a new practical orientation to the world” (Weber 545). This new knowledge allows the mystic to radically reevaluate life and extrapolate meaning from an external source.

One way to achieve this is by seeking otherworldly, out-of-body experiences. Weber suggests that mystic experience is possible through “reductions of bodily functioning, such as can be achieved by continuous malnutrition, sexual abstinence, regulation of respiration, and the like” (Weber 538). These kinds of practices are common to religions that advocate meditation or prayer as a way to access God. Furthermore, while these methods may seem to be ascetic in nature, the mystic undertakes them for the sake of becoming closer to God, rather than as a tool to block out the world.

The concept of ecstasy is highly related to the project of mysticism. In The Voice of Rapture, Karl Toepfer suggests that ecstasy “refers to a condition of being outside oneself” (Toepfer 13). Thus, in a state of ecstasy, the body and mind are sublimated in favor of something outside common existence; the self is rejected in order to become part of something greater than the self. For Toepfer, ecstasy “implies the fulfillment of a person’s greatest or most intense desire(s)” (Toepfer 15). This insinuates that the specific experience of ecstasy or the way it manifests may vary from person to person, because their desires are different. Though they have the same underlying inclination to be outside of the self, ecstasy remains a deeply personal experience.  Finally, Toepfer states, “ecstasy is always a supreme condition, a surfeit of meaning” (Toepfer 16). Ecstasy cannot be transcended because it is the highest achievement of the self; it is when the self no longer is a self—there is no place to go after this. In this, ecstasy becomes the ultimate expression of mysticism.

Teresa de Avila

Teresa de Avila, Unknown Artist

Wilde was certainly familiar with the mystic tradition and saw parallels between Teresa de Avila and Salomé. St.Teresa was a Spanish mystic renown for her direct communion with God. Teresa held an exalted position in the Catholic Church and worked to reform the Carmelite Order by establishing a number of cloisters, including a new sect, the Discalced Carmelites. She was author to a number of works, including treatises on contemplative prayer, as well as her autobiography, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila. In The Life, Teresa suggests that there are “four stages of prayer that can lead to an ecstatic experience” (Warma 509). In the first three stages, Teresa states that one seeking a mystical experience should contemplate the sacrifices of Christ in order to relinquish any earthly desires (Warma 509). When the mind is unwaveringly focused on God and all desire has ceased, one may experience ecstasy. Teresa describes it as having “no sense of anything but enjoyment…all senses are taken up with this joy so that none of them is free to act in any way” (Teresa 122). Teresa also suggests that ecstasy can be accompanied by the sensation of levitation; in The Life, she alternately indicates that the soul is carried up to heaven on a cloud or by an eagle (Teresa 136). While ecstasy is most often characterized as a mental state, it also affects the physical nature of the body. When in ecstasy, Teresa warns that the body stiffens, temperature drops, and heart-rate slows (Warma 509).

St. Teresa’s mysticism closely follows the model described by Weber: it is built upon the tenets of contemplation and rejection of worldly desires; is experienced through both mental and physical alteration; and ultimately seeks to reject the self. It is clear from The Life that in a state of ecstasy, Teresa loses all agency—as she states, she is “not free to act” (Teresa 122). In this system, there is no sense of identity or individuality; all things are done for the sake of God. In this, God becomes the Other: the self is nothing but a reflection of God.

While the mystic self becomes infinitesimal in light of God, there still remains a deeply personal aspect to ecstatic experience. Though Teresa wrote several guides on contemplation, there is no infallible system to achieve an ecstatic state. Furthermore, Teresa suggests that each ecstatic experience will vary, though certain features—like length or sensation—may remain constant (Warma 509). Within The Life, Teresa gives multiple accounts of ecstatic experience, but none are as provocative as this one:

ecstasy bernini

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The Life of St. Teresa of Avila  (210)

This passage served as the inspiration for Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Bernini was a reputed sculptor during the height of the Baroque and received patronage from a number of prominent figures of the Catholic Church, including Cardinal Scipione Borghese and Pope Urban VIII. Federico Coronaro, a distinguished Venetian cardinal, commissioned Bernini to design his family crypt in the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The Ecstacy of St. Teresa resides in the Coronaro Chapel.

This depiction differs radically from traditional representations of St. Teresa. Teresa is usually portrayed in a serene state; her eyes are raised towards heaven and fixed upon an object of devotion—the Sacred Heart, the Cross, or the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove—like in the portrait above. She is cloaked in the customary habit of a nun, and her hands are clasped in prayer.

While Bernini captures Teresa in a moment of spiritual intimacy in The Ecstasy, it marks a departure from the orthodox images of Teresa. Teresa is couched on a cloud, ascending towards heaven, with her head thrown back, and her fingers and toes curled in pleasure. She is sumptuously draped in the “flame-like folds” of her habit which “appear to consume” her body (Warma 508).  A smiling seraph stands above her, withdrawing a fire-tipped golden arrow from her heart. She is at the height of her ecstasy, and as Jacques Lacan most succinctly suggested, St. Teresa is “coming.”

It should come as no surprise that Bernini chose to represent Teresa in a sensuous manner. Teresa de Avila was canonized as a saint only forty years after her death and was widely popularized in Catholic communities. Bernini would have had access to her writings, and The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is indeed a faithful representation of Teresa’s ecstatic experience chronicled in The Life of St. Teresa. Teresa’s own autobiography uses highly suggestive language; she describes the seraph “thrusting” the arrow into her heart, the great pain that “made [her] moan,” and the sweet “caressing of love” (Teresa 210). These elements are all present in The Ecstasy.

It is difficult, however, to reconcile the explicitly erotic content of The Ecstasy with the mystic spirituality it is supposed to convey. Susanne Warma states, “[Bernini desired] to depict not only the piercing of Teresa’s heart, but also the depth of her experience through the inner penetration of her soul” (Warma 508). While this may be true, it ignores the extent to which Bernini has sexualized Teresa—intentionally or not. The Ecstasy should not change our understanding of Teresa’s ecstatic experiences, but rather, extend it; if anything, Bernini’s portrayal serves to highlight the paradox between the spiritual and the sexual, the individual and the Other.

These tensions are overwhelmingly present in Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and they are only further complicated with the suggestion that Salomé is a mystic. Throughout history, Salomé has been conflictingly portrayed as the innocent ingénue or the femme fatale; Wilde incorporates both of these personas in his adaptation. While this creates a particular struggle for identity throughout the play, it allows for the kind of resounding climax that only occurs in Wilde’s Salomé.

salome guido reni

Salomé, Guido Reni

Within the play, Salomé is presented as physically vulnerable and innocent. She is described as “a white rose in a mirror of silver,” (Wilde 584) Her “white hands” flutter like “doves” or “butterflies,” and her feet are like “white doves” or “white flowers” (Wilde 585,599). Salomé also holds a particular affinity for the moon; she admires its “cold and chaste” nature and says it has a “virgin’s beauty” (Wilde 586).  Salomé additionally states that the moon is like a “little silver flower,” which is identical to how Salomé described by the Young Syrian, who also calls her a “silver flower” (Wilde 586).

Salomé is often assigned the same epithets as the moon; they are both “little princesses” with “eyes of amber” and “white doves for feet” (Wilde 583, 588). The moon largely functions as a foreshadowing device; when its color shifts—from white, to red, to black—so does Salomé (Dierkes-Thrun 24). And though Salomé maintains a positive relationship towards the moon, others describe it as “a woman rising from a tomb,” “a dead woman,” and a “mad woman” who seeks “everywhere for lovers” (Wilde 583, 592). In the same way, though many desire Salomé, Joakanaan denounces her as the “Daughter of Babylon,” “Daughter of Sodom,” and harbinger of destruction (Wilde 589). These descriptions portray Salomé as a wanton harlot with no regard for morality and sharply differ from the innocent image of Salomé.

This view of Salomé is in the vein of the ekphrasis offered by Des Esseintes in Huysmans’s A Rebours:

Salomé Dansant Devant Herode, Gustave Moreau

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, —a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

                                                                                                A Rebours (65-66)

Des Esseintes was inspired by Gustave Moreau’s depiction of Salomé entitled Salomé Dansant Devant Herode. It was this style of Salomé that Wilde had hoped would be replicated for the play’s accompanying illustrations. In this description, Huysmans transforms Salomé from the naïve dancing girl into the supremely destructive, ever alluring goddess of Hysteria—no one can escape her whims. This is a truly Decadent portrayal of Salomé as she represents beauty without morality; she encompasses both the aesthetic and transgressive aspects of existence.

Though we do not see the Dance of the Seven Veils in the Wilde version, the same sort of world-destroying longing is present in the play. Salomé will stop at nothing to achieve her greatest desire: to kiss the mouth of the prophet Joakanaan. Upon her first encounter with him, she declares, “Your body is while like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never moved…the roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body” (Wilde 589). Salomé also admires his dark hair, stating, “The long black nights, when the moon hides her face, are not so black” (Wilde 590). Next, she describes his mouth: “[It] is redder than roses…redder than the feet of doves” (Wilde 590). Salomé concludes this monologue by proclaiming, “I will kiss thy mouth, Joakanaan. I will kiss your mouth” (Wide 590).

While Salomé certainly operates on a basis of sexual impulse towards Joakanaan—“I am amorous of thy body!” she exclaims—she is attracted to him on a larger, aesthetic scale (Wilde 589). His color palette of white, red, and black reflects the same as the moon, the same as Salomé.  In order to characterize Joakanaan, Salomé adopts words that others have used to represent her; she makes reference to roses, flowers, and doves, which have served as her epithets throughout the play. Finally, Salomé is attracted to his pure, virgin quality. This is evident when she describes him as the unmowed field or the untouched snow (Wilde 589).  It is important to remember that Salomé also admires the moon for its chastity. Ultimately, Salomé strives to possess Joakanaan’s beauty, but only because it mirrors her own. She is not attracted to Herod’s jewels or peacocks, even when he tries to use the same words—“white,” “silver,” “moon”—to describe them (Wilde 601).  In this, Salomé sets up Joakanaan as the Other, just as in the mystic tradition, St. Teresa establishes God as the Other.

As we know, ecstasy is the desire to be outside of oneself, and this is possible by becoming one with the Other. This is how Teresa achieves ecstasy—she sublimates the self in favor of God. We also know, per Toefper, that ecstasy is the fulfillment of one’s greatest desire. Thus, for Salomé to achieve ecstasy, she must become one with Joakanaan: she must kiss his mouth. Joakanaan, however, is not so obliging; he rejects her as a foul temptress, “I will not look at thee, thou art accursed Salomé” (Widle 591). Salomé cannot access the Other, and because of this, decides to destroy the Other in order to possess it.

Salomé uses the opportunity to dance before Herod as a way to vanquish the Other; when Herod offers her up to half of his kingdom, Salomé requests the head of Joakanaan. Salomé receives the head and enacts her greatest desire; she kisses Joakanaan’s mouth and “[bites] it with [her] teeth as one bites a ripe fruit” (Wilde 604).  She exclaims:

Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. They say that love hath a bitter taste. But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth.

                                                                                                                        Salomé (605)

This is Salomé’s moment of triumph; it is her moment of ecstasy. It represents a superabundance of meaning, where Salomé has achieved her fundamental project. Toepfer suggests that in this instant, nothing “stands ‘between’ the self and the Other; [Salomé] is the Other, that level of consciousness that propels one out of one’s self—and eventually out of life” (Toepfer 155). Salomé’s discordant identities have been transcended by a singular desire, and in overcoming the Other, she is no longer confronted with the Other, in a place between herself and the Other, or in a place between two selves—she has gone beyond herself.

Salomé’s supreme ecstasy allows for Wilde’s climactic finale. As Salomé imparts a last kiss upon Joakanaan’s dead lips and ponders the greatness that is the “mystery of love,” Herod orders her execution (Wilde 604). She is crushed to death while the moon sheds one final spotlight on her achievement. Wilde’s choice to kill Salomé represents the completion of the self; Salomé has fulfilled her existence—essentially she has nothing else to live for. As Dierkes-Thrun writes, “Arranging for Salomé a spectacular execution center stage at her most intense moment of triumph and then immediately closing the curtain on her lifeless body, Wilde grants her the glamorous death of a heroine rather than that of a despised villain” (Dierkes-Thrun 45).  Thus Salomé is refined out of existence, and her story transcends her death.

But, can we say Salomé is a mystic? She certainly achieves ecstatic experience, but it appears to be quite different from the kind of ecstasy St. Teresa underwent. While the erotic elements are certainly preserved, Salomé does not sacrifice the self in the same way Teresa does—she acts for the sake of herself, and not something else. Salomé does not contemplate God, nor mortify the body, nor seek to reject the world. Instead of rejecting the self to be in touch with the Other—in Teresa’s case, God—Salomé destroys the Other in order to go beyond herself.  In this, Salomé proposes a new system in which morality is subordinate to the individual aesthetic representation of the self. Essentially, Salomé has gone beyond good and evil—she is free to move between states; she exists then dies. In this, Wilde calls for a radical redefining of the concept of mysticism: Salomé cannot serve as a traditional mystic like Teresa. Instead, Salomé, like Wilde suggests, is a mystic of the moon: amoral, ever-changing, and eternal.

Alcibiades.

(3397)

____________________________________________________________________

WORKS CITED

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Huysmans, J. -K., Nicholas White, and Margaret Mauldon. Against Nature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Teresa. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. London: Penguin, 1957. Print.

Toepfer, Karl Eric. The Voice of Rapture: A Symbolist System of Ecstatic Speech in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. New York: American University Studies, 1991. Print.

Warma, Susanne. “Ecstasy and Vision: Two Concepts Conccected with Bernini’s Teresa.” The Art Bulletin 66.3 (1984): 508-11. Print.

Weber, Max, Guenther Roth, and Claus Wittich. Economy and Society an Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley: University of California, 1978. Print.

Wilde, Oscar, and Merlin Holland. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

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