Evolution of Historical Forms of Obsessive and Despotic Love from the Ancient World to European Modernity

Ken Russell

Oscar Wild as a protagonist of the film (based on his play) represents the intellectual (sublime) authority (inseparable from a suffering of having knowledge about human life and social world). While watching his own play performed for him, Wilde becomes conscious about the changes in power structure between the ancient world (he depicts in his play) and his own time (the end of 19th century) when power figures can be challenged by younger generation rushing to assert its own power. Today, in the 21st century, the situation is turning back: patriarchs found a way to resuscitate the absoluteness of their power by adding political money to their arsenal of domination and by trying to isolate and impoverish intellectuals like Oscar Wilde.

We can easily see on King Herod’s wooden doll face the sins of greed and gluttony and passion for appropriation and possession. Today’s rich and powerful are not necessarily physically overweight (they are helped by advanced health and cosmetic industries). Their sins are accumulated in the fat of their personal and their corporations’ profits.

Salome’s attack of seduction on John the Baptist is merely the projection of the values she has internalized from childhood (worship of power, money and orientation on conquering the world). John the Baptist is for her predatory adolescent curiosity an ideal object for testing her powers to seduce, conquer and create in everybody unconditional adoration of her majestic glory of princess-superstar. Salome is depicted by Russell as a historical prototype of modern woman (emancipated into gaining machoistic power, into the competitive equality with men), a female soldier in battles for success.

To seduce John the Baptist into falling in love with her, Salome uses three odes: to his body, to his hair and to his lips, all intended to emotionally disarm him (notice here the masculinity of her approach to the amorous object – she tries to imitate male poets). With the panegyric to his body she marks him as her sexual object. By marking his hair as a target of her sexual desire she feminizes him. And by poetically addressing his lips she intuitively symbolizes the psychological penetration of him as her erotic goal.

While Salome’s real motivation behind her confession of love to John the Baptist is her desire to conquer him sexually, his response to her is not less aggressive and oriented on humiliating her as a punishment for her bombastic familiarity.

His religious defense, condemnation of Salome as the “daughter of Sodom” is not without a misogynous and even phobic connotations. Because of his theological narcissism but also his desperate socio-psychological situation of being at the mercy of power John the Baptist cannot afford to see that Salome is a child condemned by her way of life, her family background and upbringing to behave as she is. Can we say that Russell’s prophet’s response to Salome’s “sinful” approach is not without its own “sinfulness”?

The young captain’s “romantic” (masochistic?) love for the “princess” Salome has hardly anything to do with love. It is a typical idealization of a person with high social status (like today mass-American admiration of the glamorous stars and the rich and powerful). Through idealization, the one who has “fallen in the abyss of love” feels himself closer to a higher status of the “loved” person. In this kind of love a “socio-morphic” motivation (which is opposite of private emotion of personal love) is hidden. How else people deprived of feeling worthy can feel happy if not through identification with the kings, dukes, mighty politicians and the rich profit makers, or through a self-sacrificial love for princesses and super-stars?

The guards of the Royal family are in a privileged position over the population – the point is not only that they are paid well but that the glory of their masters as if trickles down to them as soon as they are keeping their loyalty. But not all of them are completely dumb – some of them are observers of the court customs and glamorous personalities. They have the precious conformist chance to please their masters with sincere dedication. For example, when Herod steps outside the palace, legs of both guards start to visibly tremble. Is it a sign that the guards are afraid of the King or are they are exaggerating their fear just to give the King satisfaction? Even such a miserable condition as slavery of the soul is not without its own rhetoric.

When, according to the plot, the senior guard (on the right) was invited by the Queen Herodias for orgy, Ken Russell gives him a unique opportunity of looking into the camera (making eye contact with the viewers). Why this marginal character got such a privilege that no one other character can boast about?

Herod tries to persuade Salome not to demand the head of John the Baptist. The reason he doesn’t want to have the prophet killed is that he is afraid to be punished for it by the possible new God of a possibly coming new religion (his numerous crimes made him religiously sensitive). Herod is over-careful – he wants to guarantee his future prosperity and doesn’t want “to mess” with spiritual powers. Herod’s hesitation to behead John the Baptist is a case of religious belief by calculation (“I am criminal; therefore I am afraid of God’s judgment, so I better try to please God”).

While Herod is trying to distract Salome from the idea of having the head of the prophet, she is demonstratively licking and sucking on the lollipop…

…ignoring his request…

…and enjoying ignoring his desperate efforts.

In the scene referred to by this shot the director shows the courtiers gossiping in the presence of King Herod about life, and he, like today’s TV news audience, takes their chatty talks as a source of objective information.

What are the two activities the Talmudists in King Herod‘s court are shown to be engaged in and what is Ken Russell trying to say by this?

To make his points Ken Russell often uses extremely bizarre images. When the decapitated head of John the Baptist is delivered from an underground cell, his eyes unexpectedly open wide with the hope of seeing the Paradise. But instead he sees the same nightmarish company of Herod, the Queen, their court and the guards: the eternal evil. We see the horror of a painful awakening to the truth…

…and how his eyes slowly fall close in exhaustion of a not realized hope.

The victory of Salome’s “love” over John the Baptist‘s resistance is possible only after his murder, when her will prevails over his “obstinacy”. Her love for the prophet which was always solipsistic can now flower without any obstacles.

Salome erotically dominates John the Baptist’s head and finally, according to her dream…

…John the Baptist’s lips. Burlesque and tragedy mix up in life defeating human imagination and moral idealism.


If we cannot appropriate and possess what we desire like Herod-the King or Herod-like Roman ruler do (Ken Russell unites the two into a single figure!), we try to invent what we can get – to grab it at least in our imagination. We imagine objects of value in the greedy hands of our imagination, but this operation makes what we imagined much more valuable than everything that is possible to physically possess in the real world. Herod owns the earthy things, but those who imagine the value believe that they possess the super-duper value. When we use our dreamy imagination we make ourselves richer and stronger than any rich and strong. We possess our imaginary treasures through our belief.

That’s what Ken Russell’s John the Baptist does by believing in the new coming god and himself as his representative. That’s what Salome does by falling in love with the prophet, Salome, the ambitious princess of Judaea living on the estate of her step-father (Herod). That’s what the young captain of the guards does by falling in love with Salome. Their love is a love of the people who are deprived of social respect and who create the sublime value to elevate themselves by possessing it inside their souls like masters of life possess wealth and power.

The closeness to the prophet (by the back doors of amorous fascination) as if liberates Salome from her dependence on Herod and as if puts her above her mother and stepfather whose power (with all its hugeness) is limited by its earthy proportions. Just by “loving” John the Baptist she as if gets her own autonomous area/kingdom. By trying to seduce the prophet she unconsciously wants to be stronger than he is, to out-prophet him, to be (in the hierarchical chain of the prophet-his god) above the prophet, to occupy the place in between him and his god. This kind of psychological maneuverings are typical of people with interest in having power. That’s why poor people become extra-patriotic and extra-religious: it’s their only way to become more socially respectful and influential than they are. Correspondingly, by “falling in love” with Salome the young captain unconsciously has already helped himself to feel that he is tied to a person who is of a much higher social status. Here we, following Wilde and Russell, confront the unconscious psychology of love as domination.

The psychology of a predatory and instinctively calculating love (a love typical for unequal and predatory society based on fight for wealth and power) is the main topic of the “Salome’s Last Dance” depicting the masochistic elevation of love object as an unconscious strategy to get into a position of deploying sexuality to tie the loved one to ourselves (and through this to aggrandize ourselves). To be successful (at this self-lie) you have to be weak in introspection.

For people who are lucky and crafty possessors of physical wealth and power (Herod and Herodias) and just physical power (Alfred Taylor), or even sublimated wealth: fame and prestige (Oscar Wilde), the situation is psychologically simpler: instead of “love” (for the sublime object, like the prophet is for Salome and she is for the young Captain) they are obsessed with direct possession (Herod with his power and wealth but also with Salome, Herodias with her sexual objects, Oscar Wilde with his golden boy, and Alfred Taylor with the maid Rose).

Sexuality plays a different role in directly appropriating and in sublime private relationships. In the first (Herod, Herodias, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Taylor’s) it is love of sexually appropriating the love object (instead of sexualized love for the object). In sublime relationships (Salome- prophet and the young Captain-Salome) where “love” is an unconscious strategy of emotionally engaging the object, sexuality is a kind of weapon to tie the object to ourselves.

The relationship between Oscar Wilde and Bosie – Ken Russell put into a special category. It is certainly not a “sublime” relationship (like between Salome and the prophet) where the drama of amorous encounter is located inside the logic of affects and feelings (doing the work of unconscious calculation and manipulation). But, on the other hand, it is not directly and flatly sexually and psychologically possessive. Their love relations are shown not as that of love (sublimated or sexist) but as simultaneously sublimated and desublimated emotional ties – creatively invented albeit spontaneous, sustained by wit and challenge and shamelessly sexual (without being sexually appropriative). In this sense they are somewhere in between amorous relationships of people with taste for earthly power (Herod, Herodias) and that of people who create their own love objects through sublime and creative efforts (Salome, prophet, young Captain). While desublimated “affairs” between the possessor and its objects of love (Herod and his wealth, Herod and Salome, Herodias and guards) are psychologically symmetrical with “sublime” affairs (prophet and his god and Salome and prophet), Oscar-Bosie relationship is a smart version of mutual bonding based on reciprocal use mixed with contempt for the plebs and public opinion. We can risk in making a frontal comparison between Oscar-Bosie love and Salome-prophet love (the first is realizable while the second is not because in the first the intelligence of both participants is not psychotized while in the second the both participants are with an extremely deprived psychological backgrounds influencing their very modality of experiencing the world). Like his psychologically defensive belief system is always in between John the Baptist and other people including Salome, her desperate need to win power is equally always between her and everybody else including the prophet.

By incorporating Oscar Wilde into the film as a character (by making him a character of his own play) Russell got a chance to operate/experiment with an additional historical perspective which is capable of enriching our understanding of the “evolution” of modes of love-relationships as power-relations from the ancient world to the Western modernity and beyond into post-modernity.

Posted on Aug, 4 2014 –   “Salome’s Last Dance” (1988) by Ken Russell (based on Oscar Wilde‘ Play)  by Acting-Out Politics