Dancing the Seven Veils in a Post-Erotic World

by Dominic Pettman 

The following essay is taken from Calibano #3 – Salome/Proibito

We’ve all seen them. Not only dancing on our screens, like buoyant digital sprites, but wiggling their bodies in public; performing alone for their own phones, propped up on a picnic table or park bench. These are the great-great-great-grand-daughters of Salome, dancing their Tik Tok choreography – no longer for King Herod, but for the coveted attention of the almighty Algorithm.

Salome performed her infamous Dance of the Seven Veils for the first time in Oscar Wilde’s play, which premiered in Paris in 1896; followed soon enough by Richard Strauss’ operatic adaptation in 1905. And in a sense, she is still dancing today, through the restless limbs of millions of young women who also make the choice – eternally offered to them by the patriarchy – to use their body to experiment with exhibitionism and transactional allure. Little did Wilde know how many imitators would disrobe in her wake, when he added that simple stage direction: “Salome dances the dance of the seven veils.” Sensual dancing, was of course, nothing new at the turn of the twentieth century. Nubile – and not so nubile – humans have attempted to seduce the eye of others through sexually-weaponized body movements since we first realized that the sway of the hips can often work as effectively as a pendulum or pocket-watch when it comes to hypnosis. The revised figure of Salome, however, crystallized a new archetype: one that could be deployed in the popular imaginary to fresh and sensational effect.

“Salomania” was almost instantaneous in Western Europe, after the triumphant first performance of Strauss’s opera (which received no less than thirty-eight curtain calls). Every country on the continent, indeed every city, had its own Salome-in-residence; including Italy’s Lyda Borelli, who, on a nightly basis, commandeered hundreds of “the gentleman’s opera-glasses . . . levelled at the squinting diva, clothed in nothing but violet-and-absinthe-green shafts of limelight.” (This, according to the famous critic Mario Praz, author of the decadent classic, The Romantic Agony.)  Soon enough, Salome fever had also spread across the Atlantic to the US, where a budding young chorus girl could even take lessons at dance schools specifically tailored for the Seven Veils market, at least one of these opportunistic institutions accrediting around 150 Salomes a month, before releasing them into the evening entertainment ecosystem.

As the original source material, Wilde’s willful Judaic princess was a symbol of several competing – and seemingly paradoxical – cultural forces. She was modern, and yet ancient; able to manifest herself as an avant-garde expressionist figure on the cinema screen (in the form of Alla Nazimova), while harking back to the misty sources of Biblical times. She was high-brow, and yet kitsch, leaping gracefully around the grand stages of Empire, while also gyrating in vulgar delight on the beer-stained boards of variety halls and burlesque houses. She was feminist and yet a patriarchal fantasy; turning the leer of the male gaze against itself, to the extent that men would at least figuratively “lose their heads.”

In short, there was, and still is, something timeless about this quintessential femme fatale: an eternal young woman who seems to be forever on the cusp of revealing an important, albeit enigmatic, lesson about lust, spectacle, death, desire, and transgression. As one of the most potent characters in the repertoire, however – especially when it comes to the representation of female lust – Salome today is dancing for a different audience: one with expectations, assumptions, and values quite at odds to those of a hundred years ago. And this difference is most visible perhaps around the question of sex. (As well as the promise and threat of sex.) In my recent book, Peak Libido: Sex, Ecology, and the Collapse of Desire, I attempt to make sense of a certain dominant refrain in modern life – the claim that we citizens of the 21st century are no longer interested in sexual concerns. Even as sleazy images saturate our mediascape, there are no shortage of news reports sounding the alarm about plunging birth rates, plummeting libidos, resentful incels, prudish teenagers, and even a growing desire for a “post-sexual future.” Many commentators believe we are living in a decidedly “desiraphobic” era; one in which openly longing for another human being is perceived as the height of “cringe” (to use the parlance of today). The writer and critic RS Benedict puts it well in her viral, zeitgeist piece about contemporary Hollywood film: “Everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.”

The chief inspiration behind my book was the French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, who insisted that we are, as a species, running out of libido, in the same way we are running out of oil and other essential resources. This may sound like a bizarre claim, given the popularity of Pornhub and the ubiquity of “thirst-traps” on Instagram. Stiegler (who is sadly no longer with us), was at pains, however, to make a distinction between true desire – a type of free and sustained attraction, that cares deeply about the welfare of the desired person – and mere drive; a more fleeting, automated, Pavlovian response to the often-pixelated triggers of the sexualized Spectacle. Libido, in short, cares about life. Indeed, as Freud insisted, it is our very life-force. Superficial lust, however, is not at all erotic, since it merely follows the same tension-release cycle as the animals. According to this perspective, we may well feel aroused, from time to time – if our exhausting and alienating lives allow such stolen luxuries – but this is the same kind of craving we may have for junk food: hollow, unsatisfying, and part of the self-lubricating Instant Pseudo-Gratification Machine that is modern life.

Herod’s lust for his niece-cum-stepdaughter Salome is, of course, a dubious candidate for “true desire.” It is, however, part of a complex libidinal economy that also contains Salome’s genuine, albeit monomaniacal, attraction to John the Baptist. Indeed, in some accounts, Salome is not a vengeful praying mantis, but a wounded adolescent, overcompensating in a terrible but earnest way for the profound sting of sexual rejection. However we ourselves interpret the story, and judge the titular character – painting Salome as immoral or amoral – the “aromantic” or “sex negative” demographic of Gen Z would likely struggle to understand the impassioned agon that lies at the heart of her story. (Or so we are led to believe.) The boomers, however, nostalgic for the exotic perfumes of the former fin-de-siecle, found the Princess of Galilee fascinating, and often “relatable” (to use another favorite term of our moment).

Former Balanchine ballerina, Toni Bentley, for instance, made a name for herself by trading in the refined cosmopolitan concert halls for grimy strip joints in the 1980s. In her book, Sisters of Salome, she points to Wilde’s and Strauss’ reanimation of this amorous assassin as the primal scene the modern striptease, tracing her legacy forward to notorious figures like Maud Allen, Mata Hari, and Colette. Bentley places herself in this sensual genealogy, and describes the intense visceral thrill she felt disrobing for the first time in front of a group of anonymous men in a seedy nudie show in downtown Manhattan. “Unfolding myself, I stood upright and stepped carefully out of the pool of soft velvet now circling my feet. I made my way slowly to the tip of the tiny stage and, bathed in the spotlight, back arched, chest and face thrust forward, hands reaching upward, I thought of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I was naked – as God and Balanchine had shaped me – in front of fifty paying strangers.” As she exults in exhibitionist ecstasy, this postmodern Salome locks eyes with a specific spectator. “I’d never felt such attention in all my life. His eyes lowered to my breasts and belly and then returned to my eyes with a look of shyness, shame, and excitement. His desire burned into my own gaze, showing me with a clarity I had not experienced before the power of my own body. I then knew what triumph felt like. In that moment, that nameless man, who was every man, was entirely mine.” In sharp contrast to her disciplined, Apollonian training, which had taught her to become a graceful cog in Balanchine’s ballet machine, Bentley became intoxicated by her own egocentric Dionysian power; capturing the attention of dozens of sinners, and perhaps even a smattering of fallen saints, before concentrating them on herself: the ultimate high for a heterosexual woman raised in a culture that prizes erotic attraction above almost anything else.

The contemporary discourse around gender and sexuality tends to split into two camps, depicting sexually confident women as either deluded victims of male control, or aspirational models of female empowerment. Men, of course, can strip too, as recent reappraisals of the Chippendales, and other successful male Salomes, can attest. (See, for instance, the popular podcast “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” which vividly describes the cologne-and-pheromone-soaked vibe of the 1980s; itself a strange and foreign country when compared to today.) Indeed, the deeply coded distinction between “men” and “women” is itself something being contested today, complicating the so-called “battle of the sexes,” which has been the terrain for most mainstream stories of sexual intrigue for so long. Wilde, however, likely had a beautiful young man in mind as his model for Salome (perhaps Lord Alfred Douglas himself), just as Shakespeare’s sexual comedies of mistaken identity were based on men dressed as women dressed as men, in a mise-en-abime of gender confusion and sexual vertigo. More recently, in 1975, choreographer Lindsay Kemp staged an all-male version of the play on Broadway, while he himself recalled in an interview, “I first danced Salome in school, naked but for some toilet paper.” Beyond even the slippages of sex and gender, however, the most important word in Bentley’s erotic memory, for me at least, is attention. “I’d never felt such attention in my life,” she writes. And yet this is a person who lived and worked on the great stages of the day. Erotic attention is laser focused. It has the power to burn things, including the retinas of the eyes doing the looking. Neither Wilde nor Strauss give us access to Salome’s thoughts or feelings, as she dances for her pervy uncle-cum-stepfather, as her mother scowls nearby. Yet we are led to understand that she strips naked willingly, and with a certain enthusiasm. (Enough to please Herod, at least, and enough to inspire him to unwisely promise Salome anything she herself desires, as payment for his pleasure.)

Attention is another human resource that is dwindling, and in danger of running out. Indeed attention may be more-or-less synonymous with libido. In the age of smartphones and social media, we switch between feeds, devices, and distractions like overgrown squirrels. The idea of watching a striptease for a full eight minutes or so, in the age of 4x playback options, seems like an eternity. Seven veils feel like too many layers between initial interest and the money shot. (Notably, even Strauss himself gives up his sketched instructions for Salome’s dance at the fifth veil.) Most Tik Tok videos are specially designed to snag attention in an endless flood of swipeable options. If any given contemporary Salome – perhaps dressed as a popular anime character – can keep the attention of an average scroller for more than ten seconds, then she has accomplished more than most of her kind.

One wonders if Bentley, or Salome herself, would be satisfied with dancing for the camera eye, rather than the human one. We suspect not at all. Instead of the infamous male gaze, we now also have a generalized scopic leer, mediated by the machinic gaze (as well as by all those forms of data capture that this term contains). Every hip tilt, neck twist, wrist kink is mapped, logged, and isolated, preparing the way for AI avatars to migrate Salome’s flesh-and-blood provocation away from what remains of the real world, to the more programmable realm of the virtual. Salome the seductive cartoon. (Cartoons being one of Gen Z’s most popular search terms on pornography sites.) The silver charger upon which Salome’s grisly prize was delivered has been replaced by the bloodless white iPhone charger. And John the Baptist’s gruesome, freshly severed head has been replaced by sterile, immaterial Venmo receipts.

We can only guess what Wilde or Strauss would have made of this viral fractalization of their iconic figure. Salome’s singular beauty has shattered into what cultural critic, Alex Quicho calls “the girl swarm”: a feminized late-capitalist form of contagion that infects us all, no matter our putative gender. As Quicho rhapsodizes, the girl is no longer a demure second-class citizen, but “a specific technology of subjectivity that maxes out on desire, attraction, replication, and cunning to achieve specific ends.” Certainly, there’s an emergent “queer” force at work within these new iterations of femininity; one which partakes in the original story’s network of competing lusts, crisscrossing gazes, and entangled transgressions. The erotic logic of Wilde’s story demands a sacrifice, or else the moralistic order threatens to topple. In the stage-play and the opera, Salome is killed at Herod’s command for her crime of demanding the head of the prophet. (A demand connected to her sinister, mantra-like promise that she will – despite the prisoner’s refusals – kiss him on the lips.). In Florent Schmitt’s less known version of the story, La Tragédie de Salomé, staged only a few years later than Strauss’, the whole palace comes crashing down in an apocalyptic storm: such is the significance of her wrongdoing. (Remembering that the word apocalypse is intimately tied to the metaphoric logic of stripping: an “unveiling” of the truth.)

In his famous discussion of striptease, Roland Barthes points to the paradox inherent in the ritual of disrobing in public: namely, the fact that “Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” The suggestion here is that Salome’s veils are not incidental to the performance but the most important aspect of it. Their diaphanous promise is more essential than the promised revelation itself. (Since nakedness is, as others have pointed out, the enemy of eroticism; just as there is nothing less sexy than a nudist colony.) As I’ve already suggested, however, the average screen-swiper, in search of eye candy, no longer feels they have the time or patience to be teased. There is thus something obscene and counter-productive about the rush towards a goal – visual access to a bare physique – that is supposed to remain just out of view, or forever just out of reach. Today, online, images of naked bodies are never more than two clicks away, for anyone who needs a quick fix. But these are random, unknown, impersonal, scentless, untouchable, two-dimensional bodies. There is no frisson of presence. No sense of actual encounter and exchange. This private dancer may look out in your direction, but she cannot see you. No simulation can play with the stakes of unveiling oneself in real time, and in a real place, in front of a real person. Indeed, the stakes can seem infinite at such times; perhaps because they are. A seductive dance both invokes and assuages the incommunicable miracle, and lonely perplexities, of existence: of being thrown into a world, and decanted into a body, neither of which ever feel like they really belong to us. To exhibit vulnerability without shame – or at least with a playful, coquettish, knowing form of shame – can be a sacred gesture in a profane world. An affirmation of something fleeting but beautiful. (Which is why Strauss insisted the dance of the seven veils be performed, to foreshadow Madonna, “as if it were being done on a prayer mat.”)

Nevertheless, in the age of both Zoomers and Zoom, still somewhat agoraphobic after the traumas of Covid lockdown, the most recent “sisters of Salome” will inevitably be experienced online, on a screen. By the same token, the dethroned descendants of Herod today are more likely to click on the “stepdaughter” category tab of their favorite porn site – or login to Onlyfans (which rhymes so easily with “Lonelyfans”) – than drive to the nearest strip-club, and simply hope for the right fetish to walk on stage. Even less likely are they to go and seek out a new production of Strauss’ opera. And yet, if they made the effort to do so, they may reconnect with their own libido, in a way that goes beyond a basic will-to-possess, towards a wider horizon of possibility and intrigue. This way, they may partake in the original Wildean dramatic spell; an incantation that turned a lurid tale of lust and murder into an extended mantra on the complex, competing, collective force-field of desire.

Calibano is the new magazine of the Rome Opera House. Created as a space for in-depth analysis and debate around topical issues raised from the performances on the theater’s program and realized in collaboration with the publishing house effequ, the editorial project involves, every four months, the publication and distribution in Italian bookstores of a monographic volume dedicated to an opera title and a related theme, through the commissioning of essays, short stories and reviews by authoritative signatures. 

You can buy Calibano on the effequ website at this link, in bookstores and at the Rome Opera House shop.

*The cover image was created by Emilia Trevisani