I was watching someone on television sing Salomé’s last aria in Strauss’s Salomé. I don’t remember who, I don’t remember where the concert was, or why. Only one thing stayed with me. She sang to the lopped-off head of John the Baptist “If you had looked at me, you would have loved me.” And I wondered, “Is that true? Would he have loved her if he’d really looked at her?”
I think the opera is based on the play by Oscar Wilde, and I suppose the line is his.
I don’t know whether John could have loved a woman whose lust for his attention was so overwhelming, she danced naked for his head, and made love to her prize on its tray. But I do think that love is impossible if there is no seeing. Why didn’t he see her? He had eyes. There was light. He was the Son of God’s prophet. Of all people, surely he would be able to see her. Of course, our vision is a cultural and social construct; nothing and no one we see comes to us pure—as they are. We can guess that he was so wrapped up in his mission that, as sensual as she was, he couldn’t see poor, wicked Salomé.
At a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” last week—at the annual concert of the Northeast Kingdom’s very excellent Northsong choral ensemble—I found myself upended as I listened to the bass aria, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” I had never thought before how amazing this must have sounded when it was first set to music, and even more amazing when the words were first written down or just read aloud. People knew then what true darkness was. There was no bulb to switch on. Just a few oil lamps, I guess. The world was in blackness for much of every day. The figure of light must have been so striking, so much more incredible than it is today. Anyone who has spent any time at all where there is no light will know what I’m trying to say. A cloudy, moonless night in the country. You can’t see anything.
Light is vital. Without light, we couldn’t see. Could we love? Without light there’s only cold and darkness. Without light there would be nothing manufactured. Space would be an utter mystery, and we would be lost in it.
But the snail, the subject of my last post, sees only the vaguest shadowy light, so dim it can’t be relied on for anything. Nothing to guide it, to help it in its day-to-day hunt for food and shelter. The snail can’t even hear. It depends entirely on the senses of smell, taste and touch. Try to imagine that! Imagine a life where your primary sense is smell, and head out to find the source of the smell. You touch something squirmy and cool: ah, it feels like dinner. Take a bite. Yes, that’s what it is. But you never see it. Because in your life there is no light. And you’ll never hear “The people have seen a great light” because, while it’s true that you can just barely see, you can’t hear at all.
Is it possible that smell, touch or taste is equivalent to light in the world of the snail? You see, I hope, that it’s a hard notion to grasp.
“If you had looked at me, you would have loved me.”
“If you had smelled me, you would have loved me.”
“If you had touched me, you would have loved me.”
“ If you had tasted me, you would have loved me.”
Let there be light and there was light and ….
The snail and Helen Keller.
Light is a form of energy, the source of all we see and much that we can’t. God is light. Truth is light. And if we couldn’t see? If we only smelled, or touched, or tasted? Would God be God? Would anything be like it is, or seems to be?