Los Angeles

Seductresses at Family Dinners

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A column by Catherine Wagley

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist, c. 1609–1610, National Gallery, London, England, photo © 2012 The National Gallery, London

Thanksgiving is not the time of year you realize you disagree with the people you love, but it often is the time you suddenly decide you want to pick the fights you’d usually avoid. My sister called yesterday from Washington, where she was with one branch of the family. She described a dinner conversation in which most people at the table agreed: surrogate motherhood was, essentially, a form of human trafficking.  “I thought, good thing Catherine isn’t here,” Martha told me.

In Atlanta, where I am with another family branch, talk about Petraeus and his “frumpy” wife Holly – thankfully, the friend-of-family who used that word did acknowledge “frumpiness” does not excuse infidelity – led into the conversation I’m sure families the country over were having: was the CIA chief’s affair Paula’s (his mistress’s) fault or the general’s? We were split down the middle: half believed unwaveringly that Paula Broadwell was an ambitious seductress, and the rest of us were just appalled that the other half could really think the way they did. My grandmother, who was not on my side of the argument, said on the drive home, “Well, it will be interesting to see how your opinion changes as you have more experiences with men.” What did that mean? As I got older, I would come to realize that men have no agency in the face of seduction?

Caravaggio's Salome Receives the Head of St John the Baptist hanging at St. Mary's Abbey

I thought about all that – men, agency, war and seduction – when seeing Caravaggio: Bodies and Shadows the week it opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show includes work by the ever-dramatic 16th century painter Caravaggio and by artists he either trained or influenced.  There are a few paintings of classic historical seductions in the show, or, rather of the spoils of seduction. One is Caravaggio’s own Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist. In it Salome, the girl who danced so beautifully for King Herod that he promised her anything she wanted and who asked for St. John’s head because her mother told her to, holds John’s head on a platter. She looks uncomfortably, sadly away. The whole image is dark: blackness in the background, dark shadows across the left sides of the faces of Salome and the two men with her. It’s also awkward. The man brandishing a sword hold John’s head out toward the platter Salome is holding, his arm cutting across the frame. Another man lurks in the background. No one makes eye contact with anyone else. Even St. John, though dead, seems to be averting his eyes.

The “Salome” entry in Wikipedia says “Christian traditions depict her as an icon of dangerous female seductiveness,” and in my experience they do, but the politics of that situation would have been awful for everyone. Salome, as far as I know, had nothing personal against John. The girl had just gotten in over her head, and somehow ended up with some power over a man with more power than most people alive  dream of having.  Herod, according to the Gospel of Mark, had no plan to execute John the Baptist, but he hadn’t really considered the stakes when he’d given so much leverage to Salome, and now he had made a promise and how could he backpedal? “And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded  [the head]  to be given,” writes Mark.

This, I imagine, is how most tragic seductions have gone down since the beginning of time, Paula’s and Petraeus’ being no exception. They’re unwieldy and everyone’s fault and embarrassing in the aftermath. Caravaggio’s Salome is all that, but I’m not sure bringing it up at dinner would have made an ounce of difference.