Castration . . . is the seminal fantasy of the decadent imagination.
— Charles Bernheimer, “Fetishism and Decadence: Salomé’s Severed Heads”
When now I announce that the fetish is a substitute for the penis, I shall certainly create disappointment; so I hasten to add that it is not a substitute for any chance penis, but for a particular and quite special penis that had been extremely important in early childhood but had later been lost. That is to say, it should normally have been given up, but the fetish is precisely designed to preserve it from extinction. To put it more plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and — for reasons familiar to us — does not want to give up.
— Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism”
DESPITE FREUD’S AUTHORITATIVE DECLARATION, contemporary critical theory deploys a conceptual plasticity of the fetish, which refutes the notion of any single narrative of origin.1 Many recent discussions of the fetish have pointed to the limits of the explanatory powers of classical psychoanalysis2 and have been critical of the theoretical importance invested in a narrative of causation which figures women’s bodies as “lacking” or mutilated, according to “the fact” of their “castration.” Focusing on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, this essay will argue that despite Bernheimer’s claim,3 the Freudian fable of castration need not be taken as the singular, phallic, “seminal fantasy of the decadent imagination.” To do so merely reiterates the gender and sexual hierarchies of classical psychoanalysis and denies the ambiguity of some fetishistic imagery produced in the fin de siècle.