Nearly: a confession

So, a kind of confession. The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Nearly.

Antonio Salieri is the patron saint of mediocrity; or at least, Peter Shaffer’s Salieri, I mean. In Amadeus, Salieri is a composer at the court of the Emperor of Austria whose gifts of devotion and hard work are superseded by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s carelessly curated genius, a creative gift from God that Mozart knows not how to pursue properly. Mozart is excessive: scatological, childlike, wanton. Salieri is the consummate courtier.

There are two brilliant moments of appreciation of Mozart’s music in Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus (which now exists in theatrical release and ‘Director’s Cut’ forms; much of the tonal difference between them is in the depiction of Salieri, who is much more sympathetic in the original release version). The first is near the beginning of the film, when a priest comes to Salieri’s cell in the Bedlam in which he has been incarcerated after attempting suicide, loudly accusing himself of Mozart’s murder. It is clear that, other than as a person of note, the priest has no idea who Salieri is, nor has any familiarity with his work, even though the priest studied music in Vienna in his youth. Salieri, with increasing discomfort to himself and audience(s), plays two short excerpts from his own work, asking whether the priest recognised the musical phrases. Each is received with a sorrowful expression, and then Salieri plays one last piece: the priest hums along, and declares: ‘that is charming! I did not know you wrote that.’ To which Salieri replies: ‘I didn’t. That was Mozart.’

The second scene occurs when Constanze, Mozart’s wife, approaches Salieri with a view to persuading him help Mozart to some preferment at court. In the play, this is part of Salieri’s plan of vengeance against the God (and his instrument) who seems to tarnish Salieri’s devotion and middling compositional gifts with the ‘ape’-genius; Salieri wishes to seduce Constanze in order to denigrate her and Mozart. She brings a sheaf of draft scores to Salieri; in the original film, this comes as quite a surprise to the Court Composer. The moment of revelation is beautifully played by F Murray Abraham*, and staged according to Shaffer’s guidelines in the play. As Salieri looks over each of the sheets, the music he sees is heard on the soundtrack, so that we may, even if at one remove, experience part of the musical rapture that overtakes him. Salieri says (to the audience):

She had said that these were his original scores. First and only drafts of music. Yet they looked like fair copies. They showed no corrections of any kind. [...] It was puzzling – then suddenly alarming. What was evident was that Mozart was simply transcribing music [...] completely finished in his head. And finished as most music is never finished. [...] Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall. [...] I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an Absolute Beauty!

The music ceases as Salieri, transported, drops the sheaf of papers to the floor. Amadeus is full of confusions of audience(s): implied, on-stage (like the priest), extra-textual (like us). The most fundamental confusion is in the mind and soul of Salieri himself. It is his curse that he wishes to be the instrument of a divine muse, the vessel of such an Absolute Beauty, but remains the only man in Vienna who can truly appreciate Mozart’s gifts. Salieri yearns to transmit the truth of divinely-inspired beauty in music, but finds that his gift is to receive those transmissions fully, a plenitude that he refuses.

For, what an understanding of his role as receiver entails is a sense of his own mediocrity. In characterizing his own position at court, Salieri declares ‘yes, we were servants. But we were learned servants! And we used our learning to celebrate men’s average lives! [...] We took unremarkable men [...] and sacramentalized their mediocrity’. Salieri’s curse is to understand mediocrity and to exemplify it: in his own lifetime, he is forgotten. But he is so close to achieving what he seeks: he is Court Composer and then Kapellmeister, he writes 40 operas, he becomes ‘the most famous composer in Europe’ for a time. How is this ‘mediocrity’? Because for Salieiri, mediocrity is about proximity: to genius, to the divine, to full achievement. So close as to be touched, but not grasped. To be felt, even for a moment, but not inhabited.

Salieri is the proto-typical post-Romantic subject. He knows what genius is; he recognises it when he sees its creations; but he is not possessed of genius himself. Salieri is, in effect, the subject as writer-critic, who worships and hates that which he is not: genius. From Byron to hackers, from Dostoevsky to Burroughs to cyberpunk, from Swinburne to Woolf to Chet Baker to Roy Baty, the genius-as-outsider, whose inspiration/obsession takes him or her beyond the world of ‘ordinary’ lives, into madness or addiction or criminality or transgression or suicide, haunts the artistic life of Europe and North America.  In fact, it haunts the imagination of everyone who dreams of doing something, of writing, of painting, of being a rock star, games designer, Michelin chef, athlete. Kurt Vonnegut, in Timequake, writes this:

‘of native talent itself I say in speeches: “If you go to a big city, and a university is a big city, you are bound to run into Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Stay Home, stay home.”’
To put it another way: No matter what a young person think he or she is really hot stuff at doing, he or she is sooner or later going to run into somebody in the same field who will cut him a new asshole, so to speak.

Of course, Vonnegut doesn’t mean ‘stay home’; he means that if you go out into the world, as you should, be prepared to experience the involuntary addition of an auxiliary anus to your person.

Inspired by images in a dream, some years ago I sketched out a story. (I never wrote it up in full.) In this story, which took place in a typical faux-medieval fantasy world, the narrator, Gaspard, is falsely accused of the murder of the King, and writes his testament, his confession, from the condemned cell. He tells of growing up in the Palace, the son of the old King’s first minister. Gaspard and the young Prince are of an age; they become playmates, and friends. They look alike (and would be thought twins, were not the thought expressed enough for the speaker to be skinned alive), but the narrator knows that there is an irreparable difference. When alarms sound, palace guards arrive to bear away the young Prince; Gaspard is left in the care of a nurse or handmaiden, to be ‘protected’ as best she can manage. The friends grow up together, and increasingly apart, the Prince to be trained in the ways of Kingship, Gaspard to replace his own father, in counsel, espionage, and administration.

Eventually, the Prince becomes King, and Gaspard becomes Minister. The King grows increasingly corrupt, as does the Court. Good men are banished, and thieves promoted. Powerful lords gather in opposition. One night, after sexual congress with a lady-in-waiting in a darkened corridor, Gaspard enters the throne room to find the King hanging by the neck. He panics, hides, sees the shadow of the dangling man upon the floor. He flees the room, and returns to his own chambers, only to suffer an attack of conscience. A naturally timid man, he returns to the throne room to find it empty. Some hours later, guards knock upon his door and inform him that the King has been murdered in his bed, his throat almost sawn through; Gaspard sees to the preparation of the body for burial.

Of course, there is a plot, and Gaspard the patsy, the fall-guy, is framed for the murder. He could tell what he saw, that the King had been hanged and the body decapitated to obscure the rope-burns, indicting the estranged Lords who have now seized power; but he knows that the King, his sometime-twin, was a bad ruler, and the Lords acted in what they presumed to be the best interests of the state, even if these coincided with self-interest. As regicide, Gaspard also finally throws off his role as servant, as the lesser ‘twin’, and with an assumption of guilt, takes the sins of the King and the state into himself, offering his countrymen a new beginning. Amongst this apocalypticism, though, at the end of the narrative, Gaspard signs off his confession with the phrase: ‘This is the last testament of Gaspard the Regicide (my will is not my own)’. Gaspard potentially undoes his own assumption.
I hadn’t read or seen Amadeus when I dreamed those images, but the patterning is distinct. Salieri and Gaspard are ‘nearly men’, successful people who live their lives close to genius or power, whose work is in many senses perfectly good and admirable, but who will always judge themselves by a yardstick they will never attain.
And so, a kind of confession.
The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Somehow, though, that breakthrough, and that recognition, remains frustratingly out of reach. You can touch it, but not grasp it. In a professional world which increasingly encourages you to think of your own work in relation to others, measured by external yardsticks, in terms of competition and promotion rather than collegiality or co-operation (you co-operate to compete more effectively), which encourages a spirit inimical to generosity and kindness because the success of a friend or colleague cuts you a new asshole, I can say this: Salieri, c’est moi.
I’m not an obsessive, though. I’m competent at drawing, painting, playing guitar, writing,academic criticism , though I’m not great at any of those things (my greatest gift might be teaching, which, in contemporary culture, isn't much to boast about). And I’m not obsessive or driven enough to break myself in pursuit of them.
A manifesto, then, for the mediocre, for those who, like me, do their thing, but often wonder why:
  1. Keep on, with kindness;
  2. Failure is inevitable;
  3. You are not a genius, and do not need to be;
  4. 'Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don’t’ (Vonnegut again, Timequake);
  5. The same is true of making art;
  6. Be happy, but not self-satisfied, with what you create at the time you create it (rather than in retrospect);
  7. Experiment;
  8. Persevere;
  9. As Beckett says, fail better.
  10. Who wants to be a fucked-up genius anyway? 

* F Murray Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Salieri, which remains his best-known film role.


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