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a grievance in search of a reason: notes about the failed artist

I’ve been watching the movie Amadeus (1984, directed by Milos Forman), in which the life of Mozart is told in a series of flashbacks by Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart who the movie depicts as a good man destroyed by envy.  As the movie opens, Salieri, now an old man confined to an insane asylum, is approached by a young priest who has heard that Salieri blames himself for Mozart’s death.  When the priest attempts to elicit a confession from him, Salieri obliges, but not without first giving a history of his relationship to Mozart.  For even though, in the movie, Salieri did not kill Mozart, he planned to; and it is only by revealing the complexity of his feelings toward Mozart – how he loved the man’s music while he hated the man – that the aging Salieri can explain why he feels guilty.

F. Murray Abraham as the young Salieri. Abraham won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

The movie is compelling for a number of reasons, not least of all for its interpretation of history.  For while there is some actual evidence that Mozart and Salieri had a contentious relationship, there is also some evidence that they respected each other.  It is known that Salieri, for instance, used his influence to revive The Marriage of Figaro, and it is said that the two even composed a cantata together.  Further, Salieri spent most of his career as a court composer, teaching pupils like Beethoven and Schubert, developing the form of the 18th century opera, and seeing his own works performed.  And while there is some mystery surrounding the circumstances of Mozart’s death (he died of an unspecified illness at the age of 35), there is nothing to indicate that Salieri plotted to kill him.  In other words, that Salieri’s historical identity may have been eclipsed by his fictionalized identity is worth acknowledging.

But I want to discuss for a moment the value that might be found in what tradition has made of him; specifically, in what his fictionalized identity – as a failed and envious artist – suggests about art as a vocation.  Because even though, in the movie, Mozart is the object of Salieri’s envy, the cause of this envy, as Salieri understands it, is God.

Early on, Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart – how, having witnessed Mozart conduct a performance in front of the Viennese aristocracy, he spies Mozart’s composition, where it rests on the orchestra stand, and becomes angry.

That Salieri hears in Mozart’s music an “unfulfillable longing” is no surprise, for this is what he feels when he thinks of himself as a fellow composer; he has the desire to be great, but he lacks the ability.  He is only mediocre.  To add insult to injury, Mozart appears to him to be a spoiled child.  Unlike Salieri, who has dedicated his life to God in order that God might grant him success as a composer, Mozart appears to be a libertine – undignified, and without virtue.  So that not only does Salieri see himself as an artistic inferior, but his faith is also shaken; it seems that there is no God, or that God is laughing in his face.

Tom Hulce as Mozart


It is easy for the viewer to see the error of Salieri’s ways.  From the atheist’s perspective, he has made the mistake of believing in something that doesn’t exist, and, in the eyes of the believer, he has expected God to act in a way that is contrary to God’s nature.  Yet there is something about Salieri’s passion, and about the cruelty of his situation, that allows us to put ourselves in his shoes.  Here is a man who wants nothing but to be a great artist, who has been endowed with the artistic drive, but who lacks that one, elusive trait that differentiates the great from the average.  This trait is revealed below, when Mozart takes a tune Salieri has written for him, and not only plays it from memory, but reveals its inadequacy by spontaneously improving it.



The difference between the two men is not so much in their technical mastery as in their ability to make imaginative leaps.  Those who possess the latter are often described as geniuses, no matter what their medium, or field, because the leaps they make are so radical, yet so simply achieved.  Salieri can compose, perform, and conduct, but he lacks an original vision, and, more importantly, the ability to bring that vision to bear in his work.

It is for this lack that Salieri so resents God.  To the priest, he says, “All I ever wanted was to sing to God.  He gave me that longing.  And then made me mute.  Why?  Tell me that.  If he didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire, like a lust in my body, and then deny me the talent?”  It isn’t the fact that this contradiction occurs in Salieri that is troubling, but the fact that it can occur at all.  The desire to be an artist is not like other desires.  It is not like wanting to be a doctor, or a lawyer, no matter how necessary and valuable those professions are.  This isn’t to say that the role of the artist is more important than other roles in society (or that medicine and law are the only other professions worth mentioning), but rather that a person who isn’t an artist can usually determine his or her career in a more explicable way.  Every artist is obsessed, while only some of the people who embark on careers are obsessed.  And whereas the key talents in most professions can be acquired through training, the key talents in the arts are unlearned (they can be shaped by a teacher, but not imbued).  So that to have the artistic drive, and to not have the talent, is to feel inexplicably tormented.

The value of the movie, then, is not so much in the degree to which it represents history, but in the degree to which it portrays a human truth.  That this truth is bitter is important, but almost incidental.  Because a strange paradox occurs whenever a subject that is bitter, or even a subject that is only disagreeable, is treated by artists (in this case, the director and the actors and the other people involved in the movie): the subject itself is endowed with a sort of grace, or nobility.  Here, Salieri is recast as a figure of tragic significance, as an archetype.  He becomes somehow as important as Mozart, if not more important.  The movie is named after Mozart (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) but it is about Salieri, which is to say that the former cannot be understood without the latter.  This isn’t to say that failure isn’t failure, or that Salieri’s unhappiness is anything but that – unhappiness, but that every person’s biography reveals its own intrinsic order when recast by the artist.  And to the degree that the artist imitates God (or a God), this recasting is like a divine revelation – there is art where art is unseen.

10 thoughts on “a grievance in search of a reason: notes about the failed artist

  1. This is wonderful Edward. I think a key sentence is ‘the desire to be an artist is not like other desires.’ I can imagine some people being very put off by this, but I would answer that when you decide to go on this journey you are foregoing security and peace of mind, depending on your other income sources.

    Also, has railing at God gone out of style? It seems the blame goes onto other random, innocent people nowadays, ie shootings.

    1. yeah, i was a little put off by that. particularly.. ‘And whereas the key talents in most professions can be acquired through training, the key talents in the arts are unlearned (they can be shaped by a teacher, but not imbued).’ i hate this kind of talk that tries to put artists on pedestals higher than regular people. is it necessary to say this to say what the essay is saying? why cant salieri’s analogy be applicable to any profession, or to any person who has a desire for and an inability to obtain anything? what can be taught to a ‘careerist’ can get them by, can get them a job, but for them to excel, just as in the arts, they need an essence of something unlearned, as has been my experience.

      1. Great point, darby. At first, I thought you were being a bit touchy about it, but rereading, I catch your meaning a bit more, and agree with it. Mullany has a point that key talents in arts are unlearned, but is a bit narrow in his generalization of that.

        As much as my ego makes me think, “not everyone is meant to be an artist,” I know full well that I’m equally not meant to be an accountant, and were I to try to be, even if I busted my ass over amortization charts and so on, I’d never be as excellent at the profession as one with a true proclivity towards numbers and accounting.

  2. “So that to have the artistic drive, and to not have the talent, is to feel inexplicably tormented.”

    Ah, and what about the vice versa–to have the talent but not the drive? A related, and common (no?) torment.

    1. I feel like the “talent but not the drive” torment in this case comes more from the outside, from people saying you’re “wasting your talent” and all that.

      In that way, I don’t really see it as being the same torment, though I would agree they’re both equally tormenting.

      1. good point, stacy. ce, i’m not sure that it’s an external torment…actually i think it’s more internal than the-other-way-round kind of torment. fear of failure, and worse, fear of success, can often inhibit drive, along with a thousand other kinds of anxiety.

        i enjoyed this post, and ‘amadeus’ has long been one of my favorite movies, for some of these ideas that you’ve touched on.

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