In the 1984 Academy award winning movie Amadeus, while Antonio Salieri is housed in an insane asylum, a pastor comes to hear the elderly Salieri’s confession and assures him, “All men are equal in God’s eyes.”
Salieri knows better. “Are they?” he asks rhetorically.
When faced with people who are better than us — better writers, better managers, better friends, better housekeepers — we have two choices: be inspired or be angry.
Ayn Rand is well aware of the large segment of the population that chooses anger, that can only tear down in order to feel better about themselves. In The Fountainhead, when the ordinary Peter Keating is faced with the architectural talents of Howard Roark, he feels inadequate and vows to break Roark.
And Ellsworth Toohey, whose only apparent talent is to manipulate the public through his newspaper column, sets out on a campaign to destroy the clearly superior work of Roark. His philosophy holds that the mere presence of Roark’s designs makes others’ work pale in comparison, and that just isn’t fair.
But Rand is not the only one who understands the cancer of the mediocre. Antonio Salieri is a perfect example of a man not inspired but completely destroyed by the talents, the genius, of another: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
When Salieri has the rare opportunity to scan drafts of Mozart’s music, he sees that these first drafts lack any markings or revisions. If even one note is changed, there “would be diminishment,” he recognizes. Every note is vital; not a single note is an accident. Salieri’s hatred has solidified.
His contempt grows as Mozart’s mere presence becomes a never-ending reminder of Salieri’s inferiority. And like Toohey, he must extinguish the contrast. He must destroy Mozart to destroy the evidence of his own mediocrity
Part of Salieri’s contempt stems from the fact that he simply doesn’t understand Mozart, much as Keating doesn’t understand Roark.
Mozart is motivated by the personal joy found through the creation of his music while Salieri measures his self-worth not through his work but through its reception. He creates to please God and the public, not himself.
In fact, Salieri says of the emperor for whom he works, “He adored my music. Everybody liked me. I liked myself.” It is the confirmation of his work by outsiders that proves his worthiness.
Like Keating, Salieri tries to sell his nemesis on this philosophy that public acceptance is the most important measure of success. And to gain its approval, musicians, and architects alike, must give the public what it wants.
Case in point: Salieri tells Mozart that the problem with one of his compositions is that it does not follow the rules the audience has come to expect. Songs must have a big bang at the end to let the audience know when to clap, just as Roark’s buildings must include classical Greek features as people expect.
But Mozart always stays true to his vision; he refuses to compromise his work. When Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart his opera has too many notes (“Just cut a few, and it will be perfect,” he explains), Mozart’s response is pure Howard Roark: “There are just as many notes as I require — no more, no less.”
And in another scene, the emperor’s director of art tears out page after page of Mozart’s opera during rehearsal, demanding rewrites. Mozart’s reply? “But it’s perfect as it is. I can’t rewrite what is perfect.” He later reveals to Salieri that he was so angry at this interference that he threw the entire score into a fire.
Roark would understand Mozart’s impulse to destroy his work before having it compromised. After all, upon learning that his design of Cortlandt Homes had been altered, Roark destroys the entire project.
The desperation to be recognized and the curse of mediocrity eventually land Salieri in an insane asylum, calling out to and absolving all of the other mediocrities housed there.
The knowledge that someone might be more talented, smarter, a harder worker, braver, more willing to take risks, or more adventuresome brings the mediocre to their knees, leaving them unable to function.
I wonder about the fate of the generation of children brought up in a world where the contrast between the superior and the average, the mediocre if you will, is deliberately suppressed. A world with no valedictorians for fear of hurting the feelings of those who did not earn the highest grades. A world where no one keeps score and where all baseball players on all teams receive trophies. A world of social promotion in education to save a student from the embarrassment of being held back.
What does this teach our children about the best and the brightest? Only that it is the presence of the best that makes us feel badly about ourselves. And the only way to feel better is to keep them suppressed.
Ironically, as we see in The Fountainhead, in Amadeus, and in our everyday lives, it is the mediocre determined to destroy the superior who in the end is himself destroyed.
Whatever flaws the movie attributes to Mozart, madness, drunkenness, or irresponsibility, the world’s final judgment is concerned only with his unparalleled music. Despite Salieri’s efforts, Mozart’s genius could not be denied. And Salieri is destroyed.
Vickie Oddino is a freelance writer and a professor of English and journalism at Mission College in Los Angeles.