Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Salieri Complex

In a couple weeks, Austria will celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday. Dignitaries from around the world, including Condi Rice, will be there to honor this rarest of geniuses.

Mozart deserves the praise. But I’ve always been more intrigued by Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s contemporary and a great composer in his own right who, nevertheless, was nowhere near as good as Mozart. That the two men were no friends is a fact of history. That Salieri obsessed over his inferiority—well, that may just be a construction by Peter Shaffer in his brilliant play, Amadeus.

But envy on the part of Salieri is highly believable. Having your greatness completely out-shown by a once-in-a-thousand-years genius cannot be easy to stomach. And that, I think, is what makes Salieri such a compelling historical and dramatic character. After all, aren’t we all far more like Salieri than Mozart? Isn’t there always someone clearly better than us at every endeavor we undertake?

Call it the Salieri complex. A lot of us have it. And it's worsening.

Back before the advent of mass communication, if you were the best tailor in town, you probably felt pretty good. You had little way of knowing that a tailor in Germany was far better than you. But now we are aware not only of our immediate competitors but of our global competitors as well. Is it really enough to be the best tailor (or let’s say best fashion designer) in San Antonio when you know there’s little chance you will ever make the New York or Paris runways?

I have seen this Salieri complex amongst many in my generation—those of us settling into our 30s, the first generation to truly grow up in the mass-communication culture. There is this sense that you aren’t successful until you are known. Many of my friends languished through their 20s, vainly trying to become “someone," depressed that they were "no one." And I admit that I too have often measured my success against the greatest of my profession. On that scale, I am nowhere near the top. That leaves me feeling rather mediocre.

Obviously this feeling is not new (it’s named after a guy who lived 250 years ago, after all), but it’s consuming more and more people. Forget all the therapy b.s. about being comfortable in our own skin, we measure our worth against other people—that’s just the way it is. And the more people we are aware of--the more people beamed into our homes over the TV and Internet--the more likely we are to feel as if we don’t measure up.

This could create a rather despondent people. Of course, it could also spur more people out of their mediocrity and onto greatness. Whatever the results, there is no doubt that mass communication is changing our culture. And it’s quite likely changing our minds as well. We’d do well to take note of that and prepare for the consequences. The world needs its Salieris.


Anonymous Jim Carolus said...

As an aspiring screenwriter/film critic myself, I understand what you're talking about all too well. I recently found myself dredging up some Salieri-esqe emotions while watching Quentin Tarantino on Jimmy Kimmel. Here was this tremendously respected director, who has achieved a level of success any screenwriter would envy, and he's strutting around on stage like a complete jackass: celebrating the obnoxious performance of Three Six Mafia at the Oscars, praising Tony Scotts "Domino" as one of the years best films (huh?), and otherwise acting like a stunted adolescent.

I felt nothing but contempt for him in that instant...he was Mozart incarnate, and I felt like nothing but a wannabe Salieri: someone who has seen too many movies, absorbed too many ideologies, analyzed too many "approaches", to unleash the creative spark that may come effortlessly to someone exerting a fraction of my effort or drive.

But, as they, say, we all shine on...and maybe someday I'll reach the level of Salieri...and that would be plenty good enough for me.

Peace out,

6:19 AM  
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