Saturday, June 25, 2011

the allure of genius, the despair of mediocrity

My son taught me how to do it, and yesterday I put what strikes me as a wonderful magic to the test -- calling up and then watching a movie on the computer screen. When I was a kid and Saturday double features at the local theater were like dying and going to heaven, I used to imagine what it would be like if you could watch movies in your own home. Talk about luxury! Well, television asserted its wiles and then came the computer and there I was, yesterday, wallowing in a movie I hadn't seen in a long time: "Amadeus," a fanciful depiction of genius and mediocrity that was laced with the chocolate-pudding music of Mozart.

My friend Dave, who knows a lot about music where I know little, did not care much for the movie when we discussed it years ago. What he disliked was the scatter-brained depiction of Mozart himself ... no one, he said, really knew much about Mozart the man. This meant that depicting him as scatter-brained and childish was possible, but was in no sense accurate. As someone less educated, I was content to immerse myself in the story and the devil take the hindmost.

No one can tell a story about genius. It is like looking at the sun -- far too bright and painful and incomprehensible. In order to look at what genius is, it is necessary to look at what it is not and the movie did this by focusing on Antonio Salieri, a composer and conductor whose life -- with which the movie took considerable liberties -- was rapaciously focused on Mozart's genius and how he might attain and surpass that genius.

The movie shows Salieri as a man aware of Mozart's genius and decimated by his own inability to match it. He is shown as promising God to be celibate and work his heart out ... if only God would bestow a musical genius on him. He is shown at the end of his life, confessing all to a priest -- a man still gripped by his inabilities ... and a man who may have murdered Mozart. His appalling arrogance and malevolence is mated with a compellingly human sorrow and longing ... to be a genius, to soar with the angels, to enter a light that he has been denied. And of course blaming God doesn't really work. It merely compounds his sorrow by throwing God into question. God has fucked him over ... why?!

The story is as human and credible as any other good tale. Whether it was true to Mozart of Salieri didn't really matter to me. The tale was true, even if it was the most egregious lie.

Who does not wish to actualize the genius s/he recognizes within? To stand on top of the mountain, naked in the light, complete and completed? I don't care what form that genius takes. It is the longing and the beckoning ... and the mediocrity it exposes. No one wants to live in the shadows of the heart's desire, to subsist on crumbs. The sun is bright. And the shadows ... the shadows are not the sun.

And that is the interesting part to me -- how anyone makes a genuine peace with what may be seen mediocrity. It may be a lifelong task, trying to figure out why God fucked you over. Anyone who works so hard to find the light of their lives is left gasping by the (hopefully) realization that by seeking the light they have been running from the light. But this is not a surrender to mediocrity. To imagine you could know God -- however that God is defined -- is matched in every arrogant and misguided floundering by the slings and arrows of imagining you could not know God...not look directly into the sun ... not express the genius that is inescapable.

It was a saddening and delicious movie, "Amadeus." Shadow and light. Light a shadow. A human and humane and grueling tale. Your tale, my tale, his, her or its tale.

All of it told beneath the blue, blue sky.

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