|F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri|
Today everybody agrees that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a divinely inspired genius. A few of us know he died a pauper at 35 and was buried in a mass grave – and that his monumental musical legacy lay largely forgotten for more than 70 years - until Ludwig von Köchel published a descriptive catalog of the 626 works Mozart composed in his short but intense career.
In Shaffer’s fictionalization of Mozart’s story, Salieri’s professional envy of the gifted upstart becomes the central motif of the drama. Salieri is one of a small handful academic musicians with sufficient savvy to appreciate the full extent of the man’s extraordinary talent; but he chooses to thwart Mozart’s destiny in every way possible.
Nevertheless, Mozart succeeds in seizing a brief burst of popularity with his vibrant operas. The pious Salieri eventually loses his faith in God, and murders Mozart by posing as an anonymous Count and commissioning a Requiem, with an impossible deadline and a monetary reward Mozart couldn’t possibly refuse (being in heavy debt, owing to his hedonistic habits).
Salieri thereby pushes the already frail genius beyond the edge of exhaustion to an untimely demise. For his efforts, Salieri ends his days in an insane asylum, where he pontificates about the rectitude of mediocrity and blesses his fellow inmates for their lacklustre and wasted lives. Two centuries down the line, nobody remembers a single melody written by Antonio Salieri; while Amadeus triggered a worldwide Mozart revival which would have made Wolfie posthumously richer than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Paul McCartney, and Sir Elton John combined.
The theme of genius unrecognized and unrewarded, I must confess, has obsessed me for the greater part of my early life. In my schooldays only three teachers noticed I was a precocious kid – and one of them happened to be a Peace Corps Volunteer from Baltimore. This may have encouraged me to spend a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and it was then that I finally received the ego nourishment my soul craved. Ironic that the glitzy culture that spawned Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and “pre-emptive” war has also provided me with the greatest amount of positive feedback. Perhaps the land of superlatives got that way by giving its kids the hearty encouragement all kids require, to grow up brimming over with initiative and innovative chutzpah. My own initiation into adulthood in Malaysia taught me not to bother applying for a government grant unless I snip off my foreskin and turn into some species of bin.
Which brings us to the Malaysian Dilemma: here we are, a feudal society abruptly thrust into the Digital Age by “market forces” that emphasize competition over cooperation. No matter how often we yell “Malaysia Boleh!” - and no matter how much official sponsorship is invested in some guy who sails solo around the world to claim his Datukship, or some well-heeled lady who solo-treks across the Antarctic, only to have her victory inundated by the most spectacular tsunami within memory – we’ve shot ourselves in the foot so many times, one could remark that our national ego has clay pigeon feet. At least we can brag about our fantastic marksmanship: it’s no mean feat, you know, to shoot your own foot when you have to crane your neck just to see where your feet are. Well... burp... there are no starving hordes in evidence in Potbellyland – and that’s something we can be proud of without even trying!
So... are we really doomed to remain a mediocracy forever? Is there no cure for the Salieri Syndrome? Indeed there is. You only have to take a stiff swig of this ancient Chinese prescription: “One does not grow taller by chopping off other people’s heads.” That’s right, folks. Ego insecurity breeds jealousy. Which is (I keep reminding people, especially my wife) the root of all evil. For that matter, one does not grow taller by wearing platform shoes either. But that’s an entirely different disease called TLFC – The Lord Farquaard Complex – which can be easily treated with a little bit of dragon magic.
[Originally published in the April 2005 issue of VIDA!; republished here on 8 January 2007]