IT WAS THE FACE of F. Murray Abraham playing Antonio Salieri in Milos Forman's film adaptation of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus that finally touched me off. Who knew that envy had so many expressions, that it was such a great subject? Why hadn't I gotten it before? I had seen Amadeus several times over the years, but this is how it is with movies, with books, with everything — you need the eyes to see what is to be seen. But even so, how could I still have thought that it was about Mozart. About — what does "about" even mean? Centering on? Mapping to? Representing? Mozart in the film has nothing to do with the Mozart of artistic imagination or our received notions of greatness. He is a silly little grasshopper, a buffoon, even though sublime melodies are seen to issue from his every pen stroke. He very clearly cannot help his genius; it has been stuffed into him like an irrepressible filling. I never understood: how could the man, the boy-man, be such a fool? It made no sense. At least not if Amadeus was viewed as his movie, about him. But the other night — it took this long — I got that I'd been dense. Amadeus was about Salieri, first to last, and if Mozart came across as he unflatteringly did, it was because Salieri cast him so in his rancorous memory. The gulf between Mozart's personality and his gift was what his rival saw, what his jealous rage projected.
In Abraham's portrayal of Salieri, there is only one dominant emotion — envy — though it is refracted through innumerable facets. Mostly we find envy disguised, or almost successfully suppressed, because it is unseemly, shaming, one of the all-too-human states that will not accept any positive re-frame. That qualifies it, indeed, as a Deadly Sin. Envy is what it is, we all know what it is — it is ugly. To betray any sign of envy is to lower oneself, period. And the only time in the movie when Abraham is not trying to disguise what he feels, not dissimulating, is when he has (in the movie's opening scene) slashed his throat. He has gone mad. His servants break the door in and find him in his bloody death throes; he is rushed away — first, presumably, to a hospital, and then, later, to an asylum. There a young priest goes to talk with him. When the young man, who claims to have some familiarity with music, recognizes neither him nor his work, Salieri launches upon his self-accounting, a confession of sorts, and this becomes the stuff of the narrative.
Canary. That's code from my childhood. When someone in my family showed in any way that they were jealous, covetous, envious of something that another had, one of us would unfailingly mutter "canary" as a shaming poke in the ribs. The origin of the reference is an old, now almost ectoplasmically faded photograph that was taken on the occasion of my sister Andra's birthday. Just turned seven or eight, she stands in the near foreground, beaming, her eyes alight. My mother leans in beside her, smiling for the camera. Directly in front of my sister, the reason for her joy: a cage with a little canary on its perch. And there in the background, glowering — making not the slightest attempt to put a face on things — me.
My clouded scowl is there to be read by anyone — a kind of universal signifier of a person wanting something that someone else has. And while a whole family narrative could be unfolded from that bit of visual origami, I...read more