Envy, or, The Last Infirmity

By Sven BirkertsMay 14, 2012

Envy, or, The Last Infirmity

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 don't know how accurate it would be. On the surface, sure. Sister gets bird, brother wants bird. But in truth I don't remember having any special avidness for the creature itself, the chirping seed-spitter. I only remember we covered the cage with a towel every night so that it wouldn't start making noise in the morning. I have no memory of holding it on my finger, or blowing at its feathers, no memory at all, really. I may have already suspected that there is no real pleasure in owning birds. I think it was more that I just wanted. If there is an ur-narrative to be found, that might be it. Freud writes somewhere that the mother of all stories is the Fort-da: Fort being the child's cry of loss and yearning as it hurls some object from its crib, and da its satisfied response when the thing is returned. I was embracing the first part of the sequence, the wanting, the not-having, as was Salieri throughout the movie. Wanting and not getting, or wanting and not having — or almost having — might be story enough. Just plain Fort.

The first scene in which envy figures I cannot imagine being improved upon. Salieri, court composer for the Emperor Joseph, is waiting, along with the Emperor, his Kappelmeister, and other peruked advisers and dignitaries, for the arrival in court of the young prodigy, Mozart. Salieri has never set eyes upon him, and before the ceremony we see him wandering through the crowded reception rooms trying to imagine which of the dignitaries he sees might be the composer. He is looking to match his sense of beauty and greatness to the right physiognomy — as if there could be such a fit, as if an inner gift would be manifest in outward nobility or grace. But then, spotting an array of desserts, he wanders into a side chamber, where he becomes unwitting spectator of a game of erotic "chase" — a loud and ill-mannered young man goes scuttling under a table to get his hands on a buxom young woman. He has a particularly ear-grating high giggle.

Of course the young man proves to be... But no, it's more delightfully painful than that. For as it happens, Salieri has composed a little piece to be played upon the distinguished visitor's entrance, and the Emperor, who fancies himself a pianist, wants to play it himself. Which, as soon as Mozart is announced, he undertakes to do — somewhat stumblingly. It is a perfect confutation of expectations on various fronts, but the real point of the scene, the psychological crux, is that it marks the first decisive ego-blow to Salieri, who has already shown himself to be a self-involved and completely political animal, Machiavelli's perfect courtier, moderating his every opinion when asked, blowing this way and that to stay on the Emperor's good side. First comes the obvious — expected — revelation, and we note Salieri's expression when it's revealed that great prodigy is none other than the giggling fool that he had been spying on. Adding insult is the fact that the Emperor, who Salieri has been courting so carefully, is so obviously thrilled to be in the presence of  "genius."

But the topper comes when Salieri, making a bid for praise, looks to present Mozart with the elegantly ribboned score to his piece. Yet another awkward moment. Mozart does not reach to take the gift, but says, laughingly, that he has no need of it, he has already committed the piece to memory. What? The Emperor is incredulous. This seems to him impossible, as must any display of giftedness to another who is not so gifted. He smiles his thin smile, sure he will be vindicated in his skepticism. "Show me," he commands. Whereupon — and these are the glory moments we dream for ourselves, translated into whatever situation — Mozart sits down at the little spinet and reproduces Salieri's composition exactly. Moreover, he does so with such ease, such a suggestion of musical condescension, that it is clear to all that Salieri's inventions are obvious, predictable. The expression on Salieri's face, dissimulate though we would, makes clear the depth of the wound. Which is deepened further and rubbed with salt when Mozart begins altering the melody, saying things like, "that doesn't really work there, does it?" and "this is better — like this!"

This initiating scene is not so much an enactment of jealousy or envy as it is a paving of the way for the crashing breakout that comes a short time later. Mozart has become a composer at the Emperor's court, but however great the honor, his finances are precarious. There is a scene in which Mozart's wife, Constanza — the young woman we had seen him chasing after earlier — visits Salieri. She has come without her husband's knowledge. He is, it appears, too proud to apply for a post as tutor to the Princess Elizabeth of Wurttemberg, but, as Constanza explains, they need the money. She has with her a sheaf of manuscripts — originals, as it turns out — to show Salieri. Taking them from her, he is, at first, amused, high-handedly pleased to be in the ascendant position. But when he pauses to look — glance, really — at the top sheet, everything changes. You could say, the whole movie turns at this instant. Beauty has entered the room. For it is immediately clear to Salieri's trained eye that these are the marks of musical genius. For a moment we see rapture on his face, and then the ebb. Alea jacta est: the die is cast.

For it is not enough for the purpose of this drama — this tragedy — that Salieri should envy the young composer his musical accomplishments or courtly attainments. For the stakes to be raised, for the true pity and terror to emerge, he must also feel the true beauty of the music and recognize the extent of the gift that makes it possible. And this is exactly the tension: he can grasp, and adore, that which he cannot himself create, much as he wants to. The record will show it: Salieri was not a hack — he was himself a gifted and accomplished composer. But the anti-hero of Amadeus is not, and knows he can never be, capable of writing the notes on these pages. Here is the tension: he must be complex enough to love the music unreservedly, and at the same time envy and despise its creator.

I have possibly confused matters by bringing up my canary episode, for I am talking here about artistic envy, and not the myriad other sorts of covetousness, but I will let the image of the sulking boy remain, if only to underscore that the feeling, or mindstate, I'm exploring is itself very basic, however lofty the realms in which it is found. What I felt that day standing behind my mother and sister is, I suspect, not so different from what any mature artist might feel when the prize — any prize — is bestowed upon his rival, or even colleague.

Still, I want to distinguish, for I think there are differences — important differences — between workaday envy and what I'm calling artistic envy. Workaday envy — dog eyeing other dog's bone — is the aggrieved recognition that someone owns something that we want, or can achieve something we wish we could, or is being rewarded for something that we ourselves could do, or have done. Common envy, dare I say universal envy, encompasses many things. It starts before we've outgrown the playpen, and I'm not sure that it stops. Its traces stay vivid. I still remember envying one kid's pellet rifle, and another's hair; this one's washboard stomach, that one's pretty girlfriend — and the fact that he swam such a beautiful butterfly stroke, or had those people for friends, or could spend weekend nights "out" without penalty. This is my version of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad. Almost in every case my envy was for what some other guy had, and it was usually a guy more or less my age. I did not often envy older guys, for between myself and them fell the shadow of the fantasy — that it could all still happen, the washboard stomach, the girls.

There were so many things I wanted that I did not have, but they were things, attributes, instances of great good luck. But I don't believe that I ever wanted to actually be someone else. Not that there were not, especially in those early years, any number of people who had an abundance of the most desirable things: easy families, comradely siblings, looks, good throwing arms, popularity. But for all that, I did not fantasize having what they had in full — having their complete lives. I wanted to have what they had while still being me. This is obvious, or is it? To wish to be someone else is tantamount to wishing oneself dead. For me to be Billy Lee or Ted Wilkinson would mean that Sven would have to cease to exist. No, the dream was to be myself with Billy's lanky athletic build and Ted's pretty girlfriend — that one!

Perhaps even to wish for those things was to wish for a partial death. For if I had either, or both, I would to that extent not be myself, but someone else, some person thus endowed and gifted. And therefore, I began to realize — this is how we become philosophers — I would no longer be the person wanting; I would be someone else.  I tell myself that for this very reason, out of such understanding, I have outgrown this basic sort of envy. I can now see that my colleague has a sharp suit and a good-looking new car and I feel nothing. Plans for a trip abroad? Lovely, I say, but I say it without grinding my molars. He would be traveling through the south of France, yes, but he wouldn't be me traveling there, so what do I care?

But then he mentions he has an essay forthcoming in Harper's. Well.  Artistic envy, my real subject — and arrived at so circuitously!  Of course this is why Amadeus struck me as it did. Not that I will next unmask as Salieri. There are gradations to everything. But neither can I pretend. Nothing more fully discloses the artist's, the writer's, flawed character than envy of a peer.  Unappealing, if not unspeakable, certainly very hard to own up to. Our trade is with deep and noble matters. So it is. But find me an artist who is without artistic envy. If you do, you will have found a genius who has never doubted himself.

Again, distinctions are in order. It is one thing to be jealous of, to envy, outward success — where another writer publishes his or her work (my colleague's Harper's essay) — another to feel those things about the work itself. An exhibit or a well-placed publication equals exposure, and insofar as we believe in what we do, we all hope to have it set before the best possible audience. That is the completing of the circuit. And when I see that someone has achieved just such placement, I feel the pang of wanting it for myself. If that someone is a writer I know, I feel an extra pang, one that is only rarely pleasurable, is far more commonly tinged with darker hues. Would I want to publish there? Yes! Am I being published there? No. And even if I have in the past had that good luck, or may in the future, it's not happening now. It can't be, because it's happening to someone else.

Do I want their good fortune? Yes, though I try hard to rise above that wanting. Do I want to have written what they wrote? No. I look into my soul and see that mostly — mostly — I don't. For like that transaction I cited earlier, to want to have done that is, in effect, to want to be them. And for the same good reason I do not — even if they are having the most remarkably surging career, the proudest accolades. For if I were them I wouldn't be me. The shell game of identity: I ceased being me, being them would not matter, for they already are themselves.

But I used the qualifier "mostly." Why mostly? Is there some catch, some exception? There is, but it's tricky. The exception is when a work achieves what I experience as an absolute artistic beauty. Every so often it happens. I come upon the Coleridgean "right words in the right order." They are so right that I cannot imagine them being improved upon, so right that I feel them singing through me. Not just for a phrase or a sentence, but for an extended period, maybe a whole work. The Great Gatsby, Joyce's "The Dead," pages of Melville, Woolf — at these moments, like when Salieri throws a glance at Mozart's manuscript and we see his whole being change, all bets are off. Then, so long as I'm reading, so long as I feel the live presence of beauty, I want to have been its author. I want to have written the words, and therefore, syllogistically, to be the person who wrote them — damn the consumption, the debtor's prison. I no longer worry that this would mean that I cease to be myself because, you see, I did write them! That is, they are the very words I would have written on this very subject, whatever it is, and I know this because of the pure hum of the resonance. This is what certifies their beauty, the idea that in them I see some purest self captured and immobilized. To become the person who wrote that prose, that poetry, would mean that I had, at long last, truly become myself. In the moment of the full encounter, of merging, beauty swallows all, and I feel that no one has ever spoken so clearly how things are or who one is. In the flow of so much rightness it is possible to think that identity is porous. How else could I feel something so purely, be so completely removed from my daily self? I am Nabokov, I am Bellow, I am Woolf, I am whoever wrote that perfect paragraph: William Maxwell, John Banville, James Agee. I am, at that moment, perfectly mapped to that other mind. And so complete is my absorption, my identification, that I have nothing left over that can register envy or covetousness.

Encounters with beauty are few, though, and the spell, wonderful as it is, all-confirming as it is, does wear off. And when it does, one is back to the expository ordinary, feeling the shortfall, having sidebar thoughts and judgments even as one is reading or listening or looking.

Not so Antonio Salieri. What gives Amadeus its torque is not only the intensity of Salieri's states, his reactions, but the fact that they flower into the deepest possible obsession. He is written from the start as a tragic character, capable of tragic emotion. He is shown cutting his own throat, for God's sake! When Mozart mocks his composition at their first meeting, he is pierced to the core: his art has been exposed. By the same token, when he looks at the notations on Mozart's manuscript pages, when he creates that music in his mind, he is overwhelmed. Admiration — love — sweeps through him. There has never been anything more beautiful. For that brief moment he is undivided. We see it plainly on his face. He experiences no retributive emotion, no anguish of inferiority, only what Nabokov called "aesthetic bliss." And so long as that lasts he is entirely his better self.  Then, as must happen, he takes his eyes from the page. The music stops. He is back inside what he now knows more than ever to be his demonstrably inferior self. He is, he understands, no Mozart — a recognition paradoxically more painful by the fact that Mozart is no Mozart, either. The Mozart of the heavenly music has no relation to the giggly buffoon who makes fart-jokes. What Salieri must swallow is that God — in whom he absolutely believes — has seen fit to give to impish Mozart the gift of making beauty, and to him only the secondary gift, no gift at all, of being able to recognize it.

Salieri's investment — and thus his despair — are absolute. They need to be in order for Salieri to hatch his plan and for the drama to play out with full tragic resonance. His plan — for which there is actually no historical warrant — is to get Mozart (through the device of a mysterious commission) to write a Requiem Mass, and then, when the work is complete, to poison his rival and achieve musical immortality by passing the Mass (for Mozart) off as his own composition.

Salieri looks for his chance, and when Mozart, exhausted from his work on The Magic Flute, collapses during a performance, Salieri has him rushed back to his apartments. Mozart's wife and young son are away — a fine coincidence. Even as Salieri claims to be nursing the delirious composer back to health, he convinces Mozart that he must finish the Mass in the next 24-hours if he wants to get paid. Mozart, reeling from the exertion, entrusts the copy work to Salieri. The extended scene of 11th hour composition is deftly orchestrated. Mozart dictates with inspired brilliance; Salieri gets it all down in his own hand.  He is initially conniving, but — again — we see the music take him over. For extended moments he is past all contingency, all nefarious plotting. When the end of this marathon of composition is nearly in sight, Mozart gives out. He asks for a break. Salieri almost cannot bear to stop, but he relents. Alas for him. For while composer and 'scribe' are sleeping, the door bursts open. Driven by presentiment, Constanza has returned. As soon as she sees her husband's condition, she locks away the manuscript and orders Salieri to leave. The man is beside himself: just one last little bit is needed. He begs. But to no avail. At that moment Mozart dies. The magnificent engine of beauty is suddenly stilled. The great Requiem is unfinished and the plan is foiled.  Salieri's apotheosis is not to be.

His apotheosis: he planned, in effect, to become his rival and pass off the man's inspiration as his own. Upon Mozart's death, the world would believe that Salieri had not only written the transcendent music of the completed Requiem Mass, but had done so to honor his admired colleague. Not to be! And it was God that foiled him — this Salieri announces from the asylum as the movie ends. He would not be known as maestro and devoted friend. Instead, God had in mind for him to be, as he shouts out to his fellow inmates at the asylum, the "Patron Saint of Mediocrity."

For Salieri — once beauty has been identified — mediocrity is anything that is less. Mediocrity, the ordinary, sets off the remarkable, and the remarkable, the achieved, exposes everything that is lesser. Beauty declares what can be, and, by its rarity, makes the contrast: the fact that most of our dealings are on a lower plateau. Most of us accept this — it is the way of things — and we feel lifted when we step into the presence of greatness; we accept it as a gift, feel grateful. But the matter is different for those who, obeying whatever impulse, put the creation of beauty — of art — at the center of their lives. Highly attuned, they are also mercilessly comparative. Envy flourishes. Envy, like Milton's "fame" in Lycidas, is the "last infirmity of noble minds."

Salieri and the glowering boy by the canary cage would seem to stand at opposite poles. Man and child, the artistic and the ordinary. Yet it is through the familiar nerves of that glowering "I" that I understand Salieri, read his face, feel that I know exactly what he feels at every display of Mozart's unposed brilliance — "unposed" because genius, and maybe genius alone, has no need of postures. 


It was out of a desire for expression, and, I would like to hope, a feeling for beauty, that I decided that I wanted to be a writer. That desire was, I have no doubt, awakened in me by early reading. If you are run through enough times by the words of others, you almost cannot not want to write. The identification of word combinations with pleasure is too intense to be ignored — or left just in the trust of others. So, years ago, it began: the apprenticeship in sentences, drawing on my many admirations, looking to get it right, whatever "it" was. At first, so I imagine now, the aspiration was innocent. The idea of an endless future precluded craving what others had: there would be time. But the feeling of an endless future diminishes, even as the expressive urge stays steady, and where there is the wanting that is writing — here's the curse — the other wanting will likely prosper, too. The one that does not easily speak its name.

Let me now invent Beasley. Beasley who I became aware of way back at the outset as a fellow writer, more or less my contemporary, doing what I do, often in the same available venues. And then we'd keep bumping into each other at literary events, tradings bits of gossip with each other as we tooth-picked cheese cubes; we would even sit together sometimes at the same big table with drinks after so-and-so's reading: Beasley, my literary alter ego, my semblable... Except that instead of one lone Beasley there were — there are — allowing for some latitude in age, a dozen, maybe more, writers who I was aware of as members of my generation, who on a bad day would crowd me out of some slot I thought should be mine, but whom on a better day I maybe bumped aside... Of course I tracked my Beasleys from the start, pretending disinterest, but in fact reading their words with a keen measuring eye, for I knew, as one just knows things, that if my work, my name, were to mean anything, if it were to stick — last — it would be because I outpaced the Beasleys. Few names last, and a writer, like anyone else, is considered first alongside his peers.

I pretended for years not to care about "lasting" all that much, even imagined that that kind of mattering was no longer what literature was about. But the older I get, the more I think in terms of what has and hasn't fallen away over time. Posterity doesn't require you to be around for it — it doesn't even allow it. So who cares? That used to be my view. But somewhere in the last while it has dawned on me that it's not the posterity that one enjoys, but the imagining of it. A cold comfort, but better than no comfort at all.

 In his Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly asked:

What will have happened to the world in ten years' time? . . . To me? To my friends? . . .  To the books they write? Above all to the books — for, to put it another way, I have one ambition, to write a book that will hold good for ten years afterwards. And of how many to-day is that true?

When I first read that, many years ago, I thought how silly!  How odd, to care for that kind of lasting, "holding good," in a world that seems to morph away from old stabilities with every rotation, changing the terms of things by the day. Connolly wrote those words in 1939. What do any of these things mean now? How do we measure? Is it being on reading lists and syllabi? Having one's name recognized when it comes up in conversation? Having it even come up in conversation? Having one's books in print? Having them in print and selling? Selling more than such-and-such a number? I don't know which of these things matter, but somehow the idea of the work not disappearing — the idea that is the very root of ambition — does. 

Of course the Beasleys figure into all of this. All of them. For it is written into the law of things that wherever I turn now, wherever I look, a Beasley will appear. We have paid our dues, put in our time. I can't open a magazine now without one or another — or several — of my brethren greeting me in Roman or Italic font. This one is on a cover, or else is being reviewed with an excitement of adjectives. And here is the list of grantees, of inductees. I can't help but flash back to our leaner days, when that same Beasley was making a meal of the hors d'oeuvres. I know him, I know her, I know the work, I have stood with all of them and the bad merlot, and when grand recognitions are accorded, it's hard not to feel a certain pang. I may not make the canary face, but I experience the inner canary — which is the opposite, I realize, of the schadenfreude, that little bump of gratification that comes when the adjectives in that review are less effusive, when the list of grant awards or prize finalists has no Beasley. It seems less important, then, that it also has no me.

But here's the rub. With all these Beasleys working, sweating, producing, it is almost inevitable that a Beasley will from time to time produce a work of genuine value, of beauty. How not? They are, to a person, along with being ambitious, talented and able, some exceptionally so. And what strain this creates in the Beasley-watcher is intensity felt, oddly, in reverse proportion to the artistic achievement, and then increased or decreased by the esteem it is then accorded. By "reverse proportion" I mean that I am more tormented reading work that seems only slightly more accomplished than what I feel I am up to myself, and far less afflicted by encounters with evident brilliance. To be edged out in the ranking by the runner pushing ahead by a half-stride hurts more than to be trounced by someone who has the wind of the gods at his back. It's all so complicated. The more beautiful the art, the less I see it as the product of Beasley of the toothpicked cheese, the more it is something unto itself. True, I will, like Salieri, wonder "why him, Lord? Why not me?" But this is a different pain. It has more to do with the Lord than with Beasley. And the possibility seems greater that it might yet — another time — be me.

This would be a dark picture I'm painting were it not for the final turn, the happy — if only occasional — reprieve. It matters absolutely. I cannot judge in all this writing business how much that is of any real value comes from discipline and craft, and how much from luck, or from some happy convergence of impulse and inspiration. Whether it's nature or nurture, whether we are the vessels or vassals of something that is out of our control — I don't know. I only know that on those occasions when I feel it happening, that sense of separate parts of myself coming together, I have an illusion of timelessness. Inspiration changes the rules and renders all previous business moot. And so long as I am in its grip, imagining that I am making something that has a chance of mattering, of being somehow memorable, nothing that the Beasleys do or think or have attained matters in the least. I have no impulse of envy in me whatsoever. The absorption cancels everything else; I am happy to be in their ranks.

And with this comes the big realization — so hard to get to otherwise — which is that in those other times, when the Salieri mood is on me and I am so filled with wanting, it is not the Beasleys that I have been watching and measuring. Not them at all. I see it so clearly, and I am abashed. It has been me I have been looking toward, not the daily me, but the other: the ur-self, the one who when I started out, fresh and untested, was so sure of what he wanted. I knew so little, it's true. But I trusted. I didn't give a damn about what anyone else was up to, except those writers, my masters, who were so good that they stopped me in my tracks. There was no cage back then, no perch, just the fucking canary — me — chirping away.


LARB Contributor

Sven Birkerts co-edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars. His most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf).


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