Monday, November 07, 2005

Amadeus & The Human Condition

I recently had a chance to see the 1984 film Amadeus on DVD for a second time. I saw the film when it first came out in 1984, but being not quite a teenager yet, it was probably a film to which the young parents dragged me, and in seeing it a second time, it was really my first time seeing the film as an adult.

The purpose of this post is not to give a movie review, critical review, or anything of the like. Rather, this post aims to use the film as pretext to discuss some points of human nature.

The basic gist of Amadeus is summed up well by one reviewer:

The movie of Salieri's life, through which Mozart played an integral part, is told in flashback mode, beginning in around the year 1822. An old and perhaps emotionally disturbed Antonio Salieri attempts suicide, and in doing so, apologizes for killing Mozart some 31 years earlier. He survives and is admitted to an insane asylum, where he tells a young priest his tale of jealousy and mediocrity.

The priest is fascinated and alternately troubled by the lengthy and emotional story. Salieri tells of growing up in Italy with a father who did not care for music; and how he rejoiced for the chance to go to Vienna after his father's untimely death. He tells of how he first had met the young Mozart, and how immature and dirty minded Mozart was. He also tells of how "The Creature" had an intimate relationship with the girl that Salieri had cared for. Most importantly, however, he confided in the priest that he had learned to hate God for giving him a deep love of music, only to deny him the talent to create truly memorable music. He thought God had given him Mozart to mock him. Salieri's heart filled with such rage, such hatred and such jealousy, that he had vowed to himself to make God an enemy and to kill the young Mozart.

Early in the film, young Salieri prays to God offering an exchange: God provides Salieri the musical talent, and Salieri will give God his chastity and his humble devotion to glorify and magnify God.

Now, perhaps to a secular mindset, one informed by a maudlin sentimental view of God as our friendly Grandfather, Salieri's prayer seems humble. If God will give unto Salieri the talent, then Salieri shall repay back God with the talent, plus interest. Certainly, his prayer seems to be designed to create sympathy with the viewing audience. We are, so it seems, to see how humble and righteous Salieri is before Mozart drives him to a hatred of God Himself.

However, we are not in a position to make deals with God, even if our attempts at dealmaking are cloaked in enough pietistic sentimentality. The simple facts of the matter are that we are sinners before God, standing utterly condemned on our own merits; we are mortal, finite, and contingent creatures who have, in and of ourselves, nothing to offer a perfectly good and omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being.

The best we can do for anything is to prostrate ourselves, in our hearts, in our minds, and in our actions, to God as people seeking His mercy. And, God has answered our desires for mercy, for the avoidance of hell, and for a cessation of the enmity that exists with Him, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, through His atoning death and resurrection. We already, in this sense have had more than we could ever ask for given to us, for not only are we shown mercy by being spared the consequences of our hellbound egotism, but we are shown into an inheritance, adopted into a family whose familiality we could never merit despite how prolifically we monger our perceived goodness.

Salieri's prayer, however pietistic it may have been, is wrong. It presumes an authority over God that we do not have. It says that we can cut deals with God, that we can [despite our humility] dictate terms of the agreement with Him. It leads to the secular mindset that, if God doesn't agree to the deal we have proffered to Him, then God's attributes: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, etc, or even His very existence, are called into question. Man begins to judge God; stealing a term from CS Lewis, man "puts God in the dock."

As the film goes on, Salieri sees Mozart, who possesses superior musical talent, who [apparently?] has, shall we say, trespassed on a woman for whom Salieri appears to have feelings, and realizes that he, despite his piety and prayers to God, is no match for Mozart, a loutish brute who, in Salieri's eyes, merits no such talent. Salieri is portrayed as viewing Mozart first as a test of Salieri's dedication to God, but then, Mozart is viewed as an instrument of divine mocking, which mocking is aimed at Salieri.

Again, though, it must be stated that if we really think about Salieri's mindset, it is wrong, flowing from the original mistaken mindset that led him to believe that he could dictate terms of a deal with God.

Salieri declares God as his enemy not too long thereafter. God was not testing him --- no, God was mocking him, thinks Salieri, and thus Salieri actively moves forward in his plot to destroy another human being --- a loutish human being, but a human being made in the image of God nonetheless.

Much [but not all] of the atheism and agnosticism I have seen seems to, if I may be permitted to psychologize, be based not on a cold and dispassionate evaluation of the evidence for theism, but, quite frankly, it is based more on the idea that God has disappointed, or that God hasn't done what one would think He should do. The argument against God is a reductio argument when used by these types of people: God does not instantiate X, hence God's existence or God-qualities are called into question, or even denied!

But, if we take scriptural revelation as authoritative, and allow our pagan and secular instincts to be normed by it, we don't see anything in the New Testament that promises us Easy Street if we only do Y and Z. We don't see God portrayed as Monty Hall, offering us some deal.

On the contrary, what we see is that the Christian's life is to be one of prayer, because we're going to need to pray. Jesus promised his disciples a hard life; Paul expected his readers to be aware of the fact that their lives would be difficult as well. Scripture makes it clear that, for all believers, the world is an enmity with us. While there is the general omnibus declaration that God does provide and care for us, this declaration does not state exactly how God will do so. When Paul states that all things work together for the good for those who love God, this is, given the context, a statement about our salvation, not our earthly comfort.

For Salieri, God has promised him that nothing shall separate him from His love. But God did not promise Salieri musical talent. God has not told us that if we cut the right deal with Him then He will put the divine "X" on the dotted line. I simply cannot pray [though I'd like to!] that, if I can grow from 6' to, say 6'10" with springy legs, then I'll slam dunk and run around in the NBA to His glory. [But I would!] One cannot look at a member of the opposite sex, say, and tell God something like "if You let this relationship work out, then I shall glorify you through it" in the tone of voice or attitude that God is somehow obligated to be impressed by your largesse and generosity in proposing such an accord!

At the risk of being pedantic [!!], I don't have a problem with people talking in conditionals to God. If it be thy will, then I shall...... What I'm trying to say, and hopefully I'm being somewhat clear, is that we really have to let the if mean if without sneaking in the idea that if means something akin to when or You had better, God!

BTW, I'm not standing on a soapbox while saying this, nor am I thundering from the Blogspot pulpit while typing this, either. I know that I myself fall into this trap from time to time. The comments above apply as much to me as they do to whomever they apply. I think it is safe to equate "whomever" with "most everyone," though some might [justly?] say that that presumes too much knowledge of humanity on my part! The comments apply to Salieri, and my guess, if I have any understanding of the human condition, is that the comments also apply to both you and me.

What I tell myself when thinking along these faulty lines is that, no matter what temporal goodie is desired, anything I can think of in this life, this existence, is both ethereal and valueless when compared to what God has promised us, and what He has told us is, in a certain already-but-not-quite-yet sense, ours. We have the promise of a permanent existence with Him wherin we enjoy Him free from the awful limitations from our severly diminished and corrupted nature. Our needs will be satiated --- but in saying this we must not succumb to the strictly carnal idea of feasts, however many virgins on demand, gold streets, etc --- for we shall desire what is truly of value and eternal, and God shall provide it.

Salieri, who could be understandably depressed or disappointed in the natural human way that arises when we don't get what we want, could have consoled himself with that possibility. He didn't, and it led the character of Salieri into open hatred and enmity of God.

The film ends with Salieri mocking God as he is wheeled out of the asylum for "water closet" duties. The acting of F. Murray Abraham was superb, for, at least to my untrained eye, Salieri was quite convincing as a man who deluded himself into thinking that he could mock God, even when the Romanist priest offered him God's forgiveness if he could confess his sin, realizing his error, but also realizing that God desired his repentance as well. In the end, Salieri rejects God.

I don't know what the historical reality is, but I had the same slightly queasy feeling in the end [which testifies to F. Murray Abraham's brilliant acting] that I had when reading Voltaire's Candide and hearing that Voltaire cursed God on his deathbed [I'm not sure if this is true, but the mere possibility of somebody cursing God on his deathbed is quite unsettling for me.] I've been strictly speaking of Salieri-as-portrayed-in-the-film. I don't know what really happened, despite being able to play an appreciable amount of the Mozart keyboard corpus!

Again, in closing to this loose thread, just to be sure, I saw a lot of myself --- both pre- and post-conversion --- in Salieri.


Anonymous 1689 said...

I'm glad you saw a lot of yourself in Salieri. Trouble is, there's not a lot of the real Salieri in the character! Salieri's record sales (does he care? he's dead, so probably no) have been badly affected by the libel that he killed Mozart. That's the trouble with fiction based on fact, though, some people can't distinguish between the two (and so on for 9'000 pages)

Monday, November 07, 2005 2:33:00 AM  
Blogger Jason Engwer said...

Good post, PP. Given that God owes us nothing (Job 41:11), and considering what He freely gives us (John 14:2, Romans 5:8-10, Ephesians 3:8, Philippians 3:20, etc.), demanding more reflects poorly on the person doing the demanding, not God. There's a lot we don't know about Heaven. A musical talent or some other blessing we desire in this life might be given in the next life. Even if it isn't, we've already been given so much.

If a small child has a desire to play music, he has to wait until his body has grown enough so that he can physically play the instrument. And he has to wait until he's matured to a particular age before he can travel to play music before audiences. It would be ridiculous to suggest that it's wrong for God to not allow him to play music as soon as he has interest in it. Similarly, God can have other people wait even longer, until the next life, before having a blessing they desire. The afterlife is different from this life, but it's also a continuation of this life.

Jason Engwer
New Testament Research Ministries

Monday, November 07, 2005 4:31:00 AM  

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