The Bad and The Beautiful

“Genius and evildoing are two things that do not combine,” Mozart remarks in Mozart and Salieri, Alexander Pushkin’s short play written in 1832. The Mozart of Pushkin’s play is an impure genius. He does not see perfection in himself or seek perfection in others. He has a natural humility and earthiness. On his way to visit his friend and fellow composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart hears a blind violinist playing one of his melodies in a tavern, and to Salieri’s irritation Mozart brings the violinist along with him. He wants this street musician to perform for Salieri. Mozart is enamored of the blind violinist’s rude art, leaving it to Salieri to spell out his disdain: “No. I don’t find it funny when some worthless dauber/makes smears and drips on Raphael’s Madonna,/ I don’t find it funny when some vulgar showman/ reels off parody that dishonors Dante.” For Salieri, the very point of genius is the escape from impurity that it enables. “You, Mozart, are a god,” Salieri declares, “and you don’t know it.” In this play Salieri is so consumed by envy that he poisons Mozart. Too refined to tolerate smears or drips on a Raphael painting or to suffer through a parody of Dante, Salieri becomes a murderer. Whereas Mozart, already writing his Requiem at the behest of a mysterious black-clad visitor, is human enough to be mortal.    Pushkin’s Mozart believes in genius no less than Salieri does. Artists are not godlike for Mozart, though they “form a priesthood seeing only beauty,” and the members of this priesthood “are but few.” Musing about this small priesthood, Mozart advances his thesis about genius — that “genius and evildoing do not combine.” Salieri and Mozart diverge in the degree of their talent, but they diverge more fundamentally in the ethical tenor

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