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January 27, 2006

Comments

Jim

Back a few years ago there was a pleasant low-brow movie with Ricahrd Dreyfuss called Mr. Holland's Opus. This Mr. Holland taught music in a high school. He had dreams of writing something wonderful, but he spent his time on his students, almost to the neglect of his own kids, and spent no time at all on writing music. As for any actual talent, that was a big open question. In the end at the end of his working life all his former students got together and put on a concert, and they were his opus.

There is something fundamentally childish in someone who cannot take pride in the success of another, or who cannot work for the success of someone younger.

Aaron Baker

"[M]y own personal experiences have left me much more easily able to identify with the Mozarts of the world than with those who stand in their shadows, and as such the subjective experience of life's Salieris remains something of a mystery to me."

Hmmm. Your megalomania is completely un-mysterious to me.

Abiola

"Hmmm. Your megalomania is completely un-mysterious to me."

Megalomania? I was reading medical textbooks at 10, was studying graduate-level mathematics on my own at age 17, scored 1590 on the SAT before it was recentered (a record bettered by only 18 individuals in the entire world that year), and finished in the top 200 in the Putnam on my first go as a freshman, never having even heard of contests of that kind before then. How do *you* stand up to that record, hotshot?

You know what's funny? Pathetic, resentful individuals like you who can't stand the thought that anyone just might be way better than they are at anything are the very people I had in mind when I wrote this post ...

Aaron Baker

I didn't say you weren't smart. I just hinted (and now I'll put it a little more plainly) that you're an asshole.

Not a single achievement you've mentioned puts you anywhere near Mozart. Why then even suggest such a comparison? (I won't dwell on Julius Caesar; maybe the hint of parity with him was inadvertent.)

The tone of your response suggests something other than the calm self-assurance you affected in your posting. If I'm so pathetic, why do you feel the need to enumerate your accomplishments to me?

Abiola

"I just hinted (and now I'll put it a little more plainly) that you're an asshole."

Of course, anyone who doesn't crawl on his belly before you must be an "asshole." Go back into your nasty little hidey-hole, you resentful, inconsequential creature.

"I won't dwell on Julius Caesar; maybe the hint of parity with him was inadvertent."

Is Saturday blockhead night or something? Where are all these morons coming from?

"The tone of your response suggests something other than the calm self-assurance you affected in your posting. "

If wishes were horses, fools like you would ride like kings. Thanks for providing me with some cheap laughs, though!

"If I'm so pathetic, why do you feel the need to enumerate your accomplishments to me?"

Because I know reading such things throws resentment-filled idiots into fits of agony, and I enjoy watching you lot suffer! I'm sadistic that way.

With that, dear troll, I bid you many nights filled with rage and ressentiment at those far more talented than you can ever dream of being; more diverting engagements await me.

bettany

I'm a dumb troll who doesn't know better than to insult someone on his own private property, and actually expected to get away with it unscathed.

Abiola

Ah, another mental midget out to pester those who aren't satisfied to pretend to mediocrity. Well, guess what? The joke's on you!

One of the sad things about life is that it is precisely the kind of people too stupid to realize that slinging insults on a forum controlled by those they're insulting isn't a sensible course of action who are also too intellectually limited to realize when they're out of their league.

http://www.phule.net/mirrors/unskilled-and-unaware.html

Poor stupid bettany: I bet you also think it's the height of wit to poke fun at "swots" and "eggheads" who think they're "better than us", don't you?

While we're on the subject, let me ask all other readers tempted to imitate these two fools a few questions: given what I've written about my own past experiences, what exactly do you think you'll be achieving by resorting to abuse - other than earning a swift banning - if not validating my assertions about the extreme insecurity which plagues so many supposed "adults" who are confronted by talents far surpassing theirs? Why does extreme ability bother you so much anyway? Do you suppose insulting me makes you look any better in my eyes than all the numerous other bitter and envious souls just like you I've encountered to date, or that I'm so in need of validation by complete strangers like you that I'll be tempted to withdraw my words? What does such behavior do other than make you look pathetic?

Julian Elson

I think that SAT scores, like IQs, are the sort of metric in which you generally don't mention how you scored unless asked, unless you're 18 and talking about your college prospects. It's a matter of social propriety.

See, earnestly proclaiming "I'm a precocious genius" to the world can seem a bit -- dare I say it? -- abrasive. Moreover, those who go around talking about how smart they are are often cranks. ("I am a genius because of my brain powered by a plutonium nucleus, and no one can undertand my theory of four dimensional time cubes because they're all more stupid than me!" You know the type.)

I'm not saying that you're a crank. I've read you for years, and I think you're very erudite and smart. It's just that you might want to avoid voluntarily taking on traits that tend to be correlated with far less erudition and intelligence, and far more crankiness.

Abiola

"It's a matter of social propriety"

Have you asked yourself *why* this is a matter of "social propriety", and whether it *should* be?

"See, earnestly proclaiming "I'm a precocious genius" to the world can seem a bit -- dare I say it? -- abrasive."

I'm not going to make claims to "genius" - whatever that is - but I see no reason why I ought to be any more ashamed or hesitant to say on my own blog that I was extremely intellectually precocious than one might be to admit having been a star football quarterback or a world-class tennis player. Discussing important aspects of my own personal history on my own property is not "go[ing] around talking about how smart they are", unless your implication is that I simply shouldn't talk about the single most important aspect of my youth at all, lest others be driven to envy; if William Sidis were a blogger, would you tell him to stick to talking about postage stamps or something? Why should I have to keep quiet about the very thing upon which I am most qualified to give a personal opinion on in a way precious few others can?

The fact is that no one is forced to read this blog, I'm not spamming it into anybody's inbox, and if people don't like what they see they're free to move on elsewhere - I have every right to discuss the single most important feature of my childhood without worrying about what my words might do to the self-esteem of a few individuals with fragile egos.

"It's just that you might want to avoid voluntarily taking on traits that tend to be correlated with far less erudition and intelligence, and far more crankiness."

The question you ought to ask yourself is why these "traits" (and since when has stating facts about oneself become a "trait"?) are "correlated with far less erudition and intelligence, and far more crankiness" in the minds of some, and whether the supposed correlation isn't merely a malicious stereotype dressed up as folk wisdom. Lots of people desperately want to believe either that no one of their personal acquaintance is far more talented than they are at anything that isn't of entertainment value - e.g. sports or music - or that exceptional talent is necessarily coupled with crippling personal shortcomings of some sort or other, all the better so they can keep on feeling good about themselves, but I'm no more obliged to humor such conceits than I am to play along with the nuts who think it's sensible to talk about "respect" for "the dignity of faith" or other such nonsense; human progress to date has not been built on self-censorship in the name of "social propreity", but on its violation.

Barbar

I was a precocious kid who really excelled in mathematics and attended the world's #1 brand-name university. However, as someone who is not (yet) on track to do anything of monumental significance, I identify a lot more with Salieri than with Mozart.

Salieri is not a representative of the "masses"; he is a member of the elite who is tormented by his inability to achieve greatness. Mr. Everyday might have his own problems with Mr. Genius, but this mainly is the result of a higher priority placed on social convention and conformity. Salieri is a whole different animal.

Abiola

"Salieri is not a representative of the "masses"; he is a member of the elite who is tormented by his inability to achieve greatness."

That's one interpretation of it, but here I'm talking of the *subjective* experience of the Salieris of the world, not of the objective circumstances of their existence (it's obvious that few Austrians of Salieri's day could dream of a life as priviliged as his). The Salieri of "Amadeus" is a man who calls himself "the patron saint of mediocrities" while excited to fits of jealousy at Mozart's seemingly effortless outpouring of new music, and the fact is that if there's one thing my own experiences have *not* fitted me for, it is feeling hopelessly dazzled by someone else's achievements in a field I care about. I can look at people like Terence Tao and Jordan Ellenberg and feel *admiration* for what they're doing, as well as a great deal of *interest*, but their achievements are *not* in the least capable of stirring in me a Salieri-like ressentiment at living in their shadow (which is what is at issue here), and the *reason* why I'm able to feel this way is because I fully appreciate just how fortunate I too have been by comparison with most others.

To put what I'm getting at in more concrete terms, it's like the difference between a guy who's worth $20 million and the one who's worth $2 billion - the first may *choose* to live in envy of the latter, but he has every reason to be less troubled by the billionaire's wealth than the average Joe who has to commute 2 hours everyday to bring home $50,000 a year, and as a guy who never has to worry about working overtime or borrowing to pay for life's essentials, he's certainly much less well-placed to appreciate the frustrations which drive Joe Commuter to envy Mr Billionaire, and yet nearly as well placed to be himself a focus of Joe Commuter's envy. One doesn't have to be a future Fields Medalist to run into people with giant chips on their shoulders who begin ranting about how "Hahvahd" must "suck" and how its students are all overrated frauds as soon as they learn one attended the institution, and from their perspective the average "Mr Hahvahd" will serve just as well to excite ressentiment as an IMO gold medalist.

Barbar

To use your analogy, I see Salieri as a man who is worth $20 million. It's not that Salieri is an insecure wreck whose fears of inadequacy get stirred up by the mere existence of Mozart. It's much more specific than that: Salieri aspires to mythical greatness, and Mozart is the embodiment of such greatness. It's as if a businessman believed with every fiber of his being that becoming a billionaire was the sign of true greatness, and he could only make a measley few million dollars in his lifetime. This really doesn't have much to do with Joe Commuter.

Salieri could rationalize his failure by comparing himself to most other musicians, or by the vast majority of the public that is ignorant about music. What prevents him from doing that is not his mediocre standing relative to most other people, but his commitment to the "Holy Grail" -- everybody else is simply irrelevant for his purposes.

Now I think that this whole viewpoint depends on mysticizing genius, and that this is done most easily by children and people who are unfamiliar with actual work in music, mathematics, and so on. This is where "Amadeus" falls apart, as far as I'm concerned.

In real life people are actutely aware of external standards of success and failure, and have incentives to achieve success and avoid failure. These incentives of course also lead to attempts to re-define the meanings of success and failure, in self-serving ways. This is something that everyone is familiar with *from the inside*, no matter how brilliant and dazzling they are. In fact, some brilliant people are faced with especially exacting standards of sucess and failure: walking away from an academic career in math or physics can be especially painful, even if 99.9% of the population cannot understand how that could be interpreted as a failure.

I guess to summarize, I think Salieri is a terrible fictional character, and I think that you can't really be so unfamiliar with the discomfort of failure or potential failure as you claim to be. Of course I would expect you to have an especially easy time of dealing with it, such are the benefits of talent. But to think that the idea of a writer brilliantly capturing mediocrity is some sort of paradox... I mean, come on. :)

Chuckles

Barbar -

The issue here is not being unfamiliar with failure; the issue here is being able to relate more or less to the Salieris of this world, than to the Mozarts.

That isnt so hard to understand, is it?

Abiola gave two other examples to the point: Mishima\'s novel, and the line from J.C; which make the matter exceedingly clear. The truth is that most bright people that I know - except those crippled by serious personality shortcomings, relate more to the Mozarts of the world, than the Salieris.

I think the entire response to this matter by dwelling on A.L\'s own achievements, as opposed to a specific life attitude that he claims he possesses is a precise illustration of the Salieri attitude. But then again. why exactly should people be concerned if a person blows his own trumpet? Buy ear plugs!

Barbar

Also, to switch gears slightly, I offer up the scenario in which two buddies (or girlfriends) differ in their ability to attract members of the opposite sex. Perhaps they go to a bar and have greatly differing results, or perhaps they end up competing over the same person. Or what about two brothers favored differently by their father?

Smarts aren't the only thing that people care about in life.

Barbar

Chuckles,

Sorry, we crossposted. I was responding more to Abiola's claim that the Salieris of the world were a mystery to him, than to his dismissal of Salieri's approach to life, which I take for granted.

Perhaps I should just take this post as a hit piece against every asshole who was threatened by Abiola's smarts and let it show.

Andrew

"See, earnestly proclaiming "I'm a precocious genius" to the world can seem a bit -- dare I say it? -- abrasive."

As if one would have thought without having read this post that Abiola wasn't a bit abrasive (as he of course has every right to be on his own blog)?

Chuckles

Barbar -

I think you missed it again.

Here is what you said:

[...Sorry, we crossposted. I was responding more to Abiola\'s claim that the Salieris of the world were a mystery to him...]

Now, here is what Abiola said:

[...as such the subjective experience of life\'s Salieris remains something of a mystery to me...]

Note: He did not say that the Salieri\'s of the world were a mystery to him; as you claim. We all understand the Salieri\'s of the world - eaten up by their own failures, resentment, unfullfiled hopes and ambitions.

A.L. said, *their subjective experiences* - i.e. his capacity for feeling for what they feel as they trudge through their tunnels of bitterness are a mystery to him.

There is so much of a difference between the two.

dsquared

I think all this talk about identifying with Mozart is just irritating false modesty. Personally, I have a certain amount of regard for Mozart, but face it, he was not a well-balanced individual, never made much money and never really had a particularly successful sex life. The child prodigy that I've tended to identify with myself was Jesus Christ, although I like to think I have avoided some of his more obvious mistakes.

Chuckles

Oh Sure, DBro!

J.C made wads of cash, had lots of women and was very well balanced - what with being God and all.

Now if you had said Paul...But I guess turning water to wine beats having your shadow heal the sick anyday anytime. You drunkard!

Barbar

So back when I was discussing familiariy with failure, was I or was I not missing the point? Because as I see it the road to understanding the subjective experience of Salieri starts with your own experiences of failure. Now if you yourself are not Salieri we have the interesting question of exactly how far down this road you can go. And of course if you're not genuinely interested in the subjective experience of Salieri, but rather in making a rhetorical point to the effect that there is a million light years of difference between you and pathetic losers who resent you, then this whole comment discussion is missing the point.

Chuckles

No Barbar -

It doesnt start with your experiences of failure or familiarity with failure: Being Salieri refers to the resentment, anger, bitterness - yes, the suicidal rage that the mediocre under discussion here exhibit towards those who outshine them: An attitude exhibited for the mere fact of the success of the other. It is a feeling of being threatened. It is not about failure of oneself, or failure of the Salieri in question. It refers to wanting to put smart people in their place; to humanize them by accusing them of arrogance; to deny them the same credit that we grant to performers in sports and entertainment - to say to the Intellectual: Thou Shalt Not Speak of thine Mind Lest we Feel Bad about Ourselves. It means stigmatizing intellectuals as Nerds, as people who must obviously be deficient in some vital life aspect as to compensate for the unnatural intellect - It means requiring them to humble themselves for our sakes. It means demanding that they have an obligation to speak in a language that we understand - It is mocking them for being intellectuals and having nothing to show for it. It is mocking them for being smart, yet having a lean purse: All the more so that the Salieris of the world can whisper to their own bruised egos that there is nothing to being smart at all.

It has nothing to do with being familiar with failure. All geniuses are familiar with failure - as indeed, Mozart himself was. Salieri\'s attitude arises from his disposition towards Mozart.

When A.L. or someone else says that the subjective experiences of the Salieris of the world are a mystery - It does not mean that they lack familiarity with personal setbacks, it simply means that they will not look to, say, someone that by convention should not have achieved particular heights of greatness at a certain stage - and yet has; and be driven to envy or any of the other attitudes I have listed above.

This is the subjective experience of being Salieri: Not the experience of failure: But the reaction to manifest prodigious greatness. The essay that Abiola linked to puts it very well.

Tell me, do you relate to being Salieri? Would you burn down a beautiful temple because it embodies all you aspire to but cannot attain - because of biology, time or other personal deficits? Would you mutter the words of Cassius in the shadow of any Ceasar who wandered into your world? I guess the answer is No: Which should practically illustrate the point.

Another, albeit deficient example; is the story of Joseph and his brothers: Although merit clearly isnt the case here. The fact remains that his Brothers were all hardworking, nice, decent, dependable individuals: Yet, they were Joseph\'s Salieris. Another good example again, is with regards to Jesus and the Pharisees. Peter narrowly escaped being Paul\'s Salieri - and the perfect illustration: Saul, a king, noble, smart, brilliant - head and shoulders above everyone else: And here comes a pipsqueak named David who outshines him remarkably. Saul; his thousands - David, his tens of thousands. Saul: Salieri. Jonathan: Smart kid.

dsquared

It is probably worth pointing out that the actual historical Salieri was most probably horribly traduced by Peter Shaffer's character, by the way.

Chuckles

[...It is probably worth pointing out that the actual historical Salieri was most probably horribly traduced by Peter Shaffer\\\'s character, by the way...]


Yes, yes...whatever. Such is the fate of life\\\'s Salieris.

Abiola

"When A.L. or someone else says that the subjective experiences of the Salieris of the world are a mystery - It does not mean that they lack familiarity with personal setbacks, it simply means that they will not look to, say, someone that by convention should not have achieved particular heights of greatness at a certain stage - and yet has; and be driven to envy or any of the other attitudes I have listed above."

Yes, you have it *exactly* right - this is what I am getting at, the feeling of bitterness at someone else's achievement and the wish to tear it down, not "rationalizing failure" on my part or anything like that.

Not everyone goes through life wanting and needing to be "Best in the World" at anything, and the fact is that I've had more of a share of being lionized for my precocity than even your garden-variety 1-in-100 "gifted child" will appreciate, and growing up experiencing that certainly has its effect on one's self-image; until I was already an adult, I *never* knew what it was like not to be far ahead of nearly everyone else - it was always "First in School", "First in the State", "Top 3 in the Country" (15th being the very worst I ever did, and that on a day I had malaria!), and I saw this validated time and time again by teachers, by adults and even in the newspapers, so in exactly whose shadow was I supposed to have been standing to feel like a (fictionalized) Salieri during this period? By the time I was able to meet people who could outshine me, I was already old enough to have stopped caring all that much about such things anyway, and in any case it wasn't as if such individuals were as common as hen's teeth even in my college years - in my entire time at Dartmouth I encountered precisely *one* such individual there (a mathematics researcher whose name I shall not disclose), and yet another who was my equal though not my superior (fellow members of my class year will know who I'm talking about).

To feel overshadowed by others one has to have some actual *experience* of being overshadowed, which I simply haven't had very much of, so when I say that I relate better to the Mozarts than the Salieris, I'm just being honest. People are free to call it boasting if it makes them feel better, but everything I've said is a matter of public historical record, and easily verifiable if anyone's bothered enough to do so.

Actually, I've just thought of another way of putting it: how many people have seen "Little Man Tate" and honestly been able to compare their life experiences to what they saw in the movie? How can one expect a person who goes through life like that to feel about his place in it? Anyone who seriously claims to expect a child growing up so unavoidably aware of his own uniqueness (or, if it makes you feel better, strangeness) to class himself amongst life's also-rans is living in a dream world: extreme precocity can and often does make for intense boredom and isolation, but one effect which *can't* be counted amongst its consequences is the inculcation of feelings of intellectual inferiority and spiteful envy when confronted with the achievements of others.

Barbar

Chuckles -

A non-intellectual who gleefully points out that intellectuals are poor is different in many important ways from someone obsessed with being a musical genius, who hates actual geniuses he encounters.

If we insist on using the same term on describing both individuals, then I have to conclude that "being Salieri" in this conversation means "willing to attack those who remind him of his weakness." (And of course there is no reason for the term to have precisely this meaning in other contexts.)

This is a rather broad description. The immunity to it would seem to lie more in beliefs about how much hostility is appropriate to feel and display towards others, and less in how brilliant one is.

In short, there's a lot of conflation of brilliance, envy, pettiness, perspective, failure, etc. in this comment thread. Do attractive girls who get called dirty names by their less attractive acquaintances identify strongly with Mozart?

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