“… I keep pushing that rock up the hill over and over and it keeps falling back. And then I finally get the rock up to the top of the hill, and then what the hell do I have? A rock… on a hill.” -Mort Rifkin (Rifkin’s Festival)
The other day, a patient of mine told me that she worried so much because she believed that if she stopped, something terrible would happen. Her worries, like her ambition, were wrapped up in a drive to create an all-encompassing, utopic-like state of security, wherein her world is barricaded against the prospect of harm. In our seeming inability to deal with catastrophe, including the ultimate crisis of death, we pine for some form of symbolic immortality. In Rifkin’s Festival, the protagonist, Mort, refuses to live – that is, to make significant choices – until he completes his life-defining novel, which he believes will place him among the cannon of greats. To him, nothing is worth doing unless it’s perfect, so he spends most of his life putting off writing it. And, in the meantime, his marriage falls apart as he barely maintains his teaching career.
The obsession with greatness can also be found in 1984’s Amadeus, wherein the film’s antagonist Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival, bemoans his unjust fate and attempts to retaliate against it by sabotaging his divine enemy. In his bitterness, Salieri glorifies and idealizes Mozart’s life, desperately yearning to live forever through his music as Mozart will undoubtedly do so through his own. Again, this theme of symbolic immortality appears, indicating an obsession with greatness that never truly engenders the intended results. Fortunately for Mort Rifkin, he realized what Salieri didn’t: that greatness, when perceived in its totality, isn’t so great. Whether we’re considering Achilles, who chose greatness over a quiet but happy life, or Mozart in Amadeus, obsessive ambition often leads to a short and mostly impoverished existence.
If we agree with Salieri in his assertion that Mozart achieved immortality, we can only grant that he achieved the symbolic kind. Because Mozart died young, he never experienced the gratitude of the generations of music lovers who fell in love with his art. Like Achilles, he lived on in our minds but, in reality, disappeared early on. So what was Salieri actually jealous of? Mozart was certainly not immortal nor was he loved in the way that we tend to conceive of the concept. To mitigate the horror of death, our inevitable destruction, we can attempt to utilize fame, or eternal love, as a balm. Yet, popularity, or even the love of one’s talent, isn’t exactly affection. Mozart’s music may have become relatively timeless, but what do we actually know, or care to discover, about the man who created it? I love Mozart the man no more than I love Dostoyevsky.
Often, we sacrifice much for a semblance of peace.
Through her obsessive ruminations and ambitious goals, my client is able to convince herself that as long as she gives up the present, a brighter and safer future awaits. Achilles gave up the prospect of a family to soothe himself with the notion of his own everlasting existence. And Salieri sacrificed his life so that his rival couldn’t achieve what he so desperately wanted but couldn’t attain. But, in planning for the future, all three slaughtered the prospect of joy in the present. Or, mediocrity.
While undergrad students are frequently taught about the importance of self-discipline through the example of the marshmallow test (i.e. the kid who forgoes eating a marshmallow is rewarded with another), we fail to question what we’re actually striving for. If, like Sisyphus, all I have is a rock on a hill, then why am I constantly forgoing happiness now? And, do I believe that when I’m rich and famous someday, that I’ll finally find love? How will I even know that my partner loves me rather than what I’ve achieved? Greatness, to me, fails to provide one with any desirable form of immortality, as even symbolic immortality will pass into oblivion with the rest of our race. And it fails to provide its captor with authentic love. In writing this piece, I recall hip-hop icon Rakim recounting his first meeting with legend Jam Master Jay, who advised him to separate the man from the music, noting that his fans didn’t love him; they loved his art. His implicit message was practical but existential as well. Don’t think too highly of yourself because you’re a genius, but, additionally, your admirers don’t love you because they don’t know you.
So maybe, mediocrity, the love of family and friends, ballgames and BBQs, presents offerings that, as a culture, we detrimentally overlook. Maybe the good life presents itself to us daily, but we choose to blind ourselves to it.