“The opus begins in dying.”
– James Hillman
“Just as each Gothic tale is itself a dream and also a mirror showing the reader his mind,
everything within these symbolic structures tends to be a reflecting surface . . .
in which tormented characters catch glimpses of that inner self they struggle with
but do not understand.”
– Elizabeth MacAndrew
* * *
Toward the end of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ enormous, monolithic title character, Charles Foster Kane, walks – lumbers might be a better word: as a dinosaur, maybe, or a statue recently come to life and slowly turning back to stone – between two opposing mirrors, endlessly reflecting one in the other. After he passes, the camera does something amazing, unexpected – curious; disturbing. It zooms in slightly, as though craning its neck, drawn to this polymorphous void, intrigued by its sudden significance yet alarmed by an absence that doesn’t, somehow, make sense. It’s as if the mirror staring back at us were reflecting the silence of space after the passing of a god, only the void now permanent and immortal. In one mysterious yet eloquent gesture, Welles questions the gist of his own movie, refusing to accept the emptiness yet seemingly baffled by the depth of its dimension, yearning for an insight yet unable, or unwilling, to make a definitive statement. For over seventy years now, critics have equally attempted to make that labyrinth speak, unable to accept the claim once made by Borges that it is truly “centerless.”
Long identified as a work with pronounced leanings toward the dark and ornate Gothic style of art and architecture – mostly in regard to its art direction, Expressionistic visual style (Welles in cahoots with cinematographer Gregg Toland, with whom he shares a title card), and tendency toward melodramatics – Kane itself transcends the surface qualities of this style to embrace the deeper meanings and inferences of the literary Gothic, especially. Pauline Kael has noted, in her infamous New Yorker article, “Raising Kane,” how the film marries both the high Gothic and low American newspaper comedies of the Hollywood Golden Age; James Naremore, in The Magic World of Orson Welles, cites the blending in Welles’ 1943 follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, of both Gothic and pastoral elements. In fact, all of Welles’ films can be seen as a mixture of this and other, sometimes disparate genres: Mr. Arkadin the Gothic-plus-international-espionage, Touch of Evil -plus-police-drama, Lady from Shanghai -plus-film-noir, etc. It’s amazing how many avenues of inquiry open up once you regard Kane in light of the genre alone, whose roots in pathology and portent indicate what lies in that seductive frame. After all, what is a maze but a mirror, and what is a mirror but a maze?
* * *
As described by Elizabeth MacAndrew in her 1979 volume on The Gothic Tradition in Fiction, this literature began life in the mid-18th century in the Sentimental novels of Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, among others. Frequently involving the progress of an innocent nature-child through the corrupt and sometimes corrupting English civilization of the day, the Sentimental novel sought to illustrate the virtues of earthiness and purity in an increasingly complex moral and soon-to-be-industrial climate, just as the Forrest Gumps and Bridges of Madison Countys of the last century provided a similar buffer for the next evolution, into a technological society. A quick yet not altogether abrupt transition saw the Sentimental innocent become the Gothic young bride whose enslavement to a loveless patriarch suggests an allegory of man’s relation to God, concretizing the City and society into the forbidding Castle and its evil, brooding occupant.
MacAndrew indicates the psychological character of this location by acknowledging its – and the narrative’s – removal from the familiar, contemporary world and its setting in the distant past or some exotic geographical location, like the Italy of Horace Walpole (whose Castle of Otranto is said to have inaugurated the genre) and Ann Radcliffe, or the Spain of Matthew Gregory Lewis. “A dire and threatening place,” she writes,
it remains more than a dwelling . . . it bears the weight of the ages of man’s drift away from an ideal state, and it becomes a lasting representation of the torments of the subconscious pressing upon the conscious mind and making a prison of the self.
The use of a mediated, or layered, narrative adds to this distance and interiority. Here, an often unnamed “editor” or other such presents a manuscript by a fictitious explorer who in turn relates yet another’s story or adventure. It’s the formula for Frankenstein, Dracula, Melmoth the Wanderer, the Sentimental Julia de Rubigné as well as, again, Madison County.
If the Gothic world is a place of dreams, then all these characters function as aspects of the dreamer, working toward a resolution of some issue buried in the dreamer’s, as society’s, castle-mind. That’s why it’s so frequently the location of tortured and often torturous episodes, which MacAndrew reads as reflecting the “isolated and tormented giants at war with themselves” who inhabit their confines. Michelle Massé, in her book In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic, sees this in terms of the Freudian beating fantasy, “in which a spectator watches someone being hurt by a dominant other.” The development of this fantasy from, at first, perception of a situation (“My father is beating a child”), to personal revelation (“My father is beating me”), to the larger cultural acknowledgment that oppression is a widespread social phenomenon (“A child is being beaten”), parallels the Gothic heroine’s experience and its broader social import.
Voyeurism is often given as a way out of this oppression. As Massé sees it, the spectator, formerly associating him- or herself with the victim, transfers that identification to the role of victimizer via the power of the gaze, as when the title character of Pauline Réage’s Story of O gains a superior position by bringing the novice Jacqueline into the sadomasochistic triangle she inhabited with two other men. Compare this to the primal scene, Freud’s notion that the child’s witnessing of its parents in a sexual act enables that child to project him- or herself into the role of a loving and mature adult through an identification with one or the other parent (though his thrusts and her moans may lead the child to suspect Daddy is “hurting” Mommy). “[T]he urge to look and to know,” Massé asserts, “are closely related to one another and to sadism. To look, then, can be to know, to be privy to the forbidden knowledge that means power.” This she finds unsatisfactory, though, and so points to a resolution not involving continuing the problem by mimicking its model.
In service of this mission, the Gothic text often features an outside explorer or inquirer come to free the enslaved innocent and bring about the fall of the once-noble patriarch. As this usually male character is frequently the witness to such abuses described above, he’s frequently also the one to take the place of the cruel tyrant. A modern variation appears in some of the most prominent American novels of the last century, from The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men to Bonfire of the Vanities, each featuring a semi-innocent drawn into a similarly perverse and monolithic figure’s private, self-enclosed world-in-decline.
Such scenarios invite comparison to other searches for “forbidden knowledge” and power like the Oedipal drama Freud considered the cornerstone of Western culture and the Eden story Welles saw in similar terms, both concerning the breaking of taboos in a quest for the knowledge or identity that would make the transgressor equal to or a replacement for the Father. For Oedipus it meant the accidental killing of Laius and marrying of Jocasta, for the children of Eden the eating of the forbidden fruit that would make them like God; both result in banishment from the homeland once the deed is discovered. Entering the Gothic castle is a return to this location, a part of the self fallen to ruin by years of neglect and abandonment till it’s become, by now, a house of shame.
The contrast of castle and nature, man and woman, entropy and vitality also suggests a larger dialectic on male and female roles and stereotypes and indicates the castle as a real place, too, for the “house” is also a family line, and both are typically nearing extinction, frequently the result of some congenital infirmity, or “family curse.” Since the etymological roots of mother (mater) and materialism are one and the same, the loss of one suggests a fall into the other, the castle an analogue for capitalism and its ills. It’s a disease, like vampirism, requiring the constant influx of new resources to sate its thirst and perpetuate its own un-life, the vampire’s capillary system the catacombs and corridors of the castle itself. The twisting and turning of these structures mimics the workings of the unconscious, the text also a labyrinth or Gothic structure and the telling a personal search for some private evil the author must root out and either cast out or come to identify with. There’s the feeling that under the powerful patriarch’s pall, no one may be truly him- or herself until this work is done.
Already, the dramatic and cinematic relations to Kane are clear. The title character suggests the Sentimental nature-figure, seen in his earliest years playing in the snowy Colorado outdoors; his unwilling absorption into the Gothic castle of American Capital corrupts him as surely as Father Ambrosio does Antonia in Lewis’s The Monk. Here, though, Kane gets to play the Inquirer – the name of the newspaper chain he commandeers – like one of Massé’s “beating” survivors. Intending to bring down that structure in the form of hated father-figure Walter Parks Thatcher, Kane only ends up becoming a similar figure in his dealings with family and friends.
After Kane’s death, where the movie begins, reporter Jerry Thompson, a spontaneously regenerated Little Kane (a former journalist, himself), takes over and reiterates the task of investigation, seeking that same “forbidden knowledge” – the nature of “Rosebud,” the last word spoken by the dying Kane – that would humanize the man, bring him down a peg, like biblical Goliath or Oedipal Laius. The castle both Kane and Thompson journey to is ultimately Kane’s Xanadu mansion, a monument to ineffectuality – left incomplete – built for his second wife, Susan, after her failure in the opera house he built for her after his failure in politics. Thompson’s various stops along the way are the many way-stations in Dracula and its variations, his journey as arduous as MacAndrew describes Sir Philip’s progress in The Old English Baron and as is later seen in Joseph Conrad’s pseudo-Gothic Heart of Darkness, the film of which was Welles’ aborted first project. MacAndrew:
In the course of . . . his journey, Sir Philip . . . loses his servant. Then, continuing on alone, he stops several times to ask his way, finding to his surprise that no one knows of Lord Lovel. Even when he reaches the border of the inner world . . . there is a strange ambivalence in [the information he receives] about the deaths of that Lord and his wife. Thus, Sir Philip penetrates step by step into a world which grows more and more alien.
This journey also describes the distance humanity has gone from its familiar, natural Eden-origins: the “ideal state” MacAndrew refers to. For Kane this meant the rustic boardinghouse he began life in (as Thompson his similarly communal screening room), emblematic of the womb – owned, in fact, by his mother, Mary – and the feminine principle of life and nurturing. Since this womb is analogous to the insular unconscious, Kane plays as an explicit dream in the mind of a specific individual, whose name gives title to the picture as though they were one and the same.
The famous single-source lighting Welles worked with Toland to achieve in so many scenes suggests the pilot-light of consciousness, their celebrated depth-of-field photography keeping all planes on equal visual footing. At the same time, it elevates certain objects – the liquor bottle in the review sequence, the poison in the suicide scene – to iconic status, the snow globe Kane drops in the beginning suggesting that same self-enclosed world reflected in the film itself, which begins and ends with matching sequences. And though characters and sets constantly pose barriers to us, with lights going out and doors being shut just at the moment we think we’re about to discover something, Welles’ camera takes us inside and beyond these obstacles every time, as if to reinforce the notion that he and it can transcend all such obstructions because they already know, somehow, what’s beyond them. All are part of the same governing intelligence.
Massé’s assertion that the desire to know is basically sadistic suggests that by reducing complex concepts and things to simple dichotomies instead of wondering at their brilliant complexity, we deprive them of their selfhood – the ultimate aim of sadism. We see this in the more blatant power relations between Kane and his friends and lovers and opponents and nemeses, most of which are driven by a desire to wrest back the control over his destiny Kane felt was taken from him when remanded to the custody of Thatcher, the “Rosebud” sled revealed in the film’s penultimate shot signifying, for him, independent mobility. Massé refers to the “originating trauma” behind all Gothics – “the denial of autonomy” to their heroines, who, like Kane, “seeking recognition and love, forget or deny that they also wanted independence and agency.” So when Kane runs his series of exposés on Thatcher’s traction trusts he may think he’s temporarily “beaten” the elder as his father had allegedly done him and assumed the dominant role à la Massé’s model – until the Depression hits, and he has to resign ownership of his empire back to his guardian.
Still, Kane’s sadism is mostly imaginative: instead of investigative journalism, he simply makes his stories up in order to make a personal point or settle a private score – “You provide the prose poems,” he tells one correspondent, “and I’ll provide the war.” But the ultimate arena for the playing out of his power struggles is in his manipulation of Susan. The painful sequences where the former secretary unwillingly trains to sing opera are the Gothic beating scenes in their purest form in the picture, she the “young bride” trapped and nearly crushed by the obsessed patriarch. When he looks on from a distance at one point, it reinforces Massé’s thesis about voyeurism and demonstrates that, through her “torture,” he’s enacting his own agency in the world which had so recently rejected him.
Karl Freund’s Mad Love, a film Kael draws parallels to, enlarges the context. Similarly dealing with a fetishist who gets his kicks from seeing the object of his fixation tortured in the Grand Guignol theater where she performs, Freund’s film shows its baldpated villain (as is Kane at his most fetishistic) driven further and further from reality the more he’s alienated and rejected by society. Love ends with the elimination of this figure in order for wholeness and normality to be restored to the landscape. In Thompson’s lack of success in identifying the object of his voyeuristic/investigative project, thus to reduce Kane to a simple maxim or homily (“He missed his childhood”), Welles suggests the same end to the cyclical Gothic quest Massé envisions – to cease building an identity based on another’s suffering.
A different interpretation of the beating fantasy, especially significant in the context of 1990s America’s paranoia over the security of its daycare children and recovered-memory personal childhoods, may be a protectiveness over our own challenged innocence in a time of increasing threat to that naïveté. In this, Kane’s sham political fanfare for the Common Man may be nothing more than an acting-out of his desire to safeguard the humble beginnings he held such nostalgic regard for. His failure in this arena leads him to the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality that helped him assume the sadist’s role.
Then again, Kane isn’t only a sadist; he’s also a masochist, as we see in the scenes in which his associates berate him for one thing or another and he sits passively, sometimes smiling, never fighting fire with fire, as though acknowledging the worst anyone might say about him. If he vicariously lives out Susan’s cultural ascension, he also shares in her humiliation when completing the devastating review of her debut begun by passed-out-drunk best friend and drama critic, Jed Leland. He forces her to continue, anyway, until her suicide attempt convinces him to let her give up, but by then the die is cast, and by his hand.
The final link in Kane’s Gothic lineage is in screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s use of the layered (or “prismatic,” as he called it) narrative. One of the most celebrated of the film’s devices, it involves at least seven points of view: the omniscient one (Welles’ camera often referred to as a final “character” in the drama), which opens and closes the movie with its investigation of and withdrawal from Xanadu; the newsreel, abruptly cutting in after Kane’s death to document his character and accomplishments; Thatcher, via the memoirs Thompson is privileged to obtain; Bernstein, Thompson’s first successful interview subject and Kane’s business manager; Leland, narrating from a nursing home; Susan; finally, snide butler Raymond. The accumulation of all these perspectives serves to erase the notion, as Roy Armes put it, of a “single, all-embracing, godlike certainty” in the film – meaning, Kane himself.
So with the shattering of the snow globe that began the film, we identify all these characters as fragments or facets of the same gigantic personality on its descent into sleep, or death. As Marie-Louise von Franz reports in On Dreams and Death: A Jungian Interpretation, according to many cultures, “man has not just one but different souls which separate after death, sometimes completely.” In this context we see the screening-room scene soon after Kane’s passing – where many of the off- as well as on-camera characters who’ll feature later in the drama appear – as containing just these souls preparing for dispersal. You might also see them as sperm cells awaiting ejaculation (or eggs fertilization), or elements in the subconscious awaiting realization and representation in dreams. All are looking for a way to fit themselves together, all unified by the mystery of Rosebud, all bound by the myth of a tragic loss somewhere in their, as our, youths. In the end, the death of God so recently sounded by Nietzsche may be less what has unstrung modern society and the psyche as what holds us together in a post-theistic world.
In many ways, the Gothic castle seems less a structure built on contaminated soil than an extrusion from that earth – the underworld become terrestrial, as the unconscious suddenly made conscious in dreams. Xanadu, then, is this underworld made wood and stone. The Coleridge poem it takes its name from drives the point home further, describing the place, as John Livingston Lowes has it in The Road to Xanadu, as a place of imagination, composed from out of an opium dream. As the newsreel commentator calls Kane “Xanadu’s landlord,” he would, in an ironic sense, suggest both Lucifer ruling his outcast domain (the No Trespassing sign outside à la Dante’s All hope abandon, ye who enter here; in one of the film’s original drafts, Kane was even given mob, or “underworld,” connections) and the Unconscious blundering about its self-enclosed world. That’s why he’s so incompetent in this one: it isn’t his, he growing more and more grotesque the more desperate he becomes to impose his stamp on reality.
The decay that haunts these worlds and intrudes on our own is a reminder, in some ways, of the material we repress in our everyday lives and of the death that attends and awaits us at all times. One of the primary exponents of recognizing this Shadow and integrating it into the dayworld is James Hillman, whose The Dream and the Underworld argues at length against the utilitarian attitude traditional psychotherapy takes toward the unconscious. Too simply put, Hillman’s thesis is that the contents of the dream belong to the psyche, or soul, which he equates with the classical, mythological underworld and which naturally translates, via metaphor, into death imagery – Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep. Things of the soul don’t desire translation into reality, so shouldn’t be psychoanalyzed, or made to serve the dayworld. This is psychic materialism, and antithetical to the deconstructive processes of death and the dead.
The psyche, Hillman asserts, wants to break down the dream-material in an act of digestion and forgetting, in order to feed new life. Dreaming is a practice, or preparation, for this demise, so analysis should serve the decompositional goal of reading things back to the myths or archetypes – essence, or soul – they sprang from, thus to reveal their universality, rather than forward into the contemporary and personal. That No Trespassing sign may stand less as a declaration of privacy than an admonition to not try to bring logic, reason, or order to bear on this world, but to instead assume a new set of perspectives on the inevitable journey Through the Gate. Otherwise, it’s a contradiction of Kane’s own journalistic intrusiveness and generally transgressive behavior, Welles’ camera taking us beyond that Oedipal injunction and inviting his audience to join in Kane’s dissolving consciousness in order to commune with and understand in a different way what the man was, what he stood for, and what he might mean to the rest of the world.
Certainly Welles was familiar with the classical delineations of Upper and Lower Regions and, as an artist, intuited the meaning behind them. He named his stage, radio, and production company the Mercury Theatre after not only the element giving mirrors their reflective quality but also the Roman conductor of souls between worlds and his Greek counterpart, Hermes, the patron saint of alchemists and “the God and master of media and mediation,” as Hillman describes him in Kinds of Power. Given the atmosphere of madness and death Welles grew up in, as articulated in the introduction to Charles Higham’s life of Welles, and his reputation for ambiguity and self-destructiveness among the Hollywood community, he was born to the role of advocate to the Underworld, more than once – in Ambersons and Touch of Evil – even shooting from the point of view of the corpse, just as Kane, one might say, unravels in the mind of a dead man narrating its own deterioration and descent, as do dreams.
As Laura Mulvey notes in her BFI monograph on the film, Citizen Kane takes place between the spoken word (“Rosebud!”) and the real thing (Rosebud) – transcending representation to reach the essence, like the mind retreating from the physical world in sleep. Kane moves from patent unreality (the studio-art-department world of its opening sequence) to hyperreality (the distorted and disorienting close-ups on Kane’s lips, his hand, the globe) and the sudden break-in of documentary “reality” (the life-flashing-before-our-eyes “News on the March” trailer) to actual – film – reality (the screening room of the newsreel studio), only to conclude with a reversal of its opening montage in the somber, funereal conclusion. The film crawls back into the womb/tomb it came from, Rosebud the sled going from snowy Colorado to Floridian hellfire – from the cold storage of memory to the consumptive fires of time and forgetting. The smokestacks in the end spewing the remains of Kane’s beloved ride suggest the simultaneous disintegration of that other vehicle, the body, and the mind’s processing, again, of our dayworld waste into its essence – soul – Charles Foster Kane now literally part of the underworld he arose from.
If Xanadu is this underworld-unconscious, similarly stocked with the detritus of a day/life (Kane’s notorious statue collection more than just an assortment of fetishes to the man who could not control their real-world counterparts but that world distilled to its iconic, archetypal essences à la Hillman, the two-by-two hoarding of animals within its walls as much a statement on the duality in Kane’s character – Mercury the planet having one hemisphere of eternal heat to complement its other of eternal cold – as any ark-like comparison of him to God) and Kane the embodiment of this subterranean stratum, then delving into either one turns into a heroic quest as maddening as Hercules’ and as futile as Orpheus’.
The film’s many visual and thematic references to 1933’s King Kong come steeped in suggestion. The explorers’ quest for the Great Ape is akin to Thompson’s trek toward Xanadu, a ringer for Kong’s Skull Mountain hideaway (many of Kane’s production sketches and matte paintings done by Kong’s art director, Mario Larrinaga), the strange, animated birds winging through the master shot of Kane’s beachside picnic Kong’s pterodactyls. Both films’ atmosphere of prehistoricity and decay locate them in the same dark, chthonic realm of Hillman’s Underworld and suggest their lords as the similarly godlike, and Gothic, last of their species. In order to facilitate this investigation, then, into the self – an inquiry into a former Inquirer – Thompson takes over as our Mercury-Hermes “conductor” into the unreal realm. The way into this world is, of course, through death, his journey reflecting the need to go down, as into the grave, to find the truth of Kane’s life.
After an unsuccessful first attempt to interview barely-living Susan, Thompson turns to the memoirs of long-dead Thatcher in his cavernous mausoleum of a library. As others have noted, he finds each of the subsequent and preceding characters in their separate tombs: alcoholic Susan the dive where she trades on her history, singing; nostalgic Bernstein his enormous office; decrepit Leland the nursing home; Raymond the basement of Xanadu, not to mention Thompson himself and the four bare walls of his screening room. To get to these sources, he relies on a series of mediums, from Gus Schilling’s maître d’ to the butch (read: Tiresian-ambiguous) Thatcher librarian and Leland’s attending nurses, finally Raymond himself, who describes his boss’s last moments and exit from the world. MacAndrew’s comments on other such servants as Udolpho’s Dorothée, Wuthering Heights’ Nelly Dean, Turn of the Screw’s Mrs. Grose, and the housekeeper in Rebecca reinforce this aspect:
[A]s mediating consciousness, these figures can, in their simplicity, recount events in the past, but they cannot see or understand the spiritual significance of what they know. . . . [T]hey represent the earthy hold on life and common sense that is a necessary balance to idealism and to all spiritual quests.
It’s Raymond, of course, who adds the last few words on his employer before unwittingly ordering the source of Thompson’s quest into the furnace, like a demon-figure casting dead souls into hell or Freud’s idea of the dream-censor keeping painful truths or revelations away so sleep can continue undisturbed. To Kane, he’s the Common Man champed so loudly in his stump speeches and editorials, the same one who would just as surely prove his downfall. Welles’ career arc was similarly dictated by smug but clueless Hollywood autocrats like Raymond, his film nearly destroyed in the wake of the scandal it caused due to parallels to the life of millionaire newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. Welles’ unlikely assertion that his character was “not Hearst,” though, may be less disingenuousness or litigation-dodging than a compass, instead, to the proper way to read his movie: Kane isn’t, in fact, Hearst, just as a dream isn’t reality; it merely uses the facts of real life as a framework or window dressing for its own, other-intentioned and deeper-reaching arguments.
Fittingly, it’s the most dead of the movie’s characters, Thatcher, via his memoirs, who discloses the man’s origins, as if the journey down were a journey back as well. Opposite the shattering of the snow globe, Kane is seen in this flashback as a 12-year-old boy defending “the Union,” that imaginal wholeness suggested by the globe in its original form and represented by the presence of the mother in the heaven-white infinity-room Eden of his Colorado boardinghouse home, his journey one from such paradise to the hell of the film’s penultimate image. If that house is Eden, then Mary Kane is Eve and Thatcher there to sign the papers and take away young Charles the conspiring Snake, befuddled Jim Kane the unknowable Father interceding only to punish – the reason his wife gives for sending Charles away – and unwitting Adam both, father of their unfortunate namesake, Cain.
The fact of this pun points to the reason Charles can never really ascend as he seemed destined to do. In his effort to achieve the Oedipal coup that would make him King, the real Cain was only able to destroy his brother, as Charles does his peers and himself: Susan is humiliated and all but ruined by his opera scheme, Leland left a sarcastic shell of his former scrappy self; first wife Emily and son Charles Jr. are killed in a car accident following the exposure of his adulterous love nest. The only one to escape such fate is Bernstein, the least critical of and most willing to accept his boss’s ambiguities and inconsistencies; the only person not to engage in Kane’s power dynamics. He is the vampire’s slave, surviving while his master destroys those around him even as he confers new life upon them.
To Hillman, the sort of heroism all of Kane’s characters succumb to equates with literal-mindedness. The cold light of reason, he suggests, is compensation for the darker powers of metaphor and ideas; the No Trespassing sign at the beginning and end are an edict against not imaginative exploration, but literalism itself. This literalism serves only to obscure and to ensure that the hero or heroine discover only what he or she knew all along, even as it creates a “sadistic” impression of one’s self on one’s subject rather than fostering an empathic recognition of that self in the other. “Nobody sees the mark of Cain,” Hillman explains, “where his third eye could be.”
Since these attempts to see reveal more about the observer than the observed, Kane provides a “deep, dark, truthful mirror” for those who can’t stand what they witness in it – the reason he’s so impassive as they stand and berate him. Leland complains of Kane’s lack of love yet knows no intimacy, himself; Thatcher thought Kane irresponsible with money yet used it to his own disreputable ends; Susan says he used her, though she consented to the affair, her operatic elevation an admitted fulfilling of her mother’s ambitions for her. Kane is as much the fictive, archetypal image shared by each of his chroniclers as they are facets of his personality (none are ever seen whole outside their peculiar recollections); together, they constitute the mirrors reflecting each other into infinity.
The final irony in the stentorian narrator’s newsreel epitaph to Kane’s career – wrong in the way only those who seek to put a pat, unidimensional cap on any life or object may be – is that “death” didn’t “come” to Charles Foster Kane, it’d always been with him. The Black Man (which Hillman equates – in white people’s dreams, we assume – with Thanatos) who introduces Kane’s communal Inquirer dinner where he celebrates his acquisition of the rival Chronicle’s editorial staff and announces his engagement to the President’s niece also presides over the isolated picnic for his increasingly suicidal second wife while Kane himself is in retrograde. There’s death built in, too, to his famous riposte to Thatcher earlier in his arc, when the guardian chastens him for having lost a million dollars a year on his publishing enterprise and the young gun shoots back that, at that rate, he’d have to close the place – “in sixty years.” In Ambersons, too, as Naremore points out,
death and madness are never far away. . . . [A]fter the circle of darkness closes around the distant auto and the Christmas-card town [in that film’s lively sleighride sequence], the screen lightens to show a dark, circular funeral wreath on the Amberson door.
Beginning and ending with a deathlike pan across the enormous tomb his Xanadu finally became, like the funereal bookends to Welles’ 1952 Othello, Kane is, more than a history of a man’s documentable life, a study of his ambiguous passing, and Kane himself, as “Xanadu’s landlord,” the Death everyone in the film slaves and challenges themselves for, for naught.
Freud wrote that we “become aware during the work of interpretation that . . . there is a tangle of thoughts which cannot be unraveled. . . . This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down to the unknown.” He was describing, I think, a similar labyrinth to Kane’s, with its several characters and their viewpoints and the many dark and sepulchral settings they find themselves in, as well as the “center” Borges was unable to locate. Welles not only directs us to this discovery all through the film but virtually offers it on a plate in the climactic shot of the sled afire at the cluttered heart of Xanadu. Hillman takes Freud’s metaphor into the mythological toward the end of Kinds of Power by invoking Hestia, the companion of Mercury/Hermes – “Goddess of the interior hearth,” who was said to provide focus for his variegated perspectives. This hearth, one of the primary focuses of Kane’s last act, is echoed in the furnace, indicating its centrality to the man and foreshadowing its importance in Rosebud’s identity – a suggestion of the sacred womb, afire.
The transposition of this sled from snowy heaven to incendiary hell indicates a revelation of the true nature of Kane’s boyhood, reminding us of the purifying powers of fire and the fact that it was the Burning Bush that revealed the face of the Living God to Moses. It points again to the Eden analogy and to Hillman’s statement about the marriage bed as the point of soul-conception (as to Freud’s notion of the primal scene). For if Rosebud is the navel we’ve been searching all the film to uncover, then Kane’s personal primal scene may have had less to do with romance than to reveal the burning question underlying the whitewashing we demand of our Edens.
Lyn Cowan, in Masochism: A Jungian Perspective, calls this Edenic setting “the archetypal realm, the place of original imprinting,” and “the mythical realm, the place of original experience.” This is where Kane’s character is formed; not, as supposed, in his separation from it. His spirit isn’t broken by being forced to leave the Colorado homeland, it’d already been shattered by the sundering of his parents’ affections. The “Union” he fought for was an illusion all along. So the tragedy isn’t in a loss of innocence, per se, but in a world that was fragmented to begin with – why the film starts with the death of Kane and the breakup of a globe and spends the rest of its running time looking for the nonexistent glue that would hold it all together.
For Kane, the only vocation he could ever adopt was that of the Inquirer, forever hungering for the primal scene denied him in his youth and which the beating fantasy would become a lonely, degraded substitute for. Once he comes to recognize the truth of his situation – the mise en abîme of his discovering, while tearing through Susan’s room after she’s left him, the globe which reminds him of their first encounter (where he, and we, first see it, appearing at the film’s approximate halfway point like some 2001 icon turning the course of events), which reminds him of his mother’s boardinghouse, which reminds him of Rosebud, which reminds him of the womb (which is where our Hearstiana comes in handy, “Rosebud” being the magnate’s pet name for his mistress’s genitals, making “her” another vehicle for the young boy into the world), which reminds him of – you name it; once he achieves this self-knowledge, he can admit the Eden-shame he’d been hiding from all along and abandon the Crusader role he never fit in anyway and allow himself to fade away and die, sunk into himself and dependent in his wheelchair. When he drops the globe, it’s a letting go of the illusion of unity and order that permits him to also let go of the fetish he’d attached so much unnatural significance to all his life. And when it breaks – think of the shattering mirrors at the end/center of Welles’ Shanghai labyrinth – it’s a real-ization of his life-myth and a flight back, at the deathbed, from the world of image to that of essence. As other dramas ending in similar self-obliviation – see Coppola’s Dracula; Corman’s The Undead; 2001; The Incredible Shrinking Man; Dungeon of Harrow; Leaving Las Vegas; and Reservoir Dogs – Kane’s ending suggests a true resolution of the issue. In that voracious furnace, the mind eats up and destroys its own memory-self like the Guy Van Stratten character in Mr. Arkadin, who provides his title figure with the names and locations of his past associates, so they can be eliminated.
Thompson also finally lets go of Rosebud, and in doing so relinquishes his own reluctant Crusader role, opting instead for an understanding of the man beyond the literal pleasure a revelation of the sled’s identity would afford him. His mission to uncover Kane’s forbidden knowledge and acquire the power it might accord him – over Kane, in a sense, the screening-room scene a precursor to the manipulative witches’ prologue in Welles’ Macbeth and an echo of countless Gods Deciding the Fate of Mortals scenes in films before and after – may fail to elevate him, heroically, in his superior’s eyes, but it does serve to deepen his appreciation of life and the man. When the camera pans back from him in his admission of defeat and proceeds to uncover the object itself, the point is less a pining for some lost boyhood artifact than a statement on how corruption is rooted in adherence to a false-heroic ideal, and, on a more mundane level, how the world destroys the idealistic childlike soul in us all. It’s a loss that, rather than individualizes, unites us. Leaning away from a grand statement – the ultimate goal of Oedipal analysis, or crusadership – Welles and Mankiewicz have, instead, uncovered a banal truth that doesn’t, nevertheless, fail to reveal something of ourselves and purify us, in a way, in so doing.
If we agree with Hillman that the individual malaise mirrors the “agonies in the collective soul,” and if Kane does figure as America (the working title of the film mirroring his statement that he is, was, and “will be only one thing – an American”), then we are as a nation also equal parts the “Communist,” “fascist,” and “anarchist” the latter is accused of being, longing for a false dream of original naïveté. Our country is, after all, founded on Native graves and in the Oedipal spirit of rebellion – our capitalist culture built on Native antimaterialism – a Gothic castle dealing in unreality and death, and we are all, as Peter Straub characterized us, “haunted.”
Which is to admit, then, that we’re not without a conscience, as Kane is in some ways the voice of that higher (or, as Hillman would have it, lower) sense, a dream of undeserving for a man and a land who never asked for their fortune yet who, once achieved, actively sought its failure as though programmed to self-destruct. Coming months before our national loss of innocence – about itself – with the invasion of Pearl Harbor and climactic bombing of Hiroshima (where we became the abusive, destructive Father we once railed against), Kane seems both the last Golden Age Hollywood movie and the first postwar film, presaging all the various Shrinking, Melting, and otherwise Disappearing Man movies of decades to come.
In a speech to the Utne Reader’s symposium on visionaries, Hillman picked up on the Titanic imagery prevalent in the landscape at the time – with blockbuster film on the legendary wreck, re-release onto video of two classic precursors, two-part A&E documentary, IMAX presentation, album by Gavin Bryars, and various print publications – and recommended we learn to perform “the rituals of sinking” and “[w]elcome the shadow, for as Jung said, ‘The shadow knows.’”
Of course, Welles also said that, and not just as the voice of Lamont Cranston in the radio show the phrase arose from. It’s in the visuals he chose to dream Mankiewicz’s script to life – by making it dead – and it’s in many of his films afterward, as in his own in-many-ways unfortunate career. The celebrated long takes in those works make you feel the effects of time – its gravity, duration, and power (think of the ticking time bomb in one of his most acclaimed long takes, the opening two minutes of Touch of Evil) in a medium most noted for its ability to compress that time, let the viewer forget about age and death and revel in the fantasy. Showing film to itself, he took it out of its theatrical, documentary, journalistic, and novelistic origins and burned it up, exhausting it and returning it to its elements. He was the soul of filmmaking after the age of experimentation and imagination had passed, Kane both his boardinghouse and Xanadu, his entrance into the film world and the crypt he will always be interred in.
Still, he must have known it was to be this way, that the father must destroy himself in order to make way for his children. The language of the Gothic is, after all, the language of decay, our job to live as conscientiously and organically as possible to provide good food for the earth when we return to her, our chthonic Mother. Citizen Kane was a Gothic tale told from the inside by a great man aware of his own obsolescence, Welles’ battle with Father Capitalism coming despite his own privileged upbringing while also providing fodder for his anti-nostalgic diatribes.
In 1994, he appeared posthumously in two films from opposite sides of the globe, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, and in two entirely different lights. In the Burton, he was the object of adoration for a filmmaker who was himself doomed to success within his own mind, and in the Jackson “the most hideous man alive!” to a pair of girls whose future lay in matricide and prison. The former was the first commercial misstep by a quirky, reliable Hollywood hit machine, the latter a succès d’estime by a one-time New Zealand director of splatter comedies destined for greater things. Though Welles found himself a pariah in his own medium, at once both a suspicious intruder on the Hollywood underworld and revelatory extrusion from that same repressed artistic-unconscious, he did help launch the careers of just about everybody associated with him, proving that if his world was a place of death and ambiguity, it was also bursting with fertility and crystal clarity.
Possibly the greatest testament to his vision comes from this dream, cited by Marie-Louise von Franz from Millie Kelly Fortier’s unpublished dissertation, Dreams and Preparation for Death, of an old woman approaching her demise. It’s a near-perfect transcription of the opening moments of Kane:
She sees a candle lit on the windowsill of the hospital room and finds that the candle suddenly goes out. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Suddenly, the candle lights on the other side of the window and she awakens.
Even in the dreams of others, Welles’ enormous achievement lives and maybe even serves to help us reconcile ourselves to our final meeting with the underworld.
As regards the furnace image, Hillman tells us that wherever there’s smoke, there’s soulmaking going on. Orson Welles did his time in the underworld; now let us consign his soul to the heavens, where we know it resided all along. He has shown ourselves to us as well, and for that we remain eternally grateful.
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Cowan, Lyn. Masochism: A Jungian Perspective (1992, Spring Publications, Dallas)
Fortier, Millie Kelly. Dreams and Preparation for Death (1972 University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor)
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams (Translated by James Strachey; 1965, Avon Books edition, New York)
Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (1985 St. Martin’s Press, New York)
Hillman, James. Kinds of Power (1995, Doubleday Currency, New York)
Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld (1979, Harper & Row Perennial Library, New York)
Kael, Pauline. The Citizen Kane Book (1984, Limelight Editions, New York)
Lowes, John Livingston. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1986, Princeton University Press, New Jersey)
MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction (1979, Columbia University Press, New York)
Mankiewicz, Herman J. quoted by Kael, Pauline, in The Citizen Kane Book.
Massé, Michelle. In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic (1992, Cornell University Press, Ithaca)
Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane (1992, BFI Publishing, London)
Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles (1989, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas)
Straub, Peter. Ghost Story (1979, Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, New York)
Utne Reader. (#70, July-August 1995)
von Franz, Marie-Louise. On Dreams and Death: A Jungian Interpretation (1984, Shambhala, Boston and London)
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.