Thursday, January 27, 2011

A few thoughts on Citizen Kane and philosophy


I am currently screening Orson Welles' astounding film Citizen Kane in the Philosophy of Human Nature class that I teach at Marquette University. I present the film as a (relatively) modern parallel to Plato's majestic Apology, centering around the theme of "Know Thyself," a philosophical dictum that stood at the center of Greek cultural and philosophical life and which was inscribed above the entrance of the temple at Delphi where Socrates received his divine calling from the oracle who channeled the god Apollo. The film remains as cinematically powerful today as when it first screened seventy years ago and the wealth of informative and revealing essays on its influence and aeshetics number in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Instead of joining the chorus I would like to offer some thoughts on the ways in which Welles not only created a beautiful work of art but also engaged his audience in a philosophical discourse about the human person and how we seek the Good, both in our private and public lives.


As most of you know the film starts with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. Wells modeled Kane on William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul and millionaire who influenced American politics and culture in untold ways (Rupert Murdoch is in many ways a modern version of Hearst). The film's nonlinear narrative follows a reporter who is attempting to learn who Charles Foster Kane truly was, the man behind the image, the inner, moral core behind the facade that the world was presented with. The film therefore immediately puts forth interesting questions about the self, that ever-elusive philosophical subject which should be clearer to us than anything else we seek to know but which is shrouded in complete mystery. As Walker Percy points out in his wonderful and humorous book Lost in the Cosmos, it is exceedingly strange that we can more readily recognize and describe a distant star thousands of light-years away with only a brief study of astronomy and a relatively good telescope while it is almost impossible to give a good description of one's innermost self, even though, ostensibly at least, nothing is nearer to a person than him or herself. When asked "who are you?" we usually give an account of our external circumstances, our name, likes or dislikes, nationality, age, interests, yet it is almost impossible for us to touch on our inner core, what makes us be who we truly are.

The search for Kane's true self - pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle through years of memories and stories presented by Kane's friends, enemies and lovers - revolves around his one dying word: Rosebud. It has become somewhat popular to dismiss the mystery of the film because people feel somewhat underwhelmed when "Rosebud" is finally revealed at the end. Yet the whole point of the film is that it is not a "twist" ending nor does it really reveal anything substantial about Charles Foster Kane. It is simply a moment, a memory. And that is what a life is, what a person is, a series of moments where choices are made and our character is formed, where eternity and time touch and we either become or refuse to be who we truly are. As the film makes clear, the mystery of a person revolves around his or her capacity for love, both for receiving it but more importantly for giving it. This beautiful line reflects a lot of the themes in Citizen Kane, spoken by the character of Jedidiah Leland, Kane's best friend and conscience, played by Joseph Cotten:

Leland: That's all he ever wanted out of life... was love. That's the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn't have any to give. 

The film is touching on points both philosophical and theological. The Greek dictum of "Know Thyself" was always tempered by the Socratic ideal of divine humility, that one must know that one doesn't know, lest one fall into ignorance and seize moving forward on the path towards wisdom. The philosophical life is an eternal ascent, an ecstatic entering into eros, being drawn towards what is good and beautiful. Yet it is a journey that can never end, a path that signifies eternal growth. The Christian tradition took all of these elements to heart, interpreting them in the light of the mystical doctrine that the purpose and role of humankind is that of theosis or deification, of becoming one with God. Yet God, at least in the ancient Christian tradition, is absolutely ineffable and inconceivable, a mystery that can only be entered into and experienced and can never be fathomed or comprehended (this teaching is still the major metaphysical tenet of the Eastern Orthodox Church). The purpose of the spiritual and philosophical life is therefore not knowledge as an end in itself, but Love. Truth is not to be understood as an abstract theory or conceptual reality  but rather as deeply personal. The human being, made in the image of the ineffable God, is equally an incomprehensible mystery, one which cannot be reduced to any formulas but which can be known experientially through love and personal communion.


I am, of course, not implying that these specific elements were what Welles had in mind but he is touching on them in extremely revealing ways, helping us to question and think deeply about our own knowledge of ourselves and about the mystery that is the human being. There is another aspect to Welles' film that I would like to touch on briefly here, which is the way in which the public and private spheres intersect and mingle in interesting ways.

Kane is first and foremost a public figure, a kind of legend and celebrity that only became possible in the 20th century. He is both the product of his culture and time and also its representative. Kane and the time and place he lives in reflect each other, creating a prism that helps us understand the small revelations and clues that become apparent to us throughout the film, analogous to the beautiful interplay of light and shadow in Gregg Toland's astounding cinematography. Kane repeatedly says that he is "first and foremost an American." The film emphasizes Kane's role in using his media power to influence the United States to enter the Spanish-American war (Hearst had done exactly that, as Murdoch was to do decades later along with his fellow media CEO's who played such a pivotal part in America's invasion of Iraq in 2003). This particular war is historically, culturally and philosophically interesting for the fact that it represents the shift when America went from a country founded on extremely idealistic and even beautiful principles to becoming the new empire of the 20th century, the heir to the corruption, power, warmongering and materialism that had come to represent the European empires in centuries past. Writers such as Mark Twain saw America's entry into the war as representing a shift away from the spiritual ideals they saw embedded in America's history and culture towards becoming a military-industrial superpower. Twain pointedly remarked that America should no longer fly the Stars and Stripes but rather the Skull and Crossbones.

Citizen Kane is a meditation on how the values of the time and place we are a part of come to define our innermost self, perhaps without us knowing it and in spite of our continual search for spiritual and philosophical truths that transcend our external circumstances. The 20th century is especially interesting as the era in which the values and questions that had formed the core of the philosophical and intellectual life of humankind came to be supplanted by the ultra-rationalism and scientism that had been growing since the Enlightenment and also became the age where materialism and consumerism came increasingly to define a person's worth. Kane represents all of this, using his wealth and power to buy as much as he can, to fill his life with things and to continually seek after power and approval while at the same time remaining ignorant about who he truly is. And it is only by knowing who we are that we are able to love and to receive love, to open ourselves up to other thinking-feeling selves and break free of our ego, the false-self engineered through our passions and desires.

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, offers an alternative to the false idols that define our age and culture, the exaltation of celebrity, greed and selfishness. It is a way of life that demands humility and a self-questioning that is both painful and dangerous yet which offers us the only freedom that is worth a damn, the freedom to be who we truly are. Philosophy is therefore an essential element to any spiritual path or any life well lived. Citizen Kane, in opening up such a path through its questions, images and symbols, is not only a great work of art but a beautiful work of philosophy.

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