"Citizen Kane"

Directed by Orson Welles
Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Photography: Gregg Toland
Filmed 1940; released 1941
With Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, and others

The film presents the story and portrait of the fictional newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). It starts with a series of lugubrious views of "Xanadu," the spectacular castle and park of the enormously wealthy publisher. "Xanadu" is located in 20th century Florida, but its design is a conglomerate of historical Old World styles, and its premises house artworks and antiques from every part of the world. In addition it contains "the largest private zoo since Noah's ark," according to the voice-over narration. The immense estate is both unfinished and in a state of decay.

The introductory shots are followed by the scene of the publisher's death. Kane, a tired old man, is shown lying alone on his bed, gazing into a glass ball paper weight that contains a cabin in a snow-covered landscape. The ball falls to the floor at the moment of Kane's demise. On his last breath he hoarsely whispers the word "Rosebud."

The year is 1941. The next sequence of shots shows a projection room where a team of journalists watches a newsreel that summarizes Kane's life in the style of a "March of Time" obituary. The narrator points out the meteoric rise of Kane as the founder of a media empire, as well as the publisher's eventual decline. He mentions that Kane married the niece of a President of the United States, and that he had hopes of becoming President himself. Although nothing came of Kane's political ambitions, the media magnate remained a celebrity and continued to have considerable influence on the nation's political and cultural life. As a patron of the arts he bought enormous quantities of artworks, financed lavish theatrical productions, and even built the massive municipal opera house in Chicago. In his newspapers he supported or ruined the careers of political candidates, and he hobnobbed with world leaders--including the likes of Mussolini and Hitler. Labor unions denounced him as a "Fascist," while conservatives attacked him as a "Communist." Kane himself countered such accusations with the politic assertion that "I am, have been, and will be only one thing--an American."

After watching the newsreel the journalists feel that something is amiss, that they do not really understand this towering figure. Kane was a well known public person, but he had not provided much access to his inner life. The journalists know "what Kane did, but they do not know who he was." The boss of the team assigns one of the journalists, Thompson (William Alland), to find out who the man behind the public appearances was. Thompson is to do so by interviewing people who had been especially close to Kane, and by asking them what the dying magnate may have meant by the mystifying word "Rosebud."
The main body of the film then proceeds to show what the five persons who had been closest to Kane have to say about him. The sequence of their memories is arranged in such a way that the viewer sees the key episodes of the publisher's life in roughly chronological order, although the actual flashbacks jump back and forth in time, and thus present the publisher's portrait not as a linear narrative, but more in the manner of a kaleidoscope or a cubist painting. In spite of the complexity of this non-linear presentation, however, and in spite of the fact that the five witnesses highlight different aspects of Kane’s personality, the final portrait of the publisher turns out to be coherent and pointed. There is a well defined character behind the public persona of Kane, and the word “Rosebud” turns out to be a suitable key to the soul of the man.

The first interview is an indirect one: Thompson is granted access to the unpublished memoirs of Kane's early guardian, the late Wall Street banker Walter P. Thatcher (George Coulouris). Thompson reads (and the camera shows) how Kane's mother (Agnes Moorehead) relegates, over her weak husband's objections, the education of her son to Thatcher, who is also the trustee of the enormous fortune that Kane is to inherit at the age of twenty-five. The money has come to the mother by accident: A boarder, who was unable to pay the rent in her modest boarding house, had given her his mining claim instead. Unexpectedly his mine proved to be worth millions. As a consequence of this change of fortune young Charles is yanked away from his family and the modest but idyllic cabin in snowbound Colorado, in order to be groomed in Eastern cities for a life in high society. The separation from his mother and childhood world is shown as a traumatic experience. It is in effect the replacement of a human environment with a world of money. "Kane was not brought up by parents, but by a bank," as Orson Welles once put it in an interview.

Once Kane has access to his inheritance he eagerly embarks on a career as a newspaper publisher. In New York City he buys and assumes leadership of the Inquirer, a paper that is run in an old fashioned and inefficient way, and that is not doing very well. By ruthlessly firing old staff, and by cultivating a style of tabloid sensationalism, populist muckraking, and jingoistic rhetoric, Kane increases the Inquirer's circulation and turns the paper into a powerful journalistic and political force. (Kane is closely modeled after such successful and famous Yellow Journalism publishers as Pulitzer and Hearst. Kane’s similarity to Hearst in particular was to get Orson Welles into serious trouble.) Through deliberate misinformation, lurid stories, and the fanning of crudely nationalistic sentiments Kane becomes instrumental in dragging the United States into the Spanish-American War. He reported enemy atrocities when there were no atrocities, he described skirmishes when there were no skirmishes, and he over-dramatized the actual situation to the point where the President of the United States was not free anymore to decide matters according to his own sober estimates. Responding to one of his reporters who telegraphs from Cuba that he could send only “poetry,” because there was no actual fighting on the island, Kane telegraphs back: "Keep sending the poems. I will supply the war."

Kane conducts himself in all this with ebullience and charm. He is intelligent, witty, and full of enterprising energy. He enjoys himself tremendously in the role of opinion maker and policy shaper. As someone who had been expelled from several colleges and prestigious universities, and who had been in danger of ending up as a dissolute playboy, Kane finally seems to have found his true calling. He has become a man of influence and prestige, and he is well on his way of becoming a pillar of society. Thatcher in his memoir, however, leaves no doubt that he is thoroughly contemptuous of his former ward's business practices, journalistic ethics, and his prankster attitude toward life. "I repeat," Thatcher writes, "he was a common adventurer, spoiled, unscrupulous, and irresponsible." Thatcher, in other words, hints at a dark side of the bright figure of Kane.

Thompson's second interview is with Bernstein (Everett Sloane), the business manager of Kane's various enterprises. Bernstein's memories focus on the ascendancy of Kane's meteoric career. As a scandal-mongering tabloid the Inquirer keeps expanding its circulation, soon surpassing its more established competitors. Kane lures the most prominent journalists away from other papers by paying them unheard-of salaries, and by entertaining them lavishly with dinner parties and dancing chorus line girls. He acquires more papers and magazines in other parts of the country, and thus puts together an increasingly domineering media empire. It was this wide-flung empire building that had prompted the narrator in the newsreel obituary to acknowledge Kane as "the American Kublai Khan." Kublai Khan was the Mongolian emperor of China who built the legendary Xanadu as his summer residence. By naming his own estate after the emperor’s residence, the publisher implicitly approved of the Kane/Khan identity and word play. Empire building was, indeed, the heart of Kane's existence.

The Bernstein sequence shows Kane at the peak of his success and contentment. After consolidating his position in the publishing world Kane travels to Europe. He ships back warehouses full of artworks. When he comes back to New York he is betrothed to Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), the American President's niece. Kane readies himself to embark on a political career. He is popular among ordinary people, and he enjoys the support of important upper class friends.

The seeds of Kane's undoing are hinted at, however, by Bernstein's recollection of the growing tension between Kane and his closest friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton). When Kane somewhat pompously publishes in his papers a "Declaration of Principles," in which he promises his readers to always tell them "the news honestly… the true news--quickly and simply and entertainingly," and to "provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings," Leland subtly demonstrates his skepticism by asking for the handwritten original of this document—supposedly as a souvenir.

Leland's skepticism is plainly justified, for Kane had already demonstrated his willingness to lie to his readers by publishing such false reports as "Spanish Armada off the coast of New Jersey"--as part of his campaign to maneuver America into a war with Spain. Kane had also engaged in such journalistic practices as enhancing the weight of certain news items by printing ridiculously fat headlines. "If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough," he tells one of his editors who had seen no reason to run a trivial story just because it appealed to the sensationalist appetite of tabloid readers. As becomes increasingly clear, Kane's media empire has relatively little to do with disseminating the truth, but very much with accumulating economic might and the manipulation public opinion. With the bitterness of his disappointed idealism, Leland is to say later on: "Well, Charlie was a bad newspaper man even then. He entertained his readers, but he never told them the truth." Leland, in other words, brings across that there was not just a dark side to the publisher's figure, but that the whole figure was rather a fraud.

Thompson's third interview is with Leland himself. Leland's memories focus primarily on Kane's political career, but also on the disintegrating marriage of his friend and boss, and finally on Kane's affair with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). These events constitute a time of crisis in Kane's life. His marriage is emotionally dead; his wife refers to it later as a "distasteful episode in my life that I'd rather forget." It seems likely, indeed, that for Kane the union had never been just a matter of romantic affection, but also a stepping-stone for the realization of his social and political ambitions.

Kane is shown running for governor of New York--as a prelude for a candidacy for President of the United States. He styles himself as a reformer, as a friend of the underprivileged masses, and as a leader who will sweep away a political machine that has wielded its corrupt power for too long. He is enthusiastically supported by Leland, who at that time believes in Kane's sympathies for the "working man"--as he believes in Kane's muckraking journalism that makes it its business to expose the corruption of Wall Street and the propertied classes. Everything seems to go well with Kane's campaign. As a captivating speaker he draws large crowds, and the polls show him far ahead of his tainted opponent.

Kane's illicit affair with Susan Alexander, however, becomes the candidate's downfall. His opponent finds out about Kane's "love nest," and the scandal that ensues when the media get hold of the story ends both Kane's marriage and his political career. With his wife Emily he loses a vital connection to the upper class, and with his botched candidacy he disappoints the hopes of all those who had looked forward to a progressive and reformed government. The ruined campaign is also the end of his friendship with Leland, who severs his personal ties to the man whom he blames for betraying a serious commitment to political reform in favor of satisfying personal whims. Kane feels close to Leland, and he tries to hold him as a friend. But Leland is too disillusioned, and he asks to be transferred from New York to Chicago. In the interview with Thompson he says about Kane: "As far as I was concerned, he behaved like a swine. Maybe I wasn't his friend. But if I wasn't, he never had one…"

This is a major break in Kane's life. It could have been the occasion for a thorough self-examination, and a critical review of the goals to which he had dedicated his life and fortune until then. He might have wondered about the nature of his relation to other people, about his obsessive drive to accumulate warehouses full of art at which he never looked, and about the ultimate sense of acquiring ever more newspapers, factories, ocean liners, and whatever else seemed advantageous for his ever expanding empire. The general crisis in his affairs may have made him re-evaluate his life.

When Thompson interviews Susan Alexander as the fourth witness in his inquiry, it becomes clear that Kane had no intention of asking self-critical questions. He continues to insists on the correctness of his way of seeing and doing things. With renewed effort he tries to pursue his old goals by only slightly different means. He marries Susan, and he pressures her into becoming an opera star. The beginning of his relationship with her had been an almost childlike mutual attraction--innocent and genuine. In contrast to his upper class marriage there was no pretentiousness or calculation. Susan had no class whatsoever, neither socially nor aesthetically. For a short while Kane had found in her the innocence and unadulterated affection that he had lost with his mother and childhood in Colorado. (It was in Susan’s apartment that he found the glass ball with the idyllic winter scene.) But Kane is unable to appreciate Susan for who she is. He is driven to forge her into a tool for the realization of his megalomaniac social ambitions.

Susan has neither the desire nor the talent to be a major singer. Her attempts at singing opera are as ludicrous as they are painful to watch. In spite of that Kane does not relent. He is determined to enjoy fame and adoration by being a great patron of the arts and the companion of an illustrious diva. He finances costly productions for Susan to star in, and he builds an entire opera house to command the attention of high society and the art world.

The result is disastrous. Susan's debut is a debacle, and Kane's friends are at a loss as to how to deal with the embarrassing situation. Kane is determined to continue, however. Denying the obvious, he pressures Susan into embarking on national tours. His newspapers publish glowing reviews, and her appearances at major cities are treated by him as front-page news. Taking note of the lukewarm response of audiences nationwide, he talks to Susan about the importance of defying popular opinion. For him the whole affair is a matter of prevailing wills. He is not about to concede defeat, let alone to ask himself whether his goals and efforts make any sense. A maxim like “Know thyself” and the idea of critically examining one’s self mean absolutely nothing to him.

Kane's efforts do not subside until Susan tries to commit suicide. Only then does he allow her to stop singing, and only then is he ready to retire from the world and to live a more private life at his Xanadu. This retreat into privacy is helped along by the stock market crash of 1929, when Kane loses control over much of his fortune. Although he is still rich and a celebrity, he gradually turns into an aging recluse who looks at the centers of social and political life from afar.

Unfortunately for Susan and him, however, Kane still has not changed as a person. Even after the obvious failure of his last attempt to become a revered public figure he is incapable of seeing flaws in his life. His conduct still manifests his egomaniacal megalomania, and he still insists that everything be done the way he sees fit. In fact, now that his economic and political power is significantly reduced and his active public role gone, his inclination to conceive of himself as some sort of potentate becomes even more obvious. In spite of his dismantled empire, Xanadu stands like an imperial palace above the flat landscape of Florida. The castle with its animal park, art collection, and endless flights of rooms is out of all proportion to the needs of the couple and their uneventful life. The two can take no pleasure in what they possess.

Kane's vision of grandeur has turned into a tragic delusion, Xanadu’s master fails sadly to be as big as he desires to be. He and Susan are literally dwarfed by the overwhelming dimensions of the castle’s architecture, and as the spouses talk to each other across the empty spaces of the huge rooms, the viewer can vividly perceive the echoing hollowness of the life the two are living. Susan, who is significantly younger than Kane, begins to rebel: "A person could go crazy in this dump." She wants them to move back to New York City and to live a busy life among interesting people and stimulating events. But as the authoritarian he is Kane insists: "This is our home." Not surprisingly he has no desire to return to the scenes of former failures.

In time Susan confronts Kane about his egomania in a shrill way, and in a fit of impotent rage he strikes her in the face. That is the point at which she decides to leave him. She packs her bags. He is a pitiable old man now, and Susan is almost moved to stay with him when he begs her not to go. But when he adds "You cannot do that to me," she recognizes how hopelessly self-centered he is, and she walks out of his dark and oppressive world for good.

Thompson's last interview is with Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane's sleazy butler. Through Raymond's recollection the viewer learns that Kane did not grieve after Susan's departure, but rather went on a rampage in her quarters, furiously destroying as many of her things as he could. He does not stop smashing and tearing until he comes upon the glass ball with the snow scene. The sight of the scene jolts him into the deeply buried memories of his childhood, and dazed he walks out of her rooms mumbling "Rosebud."

"Citizen Kane" ends with a swarm of journalists milling about at Xanadu, taking pictures, and discussing the futility of finding the meaning of "Rosebud." Workmen are sifting through the mass of packed and unpacked antiques and pieces of "junk," and everything Raymond deems worthless is thrown into a blazing furnace. One of the items that are disposed of in this way is a sled--the sled Kane was playing with when his mother turned him over to Thatcher. We see that the trademark name "Rosebud" is painted on the sled. Obviously, the sled represents the childhood of which Kane had been deprived—the focus of his innermost pain. The sled goes up in smoke, unseen by the journalists--who thus fail in their task to find the man behind the celebrity façade of the publisher. Only the viewers of the film have the privilege of knowing Kane’s whole story.

A Make-believe Life

The basic plot of "Citizen Kane" consists of the search for the meaning of "Rosebud." It turns out that none of the people interviewed by Thompson are able to give an explanation of the mystifying word. None of the people, in other words, who had been closest to Kane, were close enough to the publisher to understand what was obviously of crucial importance for his life. The publisher never revealed himself to anyone. The “No Trespassing” sign that we see at the beginning of the film does not only indicate the boundary of Kane’s estate, but also his basic attitude toward friends and the world.

In spite of his gregarious demeanor and celebrity status, Kane was a deeply lonesome person. "You know too few people, and I know too many. I guess we're both lonely," Kane told Susan when they first met. Kane was not lonely in the way Susan was: his was not a temporary situation that could be remedied by finding suitable company. Kane's loneliness was a permanent condition in that he never allowed anyone to see his deeply buried self--the powerless and traumatized boy. This innermost self he kept carefully hidden--even from himself. In a way Kane never knew who he was.

To hide his bleeding soul successfully from the world and himself he manufactured the public persona of the powerful publisher and admired man of the people. He refused to look inside or admit to his inner condition even after the external persona had to a large extent crumbled, and his empire and castle had become not much more than an empty shell. Kane clung to pretense and external contraptions right to the time of his death. Only his last gaze at the glass ball may have triggered some momentary self-recognition, although even that is not certain.

The injured child inside him was Kane’s real self insofar as he never outgrew it. Every major enterprise that Kane undertook in his adult life was motivated by his traumatic separation from his mother and his childhood. From the moment of this separation there was but one drive in Kane's life: To find and secure the love that he had lost or never had--or any symbolic substitute for that love. The insatiable hunger for that love runs like a thread through the publisher’s life, and it gives a unity to his portrait without which the kaleidoscopic details of his biography would appear to be just random features and episodes. It explains his voracious consumption of food and growing corpulence as much as his obsessive and meaningless collection of artworks. It explains his troubled relationship with women, and it exposes the ultimate reasons for his dubious journalistic and political undertakings.

"He married for love," Leland tells Thompson, "that's why he did everything. That's why he went into politics. It seems we weren't enough. He wanted all the voters to love him, too. All he really wanted out of life is love. That's Charlie's story--it's the story of how he lost it. You see, he just didn't have any to give. He loved Charlie Kane, of course, very dearly--and his mother, I guess he always loved her…."

During the dreary years at Xanadu Kane tried to convince Susan of his love by asserting: "Whatever I do, I do because I love you." "Love!" she shot back. "You don't love anybody! Me or anybody else! You want to be loved--that's all you want!" It was because of his inability to love that Kane thought he had to buy people’s love. Susan again: "You have never given me anything. You've tried to buy me into giving you something. You're … it's like you were bribing me! That's what you've done with everybody you've ever known. Tried to bribe them!"

Throughout his life money was Kane's substitute for the genuine feelings he never developed. Money’s abstract power replaced direct emotional relationship and a truly personal presence. Because fate had made Kane rich enough to buy everything he wanted he had no incentive to develop a genuine self or a real life; money was always a readily available substitute. In a rare moment of self-recognition, when he was stripped of his control over much of his fortune because of the crash of 1929, Kane remarked to Bernstein and Thatcher: "I may have become a great man if I had not been so wealthy. I have always gagged on that silver spoon."

Kane's voracious drive to appropriate everything for himself perverted even his most altruistic and idealistic pursuits. The Inquirer was called "The People's Newspaper" by him, and for a while he did indeed do battle with Wall Street and powerful corporations whenever his reporters uncovered financial swindles and high-level corruption. But he was not really the man of the people that he pretended to be, and at times he was fully aware of his ambiguous role. In an argument with Thatcher he once announced: "I am the publisher of the Inquirer. As such it is my duty--I'll let you in on a little secret, it is also my pleasure--to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this city are not robbed blind by a group of money-mad pirates because, God help them, they have no one to look after their interests! I'll let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I'm the man to do it."

This is the sort of talk that made Thatcher say that Kane was "nothing but a Communist." But Thatcher was too narrow-minded a conservative to understand the twist that Kane gave to his role as defender of working class interests. For Kane continued his seemingly altruistic declaration by pointing out the angle of self-interest in his noisy crusade against big money: "You see, I have money and property. If I don't defend the interests of the underprivileged, somebody else will--maybe somebody without any money or any property, and that would be too bad." Kane, in other words, is willing to defend certain interests of the underprivileged in order to defend the property and privileges of the upper classes against some truly radical reformers, reformers that may want to abolish property and privilege altogether. Like President Roosevelt (whom Orson Welles generally admired) in the days of the New Deal, Kane is a far-sighted defender of the capitalist system, not a shortsighted one like the conservative Thatcher. But Kane is by no means a radical who wants to see the underprivileged take their fate into their own hands. For that he likes too much his own role as big boss.

The matter is made clear in an argument with Jed Leland. Leland is weary of Kane's posture as a man of the people because he senses Kane's ulterior motives. He tells him: "You talk about the people of the United States as though they belonged to you. When you find out they don't think they do, you'll lose interest. You talk about giving them their rights as if you could make a present of liberty. Remember the workingman? You used to defend him quite a good deal. Well, he's turning into something called organized labor, and you don't like that at all. And listen, when your precious underprivileged really get together, that's going to add up to something bigger than … your privilege, and then I don't know what you'll do … Sail away to a desert island probably, and lord it over the monkeys."

Kane's political pretenses are hollow, his progressive stances mere postures. Leland exposes him as a phony reformer in the same way as Susan exposes him as a phony lover. Kane cannot love, and he cannot really cherish a vision of people who are free and powerful independently of his control. Kane needs to lord over some sort of realm; he needs to be a Kublai Khan. His energies are all tied up in his desperate and futile attempt to possess and control, and thus to regain symbolically what he had lost as a child. Ultimately, none of the things he pretends to do or be are what they seem to be. His entire existence is a voluminous fabrication.

Unlike Socrates, Kane never spent much time to think about his life or the deeper significance of his actions. “The unexamined life is not worth living” would have meant nothing to him. He lived his life like a somnambulist, propelled to the point of obsession by unrecognized drives and desires. He never realized that most of the things he wanted so badly were nothing but substitutes for what he could not possibly get, his lost childhood and the love of his mother. He failed to see the futility of his pursuits because he did not recognize his goals for what they were—because altogether he did not know who he was.

No amount of critical self-reflection could, of course, have changed Kane's basic situation: the traumatic events of his childhood were an unalterable condition of his existence. But critical self-reflection and conscious living could have changed Kane’s conduct and feelings significantly, they could have resulted in a different kind of life. If he had recognized and acknowledged the source of his obsessive behavior, he would hardly have pursued his goals with the blind tenacity with which he conducted his affairs. And if he had developed a real understanding of the arts and ideas, he would not have become the mechanical collector of things that he turned out to be. Blindly following his powerful drives and impulsive desires made Kane the obsessively enterprising and finally failing figure that he represented in his world. Because his goals and motives remained unexamined, his life was destined to be out of his control, and the persona he produced condemned to be hollow.

The Unexamined Life Writ Large

Being as outward directed as he was, it was natural that Kane would define success and happiness in all those terms that Socrates once judged to be of little inherent value: material possessions, social position, and opulent consumption. As "the American Kublai Khan,” Kane sought the fulfillment of his cravings in conspicuous splendor and imperial might. The deepest satisfaction that he knew was ruling over people and objects. Without aggrandizement and lording over some sort of realm his life would have struck him as empty and a failure. The idea of an inner life, a life that finds satisfaction in contemplation, understanding, and deepening knowledge, never had any effect on him.

"Citizen Kane" depicts not just an individual; it is more than a personal story. Mankiewicz' original script for the film was entitled "The American." Kane is conceived as a general type, and his portrait is a reflection on a whole culture. When Kane states for the newsreel that he was, is, and always will be nothing but an American, he is not just making a passing remark, but points to an essential identity of his own expansive personality and the character of his country.

More than any other modern nation the United States has been spectacularly successful in producing material wealth and in wielding unprecedented economic, political, and military power. Considering America’s immense industrial potential, her dynamic and enterprising culture, her enticing liberties, rich resource bases, and her sheer size, it was not surprising that the United States would grow into an expansive and self-confident nation with far-reaching ambitions. The slogan of “Manifest Destiny,” coined at the time when the United States contemplated waging war on Mexico for the purpose of acquiring new territories, correctly indicated the country’s future dynamics. It was only a matter of time before the once self-contained republic at the margin of the Western world would become a super-power of global proportions. The need for ever more raw materials, energy sources, and expanding markets made it as good as inevitable that the United States would seek territorial possessions and positions of control far beyond her original borders. Although not colonialist in style like Great Britain or France, America clearly became an imperialist nation—an expanding empire, indeed, that was more powerful, flexible, resilient, and dynamic than anything the world had so far seen.

It is no coincidence that Kane built his media conglomerate at exactly the time when the Unites States became openly imperialistic. Historians generally consider the Spanish-American War of 1898 the watershed event that marks the change of the United State from a self-contained republic to a quasi-colonialist power of global reach, and it was this war that Kane adopted as his personal crusade in pursuit of national and journalistic glory. Kane, as mentioned, is purposefully modeled on William Randolph Hearst, whose New York Journal had forced President McKinley's hand by clamoring noisily for a declaration of war against Spain. According to an old anecdote, it was the artist Frederic Remington, one of Hearst's hired artists, who had wired from Cuba that he could not send any dramatic war sketches because there was no war, and who had received from his employer the telegraphed answer: "Send the sketches. I'll supply the war.”

The ostensive purpose of waging war against Spain was to help Cuban rebels to gain independence from Spanish colonial rule. As a result of defeating Spain, however, the United States herself came to enjoy something like colonialist prerogatives. To the disappointment of most rebels, Cuba did not become independent, but rather a tightly controlled protectorate of her northern neighbor. In addition American troops occupied or annexed Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. (In "Citizen Kane" Bernstein points out the significance of all this for the subsequent construction and appropriation of the Panama Canal as well.) Any open resistance to American occupation was effectively crushed. In the case of the Philippines the United States army had to wage an extremely brutal war for several years before some sort of peace could be established in the islands, and many Asians continued to look at the presence of American forces in Southeast Asia as an intrusion and continuing provocation. America's seemingly inexorable progression from a country that stood for independence and freedom to an aggressive imperialist super-power became so blatant at the time of the Spanish-American War that Mark Twain remarked that from now on the United States should not fly the Stars and Stripes anymore, but the black flag with cross bones and skull.

For many American writers the change “from Republic to Empire" was a fateful one. In their eyes this change amounted to a dubious resolution of an ambiguity that had always existed in American life. On the one hand America was defined as the land of liberty in which well informed and self-governing citizens would live their own lives--free of the corruption of colonialism and the obsession of Europeans to fight wars of conquest for the glory of their rulers and fatherlands. This was the America envisaged by writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, writers who had not only opposed slavery and the war against Mexico, but also a life too engrossed in material production, consumption, and ever more expanding commerce. For these writers the American Dream was not a vision of boundlessly growing material wealth, but an existence of leisure and contemplation where the main emphasis in life rests on a person’s inner culture and education.

On the other hand America was defined by its unparalleled economic expansion, unprecedented material consumption, and the great freedom it afforded to individuals and corporations to create and accumulate material wealth. Naturally, adherents to this business-oriented perspective never had much use for writers like Whitman and Thoreau, and the vast majority of people both at home and abroad rarely saw much wisdom in scoffing at materialism and wealth in the way America's classical writers did. The America that mostly impressed the world and her own citizens was the America of growth and political power. It is for this reason that an expansive entrepreneur like Charles Foster Kane is taken to be much more representative of the American ethos than introspective and economically minimalist intellectuals like the Transcendentalists of New England. Kane is the type with whose dreams and ambitions most people spontaneously identify.

For all those who thought that America had to make a decision with respect to the above outlooks, the actual course of American history since the war of 1898 left no doubt as to where the country was headed. It was, by and large, not the vision of Whitman's "Democratic Vistas" that would shape the life of the nation, but clearly economic imperatives--together with the foreign policy directives and military involvement that control of resources beyond a country’s own borders would inevitably require. Prominent intellectuals like the philosopher William James launched numerous protests against official American conduct abroad, and they even organized an “Anti-imperialist League” that tried to steer the country in a more pacifist and isolationist direction. The atrocities perpetrated by the U. S. Army in the Philippines in particular inspired many citizens to ask vociferously where America was headed as a nation. But such protests remained largely ineffective; empire became a fact and way of life. Robinson Jeffers' famous poem "Shine, Perishing Republic" gives a vivid impression of the disappointment that many American intellectuals felt about the development of the country for which they had had such different hopes:

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops
and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I, sadly smiling, remember that the flower fades to make
fruit, the fruit rots to make earth. …


The Spanish-American War and its implications highlighted the question as to what kind of country the United States wanted to be. For intellectuals like James or Jeffers America's road to empire was as much a betrayal of her own better nature as that of Athens at an earlier age. Athens had produced the high culture of its “Golden Age,” and then ruined its promise by engaging in the protracted brutalities of the Peloponnesian War. Instead of looking inward by developing a culture of sophisticated ideas, self-knowledge, awareness, and freedom from hypocrisy and cant, America, like Athens, carelessly expended her rich energies on external involvement and foreign adventures, according to the above critics.

The life of an empire is not typically one of introspection and critical self-reflection. It is consumed with competition, acquisition, and anxious vigilance with regard to actual and potential enemies. It makes any Socratic search for truth particularly hard because much of its time and psychic energy are used up in the manufacture of excuses for its presumptions and aggressive actions. An empire, as one might argue with the example of Socrates in mind, is inherently opposed to the spirit of philosophy—to detached contemplation and impartial inquiry.

Kane is an egomaniac who rarely looks at himself. He does not understand how others see him. He avoids self-knowledge by busying himself with the control and manipulation of the things and people around him. It is by being excessively preoccupied with external matters that he fails to have a genuine life. By portraying Kane as a stand-in for America, the makers of "Citizen Kane" venture a statement about a whole culture, about a way of life. Like Socrates they suggest that in spite of external successes things are in a bad way in the country, that something significant is amiss. Even if those who enjoy wealth and power do not think so, and even if the masses are taken in by the bread and circuses that their leaders procure for them, the value of all the external successes reveals itself to be dubious once one begins to take a close look at such a life. "For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" is how an early reviewer summarized the main message of "Citizen Kane." The philosophical scope of the film makes it clear that this message concerns not just a single self-destructive individual, but the dominant culture of an age.

(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies )

Socrates: The Good Life

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