Posts Tagged ‘ Sigmund Freud ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 2)

McCullers on Love and Isolation

… every lover knows this.
He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.
The Ballad of the Sad Café

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a best seller and allowed McCullers (and her husband) to live in New York City permanently. She was quickly introduced to and became friends with some of the most eminent literary and artistic figures in New York. Her lifestyle almost immediately became immensely more complex as her relations with her husband cooled and her unconventional attachments to others became the norm. (The first such relationship was with Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a gay woman estranged from her gay husband and given to suicide attempts.) She would divorce and remarry her husband and then reluctantly divorce him again when he forged her name on checks. (In this her emotions seem remarkably like Lucile Wilson in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Throughout the rest of her life she would be subject to serious physical ailments, including a stroke that took place before her second novel was published in 1941 and temporarily blinded her. Depression plagued her incessantly until she began psychotherapy with Dr. Mary Mercer in 1958. She died in New York in 1967. During the 27 years from the publication of her first novel, she wrote four long-form fiction pieces, none of them, however, nearly as long as the first one. And while her life since her first major publication would never again resemble the world of Columbus, Georgia, where she was raised, she continued to write exclusively about people with confined lives, living in the Deep South. Within eight months of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter her second novel was published, and on first impression, was considerably different from her first. But we will see that that novel and the one that followed really were part of her continual pursuit of that One Big Thing she knew. These two novels were an inquiry into one aspect of that thing: Whether love is the means to break out of the aloneness in which we are trapped.

[The first part of this piece is found here.]

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

 McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye had a smaller scope than her first one. Its subject was the domestic intrigues of two married couples, officers on an army base in the South and their wives. One officer, Capt. Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual, is locked in a toxic marriage to a wife, Leonora, who is having an affair with her husband’s superior and their next door neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Langdon’s own wife, Allison, is psychically crushed by the death of her small child three years before. The pain of that loss and the humiliation from the recent discovery of her husband’s affair caused her, in a moment of extreme crisis, to commit a particularly brutal act of self-mutilation four months ago. While the couples frequently dine together at the Penderton’s, Allison, has no affection for the other three and spends her days indoors listening to classical music tended to by her flamboyant Filipino houseboy. One additional character adds the sinister aspect to this conventionally dysfunctional set of relations: Private L.G. Williams, one of the post’s stableboys—a quiet, backward, brooding loner who becomes a voyeur of Leonora and a strange object of Penderton’s desires. In all these loveless relationships communications have ceased altogether by circumstances that have stunted each person. Only the two most superficial characters, Langdon and Leonora, maintain a semblance of love, purely erotic, only because they have no essence to share with anyone.

In many striking respects this novel is quite unlike The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The action, location and characters are circumscribed to the point of claustrophobia. The setting of the story is largely responsible. The (male) characters are not only military men, they all live on an army base. The military prizes above all else conformity and mindless obedience: “once a man enters the army he is expected only to follow the heels ahead of him.” Regularity induces boredom: “Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.” The physical plant reinforces the tedium: “the huge concrete barracks, the neat rows of officers’ homes built one precisely like the other, the gym, the chapel, the golf course and the swimming pool—all designed according to a rigid pattern.” In short, the characters are cut off from the world, and their lives are distinguished by enforced meaninglessness.1

The second difference is that there are so few characters (Weldon Penderton and Alison Langdon are really the only characters given any depth) and their attitudes toward each other are vivid and without nuance. The major’s wife, Alison Langdon, the least self-delusional of the lot, sums up the other three characters: “Morris Landon in his blunt way was as stupid and heartless as a man could be. Leonora [Penderton] was nothing but an animal. And thieving Weldon Penderton was at bottom hopelessly corrupt.” And given how the narrator describes the characters, this, if anything, is charitable.  And it does not even include Private “Ellgee” Williams, who the narrator tells us “had neither an enemy nor a friend … In his eyes, which were of a curious blend of amber and brown, there was a mute expression that is found usually in the eyes of animals.”2  There is none of the empathy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The combination of the first two differences also produces a third; namely, that not much happens in the lives of these characters outside their interactions with each other. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter each character was motivated by the search for his own “meaning” or the pursuit of his “real true cause.” Here the Army is the overriding purpose and therefore none of them has any individual life. This means that the narrative is much tauter and the scope appears much narrower.

Finally, let me suggest that the fundamental difference is in approach. While The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is deadly earnest in its approach to the characters, their losses and the universal application of the lessons, Reflections in a Golden Eye is in its construction, approach to the characters, plot turns and tone a very black comedy. This does not mean that there is anything particularly funny that occurs. Nor does it mean that there is a happy ending. The happy ending was a contrivance of Renaissance comedies, and we are definitely deeply within a post-Renaissance period. Chekhov after all had suicides, bankruptcies and failed murder attempts end his comedies. But if you take a far enough view, all human endeavors are part of a grand comedy (which was recognized even at the beginning of the Renaissance by Dante, who produced the most famous unfunny and divine comedy). The modernist tragico-comedy depends on finding that the unexpected dread derives from the fabric of the banal. While in this novel all the characters are trapped in a banal existence, the emergent dread comes from the two principal characters.

The two figures around whom the novel revolves are fundamentally defective, but in nearly opposite ways. Penderton “was something of a savant.” He stuffed his heads with facts and statistics of all variety and could write three languages. But it was empty of ideas, because that required fusing two or more facts and “this the Captain had not the courage to do.” By contrast Williams, for all the narrator tells us, seems to have nothing in his head but ideas, or if not ideas, then at least ill-formed concepts devoid of facts or even contours, for at the important events of his life he was able to prepare the way and bring them about without having any conscious intention to do so. This is how he became a voyeur and how he could get into the Penderton house (and Leonora’s bedroom) every night. “The mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones but it was without delineation, void of form.”

When it comes to psychological adjustment (in one respect), Penderton “on the whole had  lived a most rigid and unemotional life,” while Williams would daily ride a horse to an abandoned field where he sunned himself naked. As for social conformity, Penderton (though impotent) married the attractive and appealing (though dim-witted) daughter of a General, while Williams is terrified of women, having been drilled by his Bible-thumping father that women carry in their bodies loathsome diseases (a belief reinforced by the Army’s monthly check-ups testing for venereal diseases). Penderton grows to long for the communal life and imagined camaraderie of the privates. Williams has no friends at all. He seems to have no need of them. Although he lives surrounded by enlisted men, he remains on the periphery, and they are happy to ignore him as well. This is what allowed him to slip out of the barracks at night to stare at Leonora.

In one respect, however, both have what might have been called at the time “deviant” sexual orientations. (It is here that Bloom’s reference to Freud might be useful, although he was not applying it to this novel.) Williams may seem to represent pure id, but until he saw Leonora naked (she had flung her clothes off in the living room with the windows open in front of her husband to outrage him), his superego thoroughly repressed it. The vision, however, awakened his id. He would become obsessed with her and eventually become trapped in his voyeuristic compulsion. Penderton also became obsessed, but with Williams. Penderton’s feelings are a form of love, translated through the mind of a person so psychologically malformed that it is expressed as one of its variants, hate. “There are times when a man’s greatest need is to have someone to love, some focal point for his diffused emotions. Also there are times when the irritations, disappointments, and fears of life, restless as spermatozoids, must be released in hate. The unhappy Captain had no one to hate and for the past months he had been miserable.” He despised Allison and her Filipino houseboy Anacleto but he did not hate them in this sense. He had several unpleasant encounters with Williams to that point but nothing to rise to the degree of white-hot intensity. That would change over an encounter with his wife’s horse.

Firebird was a spirited horse, once thought unridable especially by a woman. Leonora was a good equestrian and determined to ride this beautiful animal, which she eventually mastered, although they would have daily ritualized struggles before he yielded to her leadership. Penderton was a timid man, not a good rider, certainly inferior to his wife and Major Langdon, who usually rode together. (This was where their attraction began and was first consummated—in  a berry patch a couple of hours after they first met.) The enlisted stableboys admired Leonora for her beauty, friendliness and horsemanship. They called her “The Lady.” Williams took care of Firebird. He was especially good with animals, something akin, I  suppose, to a “horse whisperer” and he therefore greatly prized Firebird. One day, as the frustration  and self-loathing reached a peak, Penderton decided to mount Firebird alone. He came to the stable, ordered Williams to prepare the horse and mounted him. Williams let the animal go, on Penderton’s command, and watched as he warily went forward with this awkward rider. As they proceeded further, Penderton yanked the reins up short; the horse nearly lost his balance and had to rear but he suppressed his anger. The captain repeated his maliciousness twice more. The third time the horse stopped short, turned his head back to look at the captain and then flattened his ears and lowered his head as though to throw Penderton. The gesture terrified the captain, but the horse did not throw him, so they galloped on again. When they reached the top of the ridge, however, the horse plunged down the other side at breakneck speed. The horse took the helpless rider into the woods with the same perilous momentum. Penderton held the horse’s neck for dear life. The ride became hallucinogenic as the scattered images reached the petrified mind of the captain in a blur, and he was unable to comprehend what was going on around him. He even once thought he saw a naked man lying on a rock in the woods. At the point the captain concluded that he was about to die the ride became exhilarating: “A great mad joy surged through him.” He did not know how long the ride lasted but eventually the horse emerged from the woods and slowed down to a trot and then, exhausted, stopped. Penderton warily dismounted, tied the horse to a tree, then viciously beat the horse over and over with his whip until the horse gave a cry and hung his head down. Exhausted, bloodied from thorns and branches and a rash from the horse hair his face and neck clung to, the captain collapsed on the ground, began sobbing and passed out. When he awoke he saw Williams walking naked from the woods towards him. “He looked at the Captain with vague, impersonal eyes as thought looking at some insect he had never seen before.” He stepped over the prostrate captain, and took the horse’s reins and led him back to the stables.

And this was the beginning of Penderton’s obsessive hate towards the private. The passion became all consuming. Penderton would contrive ways to see Williams, to pass by him during the latter’s routine or to watch him from his car. Penderton was stalking the private during the day, as Williams was entering Penderton’s house at night to watch Leonora sleep. Penderton’s emotion as he passed Williams was charged with sexual excitement. Soon he was pitying himself for not being young like Williams and sharing in the enlisted men’s routines.

As this dynamic moves towards its inevitable climax, the major’s life is upended by what happens to his wife Allison, which everyone believes is a nervous breakdown. This would soon enough separate her from him, and the loss profoundly affects Langdon. Even though he had neglected her (and worse betrayed her) and considered her strange and weak, he could think of nothing else when the break came. It affected the lives of Penderton and Leonora as well, although the captain soon tired of pitying the major. At one point the major even shows regret at losing the Filipino (who he felt was effete, ridiculous and frivolous). He tells Penderton that his barbs that Anacleto should join the army to be made into a man were simply jokes, but he really did believe that he would have been better off, even if more miserable. Penderton asks the major if he meant that “it is better, because it is more honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” Langdon affirms that is what he meant and asked whether Penderton agreed.

“‘No,’ said the Captain, after a short pause. With gruesome vividness the Captain suddenly looked into his soul and saw himself. For once he did not see himself as others saw him; there came to him a distorted doll-like image, mean of countenance and grotesque in form. The Captain dwelt on this vision without compassion. He accepted it with neither alteration nor excuse. ‘I don’t agree,’ he repeated softly.”

After this the actual climax seems something of a plot device to end the story, excused only by its near inevitability.  No neat resolution of the psychological or moral contortions that the characters are put through is attempted. So how does this show McCullers’s One Big Idea? The novel is her first try at an answer to this question: This isolation we we find ourselves trapped in, can it be broken through by means of love? The answer seems to be no, because love of any sort makes demands on the other which cannot be reciprocated. Of course in Reflection in a Golden Eye the “love” expressed by each of the characters is stunted, self-interested, not tender and not “normal.” But even the conventional “love” expressed between the major and Leonora does not seem to have any merit in this regard; it is their own banality, their inability to see beyond their basic desires, and not an achievement of meaning or purpose, that allows the two to avoid existential doubts and their “love” to be frustrated by lack of reciprocity. Major Langdon believed that only two things mattered: “to be a good animal and to serve my country. A healthy body and patriotism.” Leonora didn’t even think on this level of abstraction.

That this view of the uselessness of love to resolve the existential dilemma or our absurd predicament is universal, and not limited ot the stunted characters in Reflections in a Golden Eye, can be more easily seen in the next long fiction work of McCuller’s, The Ballad of the Sad Café, a novel that was published in the August issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It did not receive much critical attention, however, until it was published (unrevised) in a collection of her short stories (together with her first four novels) by Houghton, Mifflin in May 1951.

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943 / 1951)

As she did after finishing her first novel, McCullers plunged right into completing another long fiction work after completing Reflections in a Golden Eye. Much of the work on The Ballad of the Sad Café was done at the Yaddo arts colony in Saratoga Springs, New York in June–August 1941. She was also working on another work that year and the next that would become her fourth novel. She finally completed The Ballad of the Sad Café in November 1942.

As with her second novel this one also adopted a new narrative format. The story is called a “ballad” not because it follows any of the literary rules of the romantic ballad, but rather, I think, because the folk ballad was not only the most prominent form of folk poetry/song in the American South, it was also the form of folk art that collectors (and eventually students) of Southern folk traditions most carefully curated and catalogued.3 A study of the folk ballad of the first decades of the twentieth century summarized its two features as: (1) its “dramatic presentation of action is the ordinary narrative method”; and (2) “impersonality of approach of the theme is the ordinary narrative attitude.”4  McCullers makes both of these choices in The Ballad of the Sad Café, but enhances the folkloric ambiance of the story by setting the action in an utterly isolated Southern town, by employing almost fairytale-like features and by stripping down the plot to its essential simpleness.

  The setting is not just remote, it is cut off from normal human commerce. It is visited only by the likes of the tax man or an agent of a store who comes to see if a resident is creditworthy enough to buy some small appliance on installments (he never is) or travelers who became lost and are seeking the way to their true destination. The train is so far away that a faint whistle is only occasionally heard on very still winter nights. The Greyhound bus station is three miles away. McCullers makes this unnamed town something like Macondo at the beginning of the story:

The town itself is dreary, not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street, only a hundred yards long. On Saturday the tenants from the near by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.

The three main characters are taken right out of a fairy tale and dropped into this Southern equivalent of the Black Forest. Miss Amelia Evans is first introduced, and we get a full picture of her in two paragraphs. But given the deliberate pace of McCuller’s prose, we see her character revealed slowly, the way we would see a corpse whose body is exposed when the morgue’s winding sheet is pulled back. At first she is quite unremarkable. The building that once housed the café of the title, was before that a store which sold mainly farm supplies and staples (like feed, guano, meal and the like). She became the proprietor at 19 when her father (her only parent) died. She also sold the best liquor in the county which she made herself from a still located in the swamp. We then learn of her appearance. “She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles of a man.” But she still might have been attractive if she were not cross-eyed. But it did not matter, because she cared nothing for love. And yet at one time she had “a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked.” She had an unusual ability to make things with her hands. But with people she had no talent and ultimately only one use: “to make money out of them.” She also had a strange intolerance for perceived injustice and indeed slights of any kind for she was constantly involved in litigation. Not just to recover money owed her but also over anything that annoyed her. “It was said that if Miss Amelia so much as stumbled over a rock in the road she would glance around instinctively as though looking for something to sue about it.” She was 30 years old at the beginning of the ballad and with the combination of physical and personality characteristics, she was a force to be reckoned with. The picture we see is of a woman not given to talk but who was propelled by principles that were stored deep in a well inside her that was almost never explored. She is as inert as one of Chekhov’s peasants.

She would have gone this way indefinitely except that the second character mysteriously enters the town: Cousin Lyman. He is the one “freak” in all of McCullers’s long-form fiction. One evening in April close to midnight, Miss Amelia was standing on the porch of the store while three men and two boys sat on the steps in front of her. (Although she was reclusive, she allowed her customers to drink the liquor she sold them on the porch if their wives objected to having it at home; it was only good business.) A stranger came down the street. From the distance one of the boys first thought a calf had gotten loose. The other corrected him when it got close, saying it was someone’s youngun. When the strange figure arrived, he was seen to be a dwarf with a hump on his shoulders. His head was large and his chest was “warped,” but he had thin legs, barely able, it seemed, to carry his disproportionate body. He was dressed in dirty clothes and carried an old suitcase. While his physical appearance was odd, it was the personality that he would reveal as he wormed his way into the center of the town that marked his strangeness. As he became secure in his position, he became an unctuous meddlers in others’ business. He has some of the attributes of Rumpelstiltskin or Norse trolls.

The third major character does not enter the story until late, but we know of him even before his entrance, for he is Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s husband. He is a fairy tale villain. His backstory is laid out much as Miss Amelia’s was. We learn that he was one of seven children abused and neglected by the “wild younguns” who sired and bore them. “T]he first thing they learned in this world was to seek the darkest corner of the room and try to hide themselves as best they could.” One winter when the mill closed for three months, the parents left town abandoning their children. Marvin Macy was luckier than most of his siblings for he was taken in by a kind and loving widow, Mrs. Mary Hale. The rescue was not enough. As the narrator notes: “the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.” And Macy grew up self-centered, lazy and extremely cruel. But then he saw the 19 year old Miss Amelia and fell in love with that “solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl.” This love changed him. Too shy to make his love known, he nevertheless reformed over the course of two years, became polite, saved his wages and even became religious. When he finally declared himself (“carrying a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlins, and a silver ring”), she accepted. She proved a strange bride at the church and afterwards, walking home two paces before her husband. And over the next 10 day she proved a strange wife and eventually threw him out. The experience reverted Macy to his previous character with a vengeance. “For the true character of Marvin Macy finally revealed itself, once he had freed himself of his love.” He left town, robbed gas stations and a grocery store with a sawed-off shotgun and was rumored to have killed a man. His name was in all the newspapers until he was eventually arrested, tried and committed to the state penitentiary in Atlanta. “Miss Amelia was deeply gratified.”

This decade-old story was never forgotten by the town folk, who were at first amused by the humiliation and squalid nature of the affair. But they never spoke of it to Miss Amelia. Yet the narrator warns us (like a balladeer): “do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part of the story which is yet to come.”

Perhaps a fourth character should be described as well—the town’s men folk. I say men folk, rather than “community,” because, aside from Miss Amelia (and Mrs. Hale in Marvin Macy’s back story) there are no women actors in this tale. And apart from Miss Amelia there is only one woman’s voice in the story. It was a voice heard by Cousin Lymon one moonlit summer night when he was bored and lonely: “Somewhere in the darkness a woman sang in a high wild voice and the tune had no start and no finish and was made up of only three notes which went on and on and on.” Unlike these three women, the men folk never acted alone. They came to conclusions as a group; they acted collectively. They are not seen as coming to anyone’s aid, but they are always ready to ridicule, they delight in other’s misery, and they always seem to be on the verge of violence. Like the time that the rumor spread that Miss Amelia had murdered Cousin Lymon. A group of eight men got themselves up and went to Miss Amelia’s store. They did this unconsciously, as though guided by a power outside them:

“Some eight or ten men had convened on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store. They were silent and were indeed just waiting about. They themselves did not know what they were waiting for, but it was this: in times of tension, when some great action is impending, men gather and wait in this way. And after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole. At such a time, no individual hesitates. And whether the matter will be settled peaceably, or whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny. So the men waited soberly on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store, not one of them realizing what they would do, but knowing inwardly that they must wait, and that the time had almost come.”

They stood on the porch watching Miss Amelia working on her books in her office. When she shut the door they were looking through, it triggered their action:

“Now to the group on the porch this gesture acted as a signal. The time had come. They had stood for a long while with the night raw and gloomy in the street behind them. They had waited long and just at that moment the instinct to act came on them. All at once, as though moved by one will, they walked into the store. At that moment the eight men looked very much alike — all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye. What they would have done next no one knows.”

But then they see Cousin Lymon unharmed and their collective resolve evaporates. This “collective” is alway in the background, always provides the ominous undercurrent. For the men folk, as a group, enforce the conservative, misogynist, racist, embittered ethos of this place. There are some men, however, who are not part of this collective, for example, Henry Macy, Marvin’s brother. In every respect he was unlike his brother. Not only kindly and honest, but also “a shy and timid person with gentle manners and nervous ways” There are others like him, but they don’t take action or effect change. They are feckless. They withdraw at the sign of trouble. They become emotional and frightened. Just as Miss Amelia is the Man-Woman, they are Women-Men.

Cousin Lymon was one such a Woman-Man. When he slinked into town to throw himself on the charity of Miss Amelia, his supposed cousin, the three men and two boys watched him cry when he thought he would be turned out. The five on the porch assumed that Miss Amelia would physically throw him out of town on his ear. For Miss Amelia was more of a man than they were, and that is what the men folk would do. But she surprises them all. She first gives him a bottle—for free!—of her prized liquor. Then she takes him in and feeds him. The rest was not seen by those five.

After many days it became clear to the town that what Miss Amelia had done was even stranger than murder, and to many even more grotesque. Miss Amelia had taken Cousin Lymon in permanently. It was an odd development. What was even odder was that Miss Amelia had fallen in love with this little hunchback. She cleaned him up. Made sure he was fed and comfortable. She attended his little wants. This great change in Miss Amelia was the source of much rumor in the town. This six foot woman with bulging biceps and the manners of a farmer, who wore overalls and physically abused and ejected her husband, was now in love. But what kind of love? The majority believed they were living in sin. Some minority of “good people” excused this: “if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone.” But the opinion of “all sensible people” was “a plain, flat no.”

But if not physical, it was certainly transformative, this love. For Miss Amelia gave him the run of the place, and he responded by becoming puffed up, soon comfortable in the notion that he could have what he wanted and take without even asking. Those who saw this change were astounded. But the most astonishing product of this love was the café. The beginning was that night when the eight men saw Cousin Lymon, who came down and spoke with them sociably. And soon there would be drinking in the store, and one thing led to another and the store was turned into a full bore café. The town had never seen anything like this before. The concept was strange: a place to go to have polite social intercourse while dining. But it soon proved salubrious to the town’s psychic and social well-being. It was a civilizing force:

“For people in this town were then unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure. They met to work in the mill. Or on Sunday there would be an all-day camp meeting—and though that is a pleasure, the intention of the whole affair is to sharpen your view of Hell and put into you a keen fear of the Lord Almighty. But the spirit of a café is altogether different. Even the richest, greediest old rascal will behave himself, insulting no one in a proper café. And poor people look about them gratefully and pinch up the salt in a dainty and modest manner. For the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior. This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia’s store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.”

Is this the effect of love? To improve the conditions of those about the lovers and add one small drop to the well of general happiness of the world (usually at drought level)? Well, that is not born out by the story. As with all love, evidently, the object is never satisfied. Cousin Lymon, who was exalted by the grace of Miss Amelia, and truly without any desert on his part, soon grew restless with his situation. He began instigating trouble with the customers and soon began to worry Miss Amelia. And then the crisis came. Marvin Macy was released from the penitentiary and was returning to town. He brought with him an ill wind, but no tornado at first. Yet Miss Amelia watched warily because Cousin Lymon was the kind of weak, defenseless, guileless sort that Macy would squash for sheer pleasure. As the inevitable builds, it is Lymon who betrays Miss Amelia, but even that does not defeat her. She goes on to stage a monumental battle with Macy, which excited the town’s bloodlust but left her beaten in every respect. The café, of course, is boarded up, and only occasionally does anyone get a glimpse of her peering from an upstairs window. What they see is “a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” She has replicated the pattern that undid Marvin Macy himself, love. What the narrator said about his desire, now applies equally to her: “though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?”

The story ends with an epilogue entitled “Twelve Mortal Men.” In two paragraphs it tells of the chain gang where every day they are set to work digging at the hard clay and rocks to widen the road out of town. And every day there is the music of their work song, their ballad:

“One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.”

What type of gang is this? asks the narrator. The same kind of gang that watched ominously as evil undid love and destroyed what was civilized among them. The kind of gang that Miss Amelia was capable of facing down, until she let her guard down, until she became a lover. “Just twelve mortal men who are together,” the narrator concludes.

Before returning to McCullers’s One Big Idea, I should say something about the writing here. In my view this is the most tightly written and graceful of McCullers’s five novels. It is deliberately paced and probes the corners of the story with an attention to what envelops the plot that some might take for languor. In fact, V.S. Pritchett criticized the writing because McCullers “winds her way backwards and forwards into her people in a way that is sometimes too dilatory.”5 But he is quite wrong. The narrator turns his (for, though the narrator is not one of the men folk, he does not challenge the prevailing sexual, moral or social realities, all of which are the province of the men folk) attention to those persons, actions and objects that justify comment, and those comments are patiently amassed into the argument that the story ultimately delivers. And that point is that Love is not the answer to humanity’s prison of solitariness. And this is why it fails: it requires an impossible congruence between the Lover and the Beloved:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.”

The object of love is arbitrary (there is no predetermination of it, there is no explanation for it), a “preacher may love a fallen woman,” and there is the perfidy:

“The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.”

And this is where the Beloved has his say, for it is better in this case to be the lover than the beloved: “the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being be loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Love is a state of disequilibrium; it cannot last. From the beloved’s part, it is intolerable to be loved. From the lover’s it is a state that creates more rather than less isolation. It is thus not the solution to the existential question that McCullers first posed in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

These two novels are McCullers’s only treatment of sexual, erotic, romantic (however you will) love. It is perhaps here that Bloom’s recourse to Freud’s theories (quoted in the first part of this series) might be appropriate. But Freud is looking at a different phenomenon, and he goes about his investigation by a method distinct in two ways: He treats only one person (the lover), and he sees it in a developmental context. McCullers rejects the supposition that there is a normal or even ideal (as in “ego ideal”) form of love to be aimed for or diagnosed. There is nothing “abnormal” in Captain Penderton’s, or Private Williams’s, or Marvin Macy’s or Miss Amelia’s desires. Only the town’s gossipers enforced by the men folk judge love in that manner. And McCullers, unlike Freud, is looking for a metaphysical solution to the dilemma of human solitude. In these two novels, she strikes off love as the answer. She will look at mechanisms for avoiding the problem rather than ameliorating it in her final two novels, which we will look at in the next post.


1Some time during the cold war and certainly after the Vietnam misadventure had produced its impression on public opinion and the popular media the idea of the military as an organization filled with soulless automatons who cannot think for themselves became commonplace (perhaps best summarized by George Carlin’s quip illustrating the word “oxymoron” with the phrase “military intelligence”) But at the time McCullers wrote the work (1940) and when it was published (1941), the United States was facing a very perilous world and while most hoped the United States would stay out of the global conflagration, it was a not popular conception that the U.S. military was anything other than heroic. They after all “won” the Great War. It is therefore no wonder that McCuller received such push back, especially from Fort Benning in Georgia, which was assumed to be the model for the novel. [Return to text.]

2McCullers is fond of this construction, where the eyes or expression betrays something found elsewhere. It occurs twice in this novel. You may recall she also uses a similar construction (more memorably) at the end of the first chapter of her first book to describe John Singer, also without friends or enemies: “In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” The same vacant expression is described differently depending on how the narrator wants us to feel about the character. [Return to text.]

3For an early example of how studiously collectors tried to catalog Southern ballads, see Reed Smith, “The Traditional Ballad in the South during 1914,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (April–June 1915), pp. 199-203, which can be seen on JSTOR (open access). [Return to text.]

4Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 10–11. [Return to text.]

5V.S. Pritchett, “Books in General,” The New Stateman and Nation (August 2, 1952), pp. 137–38 reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark & Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), at 41. [Return to text.]


“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and certainly, of Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated the kinds of novels hedgehogs produced, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. At first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff is too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right.

In this second chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us with her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness of her father without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed the children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practitioner) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss religion outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preacher out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely, in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”


1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]

“Love on my terms …”

Citizen Kane at 75

1. Leland’s recollection (“Not that Charlie was ever brutal, he just did brutal things.”).
Leland (Joseph Cotten): “Hello, Charlie. I didn’t know we were speaking.”
Kane (Orson Welles): “Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired.”

Citizen Kane, which for long periods has been saddled with the title of “greatest film ever made,” had its general American release 75 years ago this past month, on September 5, 1941. (It had premieres in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles the previous May. The interval from then until its general release was filled with threats, legal review, unwillingness of distributors to show the film, etc.) The movie never enjoyed great popular success. It failed to recover its relatively modest cost during its initial run, although a large part of that failure was owing to the determined opposition of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who used his vast media empire to bluster and smear those associated with the project (including director Orson Welles, who was repeatedly called a Communist by Hearst newspapers) and whose associates vaguely threatened reprisal because Hearst himself was the none-too-secret model for the main character.  The major Hollywood studios, which owned the distribution networks at the time, did what Hollywood does best—they cravenly capitulated, restricted distribution, and fearing the worst, acted to avoid bad publicity. (It would not be the first, or even the most spectacular, of Hollywood’s cowardice-induced paralysis. Its actual cravenness to the powerful and rich and even just the conventional helps explain why it so often champions movies about those who stood up to the powerful and rich and the conventional.) Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M, a friend of Hearst, even offered RKO $842,000, well above the production costs, to destroy the negative and all prints.

The Beatification of Citizen Kane

The critical response, in contrast to the tepid box office response, was enthusiastic. In fact it was the unanimous acclaim of the leading newspaper and magazine critics (outside the Hearst empire, of course) that goaded RKO to release the film. Many critics wrote that it was flat-out the best movie they had ever seen. Most pointed to the innovative technical and stylistic aspects of the film. The acting was also considered superior.

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise:

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise: “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys!”

The enthusiasm of the critics was unable to persuade distributors to risk the wrath of the unethical and megalomaniacal Hearst and his vast empire of yellow journalism outlets. It was not just that the empire could libel with impunity, it also could refuse the distributors’ advertisements in the local papers for their other films. Smear was also a tactic. “Communism,” even before World War II, was an effective way to ruin a reputation, and the Hearst empire more than once accused Welles, who had been actively anti-Fascist in the New York theater, of being a fellow-traveller. When a target tarred with communism, everyone or thing that was associated with it, however indirectly, even (or especially) a small town movie theater, would be tarred as well. Once it decided to exhibit it, RKO threatened to sue the studios if their distributors refused to accept the film. So some paid for it, but didn’t show it. Others only showed it a few times. The movie really had no chance for box-office success, and in Hollywood that is the one criterion that movies are judged by.

So as with all American movies of the time, it descended into oblivion after a short run. At the time there was not the secondary markets for films that exist today (television, art houses, home entertainment, for example). So when a film ended its run, it usually ended its claim on public attention. Ultimately it was French intellectuals who resurrected interest in the film.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw the film in a private showing in the United States in 1945 and reviewed the film in L’Ecran français in August. He allowed that the film “was the work of an intellectual,” but that was hardly complementary to Welles, for Sartre, who after failing to generate interest in a literary underground in occupied Paris, spent his time during the war writing radical pieces that never offended the Nazi censors and after the occupation began espousing the uselessness of intellectualism in art, as something divorced from politics and therefore backward looking. Sartre was promoting art that emphasized the future, and one that had a decidedly political orientation, and Citizen Kane, he felt, was “a story in the past tense” where “everything is dead.” (Welles was not even the worst offender here. Sartre felt that all of Zola’s work portrayed a “false disorder” where everything obeyed the “narrowest kind of determinism.”) Citizen Kane was not the kind of work that would be useful for the French, Sartre concluded, however much it was of interest to the Americans, presumably in the cultural hinterlands.

4. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane:

3. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).
Kane: “What are you laughing at, young lady?” …
Alexander: “You’re funny, Mister. You’ve got dirt on your face.”

When the movie was shown in Paris in July 1946, however, French critics, not carrying the cultural baggage of Sartre, saw the film as revolutionary. Roger Leenhardt, who was an important film critic and who had argued that sound technology provided the means by which works of genuine realism could be made, hailed Citizen Kane as a work of genius. Bazin, Leenhardt’s protege, expanded on this observation in an essay tracing the history of cinema from its beginning to the emergence of post-war Italian neo-realism. In this history Bazin found Citizen Kane as its most important inflection point. Bazin believed that the cinematic convention of camera work which had developed in D.W. Griffith’s time had calcified a decade into the sound era. Shot editing had allowed the director to focus the audience’s attention on particular aspects of a scene. This may have been essential in pre-sound days (where cards could hardly support all of the audience cues) but by the late 1930s it had become a lazy convention that obstructed, rather than aided, a realistic version of events. Bazin explained it this way in “An Aesthetic of Reality”:

“Classical editing, derived from Griffith, separated reality into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event. A man locked in a cell is waiting for the arrival of his executioner. His anguished eyes are on the door. At the moment the executioner is about to enter we can be quite sure that the director will cut to a close shot of the door handle as it slowly turns. This close-up is justified psychologically by the victim’s concentration on the symbol of his extreme distress. It is this ordering of the shots, this conventional analysis of the reality continuum, that truly goes to make up cinematographic language of the period.”

Bazin wrote that Welles in Citizen Kane broke with this tradition by restoring “to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality—its continuity.” He did this by several means but principally by a static shot with a wider angle than was traditional and deep focus allowing the audience to see from the back of the visual set to the foreground in equal definition. This also had a number of collateral consequences, such as allowing the viewer freedom to survey the entire scene and requiring the actors to act more naturally rather than confining them to close-up speaking and reaction shots.

These features were expanded upon and detailed in the 1950s in pieces by Bazin and his followers in the journal he founded, Cahiers du cinéma, the French vehicle that gave cinema, for the first time,  a claim to intellectual and cultural importance. The Cahiers writers had their own programme, related mostly to criticisms of the then current state of French film, and Kane provided what seemed to be a point for point counter-example for the failings of French cinema. But above all, Bazin argued that the director was, or should be, truly the auteur of the film, much as a novel was the author’s work. Kane happened to nicely prove this point because Orson Welles, had been able, as a result of his string of successes and resulting publicity in New York theater and national radio, to negotiate with the RKO a contract that gave him complete control over the film, an unheard of liberty (and one that made long-time studio functionaries so jealous that they laid in wait to pounce on what they hoped would be Welles’s failure to deliver). Moreover, Welles’s theatrical background gave him experience in every aspect of stagecraft that a film required, from costumes to make-up to sets to lighting to script editing, and so forth. And he used all of his experience, combined with the impetuosity of youth and that of the brilliant associates he collaborated with, in his first film.

4. After the defeat. Kane: “Toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

Much of the match between Welles’s instinct and Bazin’s prescription for the New Wave, came simply from Welles’s theater background. For example, a great deal of the problem of staging a play is to have the characters project into the audience (usually by facing it). Bazin objected to the cliché of cutting from one full-face close-up to the other when two characters were talking. Welles, who never liked the close-up shot to begin with, simply staged the movie as he would stage a play, often with both characters facing the audience (see, e.g., #1 , #3, #4, #14, #19). Ceilings, Bazin’s indicium of the restraints on human activity as well as further visual evidence that the characters were inhabiting a realistic environment, simply were the natural result of the “frog’s eye view” (as Marlena Dietrich put it much later), a signature of Welles’s cinematography from then on—and similar to the way audience members in the orchestra saw a play (seee.g., #4, #15, #16). And that special “trick” that Welles’s and cinematographer Gregg Toland worked so hard to achieve (and did so spectacularly)—deep focus—was theatrical rather than typically cinematographic. Plays are static shots in which characters moved from front to back as well as side to side and therefore were inherently more three-dimensional than the flat screen had become. The convention that had grown so stale in film, the facial close-up, was of course unknown in theater and something that Welles only sparingly used in his film career, and was another instance where Bazin’s objections lined up with Welles’s instinctive practices.

There was some resistance to Bazin’s sweeping assessment of Citizen Kane, mostly by those who pointed out that certain stylistic innovations had been used, or at least prefigured, by others, such as films with scenes having greater than normal depth of field and those employing non-chronological narrative. While he was able to distinguish such counter-examples, his point, Bazin said, was larger than the invention of particular visual or stylistic points; rather, it was that the particular use of them together formed a narrative style, which so differed from convention that it created a new cinematic language:

“The novelty of language, cinematic or otherwise, must be understood from the point of view of style, not from the point of view of vocabulary or syntax. … [E]ven if Welles did not invent the cinematic devices employed in Citizen Kane, one should nevertheless credit him with the invention of their meaning. His way of ‘writing’ is undoubtedly his own. I don’t mean the mere architecture of the story, although the ordering of the film’s scenes is worthy of our consideration. In this sense the connection between Citizen Kane and the novels of  Dos Passos is obvious. … The substitution for the classical story of a kind of jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces are provided by the memories of a series of witnesses, can hardly be traced to The Power and  the Glory (1933) or even Marie-Martine (1943).”

5. Kane brins back a President's niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

5. Kane brings back a President’s niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

The last sentence was a response to Sartre who claimed the narrative structure derived from those two movies, the later of which, Sartre failed to note, was released two years after Citizen Kane. The earlier movie, The Power and the Glory, written by Preston Sturges, was noted by both Sartre and Borges (see below) as a possible influence on the structure of the Welles’s movie. Bazin showed how the non-chronological nature of Sturges’s screenplay functioned in a way unlike Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael, in her later attempted take down of Orson Welles, followed Sartre and Borges in claiming the structure of Citizen Kane to be borrowed from it. She based her argument only on recollection, however, since a print of the film had been lost until after her essay (discussed below) was published.

When Citizen Kane had a limited revival run in 1956, Andrew Sarris was writing for Film Culture. Sarris had not long before spent a year in Paris where he became associated with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom had deeply imbibed Bazin and contributed to the Cahiers du cinéma agenda.  Within four years he became film critic for the Village Voice, where he would become America’s foremost critic and from which he espoused the film theory of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd. But in 1956 Sarris wrote an influential reappraisal of Citizen Kane, this time the focus was on the narrative structure and “meaning,” not its technical innovations.

6. Thompson at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the great and powerful obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations.

6. Thompson watches the ritual at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the wealthy and powerful are designed to obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations and justify wealth and power.

Sarris saw Citizen Kane, not as a collection of self-referential techniques nor as a film that subordinated content to style, but rather as a work that has “inner consistency of theme, structure, and technique.” He viewed the theme as the progressive hollowing out of Kane’s inner life and the narrative means of the Rosebud detective story:

“Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Kane develops two interesting themes: the debasement of the private personality of the public figure, and the crushing weight of materialism. Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of an American success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. The fact that the personal theme is developed verbally while the materialistic theme is developed visually creates a distinctive stylistic counterpoint. Against this counterpoint, the themes unfold within the structure of a mystery story.”

The themes are embedded in the overall structure of the film. The movie begins with the “intense reality of the fence” (the objective world) and then moves into the “fantastic unreality of the castle” (the world that Kane had constructed for himself). At the end, the camera performs the reverse operation: “[T]he mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundane substance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality to the grotesque baroque of its excess.”

“As each flashback unfolds, the visual scenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilings dwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possession, the ornament of his furnishings, the fiscal instrument of his collections. His booming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs, and vast recesses of useless space.”

The distinctive camera work of the film is not simply a matter of style, nor even just a means of enhancing the realism of the scenes. It is a metaphorical illustration of the theme. Story and style worked together to comprise a work of art.

This summing up became the accepted critical consensus. And for a decade it became commonplace to consider Citizen Kane the most influential, if not the “best,” film of all time.

The Kael-ing of Citizen Kane


7. To Thatcher (George Coulouris) the Inquirer was an outrage. And for Kane, his populism was perhaps merely a weapon for his unresolved Oedipal rage.

Pauline Kael rose to fame (and obtained her job at the New Yorker) for being a contrarian. She championed Bonnie and Clyde while critic at middlebrow McCall’s. The magazine would not print her review. She was eventually let go because she condemned every big budget movie Hollywood produced. Her point of view was somewhat contradictory. She equated popularity with trash (and she condemned popular movies), but claimed that movies arose from trash (and disliked movies that strayed too far from their origins): “Movies took their impetus not from the desiccated, imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common.” And nothing represented “desiccated, imitation European high culture” more than the auteur approach to film and its American representative, Andrew Sarris, who would become her nemesis. She was therefore an odd choice to write the introduction to Citizen Kane (the movie lauded by “desiccated, imitation European high culture”) when Bantam Books decided to publish the movie’s shooting script (and other production notes). But in hindsight it was entirely predictable that she would use the opportunity to attempt to take down Welles, who was the big game of hunters like herself of “auteur theory,” an approach she entirely rejected (at least then).

The essay she produced, entitled “Raising Kane,” was the longest extended work of her career. It appeared in two successive issues of the New Yorker in February 1971 before it was later that year published in The Citizen Kane Book by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Little, Brown. Kael’s goal was to show that Welles was not solely (or principally?) responsible for the movie. Since nearly everyone responsible for major aspects of the movie had publicly attested to Welles’s guiding hand in each department, she was left with only one area to attack Welles—the screenplay.

Welles took only co-writing credit together with long-time Hollywood screenwriter (and recent Welles collaborator) Herman J. Mankiewicz. At the time Welles had engaged him to produce a draft of the story they agreed on, Mankiewicz was nearly an outcast in Hollywood owing to his alcoholism and unpredictable behavior. Welles had previously used him to create radioscripts from popular books for the weekly national radio program, The Campbell Playhouse, that Welles and John Houseman produced for CBS Radio. When Welles arrived in Hollywood with his new RKO contract, he had the idea of filming a version of Heart of Darkness shot by a camera recording events from the narrator’s eye view (a story that he adapted for screen himself). When that concept proved prohibitively expensive, he began casting about for a new project. He discussed the matter with Mankiewicz, and after some time they came up with the idea of creating an original screenplay based on a mogul in the likeness of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz was full of gossip about Hearst and even knew him slightly, having attended parties given by Marion Davies, the actress who Hearst had set up in California to be away from his New York wife’s prying eyes. (Davies would become the model for Susan Alexander in the movie.) Welles agreed to hire Mankiewicz to come up with the first draft, but first, wary of Mankiewicz’s notorious binge drinking, Welles set him up in a sanctuary outside of Los Angeles and engaged his long-time producer John Houseman to ensure Mankiewicz worked rather than drink. From there Mankiewicz produced a first draft, with some help from Houseman, that they sent to Welles. Other drafts were generated from the comments and personal visits from Welles and eventually a script was produced. The shooting script included in The Citizen Kane Book was the final written draft, approved by RKO, but even it differs drastically in some places from what appeared on screen. Nevertheless, Mankiewicz probably saw his work as the last (and undoubtedly best) item in his legacy and began claiming that Welles had little, if any, input. When the screen writing was the only Oscar (out of nine nominations) won by Citizen Kane (Hollywood in the end had its revenge on Orson Welles, the boy wonder; he never won another Oscar), Mankiewicz publicly claimed the he only, and not Welles, deserved all the credit and that the writing was what carried the movie.

Relying solely on reports of comments by Mankiewicz (who had been dead for two decades at the time) and information from his living allies, and not calling Welles (or most of those involved in the production) at all, Kael used the occasion of her supposed appreciation of Citizen Kane to make the case that Welles had no responsibility for the script of the movie except, perhaps, for occasional superficial “consultations” with Mankiewicz. The essay is not a model of persuasive writing. It begins with a long detour into the history of the “coarse and common” of American film history, especially the “flapper” and “zany” comedies of the silent and early sound era. She details Mankiewicz’s roles in many of those movies and then attempts to show how those movies led into the “girl reporter” movies like Front Page. Mankiewicz had nothing to do with Front Page, but Ben Hecht did, and he was a friend of Mankiewicz and also a newspaperman from New York before coming to Hollywood, just like Mankiewicz, so she weaves it into her thread. She describes the “girl reporter” movies that followed, showed their similarity to earlier comedies and argued that these were predecessors to Citizen Kane. Since Citizen Kane had not even a superficial resemblance to these comedies, other than it also involved journalism (but no girl eporter), she makes the assertion, evidently to persuade those who never saw the film or were planning to, that Welles’s film derived from the “commercial comedy tradition” —and is “practically a collection of blackout sketches … ,” the form that Mankiewicz had specialized in. It was a bizarre form of analysis, but her “direct” evidence that Welles had no responsibility for the script was even worse. Kael’s argument depended for direct evidence on industry gossip solely from those who had axes to grind against Welles (a large enough group), failed to elicit testimony from Welles or anyone in the know who was not openly hostile to him and ignored Welles’s life-long history of effectively re-writing novels, stories and even plays for his own scripts for plays, radio programs and later movies. (I have shown how Welles “re-wrote” even his sainted Shakespeare, by condensing, re-arranging scenes and distributing dialogue among different characters, all without changing any word, but substantially refitting the story. See Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem.” With less hallowed writers Welles simply rewrote the story.) Just the next year he converted Booth Tarkington’s novel into perhaps his best scripted movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, without any additional help. And Mr. Arkadian was based on a novel he wrote and converted into a screen play (again without assistance).

Raymond's recollection: Emerging from Susan's room, now broke up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths

8. Raymond’s recollection: Emerging from Susan’s room, now broken up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths “Rosebud,” as the Butler (Paul Stewart) watches.

When she finally reached the point of “analyzing” the film, Kael simply produced a list of the things she liked and the things she didn’t, the laziest form of any kind of criticism. Oddly, the things she didn’t like tended to be attributable to the script, so if Welles had nothing to do with it, he escaped her worst volleys. But even in listing her gripes, she makes superficial and often flatly wrong assertions. I will give one example only because one occasionally hears it repeated by those who dislike the film. Kael was the source of the complaint, that one often reads in “fan” critiques of the movie these days, that no one was in the bed chamber to hear Kane utter “Rosebud,” and therefore the entire movie is based on a gaffe—the search for his “last words” that no one could have heard. She doesn’t elaborate, but I suppose she came to this belief because after Kane utters the remark and drops the globe, we see only a single nurse opening the door and entering the room to draw a sheet over Kane’s head. But there is nothing to show (such as a pan of the room) that no one else was in the room before she entered. In fact, the movie itself contradicts Kael’s assertion. Near the end of the movie, the butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) tells the reporter of the two times he heard the term. After we see Kane emerge from the room he has destroyed, picking up the globe and mouthing “Rosebud” at the entrance where Raymond stands, the scene returns to Thompson questioning Raymond:

Thompson: I see, and that’s what you about Rosebud?

Raymond: Yes. I heard him say it that other time too.

The “other time” is in Kane’s room, as he lay dying. Raymond was, therefore, waiting with him as he slept. As one would expect, someone that close to death, especially a wealthy man who could afford it, would have attendants around the clock (as Susan Alexander did, on doctor’s orders, after her suicide attempt). But if there were any question about what Raymond meant (did Kael think that Raymond was referring to a third time Kane said it?—but of course her review was based on a decades old memory), the shooting script, which Kael’s essay was supposed to be introducing, makes clear, what Raymond meant:

Thompson: And that’s what you know about Rosebud?

Raymond: That’s more than anyone knows. I tell you, he was a little gone in the head—the last couple of years anyway—but I knew how to handle him. That Rosebud—I heard him say it that other time too. He just said Rosebud, then he dropped that glass ball and it broke on the floor. He didn’t say anything after that, so I knew he was dead. He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything. [The Citizen Kane Book, p. 286.]

Evidently Kael specialized in barbs, not close reading of a film’s text, something entirely at odds with The New Yorker‘s reputation.

The essay would substantially damage Kael’s own reputation. The negative response was so overwhelming that her supporters advised her not to reply, hoping that it would be forgotten. (The Age of Movies, the Library of America’s anthology of her work, does not include it, even though it is her most remembered work.) Sarris, of course, responded, as well as other critics and a host of actors and production personnel. Kael’s piece was so littered with factual misstatements that it is hard to ascribe it solely to carelessness. The most effective critique, however, was Peter Bogdanovich’s in Esquire, which met the charges point by point, assailed her good faith, but most devastating for Kael’s reputation contained the disclosure that she had misappropriated the research of U.C.L.A. scholar Howard Suber, who gave it to her under her representation that his essay would be published along with hers in the book. Instead, she incorporated his work into hers without attribution. Kael it turns out had fewer ethical restraints than the Inquirer newsmen portrayed in Citizen Kane.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out, while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out (the new reporters or maybe even Kane himself), while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

Finally, the main thesis of her essay was decisively put to rest by Robert L. Carringer, who studied the seven completed drafts of the script before the shooting script. The first draft is a sprawling series of rumors about Hearst booted about among journalists, many of them libelous, but in any event entirely different from the movie. It contained, for instance, scenes in Italy showing how Bernstein and Kane plotted to take over the Inquirer without tipping their hand to Thatcher. Kane’s son does not die and becomes a major character with Kane at Xanadu. Susan Alexander betrays Kane with a lover, who ends up dead after Kane discovers the affair. And so forth. It was a problematic (from a legal point of view) draft, but also an undisciplined melodrama. Carringer shows how Welles took this draft and over several successive versions molded the work to a tighter story reflecting his own view of the movie. Welles not only supervised the writing, he did extensive re-writes himself. Carringer’s conclusion was as follows:

“In the eight weeks between the time [Mankiewicz’s original] material passed into Welles’s hands and the final draft was completed, the Citizen Kane script was transformed, principally by him, from a solid basis for a story into an authentic plan for a masterpiece. Not even the staunchest defenders of Mankiewicz would deny that Welles was principally responsible for realization of the film. But in light of the evidence, it may be they will also have to grant him principal responsibility for the realization of the script.”

Kael’s essay had the reverse effect of what she intended: It resulted in the digging up of proof that Welles was intimately involved in the script writing, just as he was involved in every other aspect of the film. If anyone in film history was an auteur, it was he. And as the years passed, Kael gradually acceded to the view that the director was the “author” of the film and engaged in analysis accordingly. She had given up (but never admitted the defeat). The essay, however, had an unfortunate impact on writers for the general public, however. Citizen Kane, as well as Welles’s later works, were treated as things that should be interpreted by reference to insider’s views of how the films were made. Instead of treating the movies as works of art, capable of analysis on their own right, almost all popular writers on Welles and his works treat him and them as subjects for rehashing insiders’ gossip. Perhaps that lingering effect is why Citizen Kane is currently losing its allure to first-time viewers and seen as the province for Hollywood trivia buffs or those devoted to outdated and “desiccated” European film theory.

Citizen Kane’s Diamond Jubilee

At 75 Citizen Kane no longer generates the enthusiasm it used to (it has even been knocked off the top spot in several film society all-time lists) nor the controversy. In fact, it seems to have gone unremarked on, unlike its 70th anniversary, which produced a new digital transfer. The customer response on Amazon or shows that younger viewers mostly fail to understand, or are actively hostile to, the acclaim that the film received. Used to the Hollywood production values of today, some of which are the same as the cliches Citizen Kane challenged in 1941 (rapid cutting, pinpoint close-ups to direct audience attention, over-reliance on musical score to provide emotional content) and some which are new (rapid plot development to cover lack of characterization, reliance on suspense and shock in routinized ways, emphasis on special effects), first-time viewers of Citizen Kane today seem to have little interest in what they see as a cinematic language that has been superseded. The question is, Does Citizen Kane have more than historic interest?

10. Bernstein's recollection:

10. Bernstein’s recollection: “It wasn’t money he wanted. Thatcher never did figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.”

To answer that question, instead of starting with questions of the cinematic style of the film and whether the elements were original or effective, let’s start with what Welles said he was attempting to say with the film. When it was leaked in January 1941 that the film was based on the life of Hearst (the production of the film had been a closely guarded secret), Welles issued a statement to the press denying that the movie was so intended. (The statement is found at Brady, pp. 283-85.) Welles said that he wanted “to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character.” He intended to show that a single personality could generate numerous different opinions, even from those who knew him best. For this, he said, he needed “a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one.” He first considered making him President of the United States but discarded the idea probably because it would be difficult to have the audience believing a counter-factual man in real historical times when the real figure was so well known. Welles then concluded that the only other character who could have as decided an influence on public life in American democracy was a wealthy newspaper publisher.

“It is possible to show a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible that he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to be to place my man in charge of important channel of communication.”

So Welles fixed on the tycoon of a newspaper empire. And because the character had to represent a sort of New Man, he had to be in charge of papers that pioneered yellow journalism.

But Welles had a second part to his central premise. He was to make this a story of failure, not success.

“I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose. I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but about what he does with his money—not when he gets old—but throughout his entire career. A man who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power.”

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

The method of examining this character was also specified. He chose a psychoanalytic approach. He would try to find the underlying reason why such a person would “fail” despite his ample means of “succeeding,” and he would use the character’s closest friends and foes to probe his psyche. Power is what Kane obtained, what he wielded. But there was something else he was looking for, even if he did not consciously know it, and it was why he threw everything he had away in the vain hope of acquiring. It was the purpose of the “Rosebud” theme to symbolize his deeper, subconscious driving force. The story is about what Kane is secretly looking for and ultimately how he fails in his quest. Welles would later admit that his analysis of the character was “‘dollar-book’ Freud, but, nevertheless, it’s how I analyze the film.” We’ll come back to this “admission” later.

Now, this statement of what was intended shows how different the movie was from what we see made today. Yes, there are similar characters that provide models for such a film now. One need only consider the former CEO of Fox News. But no one would consider examining such an unappealing and distasteful character today in the same way that Welles did then. All our political characters today are cardboard. Political villains, especially, beggar the limits of our empathy whatever political viewpoint we have. So Hollywood would never consider making such an examination. And independent films have settled into examination of issues other than public ones. (Television programs are these days more likely to make such examinations but given the episodic nature of such series, they are not comparable to movies.)

Moreover, the method chosen, psychoanalytic, is foreign to current film. Greed explains everything in our day, probably because our society has reduced everything to commodities with a price. It would therefore be a meaningless exercise today to set out to find why someone with wealth and power acts as he does, because most see it as self-evident. But let’s assume this method is fruitful and see where it leads in this movie. After all, all art has to be examined in relation to what was intended. If we rejected that proposal, there is nothing more to say about a work.

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of his life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of Kane’s life, is a flat construct. The reporters are not looking for the real story, or even depth, only a “hook” to finish their artifice.

What drives the narrative of this film is the supposed search for the meaning of “Rosebud.” It makes the film something of a psychological detective tale. But why are we looking for it? This is not how Freud or his disciples would examine a man’s psyche. No, the quest is launched by the makers of a newsreel, journalists of the type that were replacing the yellow journalism of newsprint. And while they didn’t operate quite like Kane’s papers did (they did not start with a conclusion and work backwards), they nonetheless began with the assumption that the story of this man’s life could be made engaging, understandable or entertaining with a “hook.” And they arbitrarily picked the dying word of Kane. So the quest is the quest of the new mass information disseminators into the life of one who operated under old principles. But both were motivated by the same thing, mass consumption of entertaining information.

Not to get ahead of ourselves but let’s consider how this quest ends for the new journalist, Mr. Thompson (William Alland). Although he speaks to the surviving characters closest to Kane at the key moments and even consults the memoirs of Kane’s surrogate father, he does not answer the question he was given: What did “Rosebud” mean? This, despite the fact that he talked to the butler Raymond, who twice heard Kane say the word and told Thompson of the glass globe, a clue that Thompson makes no attempt to follow up on. As he leaves Xanadu and its hordes of items that Kane possessed (among which we will find the meaning of the word), Thompson delivers himself of his conclusion that the search was a waste of time. Rosebud was simply the missing piece of a puzzle, and in any event one word could not sum up a man’s life, he concludes. And with that the search is over, and nothing has been learned of interest to the new journalists.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

But we have watched the search, and we have observed the principal crisis points of Kane’s life, their immediate causes and their long-term effects. We have seen a pattern that makes up the arc of his psychic life, and we can come to certain conclusions about Kane’s inner life. In his famous 1941 review of the film Borges (who saw the film in Argentina, where it ran a month before the general U.S. release) said that it represented what Chesterton called a “labyrinth with no center”—the most frightening thing of all. By that he meant, not that the movie was a pointless puzzle (as some have interpreted it), but that Kane himself was a “simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Whether we agree that is so or not, Borges is at least partially right in seeing this as the “psychological and allegorical” solution to the “metaphysical detective story” we embarked on. The new mass journalists found none of that interesting. In fact, the entire movie, its comments on Kane’s character, the intimate details of his life, the things that only his confidents knew, the conclusions we can draw about the meaning of his life, all of what we find compelling is what the new mass media considers unimportant. And so, at least in part the movie says that journalism is not the means to make the “metaphysical quest.”

Yet in less than an hour and a half, we understand Kane and to a certain extent, at least, can empathize with him. And this might be the most surprising thing of all. How can this be when even those closest to him had no clear picture of him? Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloan), a follower whose identity is so merged into Kane’s that we don’t even hear his first name mentioned, says to Thompson (#10): “Thatcher never could figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.” Chekhov called the soul, what Borges said was a labyrinth without a center, a cave.  But Bernstein, who was there “from before the beginning” and now “after the end,” at least knew what to look for to find out: Whatever it was that Kane wanted. And Bernstein also knew that, maybe, Rosebud was “something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.”  He was talking about a man who died in a castle he built from the stones of Europe among gardens and bestiaries and the “loot of the world” enough to “fill 10 museums” (in the words of the Time on the March newsreel). And yet it is Bernstein, the only one to profit (materially) from his association with Kane, the only curator of the unsullied image of Kane, the outsider to old line Anglo-Protestant elites—it is this Mr. Bernstein who comes closest to uttering a Christian morality on the destruction: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The other witnesses don’t see Kane’s life in moral terms. The banker, Thatcher (George Coulouris)—the substitute father (and mother), the man responsible for raising him—saw Kane only as a series of ledger book entries. His final conclusion on Kane’s life, as he tells a bemused congressional committee, is that Kane was a “communist.” Leland (Joseph Cotten), his oldest and perhaps only friend, his social equal, or perhaps superior because his place was conferred by his parents not sudden, randomly achieved wealth, saw him, in the end, as having “behaved like a swine.” His butler Raymond summarizes his view: “He was a little gone in the head sometimes, you know?” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) suffered the most at the hands of Kane, but she also has the most ardent and conflicting emotions. But she cannot articulate her feelings, she can only suffer alone. Perhaps a man’s intimates are incapable of fully judging him, because they can only see him in terms of their own values, desires and losses.

If journalistic fact and the recollections of intimates do not bring us to the center of the labyrinth, then what does? It is here that the techniques silently carry the load. Until then there was no movie that used all the technical resources available to allow the audience to view inside the “cave.” Visual techniques, of course, are the most obvious. And while Bazin highlighted the static frames and deep focus, Welles also employed his own version of montage and cutting. But the main visual effect of the movie is the omnipresent camera, a sort of divine eye that we get to view through. It is a tool, unlike the flat, dispassionate view of mass communicators (#12), which can penetrate depths, not simply gaze at surfaces. From the very beginning, when we are confronted with the “No Trespassing” sign on the fence of Xanadu, we see what the camera can do. In this case it slowly floats above the fence and proceeds into the grounds and in a fairy tale way we see “once upon a time.” It proceeds through the remains of a menagerie, gondolas in a strange lake which reflects a castle, what looks like a crumbling gazebo, an abandoned golf course, a haunted gardens until finally we see the fairy tale castle itself with one light on. A close-up shows a barred window with a light that suddenly goes dark. And then we are on the inside watching a snow storm from the inside of a globe. The camera, we see, can penetrate barriers and see inside small globes. We then watch a man die. The odd feature of the camera, allowing us to penetrate through windows is seen again when we first visit Susan Alexander at El Rancho in Atlantic City. We first see her trapped in the club from its vista through the sky light (#11). The glass does not prevent us from traveling into the enclosures to meet Susan directly, however. But our freedom highlights her enclosure, perhaps from sorrow, but certainly from having had contact with Kane. For no one is visually enclosed more than Kane. And whatever the camera is (psychoanalysis? empathy? divine insight?), it first must disengage Kane from the confines he is held in before we can understand him. The camera portrays his boundaries, visually, and then allows us to invade them.

As Mary Kane signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband looks on impotently and Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

14. As Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband (Harry Shannon) looks on impotently, while Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

The camera constantly tracks Kane, even when he is not the center of the scene’s attention. It is a visual reminder of his narcissistic personality disorder but it also holds him up to view as a specimen being observed, as the object of the scientific inquiry. But even more the enclosures show how he is boxed in, how his freedom is circumscribed, how he became what he was. He would have died behind a castle window out of sight, were it not for the camera’s ability to pierce it (#13). From the very first time we encounter him (outside the newsreel, which itself is a visual box without depth), we see him becoming enclosed. At first he is playing as a child in the snow but by a reverse tracking shot we see him slowly enclosed in a box which becomes smaller until we see it is the window in the background during the grown up’s decision of his future (#14). Although the discussion is about him, he far from their presence and enclosed in a visual cage.

The “framing” of Kane is ubiquitous in the film. When Bernstein speaks of him to the reporter after his death, he gazes on the framed portrait of Kane in his office (#10). Kane drafts his “Declaration of Principles,” which he feels will make the Inquirer as important to the people of New York as “the gas in that light,” at the window, and we see him from the outside, “imprisoned” by the window frames, while Leland wistfully gazes into the “open: world (#18). At the moment of his greatest professional triumph, when he has acquired the entire reporting staff of the rival Chronicle, he celebrates by dancing with hired call girls. As we watch Leland and Bernstein discuss the consequences of hiring reporters who hewed to political line opposite of the Inquirer‘s, we see Welles in the background, his figure reflected in the window between them, as though he was ever present, but always hemmed in (#9).

15. through the doorway into Susan Alexander's apartment.

15. Susan and Kane in her room for the first time seen through the doorway of her apartment.

The camera pictures Kane as transfixed by enclosing borders at his highest, his lowest and his most critically important moments. The staff of the Inquirer have planned a homecoming when he arrives from his celebratory vacation in Europe. He runs off embarrassed after he drops off a society notice. The staff is perplexed until his notice is read: he is engaged to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). After they run to the window, we see the couple for the first time through the frames of the window, as though fenced in below (#5). Emily, we soon find out form Bernstein, “was no Rosebud.” But by complete accident (#3) Kane allows himself to believe he has another chance. When Kane first enters Susan Alexander’s room, we see them both framed by the doorway (#15). He reflexively shuts the door, and we hear her say, when she opens the door so we can see them again: “Hey! Excuse me, but my landlady prefers me to keep the door open when I have a gentleman caller.”

But Kane was given no second chance. The visual enclosures presaged his lack of freedom. His future was as determined as his past. At the moment of his greatest political triumph, when he is delivering his last speech at a time when everyone is expecting him to be elected governor, his implacable enemy, Jim W. Gettys, watches him from a balcony whose view encloses (confines?) Kane, as he is vehemently promising to jail Gettys (#2). The two political enemies confront each other in a scene from which only one will survive unscathed. And the confrontation takes place with the combatants face to face, penned in by Susan’s doorway, too confined for an arena, but the match is not of physical prowess, only a matter of will (#16). During this his most fateful encounter, when Gettys confronts Kane with the reality that his political life, his family and ultimately his only friendship requires him to do something that he cannot—bend to the will of another that fate made superior to him for once—he is visibly ensnared and shadowed. Everyone but Kane knows it. And Gettys delivers his disdainful conclusion when Kane refuses the one way out Gettys offers him: “If it was anybody else I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

Kane and Gettys fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches Kane.

16. Kane and Gettys. both bathed in the darkness of their intent, fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches her husband from inside Susan’s apartment.

I won’t continue for the second part of the movie this list of visual cues that show how Kane’s behavior is strictly, almost mechanically determined. Kane operates under the illusion that he is in control. As he tells his wife, his great political nemesis and Susan all incongruously assembled to hear him: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do—and that’s me.” But like a figure from a Greek tragedy, Kane had it almost right. It is true that no one else will decide for him what to do. But he is mistaken that he makes the decision. In the second half of the film, his life with Susan, we see his life following the same deterministic rules. Despite what he has seen, he is still trapped in circumstances and behaviors beyond his volition. When the end comes, and Susan leaves him despite his inept attempt at change, he has an explosion of uncontrolled rage, destroying Susan’s room. When he emerges, the camera captures him framed in a doorway (#8). He is still trapped by external (or by the logic of the story, internal) forces that compel his conduct. As he heads towards his room, where he will disappear from our sight, we see visually the final image of his doom: the series of his identical images in the mirrors, all enclosed in the same way, all heading for the same tomb, his final enclosure (#17).

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

What constrains Kane, the condition that determines his behavior and ultimately his fate, is something that now has a name. Kane suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We know this now because in this interminable election season we’ve seen in on display in a particularly vulgar version. The DSM-5 describes what we’ve seen in the movie (and in the GOP candidate): Grandiose feelings of superior intelligence, success and power, excessive need of submissive love and admiration from others, inability to empathize with others, wanton exploitative conduct, a belief in entitlement that has been wrongfully denied. The populist demagogue is an exemplar of this condition. It’s not an objection that the DSM was not around when Citizen Kane was made any more than that Sophocles did not know about the Oedipal Complex or Shakespeare about Represession when he wrote Hamlet. Usually diagnostics imitate art.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

The hints in Citizen Kane are unmistakeable. Leland tells Thompson that Charlie never gave anything to anyone he only “left you a tip.” Susan complains that Kane never loved her, he only gave her things, nothing that really mattered. And Kane’s method for obtaining admiration, consent and love is to make promises. But his closest friends know what his promises mean. When he drafts his famous Declaration of Principles, Bernstein warns him (jokingly) against making promises he can’t keep. At his campaign rally he teases about promises he won’t state because he is too busy preparing to fulfill them. And twice with Susan, after all he had supposedly learned, he makes promises that he immediately breaks.

The first promise to Susan is made after her suicide attempt. He doesn’t understand her intense desire to quit singing, something that he had poured all his hopes into after his bitter electoral defeat. She tells him, plaintively, “You don’t know what it’s like to feel that people—that a whole audience doesn’t want you.” This is a concept that a narcissist has a particular way of dealing with, and Kane blurts out, “That’s when you’ve got to fight them.” But then, seeing that she cannot mount such a fight, assures her, “All right. You won’t have to fight them any more. It’s their loss.” But as Susan eases into a look of relief, the scene dissolves into a night view of the castle of Xanadu, accompanied by the ominous Power motif (discussed below), which in turn quickly dissolves into a resentful Susan working on a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, Kane had not taken her interests into account in this last move. Instead it seems that Kane has taken refuge in priveleged isolation to shield himself from the humiliating stares of a public who knows of his political failure and the failure of his wife’s musical career which he used to justify or at least replace the former.

Kane’s second promise to Susan was one that he knew was his last hope of adulation, the response he repeatedly mistook for love. It was day following the night that he struck her for the accusation that he did not love her. The next day she packed and announced to him that she was leaving. For the first time he is reduced to begging:

Kane: Susan, please don’t go. Please, Susan. From now on everything will be exactly the way you want it. Not the way I want it—but your way.

[Script direction: She is staring at him. She might weaken.]

Kane: You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

[Script direction: It is as if he had thrown ice water into her face. She freezes.]

She realizes that Kane is only thinking of himself. Her needs mean nothing, and with that resolution she leaves.

Kane’s tragic flaw is that he lacks the capacity to love another. When Leland tells him that he demands love only on his own terms, Kane agrees, he thinks wisely, by saying those can be the only terms that anyone knows (#4). And it is not just that he is incapable of giving love, he seeks only a particular kind of return on his gestures. We learn that Kane responds, not to personal love, but to abstract adulation. When confronted with the choice to withdraw from the gubernatorial race or see his family destroyed by scandal, he refuses to withdraw. Even when Susan pleads that he consider his “little boy,” Kane’s only concern was that Gettys was trying to take from him “the love of the people.” Leland told the reporter Thompson that Kane told him after he first met Susan that she represented “a cross-section of the American people.” The love he pursued from her, then, was of the same sort that Gettys was trying to deny him. Susan finally leaves Kane when she realizes that she represents nothing more to him than ego gratification.

19, Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher. Jim Kane (Harry Shannon):

19. Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher.
Jim Kane (Harry Shannon): “What that kid needs is a good thrashing!
Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead): That’s what you think, is it, Jim? … That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.”

Now, if we can return for a brief moment to Welles’s comment about “‘dollar-book’ Freud,” we can see how the movie treats the cause of Kane’s narcissistic imprisonment (the etiology, if we choose to be a bit more pretentious). In “On Narcissism” Freud developed his early explanation both of the development of the libido and the component parts of his proposed psychic structure (then called id, ego and ego ideal). He also introduces the concepts of repression and sublimation. Freud asserted that libido pre-dated the construction of ego in a child. While the ego is being developed, the child’s libido is object-directed (primarily toward the mother). (Originally the child knows no difference between inward and outward affection, because its ego is absent or only rudimental. It is the life-long, and impossible quest, to return to the state where one is united with everything.) As it extends its libido outward, a child’s (healthy) narcissism is depleted. Only the return of love by his love-object (mother) can restore it. An ideally healthy adult is one whose ego ideal is constructed (normally by the father) while his outward-libido remains in balance with his ego-libido (supplied by the mother), and one’s ego is eventually sustained on its own by fulfillment of the imagined expectations of the ego ideal. When there is a disturbance in the normal development a person can substitute narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice. (Thus a profound narcissist, just like Freud’s example of homosexuals and others whose sexuality did not develop “normally,” has a stunted desire for sexual objects of libido.) However an adult develops, the equation is the same as during ego formation. Extending libidinal energy outward (to an object of love) depletes narcissistic investment in one’s ego; being loved, however, restores one’s self-regard and enhances one’s ego. (The risk is that extending love without return results in the diminishment of self. On the other hand, receiving love without concomitant investment results in enlarged self-regard. The goal of the narcissist is to obtain love without giving it; instead the narcissist offers things or promises he has not intention of keeping.)

We can speculate that Welles had a fairly good grasp of basic Freudian theory, not only because he repeatedly draws on Freud throughout his careen in describing characters (including Shakespearean ones) or even because Freud’s world-view was much more prevalent in the early half of the 20th century than it is now. But also Welles himself experienced similar repression and displacement when the physician Maurice Bernstein moved into his house, replacing his father and becoming the primary influence on Welles. Bernstein remained so important to Welles, that he flew to Los Angeles to take care of Welles during the production of Citizen Kane when Welles broke his ankle. And Welles named Everett Sloan’s character after him, perhaps as an intended clue. (But with Freud, there is generally no unintended clue, only subliminal ones.)

One further textual clue suggests that orthodox Freudian explanation of narcissism is intended to be depicted perhaps comes from the nature of the relationship between Kane and Susan. Because the narcissist has substituted narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice (that is, ordinary heterosexual erotic object), the narcissist seeks abstract rather than erotic love. Leland suggested the Kane was interested in Susan for what she represented, not what she was (and he laughs about it). We then see a scene of a coquettish Susan meeting Kane (#3). But she is quite proper in observing the conventions, even insisting that the door be kept open. Susan herself twice insists that before they were married she had no sexual relations with Kane. The first time was during the encounter in her apartment between Kane and Gettys, where she indignantly asks “What story?” The second time was when she first spoke to Thompson. He questions her as though she were a gold-digger, she insists that he was only interested in her voice and she only got music lessons out of it. The marriage was forced by the publicity and loss of the election. (Even Leland says that Kane’s motives with respect to Susan was to eliminate the innuendos of the newspaper headlines.)

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand “had a hunch it might turn out ot be something pretty important.”

Whether or not Welles intended such a deep digging into psychoanalytic theory, it is clear that he was pointing to a quasi-Freudian explanation of Kane at the very least. (He, after all, said as much.) Kane is strongly attached to his mother when we see him at the age of eight. She has shielded him from the influence of his father whose values would normally be instilled to form his ego ideal (see #19). But he is nevertheless taken from her to live with Thatcher. Whatever unresolved Oedipal rage Kane had against his father, he now directs against the banker. Kane therefore had no chance for a well-adjusted ego with anaclitic object choice (in Freud’s terms). Instead, Kane and Leland enjoy a raucous and undisciplined adolescence at various colleges most of which they were thrown out of (according to Bernstein). Kane’s rage against his surrogate father never dissipates (his Oedipal complex is never resolved), however. When Thatcher, as head of the bank that takes back ownership of Kane’s newspaper empire in the Depression, asks Kane what he would like to have been (a startling question for a man who was supposed to have raised him), Kane answers: “Everything you hate!”  With his damaged ego development, Kane has little chance to have a normal psychic life. We see the strategy he would employ his entire life from the beginning of his role at the Inquirer (#20). Kane expected immediate adulation in exchange for promises to be paid later. But as Leland observed looking back: “He never gave anything away. He just left you a tip.” As for love, Leland said: “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.”

So there is support for Welles’s “dollar-book Freud” but the visual framing of Kane and the testimony of his intimates are not enough to make us viscerally feel the desperate constraining limits of Kane’s psyche and how it came about. Two other techniques are required.

First, there is the musical (and more broadly aural) soundscape of the film. Whenever Welles had the technical capabilities (which some of his self-funded movies lacked), he always devoted considerable attention to its sound ambiance and musical score. His long radio career, which he pursued simultaneously with his theatrical one, taught him the emotional impact of sound. When he became executive producer of his own nationally broadcast shows he closely supervised sound production and engaged in a variety of experiments. With RKO, Welles had become associated with the studio that was most interested in the sound of its films and the one with the most advanced sound equipment. On Citizen Kane Welles was able to use sound engineers with radio backgrounds. Even so, it was Welles’s close supervision and innovative concepts that made the sound of the movie as groundbreaking as was the visual style of the film, according to James G. Stewart, the film’s sound engineer, who also credited Welles with teaching him the principles of sound aesthetics which he thereafter used for the rest of his career.

Many of Welles’s sound techniques enhanced the realism of scenes, much as Bazin noted his visual style did. For example, after we see Susan begin her aria in the staged opera, the camera pans slowly upward through the rigging. As our view ascends higher, we hear Susan’s voice diminish, like aural perspective. This was not done by simply lowering the volume of the recorded sound, but rather by increasing the microphone’s reverberations, a technique used in Welles’s radio productions. When Kane delivers his political speech in the great hall, Welles declaimed his speech with the timing of one speaking in a large, cavernous hall with sound reflection. In postproduction the reverberation rate of his voice was manipulated to simulate the sound of the echo in such a venue. Scenes at Xanadu have a cavernous sound, usually produced in postproduction. Much of the sound involving multiple sound sources, like the scene where Welles is dancing and the new reporters are celebrating, was recorded live, with especial care given to sound levels from different sources so dialogue can be heard and yet the scene sound genuine.

The soundscape was not only designed to add realistic details to the film but also to plumb psychological depth. Much of this was done in connection with Bernard Herrmann’s musical score or the score in connection with recorded sound. The best example of the latter is the musical-sound confusion during the montage of Susan’s final opera tour. As images flash of the efforts made by Susan, the exasperation of her singing coach, newspaper headlines and the reactions of Kane and the audience, the sound is a cacophonous mix until the end when only her voice is heard then the frequency reduced so that it sounds as though she is running out of steam just as the light filament (by then the only image) burns out. Usually, however, it is Herrmann’s music which underlies scenes requiring sound interludes, for example the montages of photographs.

Herrmann invested a great deal of thought and time into the score and he did so with the active collaboration of Welles. He made a decided choice to reject the prevailing approach by Hollywood veterans such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin and relative newcomer Miklós Rózsa, all of whom employed full symphonic orchestras to play their version of lush late Romantic music along the order of Richard Strauss. The music was inserted after the movie was a finished print, to enhance the emotional or dramatic intensity of particular scenes often during dialogue. Herrmann’s music was largely subtle, produced by small groups of unusual instrumentation and never during the most dramatic scenes, which depended exclusively on acting and mise-en-scène. The quiet background added an unexpected drama because it was so unusual then (and now).

Herrmann composed fully structured pieces for set scenes, especially montages. Welles often waited for Herrmann to compose a piece and shot or cut the scene around the composition. The best example is the famous “breakfast montage” (see video below) where Welles portrays the disintegration of Kane’s marriage with Emily by successively cut scenes of their breakfasts. (Welles himself added this to the script based, as he admitted, on the concept by Thornton Wilder in his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner.) Herrmann composed a waltz (a musical form that introduced us to her (#5)), which together with the successive shots underwent a series of variations each becoming more dark and dangerous, just as Kane himself was becoming so himself. But the music merely underlies the drama, not overwhelm it. Welles decision that Herrmann compose the piece and then edit the scene following the cues of the music was an unheard of deference to the musical content of a film.

But for our purposes the two most important pieces of music were two two-bar motifs which we first hear at the very beginning of the film. The first, which Herrmann called “Kane’s power” is heard in the first two bars of the score, played by the bassoons and muted trombones. It consists of five notes (E–D♯–E–E–B♭). It is darkly foreboding, and represents the icy exterior of a place owned by an evidently powerful man. It is related to the “There is a man” tune that is sung at the reporters’ party (#9), which later becomes the theme of Kane’s political campaign. Both are heard when Kane’s fortunes are on the upswing (one intensely serious, the other buoyant and optimistic). It is the “power” theme, however, that suggests the deep driving force. When Kane’s fortunes take a decisive turn, only the “power” theme continues. Throughout the film the motif transforms to a variety of forms including ragtime, polka and finally the funeral end of the film. It is the force that keeps Kane plowing forward in the furrow that he has dug for himself. It represents Kane’s id.

A second motif is also heard at the beginning. It is melancholic but strangely wistful, and Herrmann calls it the “Rosebud” motif. It too is made up of five notes (C♯–D–B–F♯-C♯), and we hear it played by a solo vibraphone the second time we see the castle. We hear it with fuller instrumentation and repeated when we see the snow globe for the first time. This theme is repeated throughout the film, but not usually in the same circumstances as the “power” motif. It is found when it looks like Kane may have a way to redemption. It is prominent when he meets Susan and ascends to her apartment (#3), for example. The motif represents Kane’s idealized ego, restored to the harmony of mutual maternal-filial love, the longing for the unattainable condition where there is no distinction between inward and outward libidinal direction. Its distinctive mood is unsettling and gives a distinct coloration to the film.

As effectively as the camera and musical motifs guide us through the psychological inquiry, they are aided by the cutting. In most movies cutting is so prevalent that it becomes second nature and we rarely notice it. In Citizen Kane, there are unusually long set shots filmed by a single camera. When there are cuts, they are usually surprising and punctuated by a very brief musical statement or exclamation. The cut from the poster of Susan to the long tracking shot through the rain to the skylight of El Rancho is accompanied by a startling musical attack, much like lightening, for example. Some dissolves transition from one form of information to another. One example is how the white page that Thompson is reading in the Thatcher library becomes the snow that young Charlie Kane is sledding on. Another is how Leland’s narration from the hospital dissolves into the scene at the Kanes’ breakfast. Montages with more rapid cutting are designed to show a process acting over a period of time, telescoped to a few moments. The famous breakfast montage (in the video above) is an example. So is Susan’s opera tour, showing how she has been worn down by the ordeal of performing before audiences who think she is ridiculous. That montage directly cuts to the long, fixed scene of her bedroom after she has overdosed on pills. The stationary camera showing a glass and spoon prominently in the foreground and the door in the distant background with what appears to be a bed between is all the more effective as it followed the rapid cutting and dissolves of the opera tour montage.

But the most effective use of cutting occurs when it shows how two episodes are related, even though they are separated by an expanse of time. A good example is the cut between scenes after Susan attempts suicide. A pale and exhausted Susan explains her suicide attempt: “Charlie, I couldn’t make you see how I felt.” She tells him of her humiliation before audiences that didn’t want her. Kane at first, impulsively, follows his id: “That’s when you have to fight them!” But then relents and tells her she won’t have to sing again. It will be “their loss.” She relaxes in relief, perhaps believing that Kane has finally understood her. All of this was accompanied by the “Rosebud” motif. But then the scene cuts to a picture of the foreboding Xanadu castle with the “power” motif again heard. What she exchanged for humiliation was haunted loneliness and isolation, Kane’s ultimate perversion of his narcissistic drive (#21).

21. Susan’s relief and happiness when Kane relents and lets her stop performing cuts to the reality of what her next ordeal would be.

This temporal cutting can  take place in the middle of things. We hear Susan practicing the aria from The Barber of Seville in her parlor but the scene cuts in the middle of singing and in the next scene she seamlessly continues, as Kane, in different clothing, sits listening in the same chair, although it is a much later time. He claps, and as he does, the scene cuts to the clapping at a political rally. Sometimes the cut shows identification between people or events. When, for example, Leland is making a pitch on the street the scene cuts mid-sentence to Kane in the great hall who finishes Leland’s sentence. All of it causes the audience to realize that the film is an analytic exploration in which chronological sequence is a hindrance. In fact, we come to see the soul of Kane only by viewing one long ago cause and its matching much later effects, separately considered. It is as though this fracturing of time and visual frames of reference and even points of view are all required to gain empathy with another. On reflection that conclusion applies as much to each of us as to an examination of Kane.

In the end the film succeeds as a work of art because it had a single, perhaps unusual, point of view, and all technical facilities of the movie studio and all the artistic possibilities of a theater troop combined to realize that viewpoint in original (and therefore exciting) ways. Bazin once dismissed as an impossibility the notion of “total cinema.” But to the extent a film approaches that impossible limit it can be measured as great art. There are exceedingly few films that came as close to that ideal as Citizen Kane.


Paul Arthur: “Out of the Depths: Citizen Kane, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde Impulse,” Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook ed. James Neremore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 263-84, reprinted from Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Peter Bogdanovich, “The Kane Mutiny,” Esquire, pp. 99-105, 180-90 (October 1972).

André Bazin, “The Technique of Citizen Kane,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties trans. by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo; Bert Cardullo (ed.) (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 231-39, originally “La technique de Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes, no. 17 (February 1947), pp. 943-49.

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1967-71) (2 volumes), vol. 1, pp. 23-37 (Translation of selections from Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? a collection of essays published posthumously in four volumes (Paris: Éditions du Cerf., 1958-62). The particular essay was a composite of three essays written by Bazin between 1950 and 1955.

André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Realism: Neorealism,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif: Universit of California Press, 1967-71), vol. 2, pp. 16-40. Originally published in Espirit (January 1948).

Jorge Luis Borges,  “An Overwhelming Film (Citizen Kane),”  Selected Non-Fictions ed. by Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), pp. 258-59, translation by Suzanne Jill Levine of “Una Film Abrumador,” Sur, no. 83 (August 1941). 

Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Scribner, c1989).

Robert L. Carringer, “The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” Central Inquiry, no. 5 (1978), pp. 369-400, reprinted in James Nevemore (ed.), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 79–121.

Robert L Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, c1985).

Sigmund Freud, Zur Einführung des Narzissmus (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1924) (a book version of an essay originally published in 1914), translated in Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, Peter Fonagy (ed.), Freud’s “On Narcissism—An Introduction” (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1991). A version of Freud’s essay (without identificaiton of the edition or the translator) is found online at

Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Bernard Herrmann, “Score for a Film: Composer Tells of Problems Solved in Music for ‘Citizen Kane’,” New York Times, May 25, 1941, Drama-Screen-Music section, p. X6 (online; subscription required), reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 69-72.

Pauline Kael, “Raising Kane—I,” New Yorker, February 20, 1971 (online) and “Raising Kane—II,” New Yorker, February 27, 1971 (online), reprinted as the introductory essay to The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971) (and in other collections of Kael’s writings).

Istvan Meszaros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, c2012).

Frank Rich, “Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael,” New York Times Book Review, October 30, 2011, pp. 1, 12-14 (online; open access).

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque,” Film Culture, vol. 2 (1956), pp. 14-16, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 102-08.

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kael vs. Citizen Kane,” Village Voice (April 29, 1971), reprinted online by

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Quand Hollywood veut faire penser: Citizen Kane, Film d’Orson Welles,” L’Ecran français (August 1, 1945), reprinted in Olivier Barrot, L’Ecran français, 1943-1953: histoire d’un journal et de une époche (Paris: Les Editeurs français réunis, 1979), pp. 39-43.

Lawrence Van Gelder, “Pauline Kael, Provocative and Widely Imitated New Yorker Film Critic, Dies at 82,” New York Times, September 4, 2001, p. C12 (online; open access).

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane is not about Louella Parsons’ Boss,” Friday, no. 2 (February 14, 1941), p. 9, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 67-68.

Leila Wimmer, Cross-Channel Perspectives: The French Reception of British Cinema (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

Bill Wrobel, “Herrmann’s Citizen Kane,” Film Score Rundown (November 4, 2001) (PDF).

Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”

The Prince Hal Problem

Chimes at Midnight-Final Scene

Final shot in Chimes at Midnight: As Falstaff’s coffin is wheeled out of the inn into the blighted landscape, Ralph Richardson narrates the virtues of the new king: “… he left no offense vnpunished, nor fréendship vnrewarded … for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both liued & died a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour, and … famous to the world alwaie.” (Holinshed, Chronicles …, Vol. VI, p. 583 (1587 ed.).)

Since the post on Chimes at Midnight two months ago, I kept coming back in my mind to the “Hal question.” In this piece I will look at how Shakespeare himself delineated Prince Hal (before he became Henry V), how critics and other analysts considered Hal’s behavior and then return to the treatment by Orson Welles. To summarize that discussion: How are we to relate to the character of Prince Hal, who is portrayed in the film as a calculating manipulator, one who while heir apparent idles his time drinking and whoring, at a time when the kingdom is threatened with civil war? He choses to carouse with an alcoholic knight, who clearly cherishes him, intending all the while to banish the affection of him and his friends so that his apparent reformation will astonish the people of England, his future subjects. Although the film is the story of the old knight, Sir John Falstaff, the character of the prince is the central character in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, Part OneHenry IV, Part Two and Henry V. Indeed the tetralogy, beginning with Richard II, seems designed (at least in retrospect, Shakespeare probably did not have this clear intention when he began with Richard II) to build toward the glorification of Prince Hal, as Henry V the valiant victor at Agincourt and the most important English historical hero in all of Shakespeare’s works.

In its outward appearance the behavior of Hal is not remarkable. He is simply a young man sowing his wild oats, who, when he becomes king, decides to reform abruptly and take on his responsibilities. Such a transformation in anyone is not a particularly common occurrence, but it is not difficult to see how a fictional story can be made of it, although as a plot it is more likely in temperance-born again-revivalist stories than in any good literature. And Shakespeare makes the task much more difficult by inserting a soliloquy signaling his intention to reform later at the beginning of our view of Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, a particularly inappropriate time to declare such a secret intention, especially as it takes place just after he has agreed to participate in a highway robbery! And when he finally rejects Falstaff (a play later), Hal, now King Henry V, does it with such brutality, for which he has not prepared Falstaff, that in the end it is clear that “the King has killed his heart,” as Hostess Quickly says in the (next) play (Henry V, II:i:84) (and Pym (?) in the movie). The violence of the rejection seems to be part of his original plan, that

… when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
(Henry IV, Part One, I:ii:206-13.)

It is apparently planned ruthlessness designed to make him all the more remarkable.

So there are two related questions: How are we to understand Hal in the original plays? and does Welles attempt to solve the problem in the film and, if so, how?

Conveniently, last week Trinity College’s Cinestudio began a three day showing of the restored film. To prepare for it, and to see what I could come with on my own, I carefully reread Richard IIHenry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. I also read a variety of commentaries on the works (which historically mostly focuses on the character of Falstaff), particularly on commentaries on Elizabethan stage presentation, literary character analysis, literary psychoanalysis and myth-folk lore analysis of the plays. As for Welles, I read again the playscript for his Five Kings, the 1939 Mercury Theater production of the same plays. I also reviewed as many interviews of Welles on his approach to Shakespeare as I could find. And for good measure I watched the two other Shakespeare plays Welles filmed—Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952)—as well as the Omnibus television version of King Lear (1953), which was directed not by Welles but rather by Peter Brook (who also wrote the teleplay), who would go on to film the play 18 years later with Paul Scofield as Lear. Welles, however, played Lear in the teleplay. I also listened to the Shakespeare-based radio broadcasts by Welles on the CBS radio network (all of which can be heard via The Internet Archive): Hamlet (Fall 1937,  CBS Workshop, with Ray Collins), Julius Caesar (September 11, 1938, Mercury Theatre on the Air) and Scenes from King Lear (1946, Mercury Summer Theatre).

With this basis I think we can come to some supportable observations about how Shakespeare treated the “Hal problem” (which is the crucial component in the characterization of Falstaff), how we can interpret Hal and Falstaff psychologically, and how all this allows us to evaluate Welles’s film. But first, the reviewing and the other thinking crystalized certain observations about Welles as a film-maker that I omitted in the last post, failed to elaborate satisfactorily or missed in my earlier view of the movie. So I’ll make three observations before returning to the questions I posed.

Digression: Three Additional Style Observations on Chimes at Midnight

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that cassio proof of Desdamona's infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago.

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that Cassio told of Desdemona’s infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago and he is seen as though in a cage. and darkness obscures most of our view of him.

First, in all his Shakespeare films, Welles has a superb visual style. It is not necessarily a personal style (in the way that we can say Eisenstein, Bergman and Malick, for examples, have personal styles), because it is subordinate to individual movies rather than an overall “aesthetic.” The cage motif in Othello, for example, is stunning. At the beginning of the film (which takes place after the end of the play) Iago is hoisted in cage where he will presumably die. Welles told Bogdanovich that the idea for the cage came from the treatment of defeated Berber guerrilla leader Abd el-Krim, who was driven in a mule-drawn cage to show tribes during the Riff War. As a punishment for Iago it is entirely consistent with the play, which has Iago explaining early on (I:i) that if he did not hide his true intent (to poison Othello’s mind) he would “wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at.” In the cage, after he has been exposed, he will die with jackdaws (corvids, i.e., crows) and other birds pecking at his flesh. But that is just the beginning. The cross-hatch shadows and cage-like window fixtures and other spatial divides continue through the film. And increasingly the cross-hatches and their shadows separate us from what takes place on screen. Othello is a prisoner of his own naiveté, jealousy and misplaced trust. And much like Desdemona herself, we find ourselves caught within or viewing into a snare we did not create but cannot escape.

The long crane shot is probably his signature visual expression, but all the famous examples (the opening of Touch of Evil, the warehouse scene in Citizen Kane and the ballroom scene in The Magnificent Ambersons) serve a narrative purpose. Of course such shots could only take place when Welles had the resources of a studio. But even when the studio provided the train set that every boy wanted (in Welles’s famous quote) they never understood what could be achieved. So for reasons that defy explanation, they broke up the continuous ballroom shot in Ambersons, probably for the same reason that public high school administrators destroy student individuality—because they are stupid and because they can. Lacking the full technical apparatus that Hollywood studios would have provided him, these long crane shots are missing from the Shakespeare movies, but other devices abound.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent. Welles’s scenery and staging is reminiscent of compositions by Thomas Gainsborough (except for the corpse).

I already noted some visual highlights of Chimes at Midnight: the austere court scenes with their militaristic trappings, the deadened outdoor landscapes (the fields around Justice Shallow’s estate, the battleground at Shrewsbury and the burial field of Falstaff, for examples). There is one scene that on reviewing is quite noteworthy. The only scene of “normal” life with vegetation is when Prince Hal is talking to the dead Hotspur. Behind him are trees that look just like “England in springtime.” This would be a perfect visual cue for Hal’s “rebirth,” which it is in the film (at least the beginning of the rebirth) but given the plot vagaries (discussed below) that is not the case in the plays.

The set and view of the large room in Shallow’s estate with Falstaff in the deep background and Shallow and Silence in the foreground—Shallow on the floor after a night of drinking—provide the perfect visual context for Falstaff’s musings on the vanities of old men. The ground level view (what Marlene Dietrich called Welles’s “frog’s eye view”) allows Falstaff to tower over us in the triumph of discovering that Hal has become Henry V. We watch Falstaff’s joy as though from the front row below the apron, knowing all the while that his delusion will end in humiliation. (The difference between tragedy and comedy is always a matter of personal taste.)

All of this seems to me to put to rest all the attempts to attribute the visual magic of Kane solely to Gregg Tolland.

Second, Falstaff is finally a role that Welles fully inhabited. From the beginning, way back in Federal Theatre Project and Mercury Theatre days, there was always the nagging doubt that Welles could truly act rather than simply rely on his baritone voice and idiosyncratic pacing. It is true that as some pointed out during the run of Five Kings, early on Welles depended in his recitation of Shakespearean (and Marlowian) verse on peculiar tempos, with word groups followed by odd pauses unrelated to meaning. You can hear this peculiarity by listening to Welles’s Brutus in Julius Caesar or indeed any other role in his radio broadcasts. It is also true that Welles depended more on poses than Method early on. You can see a bit of this in his film role of Macbeth. If you trace him from Othello through King Lear to Falstaff, you will see that the mannerisms are gradually shed and in Chimes at Midnight he becomes Falstaff rather than simply representing him.

Falstaff: “[H]ow subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to me of the wildness of his youth, … every third word a lie” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:292-96.) Silence (Walter Chiari), Shallow (Alan Webb) and Falstaff (Welles), l-r.

Finally, the soundscape of Welles’s films is quite striking, and it is particularly notable on experiencing several films together. It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary the sound of Citizen Kane was at the time. Kenneth Tynan attended it five times in short order and one time closed his eyes solely to absorb the sound of the film. Of course, Kane had music by Bernard Herrmann. Brilliant in itself, the score (including and especially the composed “opera” that Susan Alexander attempts to master) quietly underlies the disintegration of Kane. The Germanic opera leitmotif semblance (music this time by Jacques Ibert1) was again tried in Welles’s Macbeth, which enhanced the obviously low-budget set. That score was spoiled only by the overly bright “triumph theme” (of the forces attacking Dunsinane). The Herrmann score for Kane, by contrast, is truly a moving work, intellectual and subtle. It will be a long time before we hear that quality of music in American movies. The local strip mall multiplexes are equipped with very loud (but low quality) speakers, designed for the banal hammering in movies like Inception, where special effects and loud minimalist music is supposed to cover poor writing and insipid plot. Although Welles (according to Virgil Thompson) had no especial ear for music, he always knew what “worked.” If one compares the released version of Touch of Evil with the version much later produced according to Welles’s 58-page post-production memo, it is entirely obvious who knew how the movie should sound, as between Welles and the studio flacks who commissioned a Mancini score!

Once Welles was cut off from the studio system he was forced to contract with composers (or rely on classical music in the public domain). For both Othello and Chimes at Midnight Welles made the inspired choice of Angelo Lavagnino as composer. (Welles told Bogdanovich that Lavignino also composed a completely different score for Welles’s later stage version of Othello.) Lavagnino’s score for the film Othello is chilling. From the very beginning (with the simultaneous funerals of the pagan Othello and the Christian Desdemona and the caging of Iago) we are in the grip of music that is profoundly “epic,” although it marries the modern with the pre-Baroque. Like the score of Kane it is not intrusive, but holds our attention as we watch the trap that Iago devises to ensnare two helpless victims. The score of Chimes at Midnight is equally effective and involved a wider range, including folk dances, court music, the background for a brutal battle scene, chant-song and the melancholy backings for several soliloquies. As with all of Welles’s films (except when the studio interfered as it did with Touch of Evil), the musical score does not intrude; nevertheless, some figures remain with you long after the film is over (as does the general atmosphere of the film which is intertwined with them).

But the musical score is not the only part of the soundscape of this film. Throughout Chimes at Midnight, we hear the natural sounds that place in context and comment on the action and the places where it takes place: church bells in the background, dogs running through the common spaces, soldiers’ boots tromping on stone (an effect Welles discovered in his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar), rain outdoors and the wind that swirls as the armies are about to face off. The battle scene (which lasts quite long and marks a turning point for the characters in the movie, and to a lesser extent in Henry IV, Part One) is filled with thuds of clubs and swords hitting bodies, hisses of arrows, whistling of slings, the metallic clangs of armor and swords and the slosh and squelch of mud under foot of the fighting and under the parts of those engaged in the lonely and futile struggle to live. The human voice is also used as part of the soundscape independent of the dialogue. Conversations overlap to keep scenes moving (a trick he developed in his Mercury Theatre plays), crowd noises punctuate speeches, and rather than have everyone miked at the same volume, Welles tries to simulate the location of characters within large spaces or long hallways by positioning the microphone where the camera is, rather than where the character is. This concern for three-dimensional placement is similar to his interest in “deep focus” in Kane (although in some ways it works in the converse way since there is no equal auditory access as there is visual access in the camera technique, rather we hear less distinctly the voices that are farther away). This technique is especially notable after the death of Henry IV, when Hal addresses the courtiers. We hear him up close, next to him, as he addresses the crowd in the large room separated by the long, narrow walkway to the throne, and then we hear him from behind the crowd in the large room. The change subtly marks the transition of Hal from a private person we know intimately to the public figure we can only distantly observe.

I will note one other feature of the film, Welles’s editing of the plays, in the course of the discussion of the “Hal problem,” which begins, as it must, with Shakespeare’s own treatment.

How Shakespeare Created the “Prince Hal Problem”

The place to begin is the constraint I suppose Shakespeare felt so as not to depart too greatly from popular conception of Hal (who had become a highly popular king in England’s historical imagination by Shakespeare’s time). And that conception ultimately comes from England’s preeminent historical popularizer of the time, Raphael Holinshed. His Chronicles treats the issue of Hal’s youthful behavior rather gingerly. It is worth setting out the passage at full length inasmuch as it not only deals with the wild oats supposedly sown by Hal, but also his confrontation with his father Henry IV and Hal’s volte-face.

Thus were the father and the sonne reconciled, be|twixt whom the said pickthanks had sowne diuision, insomuch that the sonne vpon a vehement conceit of vnkindnesse sproong in the father, was in the waie to be worne out of fauour. Which was the more like|lie to come to passe, by their informations that priui|lie charged him with riot and other vnciuill demea|nor vnséemelie for a prince. Indeed he was youthful|lie giuen, growne to audacitie, and had chosen him companions agréeable to his age; with whome he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and de|lights as he fansied. But yet (it should séeme by the report of some writers) that his behauiour was not offensiue or at least tending to the damage of anie bodie; sith he had a care to auoid dooing of wrong, and to tedder his affections within the tract of ver|tue, whereby he opened vnto himselfe a redie passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was be|loued of such as could discerne his disposition, which was in no degrée so excessiue, as that he deserued in such vehement maner to be suspected. In whose dis|praise I find little, but to his praise verie much, par|cell whereof I will deliuer by the waie as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. (Holingshed, Chronicles … (1587 ed.), Volume 6, page 539. For  version of this passage with modernized spelling by Rosemary Gaby’s see Note 2 below.)

Holinshed’s treatment of the reign of Henry V is heavily varnished hagiography. So I suspect that if there were not a strong tradition of Hal’s dissolute youth, Holinshed would just as soon have passed over it, particularly given that the sudden change plays no heroic or moralistic role in the historian’s story of Hal’s life. Indeed, he treats Hal’s behavior defensively, alternating between attributing it to the gossip of pickthanks (a word that sadly is not often seen these days, which causes me to overuse lickspittle) and minimizing the severity of the misbehavior. This suggests that his readers must already have believed in Hal’s youthful reputation, otherwise, why would he include it?

Shakespeare could have followed Holinghed’s lead and downplayed the stories, but he ventured in the other direction. Far from participating in only harmless pranks, Hal is made to agree to join Falstaff in a highway robbery. (It is true that he does so only to trick Falstaff and Hal never joins in the robbery, but he nonetheless agrees to the plot, furthers its enterprise and thus under law would be guilty as a joint venturer, just as Northumberland is later a party to the rebellion by agreeing to and furthering it, even though he fails to participate at the last minute). Shortly after he became king (in the previous play), Henry complained to Hotspur’s father that Hal daily frequented taverns “With unrestrained loose companions, / Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes, / And beat our watch, and rob our passengers …” (Richard II, V:iii:7-9). By playing up Hal’s transgressions, Shakespeare emphasizes the differences between Hal and Hotspur, in order to measure Hal’s aptitude to succeed his father (or at least to test his father’s patience). To make this comparison, Shakespeare treats Hotspur and Hal as equivalent in age, something not found in Holinshed, and in fact untrue. Hotspur in life was only three years younger than Henry IV and 22 years older than Prince Hal.  It is thus not a wish that plausibly could have occurred to the king that “some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle-clothes our children where they lay, / And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!” as Henry fantasizes (Henry IV, Part One, I:i:86-88) when comparing Hotspur’s martial virtues to Hal’s “riot and dishonour.” (By changing the age of Hotspur for the first Henry IV play Shakespeare also contradicts Richard II, which has Hotspur meeting the young Henry (then Bolingbroke) when the latter returned prematurely from exile at Ravenspurgh, as Hotspur himself reminds the audience in Henry IV, Part One (I:iii:244). (Shakespeare not only neglected established facts, he often contradicted events that he himself made up.3) Thus it seems that Shakespeare went out of his way to deal with Hal’s riotous youth so that we can watch Hal overshadow Hotspur and become the glorious Henry V, victor of Agincourt (among the many other virtues that Holinshed lists, but Shakespeare ignores).

Hal (Keith Baxter): “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

What then are we to make of Hal’s soliloquy, announcing his plan to continue his debauchery until such time as he is required to convert and then change completely to the amazement of all? We could attribute this to self-delusion (all dissolutes think their debauchery can continue to some unspecified future time; and that he compares his eventual reformation to the sun emerging from behind clouds might support this thought), except that in the end he does reform. We could look at it as an aspiration which he works to bring to fruition, and against all odds succeeds. This might have been the interpretation if Henry IV, Part One were the only play. For in it Hal carouses only until it’s necessary for him (and Falstaff and his retainers) to “go to the wars” to face the forces of Hotspur. In the meantime he is aware that he really doesn’t measure up to Hotspur (“I am not yet of Percy’s mind”), a man who has already covered himself in glory with a reputation of ferociousness which Hal bravely parodies: “he that kills me some six or seven / dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says / to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work'” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:101-03).

When summoned before the king and facing the dressing down that Henry V has been waiting to deliver, Hal acknowledges his misbehavior (with extenuation for the exaggerations of “smiling pickthanks and base newsmongers”) and vows to take Hotspur down in combat in order to “redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son …” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-34). At Shrewsbury he offers to save the destruction of innocents in both armies by adding to Henry’s offer of reconciliation by engaging in sole combat with Hotspur. In the battle that follows the refusal, Hal saves his father from certain death then goes on to kill Hotspur. One would expect that his conduct in this battle would mark the promised reformation and Hal’s rejection of Falstaff (who had falsely claimed that he killed Hotspur upon his revival after after Hal left the scene), but no! The play ends with Henry IV ordering his forces to carry the fight to the rebel in the north and the east.

In Henry IV, Part Two, Hal returns from the east, and the cycle begins again. (It’s as though the two plays were about alcoholics and their codependents.) With his father physically ill, Hal pairs up again with Poins and again heads to the tavern to play a prank on Falstaff. More merriment ensues. Hal does not chastise Falstaff for his conduct at Shrewsbury, nor warn him that when he assumes the throne, he must dissociate himself from his “riotous” friends. And so, Falstaff goes on to aid the prince’s brother in the north (Hal stays behind as part of Henry’s plan to divide him from Falstaff), and when he comes back Falstaff stays with his acquaintance Justice Shallow, a ridiculous old man from whom Falstaff hopes to “devise matter enough out of / this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter / the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms, or / two actions, and ‘a shall laugh without intervallums” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:i:71-74). In the mean time, Henry IV has become gravely ill and is once again lamenting the depravity of his son, when he discovers that Hal is in London dining with Poins:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them; therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
(Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iv:54-61.)

When Hal returns to the castle, he finds his father asleep, barely alive. He takes the crown from the pillow and leaves the room. Henry awakes, demands to have the crown brought back and finds that it was his own son who took it. He excoriates his son for wishing him dead. Hal convinces his father that he only took the crown to speak to it and “upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending / Hath fed upon the body of my father …'” (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:159-60). He again speaks of his (still!) unrealized plan to reform: “The noble change that I have purposed!” (line 155). And he does this with sufficient pathos to convince the king who is now finally reconciled, content now to die.

We learn of Henry’s death in a scene involving the Lord Chief Justice (V:ii), who now fears for his own safety having once committed the prince, now king, to jail for riotous behavior. When the new king confronts him, the justice explains that he was acting on authority of the king (in loco parentis, I suppose) to deliver the rebuke that was due him. Hal, now Henry V, assures him that he did well and hoped that he would do the same to a wayward son of his own. Falstaff is still at Shallow’s when he learns of Henry’s death; he rushes to see Hal, believing that they will rejoice together in Hal’s new station. Instead, in the presence of his own train as well as Falstaff’s entourage, the new king rejects and banishes Falstaff in the most brutally abusive language:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But being awaked I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace …
(Henry IV, V:v:50-55.)

Stunned, Falstaff tries to explain it to his friends: “I shall be sent for in private to him …” (line 80) and “I shall be sent for / soon at night.” (lines 92-93.) Instead, the Lord Chief Justice has him taken away to the fleet prison, while Prince John remarks favorably on his brother’s “fair proceeding” with his “wonted followers.” Lest anyone improperly conclude that the King’s treatment was harsh, Shakespeare has the prince say that they will all be “very well provided for” and their banishment will last only “till their conversations / Appear more wise and modest to the world” (lines 102 & 103-104). But possibly Shakespeare still worried that this ending for Falstaff was not satisfactory and has a dancer give an epilogue, promising to bring back Falstaff in yet another play:

… If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you
merry with fair Katharine of France—where, for anything
I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already
‘a be killed with your hard opinions …
(Henry IV, Part Two, Epilogue, 25-30.)

Between 12 and 1

Hostess Quickly (Margaret Rutherford) remembers Falstaff: “‘a cried out, ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him ‘a should not think of God – I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.” (Henry V, II:iii:18-21.)

Despite the bantering about the audience’s “hard opinion” of Falstaff, this epilogue by a narrator standing in for the author suggests to me that Shakespeare himself was troubled by his ending to Falstaff and hoped to resolve it in the next play or at least to postpone finally resolving the business.

In that play (Henry V) Shakespeare gives King Henry the lines ordering Falstaff’s release, attributing the old man’s ill behavior during the king’s procession to “an excess of wine.” This allows us to soften our of opinion towards old Hal. But to bolster the case that the original treatment was justified, Shakespeare has this offer of clemency trigger a dissent from the king’s advisers, who urge that the punishment be continued “lest example / Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind” (Henry V, II:ii:45-46). As someone might say, Shakespeare seems to protest too much over the treatment. And probably he could not find a way out of the dynamics he had created, because Falstaff does not appear as promised by the dancer in the last play. Instead Falstaff receives something of a wake in the next scene with Hostess Quickly, Falstaff’s small page (played charmingly in the film by Welles’s daughter Beatrice), Pistol, Bardolph and Pym.  It is Mistress Quickly, despite her fights with Falstaff, who offers the only eulogy: “Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. ‘A made / a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom / child; ‘a parted e’en just between twelve and one, e’en / at the turning o’th’ tide / … / and ‘a babbled of green / fields” (Henry V, II:iii:9-17). Quickly and Pistol and others fill the comic role of left vacant by the death of Falstaff for the rest of the play.

There are very few modern commentators who defend Hal’s behavior towards Falstaff. Even those who reflexively defend Shakespeare’s treatments are at least defensive about Hal. Allan G. Chester, for example, in his preface to Henry IV, Part Two in the Pelican Shakespeare, says: “We need not condemn Hal too severely. Good judgment would have taught Falstaff that the laws of England would not be at his commandment after the death of the old king, and delicacy would have forbidden him to obtrude himself so abruptly into Hal’s new situation. … It is Falstaff, not the prince, who compels the rejection.” But does boorishness require imprisonment? And would not the laws of England, not to mention the example of the prudence of his own father (as the king expressly tells him in Henry IV, Part One, III:ii), be equally instructive to Hal against participating in a robbery, not to mention continuing in Falstaff’s company long after he had been repeatedly urged against it by the king? Even Poins, Hal’s “shadow,” tells him that the world would consider him a hypocrite if he were to weep over the illness of his father “because you have been so lewd, and so much / engraffed to Falstaff” (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:58-59).

Last time I mentioned Nuttall’s theory that Shakespeare patterned Hal after the Friend of the sonnets to whom we was (homosexually?) attracted as an explanation of why Hal troubles us and not the author. I left the analysis at that, but I should emphasize now that the theory is useful only in showing us that Hal’s behavior troubled even eminent literary critics, who usually act as if it were a professional obligation to reject all suggestions of unsuccessful dramatic conceptions by Shakespeare. But Nuttall’s explanation, based as it is on a predilection of the drama’s author inferred from a construction of another literary text, requires that we believe that in one case the narrator is speaking on behalf of Shakespeare relating his biography and in the other the character is modeled on the assumed features of the recipient (Shakespere’s real life “Friend”) of the other text. However dazzling one might think this analysis is as an example of academic virtuosity, at bottom it makes the twin mistakes of assuming that the narrator of a text (or a character in a literary drama) speaks the thoughts of the author and that the tidbits of biographical information concerning the author that we can mine from a text has some importance in evaluating another text. But beyond that, Nuttal’s conclusions, even if true and relevant, amount to nothing more than that Hal is simply a boorish jerk, of a kind that Shakespeare somehow liked, but a jerk nonetheless. But one need not have gone through the hoops Nuttal did if that is all one wanted to say about Hal’s character.

Traditional literary critics, therefore, being less than helpful on this issue, we might as well consult a field which brings a form of psychological insight into literary tests (albeit a field that is not much consulted these days for that purpose). And psychoanalysis is a field that routinely comments on literary productions and has a structure (whether you subscribe to it or not), which allows for discussion of behavior and what prompts it. To many the Freudian apparatus creaks with age and totters with odd ideological baggage, but it is the latter feature which allow us to talk about the subject. We cannot say there is an accepted “literary” way of looking at Hal’s conduct. But we can expect that there might be a psychoanalytical way, just as there might be a “Christian” or “historical” way to explain his behavior. After all, much of Freud’s theory depends on his view that literary archtypes illustrate certain mental phenomena, and Freud himself often analyzed literary characters and their authors solely on the basis of literary evidence. So let’s see what psychoanalysts have to say on the problem.

A Psychoanalysis of Prince Hal

Although Freud himself had much to say about certain of Shakespeare’s characters (particularly Hamlet and Lear), he has only fairly banal comments on the historical plays. This might seem odd, considering that the themes in those plays revolve around authority conferred by patrilineal descent, threats to the continuity of that authority, and the central feature, inherently creating a psychological division: the fact that the heir apparent can only realize the potential for which he spent his entire life preparing (kingship) through the death of his father. Monarchy of the English type also has the political necessity for male heirs and the strategic bonding through marriage, resulting in the trading of females for political purposes. These features all depend on a sexual differentiation, which necessarily affects all aspects of personal development and identity. The monarchy really ought to be a fertile soil for an approach to an understanding personality (such as Freud’s) which posits that most formative events take place within a family and involve sexual tensions and competition for affections.

“Falstaff is dead,” says his little Page (Beatrice Welles) sadly in the courtyard where his coffin lies.

Yet Freud limited himself to two comments about the Henry IV-V plays. First, he discussed Falstaff as an example of the humorous technique of “economized expenditure of effect” (Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious, §VIII). Falstaff’s size, harmlessness and the “lowness” of those he abuses prevents us from objecting to his gluttony, cowardice and deceit, says Freud. (The nature of humor must have changed much more between our time and Freud’s than from Freud’s to Shakespeare’s, or else I have been stricken with the cursed “political correctness” that they condemn these days for this explanation seems not only class-bound but also unconvincing.) He also notes that with respect to Falstaff himself his ego is “superior” so that his physical defects do not rob him of his psychic security.

Second, Freud mentions Hal in Interpretation of Dreams (Chapter VI) where he observes that when Hal puts on his father’s crown (thinking his father near death) he was acting out his (unconscious?) wish for his father’s death. “Whenever there is rank and promotion,” says Freud, “the way lies open for wishes that call for suppression.” Of course this is hardly a clever insight, for King Henry himself makes that very point (less prosaically) when he surprises Hal wearing the crown. Hals says: “I never thought to hear you speak again.” Henry replies: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.” (Henry IV, Part II: IV:v:92-93.) Indeed, isn’t the putting on the crown merely the stark culmination of Hal’s brooding over the course of the two plays (namely, that Hal’s behavior was a the punishment inflicted on him for taking the crown (and killing) Richard II)?

So we have Hal’s wish to toss aside his father. What about Falstaff? For that we have to figure out what Falstaff meant to Hal, and for that in turn we must go deeper into the mire of psychoanalysis than Freud did with either Hal or Falstaff.

There is a pair of father-son relations in Richard II and Henry IV, Part One, and all are named Henry. In Richard II, Henry IV begins as Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gault, the Duke of Lancaster (who happens to be uncle to the king, Richard II). Henry Percy (the father of Hotspur), the Earl of Northumberland, is an early supporter of Henry Bolingborke on the latter’s return from unjust banishment to fight the king for his rightful estates (taken by Richard II on the death of John of Gault to pay for his extravagance, we are told, and to defend against uprisings by the Welsh and Scots). Northumberland introduces his son, “Harry” Percy (known as Hotspur) to Henry, and Hotspur pledges allegiance to Henry. That play ends with Henry Bolingbroke becoming King Henry IV, and we know only little about his own son, Henry (Hal), now Prince of Wales and heir apparent, except that he spends his time “‘mongst the taverns” in London and that Henry has not seen him for three month (V:iii:1-12). 

Hotspur in some ways once saw both Henry and Northumberland as fathers in Richard II. But in Henry IV, Part One the new king refuses to ransom Hotspurs wife’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower, because Henry believed he had gone over to Glendower’s side. This constitutes in Hotspur’s mind Henry’s “rejection” of him, and under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, and his father Northumberland, Hotspur goes into revolt against Henry, in effect “rejecting” his adopted father.4 But it is Hotspur’s martial glories both before and after the revolt that causes Henry to prefer him over his natural son and heir, Hal. Despite his knowledge of his father’s displeasure, Hal for his part remains a companion of Falstaff, and even after Hal, as he promises his father, washes off his “bloody mask,” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:136-37), by killing Hotspur, he returns to Falstaff. Why?

The easy answer (the Psychoanalysis 101, or perhaps Psychoanalysis for Humanities Students, answer) is the “pleasure principle,” the prominent principle from Civilization and its Discontents. This force, which directs the id to seek physical gratification is buried by social forces so that everyone is able to bring himself to go to the office in order to work on spreadsheets in a cubicle rather than doing things that are more physically gratifying. This drive seldom is responsible for any socially unhealthy actions in normally maladjusted individuals (because it is so under the control of socially embedded rules) but can bubble up in dreams or even neurotic impulses. That Falstaff is the physical embodiment of the pleasure principle for Hal is hinted at when the new king says in his rejection speech that “I have long dreamed of such a kind of man [Falstaff, whom he addresses in the third person], / So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane, / But being awaked I do despise my dream.” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:52-54.) If you want to read ripe prose on what a carefree sprite Falstaff is (“… he is so happy and so entirely at ease. ‘Happy’ is too weak a word; he is in bliss, and we share in his glory. …”), you can read A.C. Bradley’s essay from the beginning of the last century (before modernism disturbed the complacency of Edwardian men of letters). But while Falstaff is not Peter Pan, the play has ample evidence that he partakes of Dionysian qualities. (Although probably due to commercial considerations and not with a view to mythological parallels, Shakespeare even resurrects Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor after killing him off in Henry V.) No social rules stand in the way of his gratification, and he led other to do likewise.

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach (the source for Richard Wagner) Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Print Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach’a Parzival (the source for Richard Wagner’s opera). Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Norman Holland points out that Falstaff is the only major figure who is “whole” in the Henry IV plays. The other major characters are “dyads” (my word, not his): Hal/Hotspur; Worcester/Northumberland, Henry IV/Richard II, John of Lancaster/Hal and Shallow/Silence. Falstaff therefore is more “significant” than the “historical” characters. Indeed he rises to folk-mythological status. J.I.M. Stewart sees Falstaff as the Fisher King from the Arthurian/Parsifal traditions. (In the last post, I pointed out Falstaff’s own imaginative association with King Arthur.) The Fisher King receives a wound to his thigh/groin, which does not heal, causing infertility throughout the land. There are many medieval versions of the tale, and the attributes of his character are found in many figures. (A concise summary can be found in the “Fisher King” article by Matthew Annis at the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project.) In the Parzival version by Wolfram von Eschenbach (followed by Wagner in his opera) it is up to the hero to journey to Amfortas’s castle (where the Holy Gail is kept) to heal the king and restore fertility (spiritual and agricultural) to the land. As for the hints in Shakespeare, the most telling (to me) is after the “duel” between Pistol and Falstaff, Hostess asks: “Are you not hurt i’th’ groin? Methought ‘a made / a shrewd thrust at your belly (King Henry IV, Part 2 II:iv:205-06) (in Welles’s film Doll says the lines). The Fisher King’s association with seasonal fertility makes him one of the saturnalian figures of folk harvest/renewal festivals. Stewart writes that the description of Falstaff in the plays points to those cyclical festivals. Hal (playing his father) calls Falstaff a “roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:140-41) (referring to the Whitsun festival in Manningtree when an ox is roasted whole), and Poins describes him as Martlemas (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:96), meaning the salted beef served at Martinmas, a feast in November. He is also referred to as kinds of pork appropriate for feasts: “brawn” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:109) and Bartholomew boar pig (Henry IV, Part Two, II:iv:228-29). Perhaps the clinching evidence is that, like folk characters, Falstaff dies “at the turning o’th’ tide,” as Hostess Quickly makes a point of noting in her eulogy (Henry V, II:iii:13), like many a folk figure.

At such seasonal festivals there is a spirit of abandon presided over by a Saturnalian figure, a Lord of Misrule. (Falstaff shows himself to be Saturn to Hal’s Jupiter when he calls out to the new King: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!” Henry IV, Part Two: V:v:49.) During Saturnalia ordinary rules are suspended: Vice is Virtue. But with the end of the festivities the Lord of Misrule is killed (and so Falstaff is rejected by Hal). Norman Holland pointed out that Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego said that Saturnalia “derive from a temporary, therapeutic abrogation of the incorporated parental demand on the ego; they are lawful release from the superego.” So in this view Falstaff provides a replacement for Hal’s biological father. But why would Hal want to replace his father?

The only suggestion that seems to have any support in the plays revolves around Henry IV’s regicide of Richard II. We know that Henry IV himself worries himself over his guilt. That guilt is what blights the land with rebellion. (So it is Henry IV’s actions and not the wound to Falstaff’s groin that renders the land infertile.) This is how Ernest Kris explains Hal’s attachment to Falstaff: Because Henry IV is a regicide (and therefore a political parricide), Hal rejects his authority and must develop his own superego under the guidance of the substitute father Falstaff. We’ve seen that Hal in effect has two fathers and Philip Williams drives home the point by showing how Hal mistakes both of them as dead, and then robs them (of a crown from his father and the charges of the Hostess of Falstaff). When they actually die, they both die in the custom of folk figures: in Jerusalem for the king (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:239) and with the tides for Falstaff. Is there any evidence in the plays that Hal was disturbed by his father’s regicide or that it (or to avoid a subconscious impulse toward parricide himself) motivated his rejection of his father and preference for Falstaff? If there is, I cannot find it. But the advantage of psychoanalytic criticism is that if you follow a long enough argument based on the “logic” of psychoanalytic theory, it is possible to fill in evidentiary holes by faith.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff. Hal directs the royal wrath as Falstaff, but when Henry finally confronts Hal (the next day), it is Hal’s treatment of him, as his father, he laments.

So if we have followed this line thus far, the ending is easy enough. Once Hal’s father dies, Hal no longer is plagued by his father’s crime, he emerges as the rightful king and the substitute father is superfluous, and so he figuratively kills off Falstaff (who dies a little later from the figurative killing) as part of Hal’s transition from his pre-Oedipal stage.

There is one other aspect that seems to have escaped the psychoanalysts. The last we see of Falstaff (forever) is when he is being ordered off to jail by the Lord Chief Justice. That man had been commended by Henry V to act to any future wayward child of his to treat him the same way the justice treated Hal (i.e., as a wayward son would be treated by a parent). And so the justice treats Falstaff. Thus Falstaff’s regression has become complete. Starting off as the substitute father, he is rejected when he becomes unneeded and finally becomes the son, one in need of correction himself. Far from informing the superego of Hal when Hal’s own father was not capable of doing so, Falstaff will now receive the Law of the Father from Henry V.

We can thus see that Shakespeare wrote the perfect fin de siècle Vienna play, unmatched by any (except perhaps Hamlet).

But this is not the only (neo)Freudian explanation of Hal’s development. Valerie Traub argues that Falstaff is not Hal’s substitute father, but rather his substitute mother. The idea that Falstaff is a faux woman is not solely the province of Freudian feminists. W.H. Auden saw him as both a baby and a pregnant woman. He eats, Auden thought, to combine both aspects in order “to become completely self-sufficient emotionally.” Traub, however, does not see Falstaff’s shape as the result of an intention to become self-sufficient, but rather as the outward manifestation of his woman-ness (or non-man-ness), which carries with it, not comfort, but rather exclusion from the male (phallic-based) world. That world is the “serious” part of the drama. Take Hotspur, for example. His wife makes every effort to draw him into the world of healthy domestic sexuality. Hotspur, however, will have none of it. He is off to war because, as he says, the world he inhabits, that of rebellion and martial matters, is not a world for women (or sex): “This is no world / To play with mammets, and to tilt with lips. / We must have bloody noses, and cracked crowns …” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iii:94-96). He eludes her clutches and won’t even say he loves her until he is on his horse, so that he can escape her. It is significant (as we will see very shortly) that when Hal thinks of Hotspur and his relationship to his wife, he thinks of himself and Falstaff and says: “I prithee call in Falstaff. I’ll play Percy, and that / damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife” (Henry IV, Part One, II: iv:107-08). And aside from Lady Mortimer, who has no speaking part (because she only speaks Welsh and Mortimer only English), the only other woman’s role in the first Henry play is Hostess Quickly, who is rendered genderless by Falstaff who calls her an otter, because “[s]he’s neither fish nor flesh, a man knows / not where to have her” (Henry IV, Part One, III:iii:125-26). In the second play Hotspur’s widow returns and has a small scene with her mother-in-law (both of whom persuade Northumberland not to fight (to act the woman?), causing him to again betray the rebels). The only other woman to appear is Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute, the agent of venereal disease (which is why Falstaff sends his “water” off to the doctor) and vessel for a fetus, who worries that she will miscarry when she is rounded up by the beadle (and the Hostess in fact prays that she does: Henry IV, Part Two, V:iv:12-13). It is a phallogocentric world (not to put too pretentious a point on it), where women are drags on the real business of men (killing), when they are not infecting them or carrying their issue.

Traub marshalls the evidence that Falstaff represents to Hal a woman. Much of it comes from Falstaff’s own mouth:

I do here
walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all
her litter but one. (Henry IV, Part Two, I:ii:10-12.)

I have a whole school of tongues in this belly
of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other
word but my name. …
my womb, my womb, my womb undoes me. (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iii:18-22.)

Traub goes so far as to imply that Falstaff’s name can be seen as indicating a fake phallus (False-staff), but perhaps sometimes a name is just a name.

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff's pocket (and given the contents of Hal).

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff’s pocket (and given the contents to Hal).

If Falstaff plays the part of a woman, then perhaps Hal’s relationship with him is homoerotic. (Is this what Henry means when he calls his son a “young wanton, and effeminate boy”? (Richard II, V:iii:10.) If this is the nature of their relationship, Traub concludes: “Hal’s rejection of Falstaff serves simultaneously to temporarily assuage anxieties, first, about male homoeroticism and, second, about a heterosexuality based on the equation of woman and maternity. His repudiation of Falstaff exorcises both threats to Hal’s development of adult heterosexuality.” This is a plausible explanation of Hal’s character (at least if one accepts as a working hypothesis Freud’s concept of psychic development). But the physically grotesque appearance of Falstaff (supported by the language of the play) makes erotic attraction unlikely. And Traub has a different explanation that I think more completely explains both Hal’s attraction to Falstaff and its violent rejection—Hal’s emotions towards Falstaff are Oedipal.

This would mean that Falstaff’s body (as Auden points out) is maternal. And Traub points out how Medieval concepts of the maternal body (with all its various orifices constantly expelling things to the horror of men) is consistent with the physical description of Falstaff. Hal more than once rattles off numerous insults all amounting to seeing him as a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:439-40), like one with child and the organs that hold it. Moreover, Falstaff is constantly emitting or leaking substances: he is an “oily rascal” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:511), an “obscene, greasy tallow-catch” (line 224), who “sweats to death, / And lards the lean earth as he walks along” (Henry IV, Part One, II:ii:107-07). Even the dancer in the epilogue to Henry IV, Part Two promises the audience a continuation “where, for anything / I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat” (Epilogue 28-29). And it is not just oils and sweat that Falstaff excretes. Coming from the chamber pot, he interrupts his singing of Arthur to order “Empty the jordan” (Henry IV, Part TwoII.iv.33).

Child birth of course is the paradigmatic maternal function that historically has engendered the most disgust in males, taking place, as Freud delicately latinized it: inter urinas et faeces nascimur (a fact, he noted, that neurotics and many others took exception to). Perhaps it is the discontent of all civilization but George Barker expanded the disgust among modern Anglophones to all aspects of procreation. Here are stanzas from his “True Confession”:

The act of human procreation—
The sore dug plugging, the lugged out bub,
The small man priming a lactation,
The grunt, the drooping teat, the rub
Of gum and dug, the slobbing kiss:
Behold the mater amabilis,
Sow with a saviour, messiah and cow,
Virgin and piglet, son and sow:

The act of human procreation,—
O crown and flower, O culmination
Of perfect love throughout creation—
What can I compare it to?
O eternal butterflies in the belly,
O trembling of the heavenly jelly,
O miracle of birth! Really
We are excreted, like shit.

Hal describes to his father his promised rebirth—when he slays Hotspur—in similar terms with blood and gore as though rebirth like birth must be accompanied with all the excretions:

I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.
(Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-37.)

And when Hal in fact fulfills this promise, he sees that Falstaff is also down. If Shakespeare had only read his Neo-Freudians more carefully he probably would have ended the Hal-Falstaff relationship here, where Hal’s rebirth, his “breeching” (the stage in Medieval son-rearing where the boy puts on pants and leaves the company of women caregivers) and resolution of his Oedipal drive take place all at once. But Shakespeare did not end it there; Falstaff had been feigning death, Hal’s father does not see the shame removed from Hal, and there is another play to be got through where Hal returns to the taverns of London and Falstaff. It is only at the end of the second play that Hal rejects Falstaff. Perhaps the violence of the rejection has something to do with how belated it was under this theory, involving a near completion followed by backsliding. As it was, it took place only after Hal’s father had died and Hal took up yet another father figure, the Lord Chief Justice.  So the rejection does not tie up all the Freudian threads we have been weaving, and maybe they are irrelevant, because Shakespeare was writing a comic-drama, not a case study, and for him the play was the thing, not the couch.

Welles ignores Freud and takes Medieval politics seriously

Hours before he died before a typewrite in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Hours before he died before a typewriter in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Orson Welles was an open book to the public. He loved giving the kind of interviews that let the public see deep inside him. It didn’t matter who the interviewer was, whether a serious student of French cinema or a network entertainment talk show host. And while Welles was more than happy to let audiences into his world, he made much of it up out of whole cloth (or exaggerated real events beyond recognition). During his many interviews his contradictions (of himself, on his opinions of others, his own and others’ contributions to his projects, his intentions and even basic factual matters) became so numerous that one hardly knows what to believe. He was not shy about divulging personal details, depending on the circumstances and the effect he was trying to achieve. But as he was always spinning the mythology of Orson Welles, the content of that mythology and the lessons he drew from it changed over time. He could be perfectly demure (as on middle- and low- brow television talk shows like The Dean Martin ShowThe Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show) and at other times crude, vulgar and slanderous (see his conversations with Henry Jaglom). Although his life was filled with stuff that psychoanalysts could prattle on about (and amateurs did), and although his films echoed (sometimes starkly) things in his life, Welles never offered psychological explanations for his characters or his films, at least not Freudian ones, especially of Shakespearean characters. (His discussions of the motivations of Othello and Lear in his Bogdanovich interviews is entirely uninformed by any Freudian approach: He says that the shortcomings of both men arise from their inexperience with the ways of women. In all of Welles’s films the one exception, one that he even hinted had a Freudian explanation, was Citizen Kane.) He also denied that his films were intended to have autobiographical themes. I think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt on that and therefore set aside Nuttal’s example (and the approach of many Welles’s critics) and not try to interpret the movie based on some understanding of his biography.

More reliable than Welles’s views of himself or others’ analysis of his psycho-biography are Welles’s own views on how Shakespeare ought to be presented. Shakespeare is possibly the one passion of Welles that lasted a lifetime. From a boy he produced Shakespeare plays at the progressive Todd School at a time when Shakespeare was usually absent from American secondary education. Partly to rectify that after graduation, Welles together with the head of Todd School edited a number of Shakespeare plays with commentary, set illustrations and production suggestions for high schools. When he was 16 Welles performed Hamlet’s father at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. At 18 he toured the country with a Broadway company performing the role of Mercutio. He produced three Elizabethan plays in New York by the time he was 23 and had an out-of-town preview tour of the Henry IV-V plays (which closed before reaching New York). Before Chimes at Midnight he had filmed two other Shakespeare plays, performed in another and had produced and played Falstaff in a Dublin stage version of Chimes at Midnight. In short, Welles was as serious a person in Shakespearean stage and film as anyone not permanently associated with a repertory or national theater company. So his opinions in how Shakespeare should be approached (generally and specifically with respect to specific plays, characters or scenes) ought to be accorded some weight. Indeed, John Gieguld (who had played Hotspur to Ralph Richardson’s Prince Hal in a production at the Old Vic in 1930) said that in his experience Welles had “extremely perceptive appreciation of the Shakespeare text.”

According to interviews late in his life, two principles guided his general approach. First, according to his 1974 interview with Richard Marienstras (who occasionally sounds dubious of Welles’s answers), Welles believed that stage productions ought to respect the theatrical traditions and avoid experimentation. (He was forced to admit that his own Julius Caesar violated that principle, but he claimed that world political exigencies required that an anti-fascist cast be put on the production.) Second, as he told Bogdanovich (and others), he believed that film, being an independent art form, did not need to strictly follow Shakespeare’s “intentions.”

I don’t see why there’s an argument about it. A movie is a movie, and if we are going to take movies as a serious art form, then they’re no less so than opera. And Verdi had no hesitation in doing what he did with his Otello, which is an enormous departure from the play; nobody criticizes him. Why is a movie supposed to be more respectful to play than an opera?

But in both theatrical and film versions Welles always only used Shakespeare’s words (or very occasionally paraphrases) except for the narration in Chimes at Midnight, which all comes from Holinshed (Shakespeare’s own source). Welles believed that he was free to abridge (in fact required to, given attention constraints of modern audiences) and occasionally he distributed lines from one character to another. In Chimes at Midnight he significantly re-arranged scenes and sequences (and drastically cut the story that did not involve Falstaff). But he always contended that he remained true to the characters as drawn by Shakespeare and delivered the perspective Shakespeare intended (despite the fact, as Mareinstras pointed out, that by cutting he was “changing the general balance of the play”).

With respect to Chimes at Midnight specifically, Welles strays from the accepted Shakespearean interpretation (whatever Shakespeare’s intent was) in one aspect, his characterization of Falstaff, while remaining consistent with Shakespeare’s intent with respect to the political-court aspect of the story, which though much abridged, provides the framework of the drama, even that part involving only Falstaff and his associates. But because the political aspect provides the overall context of the tale, Welles is able to fold his characterization of Falstaff into the overall political world in a way that produces a perspective that may or may not represent Shakespeare’s ideas, but resolves the “Prince Hal Problem” better than commentators and psychoanalysts do, by condensing the tale so that we follow a more logical story arc and characterization of Hal. In the end, I submit that the surgery Welles performs on the plays results in a story that is much more satisfying dramatically, politically and psychologically, at least to the modern audience, and by taking that approach his characterization of Falstaff is entirely justified. Let’s take the treatment of Falstaff first.

Welles early fell in love with the character, probably around the time he produced Five Kings in 1939. The press reports (particularly from Boston) say that he played Falstaff with much more pathos, and less bawdy humor, than the reviewers had seen before. Over the years this role must have percolated in him (especially given the failure of the Five Kings production) until he converted Falstaff from the buffoon that nineteenth century stage producters regarded him into something of a holy fool (like Prince Myshkin or Quixote), although Welles equivocated on just how “good” Falstaff was, depending on when he talked about him. Here’s what he said to Marienstras:

I think that Falstaff is the only great imaginary character who is truly good. His faults are so minor. No one is perfect, and he’s filled with imperfections, physical and moral defects, but the essential part of his nature is his goodness. That’s the theme of all the plays he appears in.

He described Falstaff to Tynan not as Christ-like (which Auden had suggested) but rather like “a Christmas tree decorated with vices. The tree is total innocence and love.” Welles told Bogdanovich that “his goodness is basic—like bread, like wine.” Back in 1947 Welles wrote in the New York Post (quoted in the Bogdanovich interviews) that Shakespeare was “a sociable sort who liked to trade gags with the boys at the Mermaid” and that he “surely wished that Hamlet could have joined him for a drink after the show. I think Falstaff is Hamlet—an old and wicked Hamlet—having that drink.” Three and a half decades later he told Megahey that Falstaff could not have been the Hamlet that stayed in England rather than return to Denmark, because “Hamlet is not a good man … .” We can gather from all this that Welles over time laid greater and greater emphasis on the “goodness” of Falstaff and minimized the faults of the character.

But Shakespeare shows none of the infatuation with Falstaff that Welles does. The insults hurled at him by Hal and Poins are designed not to elicit audience sympathy for Falstaff but rather to have them laugh at him (and give the actor an opportunity to exaggerate those features by playing the buffoon). Falstaff also does nothing to show “goodness” to anyone (if by “goodness” is meant something like charity or benevolence). He had enemies (like Poins) and treated his retainers shabbily (Bardolph, reminded, after Falstaff’s death, of a joke Falstaff made at his expense, replied: “Well, the fuel is gone that maintained that / fire—that’s all the riches I got in his service” (Henry V, II:iii:40-41)). He insulted Hostess to whom he owed money in a way we would now consider vile. He stole from the funds used to recruit soldiers and his drafting of soldiers was influenced by bribes. He committed armed robbery against religious pilgrims, and repeatedly lied, including by taking credit before the king of killing Hotspur. Right before his own end (when he confronted his own mortality) he even mused, with some regret, on the shortcomings of old men who had the habit of lying.

The best that can be said for Falstaff is that he was ingenuous or guileless, which, perhaps, makes him virtuous enough, inasmuch as both are rare enough qualities. Or maybe the more accurate description is that he acted better than could be expected under his circumstances. Isn’t that what Welles is really saying when he says that Falstaff never expected anyone to believe his lies? And the point of his statement to Bogdanovich: “All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and bluff is simply a turn of his—it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about”? If put that way, perhaps it does express how Shakespeare felt. Falstaff was more sinned against than sinning. And the abuse that the rabble in the Globe heaped on him was just more of the circumstances he overcame, until it became too much even for Falstaff—Shakespeare couldn’t bring himself to put Falstaff in Henry V.

Whatever Welles’s conception of Falstaff, his realization does not make the movie markedly different from the play. In fact, it only informs his acting. The tragedy of Falstaff does not depend on his being good or innocent or deserving. His tragedy is that he conceived that he deserved more than his circumstances allowed. It is that sin that Shakespeare’s Tudor audience could not forgive. It was why they found it riotously funny that he might “die of a sweat.” Welles exaggerated the “goodness” of Falstaff in order avoid portraying Falstaff in a way that we no longer can accept. The twentieth century has taught us too much to laugh at fools who are stripped of dignity they do not deserve, because we have seen how easy it is to strip anyone of their fundamental dignity, and it is not a matter for humor, and deep down we are doubtful that any of us have any dignity at all.

It is on the second point, the politics of Shakespeare’s plays, that Welles is perfectly aligned with Shakespeare’s thinking. He told Marienstras: “The idea that there is something essentially corrupt on the political confrontations of the court pervades his whole oeuvre.” But the king himself, as the embodiment of sovereignty, was outside accountable corruption. “The idea that the crown was sacred, that around the crown corruption reigned but that the crown itself, whoever wore it, was a sort of Holy Grail—for Shakespeare, this idea was very real.”

The concept that the king could legally do no wrong (at least nothing that should cause a forfeiture of the crown by rebellion), by definition, was a maxim of Medieval monarchy. It was what Richard II believed protected him de jure from lawful revolt and de facto meant God would defend him from his enemies. This was why Richard II was so confident in the face of the threat of Henry: “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord.” (Richard II, III:ii:56-57). This ancient principle was so ingrained that it applied even to a usurper who had overthrown a legitimate king. That is why the Duke of York, who counseled Henry against his revolt, tried to turn over his son Aumerle to Henry (once Richard was deposed) when he discovered that his son had plotted to take down Henry and restore Richard (Richard III, V:ii).

By the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s day that notion of the king above the law had frayed beyond recognition, and the concept of legitimacy was central to sovereignty. The Tudor dynasty (which replaced the House of York, which itself was a rival to the claims of the House of Lancaster founded by Henry IV) hardly had the best claim to legitimacy. Henry VI had usurped the throne. Henry VIII had abrogated the church’s authority, and his heirs had resorted to bloody means to obtain their thrones. Shakespeare witnessed real challenges to Elizabeth, who in any event was childless, and succession was the chief matter of political concern by the end of the sixteenth century. There was even a plot against her, which relied on historical  and literary references to Henry IV’s deposition of Richard II, a circumstance that caused Elizabeth, when she reviewed the documents of the plotters, to say: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” (I will not here delve into Elizabethan politics, deferring that to a later post.) Shakespeare himself uses the usurpation by Henry as a dividing line between the days when kings believed in their divine right and those that worried about legitimacy. Richard on one half the divide assures himself:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.
(Richard II, III:ii:58-62.)

By contrast Henry broods through both plays over his right to rule. He sees the rebellions (as predicted by Richard) as a consequence of the way he gained the throne.

There were practical reasons why the legitimacy of the crown could not be questioned. Anything less than absolute sovereignty in the crown demanding total allegiance might easily lead to civil war, the gravest plight on the land and one that invited even further disaster—foreign invasion. Given that Elizabeth was childless, the political issue of succession must have been on many minds at the time the plays were first performed. Legitimacy plagues Henry IV throughout the plays because he has none according to traditional notions but somehow hopes he can pass it on, if only he can retain the crown against those grasping for it. What further troubles him is his son’s behavior and he worries that Hal’s misconduct might be related to his own lack of legitimacy, as “the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven” to punish him for his past “mistreadings” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:8-13). It is why sleep eludes him even to the end.

Without legitimacy he must use his own wits to defend the throne. And it is here that occurs what Hugh Grady calls the “Machiavelli moment.” In this respect as well I will defer delving into his particular take on this, which is convoluted (one would think from his analysis that Shakespeare wrote plays and poetry only because Venn diagrams had not yet been invented) and steeped in turgid academic prose. But what Grady points to is obvious from much of Shakespeare’s political dramas. A stereotypical view of Machiaelli’s thought (in crudest form; namely, that the prince is justified in doing whatever is necessary to remain in power) can be found throughout the works. E.g.: “policy sits above conscience” (Timon of Athens, III:ii:89). “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe. / Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!” (Richard III, V:iii:310-12). In the two Henry IV plays, however, we see Shakespeare first working out the implications.

It is uncertain whether Shakespeare read The Prince. Since it was not translated into English until 1640, if he did read it, it would have had to have been a French or Latin translation. If he did not read The Prince, he may have encountered him through a French pamphlet which grossly caricatured Machiavelli’s writings and slandered his person. Or he could have encountered the concepts of Machiavelli from Marlowe in Tamerlane (1577-78) or The Jew of Malta (1589), in which Machiavel is the Prologue speaker. But even if he had been ignorant of all the foregoing, Shakespeare would undoubtedly encountered talk of the concepts at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside or wherever else Shakespeare drank. After all, the techniques themselves were not innovative; Machiavelli’s genius was in cataloging them, and showing how a treacherous prince best used them (like the first modern business leadership book, which in fact it was). By 1540 Cardinal Pole had said that the ides of Machiavelli had already poisoned England and would soon do likewise to all Christendom (although Pole perhaps was referring to Machiavelli’s writing on democracy and republicanism, which Machiavelli preferred, than his writing on treacherous court politics, which Pole himself was an adept).5

The Henry IV plays (and later Henry V) are strikingly reminiscent of advice from The Prince. When Henry first confronts his son, he lectures him on how he had maintained the throne, and his advice seems to come from Chapter XVIII of The Prince (In What Way Princes Must Keep the Faith), namely that a prince, even if he did not possess appealing virtues, should pretend to have them by clothing himself in them:  “I stole all courtesy from heaven, / And dressed myself in such humility / That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:50-52). By contrast, like the “skipping king,” Richard II, Hal had been mingling “his royalty with cap’ring fools . . .” and “Enfeoff’d himself to popularity,” (lines 63 & 69), behavior which diminishes authority. Moreover, in the “latest counsel / that ever I shall breathe” Henry warns Hal that despite all the “peril I have answered” to make Hal’s reign “a more fairer sort,” dangers still lurk. So Hal must make Henry’s friends, “their stings and teeth newly ta’en out,” Hal’s own (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:182-83, 186, 200, 205). As for policy, Henry recommends foreign war: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days” (lines 213-15). What could be more platitudinously Machievellian than foreign war to manipulate domestic authoritiy? It certainly did wonders for the popularity of Presidents Bush (père and fils). And it appears strikingly similar to the technique described in Chapter XXI of The Prince (How a Prince Should Act in Order to Gain Reputation). But the plays’ most treacherous use of an ends-justify-the-means act (which is the common, though not altogether accurate, understanding of “machiavellian”) is by Prince John of Lancaster, the son Henry is most proud of. In the second Henry IV play, having sent an emissary to the rebels before battle to seek their terms, in IV:ii Prince John arrives and appears to agree on everything with Mowbry and the Archbishop. When the rebel leaders then disband their army, Prince John has them arrested and sends them to their execution. That feat of bad faith, which even shocks us in this time of targeted assassination, torture, unlimited drone strikes, terrorist attacks, apparent immunity for homicide by police offices, not to mention massive secret government surveillance, goes beyond anything found in Chapter XVII (Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared).

Welles recognized this machiavellian undertow in the court. He told Marienstras that Shakespeare “couldn’t do otherwise” than to justify Prince Hal “in all sorts of ways” because Hal was “an official patriotic hero.” But he maintained that Shakespeare portrays Hal ambiguously. This answer deserves full quotation:

[Hal] loves Falstaff, but he prepares a betrayal necessary from a Machiavellian point of view. I’m speaking of the Machiavellianism, that of the real Machiavelli that we know and who is so far superior to the one Shakespeare judged to be so sly. Hal is certainly a great Machiavellian prince. He loves Falstaff, and, still, is ready to betray him from the get-go.

It is the “love/necessity” dichotomy that drives the film in a way that it does not drive the plays. Where does this “necessity” come from? As Welles puts it: “How could he have forced the respect of the English court and the people if he had kept vulgar acolytes as his play-mates?” And yet Welles sees “this kind of betrayal is still an infamy, even if it’s a Machiavellian necessity.”

Maybe I can push this point a bit further in analyzing the film. Certainly by the end, Prince Hal/King Henry V has become the “that terrible creature, a great man of power” as Welles described him to Bogdanovich. And Hal had the kernel of that in him from the start when he “has a beady Welsh eye on future dignity and glory.” And certainly Welles directs him according to that conception: “Here is a complicated young man with a curious, rather spooky internal coldness. And there’s also the charm, the comradely joie de vivre—all part of his vocation, the basic equipment of Machiavelli’s perfect prince.” But what makes the drive and the ultimate infamy logical is that first, Hal knows what he must do when he becomes the “perfect prince” and yet evidently abhors what he will become. If we follow the story beyond where the film ends we find that Henry V will execute not only the conspirators against him but also the foot soldiers he made prisoners who followed them. He will then lay siege (in effect) on Katherine in as inept a suit as you are likely to witness. The only way he “wins” her is because she is already his prisoner. Official patriotic hero or not, he becomes something that we moderns cannot like.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Welles is able to dramatically show the transformation from the fun-loving, comradely friend of the guileless Falstaff to that terrible creature by drastically cutting the Henry IV plays and rearranging the sequences. He makes the battle of Shrewsbury the turning point in Hal’s view of himself—the point where Hal has reluctantly decided that he must now change. Welles then cuts out all the “backsliding” on this resolution that Shakespeare’s Falstaff scenes in Henry IV, Part Two constitute and which disrupts this story arc. And while Hal gives hints even before Shrewsbury what the “necessity” will cause him to do, Welles portrays him as genuinely affectionate towards Falstaff and reluctant to truly harm him (by, among other things, drastically cutting the most vicious “gag lines” Shakespeare has him direct at Falstaff and by the way he has Hal protect Falstaff from the sheriff’s men). All of that takes place before Shrewsbury. In the scene after the battle, however, Falstaff celebrates the virtues of wine, which all take including Hal. But we see the resolution forming in Hal’s face, and he turns, leaves Falstaff and drops the cup of sack on his way to rejoin the army. Falstaff’s smile disappears; the metamorphosis has begun. By cutting scenes inconsistent with that change from the film, Welles remains faithful to the story arc as he conceives it.

In the scene with Poins that shortly follows, Hal broods over his situation. He despises himself for his desire for “small beer” and wonders what the world would think of him if he weeped over his father’s imminent death. Poins tries to advise him like an equal, but Hal cuts him off and insults him, mindful of his imminent “glory.” Sensing the change, Poins retreats, signifying his subordination: “Go to, I stand the push of your one thing that you / will tell (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:35-36). And yet Hal is still able to treat the young page he gave Falstaff kindly and promises to visit his master. The last scene that Hal and Falstaff have together, before the rejection, is one of unstated regret and nostalgia. When Hal is gone, Falstaff becomes old and thinks of his mortality. After a parting that breaks Doll’s heart, Falstaff leaves to visit Shallow, who, an old man himself, is filled with thoughts of his associates who are are now “dead, dead …” Falstaff sees himself in the vanity of Shallow, but tries not to accept what has happened between himself and Hal. In the same scene when he learns Henry has died and his friend is now king, he comes alive, convincing himself there is something to live for. He assures all around that he will take care of them.

We last see Falstaff as he disappeares under arches having half-heartedly assured himself that “I shall be sent for soon.” Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:92-93).

The rejection comes soon after. It is brutal and humiliating. It strikes deep within us watching it. Welles’s portrayal of Falstaff is one of memorable impact. He shows surprise, horror and devastation all at once without speaking and barely moving. When he leaves the procession, he is hounded by Shallow, who now is only interested in recovering as much of the money he loaned Falstaff as possible. Falstaff wanders slowly off, to disappear among columns (which reminded me of the mirror scene at the end of Kane—a death march of sorts), and assures Shallow in a tired and unconvincing voice, “Sir, I will be as good as my word. This that / you heard was but a colour.” Shallow replies prophetically, “A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John” (Henry V, V:v:89-90). The sad self-deception, rendered as if by rote, that Falstaff will be as good as his word is shortly exceeded by Ralph Richardson’s epilogue over the lonely funeral procession for Falstaff as the words of Holinshed about Henry V are recited, including that he left “… no friendship unrewarded …” All encomiums are lies.

As we see the lonely end of Falstaff we fully understand the “terrible creature” Hal has become, for we have seen him enter the castle that Henry left, with its stone floors, empty walls and dark corners, filled by no friends or family, only courtiers whom he must police and military with pikes who serve as the “knife in hand” a prince must have (see The Prince, Chapter VIII). Then we see that Henry is setting off to engage in the war in France just as his father had advised.  The two, the new king and the old knight, were bound to part, because what Hal must become is so repellant to what Falstaff always was.

All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

This is the way the world ends: All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

That Shrewsbury was the turning point is quite logical, especially as Welles depicted the battle. It is a brutal, unglamorous slaughter where men confront each other face-to-face with barbaric arms that hack and pound and tear. In the end there is nothing but body parts slowly dying, making sucking noises in the mud. It is, as Welles intended, a modern war. It is the inevitable result of the modern state, the state guided by “policy,” using the techniques Machiavelli catalogued.

Vincent Canby, as he usually did, was able to hone in on the essence of Welles’s achievement:

Chimes at Midnight carries an astonishing emotional kick that seems to grow each time I see it. Shakespeare really isn’t supposed to be so moving in this day and age. Yet this film has a way of creeping up on you … Shakespeare doesn’t get much better than that. Nor does Welles.”

Perhaps the film is not really Shakespeare in some “authentic” sense. But it really is the only way I have seen to solve the Prince Hal problem, and it is a stunning emotional rendering of plays that are described as merely “historical.” (The distant past as present, and both as nightmare.) The conclusion one reaches on seeing the film again is that this is the way we must view the events, even if it was not how they wanted to see them a couple of centuries ago by those who had, fortunately for them, not become as “modern” as we have. In some ways as they used to say, the personal is political. (That phrase was current in the days when the struggle was to liberate the political from antiquated, and in some ways Freudian, concepts.) What Welles seems to be saying is that the political overwhelms the personal, because the state has become so efficient and rational, perfecting Machiavelli’s Renaissance findings. As a result, now Falstaff must be a tragedy, not a comedy, because “Jesu, the days we have seen.”


1Incidentally, Jacques Ibert wrote the music for René Clair’s 1928 film of the French farce The Horse Ate the Hat, a theatrical performance of which Welles produced for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936. [Return to text.]

2Rosemary Gaby’s modernized version of this passage is as follows:

Thus were the father and the son reconciled, betwixt whom the said pickthanks had sewn division, insomuch that the son, upon a vehement conceit of unkindness sprung in the father, was in the way to be worn out of favor. Which was the more likely to come to pass, by their informations that privily charged him with riot and other uncivil demeanor unseemly for a prince. Indeed, he was youthfully given, grown to audacity, and had chosen him companions agreeable to his age with whom he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and delights as he fancied. But yet (it should seem by the report of some writers) that his behavior was not offensive or at least tending to the damage of anybody, since he had a care to avoid doing of wrong, and to tender his affections within the tract of virtue, whereby he opened unto himself a ready passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was beloved of such as could discern his disposition, which was in no degree so excessive, as that he deserved in such vehement manner to be suspected. In whose dispraise I find little, but to his praise very much, parcel whereof I will deliver by the way as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. [Return to text.]

3One example of this concerns Henry IV. In Richard II, Richard prophesied that Northumberland, having betrayed him to Henry would soon betray Henry (V:i:55-68). Henry IV later reminds Warwick of the prophecy given at a time when the king says “God knows” he (Henry) had no intention to ascend to the throne at the time (Henry IV, Part Two, III:i:62-75). The problem is that the prophecy of Richard (a scene of Shakespeare’s invention) took place after Henry had ascended his throne (Richard was on his way to the Tower of London when he makes the prophecy) and neither Richard nor Warwick was present when the scene took place. [Return to text.]

4Both Shakespeare and Holinshed are confused on the issue of Edmund Mortimer. While it was true that the brother-in-law of Hotspur’s wife married the daughter of Welsh rebel Owen Glendower (in Welsh, Owain Glyndŵr), it was his nephew, also named Edmund Mortimer, who was the Earl of March and whose pretension to the throne the Percys supported in their revolt against Henry. [Return to text.]

5Although Machiavelli was not published in English until 1640, long after Shakespeare’s death, it was published in French in 1553, in Latin in 1560 and in Italian in 1594. (See De Pol, in Citations, below.) There were several manuscript translations of other Machiavelli works at Cambridge. Arte della Guearra had been translated into English in 1570 and others later. See Weissberger, below, who also discusses Gentillet, the French pamphleteer who depicted Machiavelli as a murderer, and whose Contre-Machiavel had been translated into English in 1577. As for Marlowe, who had attended Corpus Christi College, where interest in Machiavelli first showed itself, see Bawcutt, below. For the quotation from Cardinal Pole (in a letter from John Leghe to Henry VIII’s Privy Council) see Weissberger. [Return to text.]


Tracy Alexander, “A Note on Falstaff,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly Vol. II (1944),  pp. 592-606.

W.H. Auden, “The Prince’s Dog,” The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 182-208.

George Barker, The True Confession of George Barker (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965).

N.W. Bawcutt, “Machiavelli and Marlowe’s ‘the Jew of Malta,'” Renaissance Drama, New Series, Vol. 3 (1970), pp. 3-49.

Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, c1992).

A.C. Bradley, “The Rejection of Falstaff,” Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 247-273.

Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15.

Allan G. Chester, “Introduction to the Second Part of King Henry the Fourth,” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works; The Pelican Texts Revised ed. by Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books, c1969), pp. 703-05.

T.P. Courtenay, “Shakespeare’s Historical Plays Considered Historically—No. IV,” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 54, Part 3, p. 42 (1838).

Peter Cowie, Ribbon of Dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles (South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes, 1973).

Roberto De Pol (ed.), The First Translations of Machiavelli’s Prince: From the Sixteenth to the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2010).

David Ellis, Shakespeare’s Practical Jokes: An Introduction to the Comic in his Work (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, c2007).

Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Strutures in Shakespeare’s Drama (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985).

Mark W. Estrin, Orson Welles: Interviews (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, c 2002), including

Interview by Kenneth Tynan, originally in Playboy (March 1967);

Interview by Richard Marienstra, from French television series in December 1974, published in Positif (July-August 1998).

Interview by Leslie Magehy, from an interview filmed in Las Vegas in 1982 for the BBC program The Orson Welles Story, which aired in May 1983.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams trans. by James Strachey and Anna Freud with Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, [1953]) [from the complete works of Freud 1901-02].

Sigmund Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious trans. by Joyce Crick (London: Penguin, 2002) [original German publication in 1905].

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (n.p.: Boni and Liveright, 1920).

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents trans. by James Strachey (New York: Norton, 2005) [original German publication in 1929].

John Gielgud (with John Miller), Acting Shakespeare (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1991).

Hugh Grady, “Shakespeare’s Links ot Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe,” Comparative Literature, Vol.  (Spring, 2000), pp. 119-142.

Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford Universikty Press, c2002).

Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004).

Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., c1964).

Ernest Kris, “Prince Hal’s Conflict” (1948), collected in Ernest Krist, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: International University Press, 1952). pp. 273-88.

Henry Jaglom, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles edited by Peter Biskind (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt Books, 2013).

Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

J.I.M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined (London: Longmans, Green, 1949).

Valerie Traub, “Prince Hal’s Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40 (Winter 1989), pp. 456-474.

Kathleen Tynan (ed.), Letters of Kenneth Tynan (New York: Random House, 1998).

L. Arnold Weissberger, “Machiavelli and Tudor England,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 42 (December 1927), pp. 589-607.

Philip Williams, “The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. VIII (1957), pp. 359-65.

The Ephemeral with Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Fin de Siècle Vienna

Hugo von Hofmannsthal at 19 in 1893. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlage.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal at 19 in 1893. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlage.

Last time, we looked at a German who was a prominent member of the first generation of poets to write in vernacular German. Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau lived during the greatest physical destruction of Germany (before the twentieth century) but because he was connected with the Austrian victors, he and his poetry were little affected by the catastrophe.

Today we look at an Austrian poet, writing in German, at a time when Austrian cultural traditions were about to unravel, years before Austria would be first dismantled then destroyed by its association with Germany. The time was the late nineteenth century, and the poet was the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929). Both the Baroque and the Late Romantic poems in these two posts deal with transience. (And both, in different ways, are connected to Sigmund Freud.)

Hofmannsthal is known today, if at all, as the librettist of several Richard Strauss operas, notably Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. The former is a powerful psychological probing of rage-induced madness set to a highly chromatic score; the latter is an acquired taste (one that I have yet to acquire). In his day he was known mainly as a playwright. But Hofmannsthal never saw himself as an entertainer and had no illusions about his popularity. In 1908 (admittedly at the early stages of his stage career) he told an American, “I realize that I write for only about five hundred people in Europe.”1

Before he devoted himself to the stage, Hofmannsthal was the preeminent poet of fin de siècle Vienna.

If fin de siècle Vienna is what is on the other side of a giant wall separating overly refined, highly wrought Romanticism from Modernism, then Hofmannsthal never made it to this side of the wall. He had no interest in making the attempt. In this respect he resembled Strauss, who never ventured into the new music. But Hofmannsthal haled from Vienna, where Klimpt, Kokoschka, Otto Wagner, Schoenberg (at the time Schönberg), Berg and Webern, and others were all at various times  and to different extents midwifing modernism. And of course, the man who discovered and interpreted the unconscious irrationality of humanity, the aspect that would form the basis of modernity’s view of us, Sigmund Freud, was just beginning to publish his views at the turn of the century. This collection of cultural radicals produced an intellectual revolution as fundamental as anything since the Renaissance. But Hofmannsthal would not be a revolutionary.

Cafe Giensteidl sometime befoe 1897. Photograph by Carl von Zamboni for he illusrated newspaper Die vornehme Welt. From collection of Vienna Museum.

Cafe Giensteidl sometime before 1897. Photograph by Carl von Zamboni for he illustrated newspaper Die vornehme Welt. From collection of Vienna Museum.

It’s even more curious, at first glance, that Hofmannsthal did not join the radicals given that he belonged to something of the literary vanguard, the Jung-Wien (the “Young Vienna” movement). This group of writers of literature and criticism gathered in coffee-houses, under the leadership of playwright and critic Hermann Bahr. The manifesto involved the death of naturalism. Their principal haunt was the Café Griensteidl until it closed in 1897. It was at these meetings that Hofmannsthal met Arthur Schnitzler (who was a member) and Stefan George. After the café closed, the club soon ended, and so did Hofmannsthal’s poetry career.

In the twentieth century he attempted a few novels and tales as well as criticism, but exerted himself largely to those nineteenth century forms, the theater and opera. But for that last decade of the nineteenth century, and only during that time, Hofmannsthal composed a series of compact, highly imaginative poems, gemlike in their polish and dreamlike in their delicacy. They immediately grasp the reader’s attention with vivid images suffused in a mood of impersonal mysticism. A deep wisdom appears to underly each of the poems, but as Elisabeth Walter noted: “They were not written to instruct, but to arouse sensation, to awaken the indescribable.”2

The 2005 production of Der Rosenkavalier by the Los Angeles Opera,. Production directed by Maximilian Schell.

The 2005 production of Der Rosenkavalier by the Los Angeles Opera,. Production directed by Maximilian Schell.

His poetry is not idiosyncratic, but it has personal characteristics (although not personal references). This can be described as his style, but style was not a decoration. “Style with him is not a trick, but a gift; the mood clothes itself with the fitting expression, that is all one can say. As the mood is so often somber, the sound of the words is correspondingly sonorous and full of gloomy dignity.”3

Hofmannsthal’s poetry is filled with symbols, although he was not a Symbolist. It is true that Hofmannsthal said that his most important influence was Stefan George. Hofmannsthal said of George: “He so completely conquered life, so absolutely mastered it, that from his poems the rare, indescribable peace and refreshing coolness of a still, dark temple are wafted upon our noise-racked senses.”4 George himself was closely affiliated with Mallarmé  and Verlaine. But the symbols in Hofmannsthal’s poems were not the flamboyant dressings to the obscure referents of an aesthete. (See for example Mallarmé’s “Tristesse d’été,” which I translate and comment on here, although that poem is hardly the most gaudy of the output of the Symbolists.) Rather, Hofmannsthal’s symbols were the images steeped in primal meaning, the ones that float in our dreams. And as we’ll see in today’s poem, the verses themselves are dreamlike, tightly written, with simple, recurring vocabulary, and as in the most haunting dreams, the symbols transform themselves with new uses in order to suggest more fully their meaning.

The great Austrian novelist (and critic, among other things) Hermann Broch says that Hofmannsthal’s “rapport with symbols” showed that he was a child of his time. (In this quotation Broch is referring Hofmannsthal’s stage pieces and in particular two works from 1895 and 1919, respectively, but his specific references are not important, as we’ll see later):

“A work as early as The Tale of the 672d Night probes into a symbolic realm whose reality would reveal itself to him more deeply with every year of his life. The Woman Without a Shadow forms the pinnacle of his voyage of discovery into the primal forest of symbols. But is this primal forest at all penetrable? Baudelaire’s primal symbols foreshadow it; they are like screams breaking through into the world of man from the solid impenetrability of an unreachable, faraway jungle. Hofmannsthal entered the jungle, but proves that it is not that of the primal forest; no, it is a symbolic garden and nevertheless a primal garden, perhaps the primal garden. For the voyage to the symbolic occurs in dream, and not only are these dreams remarkably refined and even ceremonious; they are totally so—how could it be otherwise with Hofmannsthal?—when they make their appearance as dream within dream and even as a dream transposed to the stage.”5

Stefan George, photographed in 1893. Click to enlarge.

Stefan George, photographed in 1893. Click to enlarge.

As for Stefan George, who published Hofmannsthal’s poems and even portions of some verse plays in his Blaette fuer die Kunst (the journal had highly stylized orthography), while Hofmannsthal admired his meandering, flowing lines and his hazy images, Hofmannsthal did not subscribe to belief that art was something spiritual or a substitute religion. And he certainly did not believe that the artist was a high priest, as George thought of himself. Hofmannsthal thought of art as a way to truth and never confused it for truth itself. George’s mistake in this regard is why he became (against his own intention) a favorite of Nazis later on. And despite Hofmannsthal’s fondness for George’s poetry, he didn’t need George to show him the work of the Symbolists or any other modern writers because he knew them before they met.

In fact, even before he met the Jung-Wien his poetry was strikingly mature and individual. And yet it epitomized the fin de siècle. When he first read his verses at the Café Griensteidl, the members of Vienna’s new literature movement were astounded. Schnitzler recorded later:

“We had never heard verses of such perfection, such faultless plasticity, such musical feeling, from any living being, nor had we thought them possible since Goethe. But more wondrous than this unique mastery of form (which has never since been achieved by anyone else in the German language) was his knowledge of the world, which could only have come from a magical intuition in a youth whose days were spent sitting on a school bench.”

Lest Schnitzler’s praise seem over-the-top, Zweig wrote that Hofmannsthal was one “in whom our youth saw not only its highest ambition but also absolute poetic perfection come into being …”6

Weiner Akademisches Gymnasium from Moritz Bermann, Alt- und Neu-Wien. Geschichte der Kaiserstadt und ihrer Umgebungen (Vienna: U. Hartleben’s Verlag: 1880). Click to enlarge.

Weiner Akademisches Gymnasium from Moritz Bermann, Alt- und Neu-Wien: Geschichte der Kaiserstadt und ihrer Umgebungen (Vienna: U. Hartleben’s Verlag: 1880). Click to enlarge.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the debut of this new Goethe was that he was 17 at the time, and he would complete his entire poetic career before he was 25. And in none of the poetry is there any trace of immaturity, confessional egocentrism or mawkish sentimentality. Broch attributed Hofmannsthal’s remarkable poetic maturity to his being a “Wunderkind, wunderschauendes Kind7 (a prodigy, a marvel-gazing child). Aside from the poetry itself , Broch has only thin biographical evidence to support that conclusion. But what anecdotes he has, he spins into a cultural psychoanalysis which places Hofmannsthal near the turning point of nineteenth century European culture and also explains him in a way that a modernist of Broch’s preeminent rank can empathize with.

Broch sees the formation of Hofmannthal’s character take place in the 1880s (when Hofmannsthal was 6-15). Broch finds significant that Hofmannthal was an introvert at the Wiener Akademisches Gymnasium: “Hofmannsthal the schoolboy kept to himself, courteously to be sure and never offensively, yet consistent with the Wunderkind whose unchildlike nature no longer wishes, indeed is no longer able, to have anything in common with the childishness of his peers.”8 Broch supposes that the von in young Hugo’s surname inspired some awe in his teachers in that solidly burgher school. From the attention given to a social superior, and from the fact that “he was mentally far superior [and] better looking than most of the others” “emerged an exceptionality which was justified at least in part but became hypertrophied by young Hofmannrthal’s childlike sensibility and thus burdened his still too weak shoulders with an all too heavy burden, all too proud, indeed almost mystical experience.”9

Into this rarefied air (according to Broch) stepped his father. The elder Hugo Hofmann von Hofmannsthal, lawyer and director of the Wiener Grossbank, filled young Hugo’s head with art, particularly theater. Young Hugo’s father did not see his duty as preparing Hugo for a career. Rather he believed it as necessary to show Hugo the things that made up the full life, and to a wealthy Viennese professional, that meant art, particularly theater and music.  Broch contrasts Hugo’s father with the father of another Austrian who would reside for his brief adult life in Vienna:

Hermann Broch in 19337, one year before his arrest and then escape from the Nazis. © Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Wien. Click to enlarge.

Hermann Broch in 1937, one year before his arrest and then escape from the Nazis. © Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Wien. Click to enlarge.

“The educational influence of Dr. von Hofmann can be compared with the influence Leopold Mozart exerted on his son; the parallel will also show the difference between the two eras. Mozart learned from his father the profession practiced by his father; yet it could hardly have occurred for more than an instant to Dr. Hofmannsthal to prepare his son for the legal profession or, for that matter, for a banking career. He concentrated his guidance far more on imparting Bildung {culture: dkf} and a keen eye [Schaufähigkeit], that is to say, on the development of those abilities through which the leisure hours of the burgher class {the bourgeoisie: dkf} were being transformed to ‘noble enjoyment,’ … Whereas Leopold Mozart wished to bring up his son to be an able musical craftsman and held all other worldly conduct as self-evident and needy of no individual prescription, it was the opposite with Hofmannsthal. His father abstained from any direct interference in the son’s choice of vocation, yet he would certainly have considered it an insult if his son had not followed in his world view. Both Leopold Mozart and Hugo von Hofmann acted ‘morally,’ each in his way; both found reward for their efforts in the genius of the objects of their education; yet it was the difference between the ethical and the aesthetic that proclaimed itself in the goals of their education, the difference between the Mozartean, active and production-directed ‘ethical morality’ on the one hand, the bourgeois ‘aesthetic morality,’ as it can best be called, on the other; for the latter in essence remains directed toward passive ‘appreciation,’ even when it revolves around an appreciation as noble as that of Hofmannsthal.”10

But these are not the only things resulting in Hofmannsthal’s narcissism. Broch (himself the son of wealthy Viennese Jewish parents, but who converted to Roman Catholicism when he was 23) believed that even the Hofmannsthal family’s rejection of Judaism contributed to young Hugo’s perception of “exceptionality.”

“It is well known that there exists a collective narcissism—the principal instrument of all politics—which expresses itself as group consciousness. … Ruling groups, conquering peoples, stabilized upper classes, in short, all who have become ‘style-setting’ exude an ‘aesthetic’ pride, a pride in the specific, corporal ‘beauty’ of the gr0up … In the case of  ‘subjected’ peoples, however, it is somewhat more complicated. They assimilate the style of the national, economic, or however-defined upper class in order to take part in the latter’s narcissism, which is meanwhile compounded by the pride of successful assimilation; hence their one-time humiliating situation can never be forgotten. All assimilated minorities reveal this curious ‘two-tiered’ narcissism, fundamentally a mechanism of overcompensation, yet one that does not eliminate the original sense of inferiority but endeavors to conserve it as a springboard for the joy of compensation. Not only does this type of narcissism in assimilated … minorities surpass that of the upper class; it is, moreover, a throughly knowing self-irony, which the ruling class totally lacks. In this manner the strange ‘inner anti-Semitism’ of assimilated Jewry is a phenomenon of ‘two-tiered narcissism.’ Even after an assimilation achieved through the course of several generations, a ‘nobly isolated’ externality is held onto (if only in the twilight of unconsciousness); and the milieu of assimilation, long familiar as a homeland, is seen through a psychic distance that turns it into something foreign. The assimilated individual thus perceives himself as a chosen one of high degree, a chosen one among the chosen people.”11

So it seems that Hofmannsthal’s narcissism was overdetermined (just as Freud would say that hysteria or the content of dreams were overdetermined). So what conclusion does Broch draw from this evidence for narcissism? Broch believes (based on Hofmannsthal’s “most mature work” (The Tower)) that he had long resented the “bourgeois aesthetic” with which he had been instilled:

“It is clear that already as a child he was led to suffering and confusion by the gap in his education—hedonistic or, at the very least, hedonoid aestheticism alongside morality. This narcissistic, exaggerated set of problems would have been insoluble had the guardian angel of genius not arisen and found the solution. The solution was that of dreams, of the fairy tales embedded in dreams.”12

Death mask of Hermann Broch. Beinkie Library, Yale University.

Death mask of Hermann Broch. Beinkie Library, Yale University.

Hofmannsthal’s life-long use of dream motif was Broch’s principal connection with a man who he otherwise had little interest in. When Broch was first asked to provide the introductory essay to a collection of Hofmannsthal’s writing, he accepted only because he had no other position (his hoped for job at Princeton never materialized). He thought of the project as “financing 1948,” but otherwise found the prospect “repulsive.”13 Broch was living in New Haven trudging away at his “life work,” a study, which he began in 1941, entitled Mass Psychology which attempted to explain the popular appeal of totalitarianism by means of a social psychology rooted in a version of Freudianism (or at least using basic Freudian concepts). Broch’s interest in social psychology pre-dated his own fiction (he published articles first stating his theory of cultural values during and right after World War I). His view of the value of (indeed the morality of) art drastically changed over his life. When he wrote the Hofmannsthal essays, he had concluded that literature no longer provided the means to examine the ethical basis of our time. Nevertheless, his two major novels (which  attempted such a task), both relied on dream concepts for their organization, narrative and message. The Sleepwalkers used unconscious sleep state as the unifying concept of the three novels. The Death of Virgil, completed only after he had escaped the Nazis, is an elaborate dream-hallucination rumination of the meaning of life and art on the Roman poet’s last day. The unconscious life made evident through dreams thus informed all Broch’s works in all the disciplines he attempted. But is his explanation of Hofmannsthal’s dream poetry valid?

The brief biography he gives can of course be interpreted many ways. The use of later theater works to explain young Hugo’s childhood psychology is not outlandish. Freud used the fiction of writers to explain their own psychic makeup, usually coming to conclusions at odds with biography, however. Broch’s attempt is at least as good as Freud’s. But does psychology say anything more than the writing itself suggests, and, if not, what purpose does it serve?

Portrait of Arthur Schnitzler, Atelier Madame d’Ora, 1915. (ONB/Vienna.)

Portrait of Arthur Schnitzler, Atelier Madame d’Ora, 1915. (ONB/Vienna.)

A simpler explanation of Hofmannsthal’s literary career is probably the one Broch held before wrestling with Hofmannsthal in the context of nineteenth century literary culture: Hofmannsthal’s goal was to distinguish himself in the literary tradition most favored by the ancient aristocracy, solely because it was so favored by them. Let’s consider some additional biographical facts. First, Hofmannsthal proved himself to be politically highly conservative. This is shown by the significant fact (omitted in Broch’s essays) that during World War I Hofmannsthal not only held a position in the ministry supporting the Emperor, he also actively supported the Emperor’s war efforts with various propaganda efforts. None of the Jung-Wein and certainly none of the avant-garde displayed anything like this level of identification with imperial Austria. (Broch himself, who was managing his father’s textile manufactures and presumably would have had more economic interest in defending the existing order, took no such actions. He spent the war working with the Austrian Red Cross.) In the pre-war years Hofmannsthal’s works found acceptance by Richard Strauss and other conservatives. The New Music composers, who used verses by Stefan George (and even poets like Maeterlinck, who were less progressive from a literary point of view than Hofmannsthal) never used Hofmannsthal’s poems. Moreover, Hofmannsthal did not simply acquiesce in the conversion of his grandfather to Catholicism: His wife, though Jewish, converted to Catholicism before she married Hofmannsthal. Schnitzler was openly critical of Hofmannsthal’s rejection of his ethnic Judaism. Finally, Hofmannsthal’s own father’s inculcation of young Hugo with things aesthetic was not the “moral” duty of the upper bourgeoisie; if that were the case surely there would have been examples of others. It seems rather that it was the calculated attempt to have young Hugo regain the aristocratic prestige of the family, which faded when Hugo’s grandfather lost the family fortune in the crash of May 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression. Professor Schorske noted how the aristocracy in those days refused to admit to the life of the imperial court those who won a patent of nobility. “Direct social assimilation to the aristocracy occurred rarely in Austria.” Money itself (of which the Hofmannsthals no longer had much) was itself not sufficient.

“But assimilation could be pursued along another, more open road: that of culture. This too had its difficulties. The traditional culture of the Austrian aristocracy was far removed from the legalistic, puritanical culture of both bourgeois and Jew. Profoundly Catholic, it was a sensuous, plastic culture. Where traditional bourgeois culture saw nature as a sphere to be mastered by imposing order under divine law, Austrian aristocratic culture viewed nature as a scene of joy, a manifestation of divine grace to be glorified in art. Traditional Austrian culture was not, like that of the German north, moral, philosophical, and scientific, but primarily aesthetic. Its greatest achievements were in the applied and performing arts: architecture, the theater, and music.”14

The conflict was not between ethics and aesthetics; it was between Jewish bourgeoise ethically informed aesthetics and aristocratic Catholic aesthetics. Hofmannsthal chose aristocratic aesthetics, but to the extent his bourgeois ethical-aesthetics could not be repressed, it was cast in dreamlike form.

Klimt not only painted the classical theater scenes to decorate the new Burgtheater, he showed the audience of the old one. Aristocrats clamored for special sittings to be immortalized as patrons of the theater. (Shorske at 212 n.*.)The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater. Oil on canvas by Gustav Klimt (1888) (Historisches Museum Der Stadt Wien, Vienna).

Klimt not only painted the classical theater scenes to decorate the new Burgtheater, he showed the audience of the old one. Aristocrats clamored for special sittings to be immortalized as patrons of the theater. (Shorske at 212 n.*.) The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater. Oil on canvas by Gustav Klimt (1888) (Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna).

Of course Hofmannsthal’s rejection of social naturalism was unlikely to have been motivated by the same reason Broch himself would later reject it: its exhaustion as a form and its inability to speak to fundamental “ethical” questions. (Broch spends a great deal of effort in the first of his Hofmannsthal essays explaining his view of the history of European literary and visual art from the middle of the nineteenth century to Joyce and Kafka. The discussion is very dense and like German writing since Kant depends on the juxtaposition of opposites and their resolution. Neither Marx nor Nietzsche had been able to root out Hegel in Broch’s mental structure. I distill one strand of his thought without attempting to replicate the subtlety of his reasoning.) An aspiring aristocrat like Hofmannsthal could hardly help himself advance his cause by producing novels like Zola’s (or even those of the arch-conservative Dostoevsky for that matter, who was at least as anti-Semitic as the Austrian aristocrats, although perhaps not quite as much as the Christian Socialists whose popularity among the petite bourgeoisie rose to the mayoralty in 1897 Karl Leuger, a man later praised in Mein Kampf).

Freud's consulting room at Berggasse 19, Vienna. (One of the clandestine photographs by Edmund Engelmund in 1938.)*

Freud’s consulting room at Berggasse 19, Vienna. (One of the clandestine photographs by Edmund Engelmund in 1938.)

So the imperial theater was the preferred way to regain aristocratic prestige, and that was Hofmanntsthal’s aim from early on (he wrote verse dramas even while producing lyrical poems for the Jung-Wein). He used dream-motivs in his poems and plays, not because it was the inspiration of the personification of some psychic savior, but because dreams were everywhere in fin-de-siècle Vienna. They were the medium of transcendence and constituted the essence of psychic life. The Hofburgtheater itself was not simply the nobility’s metaphor of a dream, but it was itself, in its own national repertory, composed of dream. Austria’s greatest playwright was Franz Grillparzer, a Romantic so imposing that his oratorio graced Beethoven’s funeral. Gillparzer’s masterpiece, Der Traum, ein Leben (“A Dream, a Life”), was based on the seventeenth century play from Spain’s Golden Age, La vida es sueño (“Life is a Dream”) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the existential drama often compared with Hamlet.  Hofmannsthal undoubtedly saw the play as a young boy. Even if he did not, clearly he studied Grillparzer (and his immediate disciples) because Gillparzer is the link between Hofmannsthal and Goethe both in the selection of dramatic material, the artistic view of the material and the nature of the verse used in the dramas. “As Goethe introduced modern characterization into the story of Iphigenia, Grillparzer followed with his plays on Hero and Leander, Sappho, and Medea.”15 In all of these, the psychology of the actors were examined. Hofmannsthal would follow with his own examinations of classics, the most notable being Elektra. His close reading of Grillprazer led him to publish in 1915 a collection of Grillparzer’s poems: Grillparzers politisches Vermächtnis (Leipzig : Insel-Verlag, [1915]). In his study of Grillparzer, Hofmannsthal could hardly have ignored Grillparzer’s great attachment to Calderón. Hofmannsthal himself explored the relation of life and dreams and dreaming from early on, and their equation is found in much of his lyrical poetry. (See, for example, “Leben, Traum, und Tod,” “Life, Dream and Death.”)

Dreams were not confined to theater in the last decade of the nineteenth century in Vienna, however. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1899. Broch’s own fascination with dreams as both metaphor and entrance to unconscious both in literature and in his social psychology work stemmed from Freud’s work and techniques. Freud himself was undoubtedly guided in his own thinking by the dreams that were everywhere in Vienna, but that is for another story.

*     *     *

That Hofmannsthal was goaded by ambition (isn’t ambition the very lifespring of the burgher?) and that the dream life of Hofmannsthal’s poems were not dictated by the Angel of Genius does not mean that the works are trivial. They are immediately arresting, but at the same time are composed with a subtlety that bears careful analysis. The poem today illustrates these points.

The poem is named for its form: the terza rima. This form, perfected, if not invented by Dante for the Divine Comedy, is made up of three-lines stanzas where the first and third lines rhyme. The second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza, so on until the end. In this poem Hofmannsthal doesn’t interlock the stanzas in the first part, but does rhyme the first and third lines. In the final three parts the stanzas are interlocked.

The dream of the poem is created by the simple language (a child’s?) describing familiar objects in odd settings or described with in a way to emphasize their strangeness. The dog in the first part is alien (fremd) because it is (permanently?) silent. This inability to speak, voicelessness, is repeated twice more in different visions. Both times it adds to the strangeness of the image. Inability to express oneself and the inadequacy of language became central themes in Hofmannsthal’s later works. Indeed, his famous Lord Chandos Letter published at about the time that Hofmannsthal concludes his lyric poetry career but before he committed himself entirely to the stage, tells the story of an Elizabethan writer who has “lost completely the ability to think or speak of anything coherently.” Nearly two decades later, in 1921, the main character in his play The Difficult Man (Der Schwierige (Berlin: S. Fischer: 1922)) concludes that language is not merely useless but improper in the face of the enormity of the human condition:

“Everything one utters is indecent. Merely to put anything into words is an indecency. And when one looks at it closely, my dear Aldo, except that men never look closely at anything in the world, there is something positively shameless in our daring even to experience some things.”

Everything has a strangeness, no matter how familiar. It is the nature of the “Thing.” Each Thing whether a mute dog or the full moon over the tree tops is “an uninterpretable interpretability” (as he writes in his Buch der Freunde (Leipzig: Insel-Verlag: 1922). We can understand the Thing without being able to explain it. Everyone confronts external reality, and our only connection with it is the Dream.

The content of the poem (its “ethical” component in Broch’s language) suggests that the transience of life is not, as Hofmannswaldau saw it, the end of things beautiful and precious, but rather in their transformation into other Things. What relieves us of despair is the knowledge of our connection with some others by descent and all other things by physical action, like the fertilizing power of the martyr’s blood. While we may not comprehend it, Life itself is fully aware of its own logic and power.

Über Verganglichkeit

from Gedichte
(Leipzig: Insel-Verlag: 1922)

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal


Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen:
Wie kann das sein, daß diese nahen Tage
Fort sind, für immer fort, und ganz vergangen?

Dies ist ein Ding, das keiner voll aussinnt,
Und viel zu grauenvoll, als daß man klage:
Daß alles gleitet und vorüberrinnt

Und daß mein eignes Ich, durch nichts gehemmt,
Herüberglitt aus einem kleinen Kind
Mir wie ein Hund unheimlich stumm und fremd.

Dann: daß ich auch vor hundert Jahren war
Und meine Ahnen, die im Totenhemd,
Mit mir verwandt sind wie mein eignes Haar,

So eins mit mir als wie mein eignes Haar.


Die Stunden! wo wir auf das helle Blauen
Des Meeres starren und den Tod verstehn,
So leicht und feierlich und ohne Grauen,

Wie kleine Mädchen, die sehr blaß aussehn,
Mit großen Augen, und die immer frieren,
An einem Abend stumm vor sich hinsehn

Und wissen, daß das Leben jetzt aus ihren
Schlaftrunknen Gliedern still hinüberfließt
In Bäum’ und Gras, und sich matt lächelnd zieren

Wie eine Heilige, die ihr Blut vergießt.


Wir sind aus solchem Zeug, wie das zu Träumen,
Und Träume schlagen so die Augen auf
Wie kleine Kinder unter Kirschenbäumen,

Aus deren Krone den blaßgoldnen Lauf
Der Vollmond anhebt durch die große Nacht.
… Nicht anders tauchen unsre Träume auf,

Sind da und leben wie ein Kind, das lacht,
Nicht minder groß im Auf- und Niederschweben
Als Vollmond, aus Baumkronen aufgewacht.

Das Innerste ist offen ihrem Weben,
Wie Geisterhände in versperrtem Raum
Sind sie in uns und haben immer Leben.

Und drei sind Eins: ein Mensch, ein Ding, ein Traum.


Zuweilen kommen niegeliebte Frauen
Im Traum als kleine Mädchen uns entgegen
Und sind unsäglich rührend anzuschauen,

Als wären sie mit uns auf fernen Wegen
Einmal an einem Abend lang gegangen,
Indes die Wipfel atmend sich bewegen

Und Duft herunterfällt und Nacht und Bangen,
Und längs des Weges, unsres Wegs, des dunkeln,
Im Abendschein die stummen Weiher prangen

Und, Spiegel unsrer Sehnsucht, traumhaft funkeln,
Und allen leisen Worten, allem Schweben
Der Abendluft und erstem Sternefunkeln

Die Seelen schwesterlich und tief erbeben
Und traurig sind und voll Triumphgepränge
Vor tiefer Ahnung, die das große Leben

Begreift und seine Herrlichkeit und Strenge.

Terzas Rimas
On the Transitory

[translated by DK Fennell]


Still yet I feel their breathing on my cheeks:
So how is it that these quite recent days
Are gone, forever gone, and wholly lost?

This is the thing that no one clearly sees,
And much too full of horror to lament:
That all there is slips by, then goes away,

That everything I am, without restraint
Is emanated from a little child
Unnatural as a silent, foreign hound.

And more: I lived a hundred years ago,
And all my forbears (long now wrapped in shrouds),
Relate to me just as my very hair,

Are one with me just as my very hair.


And oh the hours! When we on sun-lit blue
At sea observe and comprehend our death
So light, so free of care, without the least despair,

Like little girls with striking pallid skin
And big round eyes, and always seeming cold,
Each silent, staring straight ahead at dusk,

And knowing that right now the very life
From out their weary limbs is flowing forth
To trees and grass, to dress them with sad smile

Just like a martyr pouring out her blood.


We are from stuff that dreams come from as well,
And dreams have eyes that open in this way:
Like little children under cherry trees,

Along the pallid golden path on top
The waxing moon appears through darkest night.
… No other way do dreams appear to us,

Here they live just like a laughing child,
No less sublime when wafting up and down,
Than is the moon awaking through treetops.

The inner life is open to their plait,
Like phantom’s hands inside a locked up room
They are inside of us and always live.

And three are one: the man, the thing, the dream.


Sometimes the women who were never loved
Appear to us in dreams as little girls,
Unutterably touching to behold,

As though with us upon a distant path
One time at evening quite a while ago,
All while the trees bestir themselves with sighs

And fragrance settles down and night and fears,
Along the path, our very path, unlit,
In evening luster twinkle silent ponds

And, mirror to our longing, dreamlike wink,
And all the gentle words, all things afloat
In evening air as well the first star-gleam

Like sisters do, their souls profoundly shake
And they are sad but full of jubilance
Before an inner thought, that Life Itself

Perceives its very majesty and strength.

*      *      *

Italian is easier to rhyme than German (and so Dante could complete a three volume epic in (terzas rimas), and German is easier than English, not only because more words and word-forms rhyme, but also because in English it is more difficult to put rhyming words in the end position of lines. I therefore have omitted rhyming here, because otherwise the laconic visions would be disturbed. Compare the rhymed version, as close to literal as the rhyme scheme allowed, by Charles Wharton Stork:16

Of Mutability [Terzinen I].

Still, still upon my cheek I feel their breath:
How can it be that days which seem so near
Are gone, forever gone, and lost in death?

This is a thing that none may rightly grasp,
A thing too dreadful for the trivial tear:
That all things glide away from out our clasp;—

And that this I, unchecked by years, has come
Across into me from a little child,
Like an uncanny creature, strangely dumb;—

That I existed centuries past—somewhere,
That ancestors on whom the earth is piled
Are yet as close to me as my very hair.

As much a part of me as my very hair.

Death [Terzinen II].

What hours are those! when, shiningly outspread,
The ocean lures us, and we lightly learn
The solemn lore of death, and feel no dread:

As little girls, whose great eyes seem to yearn,
Girls that have pallid cheeks and limbs a-cold,
Some evening look far out and do not turn

Their feebly-smiling gaze, for, loosing hold
Upon their slumber-drunken limbs, the flood
Of life glides over into grass and wold;—

Or as a saint pours out her martyr blood.

“Such Stuff as Dreams” [Terzinen III],

Such stuff as dreaming is we mortals be,
And every dream doth open wide its eyes
Like a small child beneath a cherry tree,

Above whose top across the deepening skies
The pale full-moon emerges for its flight.
Not otherwise than so our dreams arise.

They live as a child that laughs, and to the sight
Appear no smaller on their curving way
Than the full-moon awakening on the night.

Our inmost self is open to their sway.
As spirit hands in sealed chambers gleam
They dwell in us and have their life alway.

And three are one: the man, the thing, the dream.

Note on Text: You see that Stork only translates the first three parts of the poem. The reason is that he translated from the 1907 edition of the collected poems of Hofmannsthal, which did not include the fourth part. In fact, I have been unable to find a published version of the fourth part before the 1922 edition (the one I used). The publication history of the poem is somewhat curious. Evidently the first publication was in 1895 in Stefan George’s Blätter für die Kunst (Leaves for Art or Album for Art). The individual issues of this journal were circulated only among a small circle, so I cannot tell what the original version was. But the collected volume for the years 1892-1898, published by Georg Bondi in Berlin in 1899 (entitled: Blaetter fuer die Kunst: Eine Auslese aus den Jahren 1892-98) contains only the first part of the poem (on page 73) under the title “Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit.” That version is the same as Part I above, except for the idiosyncratic orthography of G. Bondi, where nouns are not capitalized, the double s is used instead of the ligature symbol ß, and a general carelessness with commas (although in this version the commas are identical to the version in the 1922 edition). G. Bondi as Verlag der Blaetter fuer die Kunst in Berlin published two editions of the collected poems of Hofmannsthal (Ausgewaehlte Gedichte) in 1903 and 1904. Those versions show the carelessness with the commas (which are represented by a middle dot). The first three parts of the poem are included in these two collections. Thereafter, Insel-Verlag in Leipzig published Hofmannsthal’s collected poems. The following version have only the first three parts (and they use the orthography as in the text above): Die gesammelten Gedichte (1907) (pp. 19-21); Die Gedichte und kleinen Dramen (1911) (pp. 14-15); Die Gedichte und kleinen Dramen (1916, stated to be the 3rd edition) (pp. 14-15); and Die Gedichte und kleinen Dramen (1919, stated to be the fifth edition) (pp. 14-15). I was unable to located either the second or fourth editions, but since the three I did see seemed to use the same plates, it’s unlikely the other two editions differed in any way. The next edition is the one I use, called simply Gedichte on the title page and Die geammelten Gedichte on the succeeding page. The poem is found on pages 26-28. Before this edition the title “Über Vergänglichkeit” is placed under the Roman I. In this edition the title comes first and is the title for the complete four part poem.


1Charles Wharton Stork (trans. & ed.), The Lyrical Poems of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Yale University Press: 1918), p. 17. [“Stork”]

2Elisabeth Walter, “Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Exponent of Modern Lyricism,” Colonnade (December 1916). [“Walter”]

3Stork at 19.


5Hermann Broch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time: The European Imagination, 1860-1920, translated and edited by Michael P. Steinberg (University of Chicago Press: ©1984), p. 151. [“Broch”]

6J.D. McClatchy, The Whole Diifference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press: 2008), p. 4.

7Broch at 192 n.3.

8Broch at 89-90.

9Broch at 89.

10Broch at 87-88.

11Broch at 90.

12Broch at 91.

13Broch at 4 (Steinberg’s introduction).

14Carl E. Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna (NY: Viking Books: 1981), p. 7. [“Schorske”]

15Stork at 4.

16Stork  at 34-36.

On Beauty’s Transience with Freud, Goethe and Especially Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau

“I am consumed like rotting compost,” says Job. Engraving by Alexander Mair, Germany, c.1605. Click to enlarge.

Around 1600 the Baroque Era arrived in Italy ushering an increasingly exuberant style of visual and performance arts. Of course by 1600 the works of Boccaccio and Petrarch were by then a century and a half old so the amorous and erotic were not new to literature, although they because more prevalent. Germany, by contrast, saw no sudden cultural change then. Of course, the capital accumulated by the great traders and the wealth collected by the church from all Europe made possible lavish architecture, sculpture, murals and paintings in Italy that could never be rivalled elsewhere, particularly in Germany which still had not much emerged from the wealth-dissipating economic patterns in effect since early Medieval times. And not long after the beginning of the 17th century, the great religious war (or wars) would devastate much of Germany to the middle of the Century. And while its music was influenced by Italy from the beginning of the century, its literature and engravings long-continued in the memento mori themes from the Middle Ages.

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. c 1625-30. Click to enlarge.

And so we see for the first half of the  1600s Italy celebrating Life and Love and Eroticism and Germany musing on Death and Destruction. This of course is a simplification, and not a very profound one at that. Of course these themes are never completely separated. The death of young lovers actually makes their love more transcendent. And Death can actually be an act of Love by God (Ich habe genug, BWV 82, is Bach’s great contribution to this view). And even in Italy both Love and Death were embraced Monteverdi, for example, wrote one book of madrigals, one of his last, best and longest (Book VIII), devoted to Love and War. But often in Monteverdi war is simply a metaphor for the quest for love. In any event we can say, as accurate as any statement of cultural tendency can be, that the Germans in the Baroque while Italians celebrated the earthly beauties and joys, Germans from North to South spent most of their artistic energy examining humanity’s possible response to the reality of Death. Of course, Germany, which was the battle ground for one of the most devastating wars in European history for the first part of the Baroque, had every reason to focus on death. It was everywhere. And through the rest of the 17th Century and even (or especially) in Bach, the sadness caused by that war with it train of famine and pestilence is never far removed. Even in Bach’s day, to remove oneself from the prevailing seriousness, piety and pensiveness meant moving to Italy, as did Handel. (A century earlier, during the Great War, travel between parts of German and Italy was still possible. Heinrich Schütz, for example, travelled from Dresden to Venice in 1628 to meet Monteverdi.)

Only known portrait of Christian Hoffmann von Hoffmanswaldau. By unknown engraver. Click to enlarge.

Today’s poet, Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (in English references usually spelled with two double  fs) (born on Christmas 1616, died on April 18, 1679), came from Breslau (today Wrocław), now in Poland, then it was the capital of Lower Silesia, but in the day was part of the Holy Roman Empire within the Kingdom of Bohemia. In 1526 it went by inheritance to the Habsburgs.Hofmannswaldau’s father benefitted from the Habsburg connection. Between 1526 and 1540 he was Secretary of the Silesian Chamber. Later he would be a member of the Imperial Council.

By the time Hofmannswaldau was baptized in 1616, Breslau had become Protestant (or at least tolerant, supporting free exercise of religion). Two years later it joined the Bohemian Revolt and war ensued. Although Breslau was now against the Habsburgs neither it nor Hofmannswaldau was t much affected by war during Hofmannswaldau’s childhood. The disaster to Breslaw (and Silesia generally) would come later when the Protestant forces of Sweden occupied it. During that time Breslau lost 18,000 of its residents (45%) to the plague. In 1635, Silesia was returned to the Habsburgs by the Peace of Prague. Persecution of Protestants and desecration of the churches predictably followed. The Hofmannswaldaus seem again not to have been effected, possibly owing to their Habsburg connection, but in any event by 1636, Hofmannswaldau himself went abroad for education, and abroad he would meet two Silesian poets who would affect the rest of his life.

In 1636 he matriculated at the Academic Gymnasium in Danzig (today Gdańsk). There he came in contact with the “father of German poetry,” Martin Opitz. Opitz was already of great renown, having in 1624 written Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (The Book of German Poetry), which defined the prosody, diction and style of the new vernacular poetry. He had studied non-Latin verse (French, Italian and Dutch) as far back as Gymnasium days and concluded that German was suited to poetry. For his requiem on the death of the Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand II named him poet laureate and ennobled him. He had arrived at Danzig (at the invitation of King Władysław, to be his secretary) the year before Hofmannswaldau and would live only a year after Hofmannswaldau left. Opitz died in 1639 of the plague.

Hofmannswaldau studied law from 1638, first in Leiden and then Amsterdam. It was in Holland that he met Andreas Gryphius, the first real genius of German lyric poetry. He had also studied in Danzig and knew Opitz, and like him was named poet laureate and ennobled by Ferdinand II. Though the same age as Hofmannswaldau he had already published a collection of poems (mostly in German) in 1637. Gryphius did not have the Habsburg protection in the early part of the war and saw much devastation, and the banishment of his brother when the Habsburgs returned in 1635. His poetry is suffused with melancholy that Hofmannswaldau never experienced.

After law school Hofmannswaldau traveled through France, England and Italy. He returned to Breslaw in 1641, and by 1647 became an Alderman. A decade later he was with the legation to the Viennese Court, where the Emperor appointed him to the Imperial Council (just as his father was). By 1677 he became Bürgermeister of Breslau, where he died three years later.

Although Hofmannswaldau was not published in his lifetime, his poems were known in manuscript and collections of his verse were published beginning immediately after his death. He wrote in the style of dramatic (or melodramatic) expression of Italian verse and was particularly known for his eroticism. His early poetry involved “hero letters,” poetic letters of legendary figures together with brief lives. He would later write Hero and Clergy Odes in the style of Ovid. He also undertook translations of classical poetry and prose. And he translated Guarini’s highly popular play Il pastor fido (The Faithful Servant). (When Handel later wrote in 1712 the early London opera based on the play (HWV 8), he used an Italian libretto by Giacomo Rossi.) Hofmannswaldau was perhaps most popular, however, for his secular songs with frankly erotic descriptions.

Hoffmann’s poetry was first published in Breslau in 1679, shortly after his death. For the next several decades editions of his work would be published in Breslau. Collections were also published at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Leipzig and Frankfurt.His extravagance and eroticism guaranteed his popularity until the middle of the next century when German classicism came down like a blanket on all forms of exuberance.

Vanitas with Death and a Maiden by Andries Jacobsz Stock. Engraving c. 1620-21. Click to enlarge.

Regular readers of these musings on poetry (and other posts) will expect our selection to be one less dramatically exuberant and more contemplative (for lack of a better word). And so we have a little lyric on the fleetingness of things beautiful, specifically the beauty of a lady. Hofmannswaldau catalogs the physical charms of the mistress, which willl be rendered to dust or worse, much as in other poems he catalogs them to describe his desire. (See “Arie,” for example: “Ihr hellen Mörderin’ …” Your eyes, those bright assassins ….)

The Death and a Maiden theme, known from the Renaissance, would be come widely prevalent in Germany during and for a long while after the religious wars in literature, art and even music. (Much later Schubert would write a string quartet so named.) After the war, the theme became more didactic, often a lesson on the vanity of beauty itself. And here Hofmannswaldau uses the last stanza to contrast the fleetingness of beauty with the permanence of the heart. Cynic that I am, I often wonder at these Death and the Maiden pieces whether the narrator is not a jilted lover who takes pleasure or consolation in the inevitable decay of the charms of his would-be lover. The last stanza here argues a more pious (although not particularly religious) intent.

The Death and the Maiden theme and the transitoriness of beauty are particularly German themes (especially in Romantic literature and music). And as with all things German, Goethe has his say about it. In the theatrical prologue to Faust (I) the poet announces the fleetingness and its opposite in this couplet:

Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren,
Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.

[What glitters is born for the moment,
  The Real lasts for eternity.]

Goethe’s alter ego sounds quite the materialist scientist here, no? Something like Faust himself? A closer reading suggests that Goethe’s Poet was simply spouting metaphysical “truths.”

Sigmund Freud commented on the German tendency to contemplate how impermanent beauty is. It comes from a short essay entitled “Vergänglichkeit” from a book with the (English) title The Land of Goethe 1914-1916: A Patriotic Memorial Book (Stuttgart and Berlin: German Institute: 1916). Freud recalls strolling with a young poet friend in a summer field admiring blossoming nature. His poet friend was able to admire it, but not enjoy it because he was brought low by the idea that all of the blooms would be dead by winter, just as all human beauty eventually dies, as does everything that man creates. Freud observed that there are two reactions to the contemplation of Vergänglichkeit: One is the painful Weltüberdruß, the world-weariness, of the poet. The other is the irrational impulse to protest against the reality. (Like Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light”?)

Freud explains that the world-weariness comes from the inability of the libido to disengage itself from objects of its love even when there are other objects to replace it. Nor can the libido return to the ego in these cases. (There is much more of this, and if you are a fan of psychoanalysis, you might want to read it.) The interesting part for us here, however, is Freud’s own reaction to transience of beauty. Freud says that it does not diminish its value, but rather increases it. A fleeting beauty is a rare one, its limitation increases our enjoyment of it. As for Nature, its summer beauty returns. But as for human beauty, its brevity should add to its charms. Even if everything human disappears, and even life itself on this planet, we should not despair because beauty itself is only defined in terms of its importance to our emotional life, and this need not outlast us.

Vergänglichkeit der Schönheit

by Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau

Es wird der bleiche Tod mit seiner kalten Hand
Dir endlich mit der Zeit um deine Brüste streichen,
Der liebliche Korall der Lippen wird verbleichen;
Der Schultern warmer Schnee wird werden kalter Sand,

Der Augen süßer Blitz, die Kräfte deiner Hand,
Für welchen solches fällt, die werden zeitlich weichen.
Das Haar, das itzund kann des Goldes Glanz erreichen,
Tilgt endlich Tag und Jahr als ein gemeines Band.

Der wohlgesetzte Fuß,  die lieblichen Gebärden,
Die werden theils zu Staub, theils nichts und nichtig werden,
Denn opfert keiner mehr der Gottheit deiner Pracht.

Dies und noch mehr als dies muß endlich untergehen.
Dein Hertze kann allein zu aller Zeit bestehen,
Dieweil es die Natur aus Diamant gemacht.

The Transience of Beauty

[translated by DK Fennell]

Some day anemic Death with clammy, frigid hand
At last, when time is ripe, against your breast will brush, 
And pale will be your lips that now with coral blush;
Your shoulders’ balmy snow will turn to freezing sand.

Sweet glimmer of your eyes, the vigor of your hand,
Before such mortal things that bow to him, decline.
Your hair at present rivals even gold in shine
But final time will render it a worthless band.

That well-turned little foot, your elegance of style
These will become in part just dust, the rest but void;
No more will any man revere you as sublime.

Yet this and even more than this at last will end.
Your heart alone is able to outlive this fate,
For Nature cut a diamond made to last all time.

Note: I was unable to find the original published version (which I try to obtain for these little posts) either in print or in the comprehensive German Baroque Literature set of microfilm of Yale’s collection. So I take the above German text from a (somewhat) modern anthology: The Penguin Book of German Verse, ed. Leonard Forster (Baltimore: Penguin: 1957). I made one emendation. I changed “izund” in the Penguin text to “itzund,” which I believe is the form regularly used in Baroque verse; see, e.g., Bach (“The Coffee Cantata” as well as Sacred Ode, BWV Anh 36) and Schein (“Itzund ich mich vergleiche”).

OK, more data, no new knowledge

It’s not really a question of hating social sciences. Hell, there were a lot of good social scientists. Like Engel and Weber and Durkheim. Maybe not Freud. But the point is: Do we need to have data to prove something we know? Or, to put it more precisely, what if the results were different? What then? How would you interpret it?

Here’s the experiment. Some Canadian women were split into two groups: one group was told that leaving the country permanently (I guess to the US) would be easier in the future; the other group was told it would be harder. Then they all were asked about a series of injustices, like: men make more than women at the same skill level, etc. And guess what? Those that thought they had to stay put a better spin on it.

What would have happened if the opposite happened? Would there be a theory that explained that? Well, who knows?

You  can read the news release here. The results are supposed to be in a journal called Psychological Science and the authors were Kristin Laurin, Steven Shepherd and Steven Shepherd of the University of Waterloo. I’m not going to track down the article. And frankly, I wouldn’t read it anyway. And they probably want you to pay for it.

Here’s my take. Try to devise a social psychology experiment about it: We’re all trapped. We’re all compromised. Confronted with that fact, we try to do our best.

OK, maybe if you put some people in a death camp you could construct an experiment. But didn’t somebody try that before?

Try this hypothesis. It comes from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamasov somewhere. If a person has to live on a 4′ x 4′ platform or otherwise die, he’ll always pick the platform. So, how do you devise the experiment? And if you could and you got different results, how would you use them?

I have to admit: I just don’t get most social psychology “research.”