Orson Welles Jorge Luis Borges - Essay

Jorge Luis Borges

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Citizen Kane] has at least two arguments. The first, of an almost banal imbecility, wants to bribe the applause of the very unobservant. It can be formulated in this way: a vain millionaire accumulates statues, orchards, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women. Like an earlier collector (whose observations are traditionally attributed to the Holy Ghost), he discovers that these miscellanies and plethoras are vanity of vanities and that all is vanity. At the moment of his death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe: a fittingly humble sled he played with as a child! The second argument is far superior. It links Koheleth to the memory of another nihilist: Franz Kafka. The theme (at once metaphysical and detective-fictional, at once psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of the secret soul of a man through the works he has made, the words he has spoken, the many destinies he has smashed…. Overwhelmingly, infinitely, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct them. The film teems with the forms of multiplicity, of incongruity: the first scenes record the treasures accumulated by Kane; in one of the last scenes, a poor woman, gaudy and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end, we understand that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances…. In one of Chesterton's stories—"The Head of Caesar," I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth without a center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an atmosphere of frank and spontaneous friendship are essentially horrible. Citizen Kane is the first film that shows these things with some awareness of this truth. (pp. 12-13)

Jorge Luis Borges, "An Overwhelming Film," in October (copyright © 1980 by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), No. 15, Winter, 1980, pp. 12-13.