Orson Welles was always embarrassed by Rosebud. “It’s a gimmick, really,” he told interviewers, “and rather dollar book Freud.” The mystery of “the great man’s last words” was, like the reporter Thompson charged with solving it, “a piece of machinery” designed to lead the audience through the fragmented plot.
There are two snow sleds in Citizen Kane. The first, as everyone knows, is named Rosebud and is given to Kane by his mother; the second is a Christmas present from Kane’s guardian, Thatcher, and is seen so briefly that audiences are unaware that it, too, has a name. If you press the pause button the DVD edition of Kane, you will discover that for a few frames sled number two, which is called Crusader, is presented fully to the camera. Where the original has a flower, this one is embossed with the helmet of a knight. The symbolism is fairly obvious: Kane repays Thatcher’s gift by growing up to be a crusading, trust-busting newspaperman, out to slay the dragon Wall Street. Deprived of maternal care, he turns himself into a phony champion of the people, an overreacher who dies like a medieval knight amid the empty gothic splendor of Xanadu.
–James Naremore, “Style and Meaning in Citizen Kane”
The solution to the mystery is supposed to be that we, like Kane’s friends, lovers, and confidantes, discover that “the great man” is actually hollow inside. There is nothing there — no lost love, no moral truths, no imparted wisdom. “Rosebud” is just a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. It has no special value other than that it is missing. Kane the man, like Kane the film, is what Borges called it: a labyrinth without a center.
William Randolph Hearst was embarrassed by Rosebud, too, but he took the word a great deal more seriously than Welles. The persistent rumor has always been that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s nickname for his mistress Marion Davies and/or her clitoris. The “flower” image on Kane’s sled looks positively like a labia and clitoris.
Herman Mankiewicz was a friend of Hearst’s and Davies’s, and presumably knew what “Rosebud” meant; regardless, Hearst saw both name and film as a betrayal. “The Hearst press is under strict orders to ignore Welles,” The New Yorker reported in 1941, “except for a series of articles pointing out that he is a menace to American motherhood, freedom of speech and assembly, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Mankiewicz’s brother Joseph would later tell film critic Andrew Sarris that “Rosebud” was the name of a bike that Herman lost as a child in Wilkes-Barre, PA. This position has never gained traction; that no one has much been interested in Mankiewicz as Kane’s “author” may be the only thing Sarris and his nemesis Pauline Kael ever agreed on.
Instead, Kane is nearly always a stand-in for Hearst or Welles. Or better still, both — especially as each, through Citizen Kane, has come to define the other.
Never mind that the two were quite different — and both believed they were quite different from Kane. In his autobiography, Welles relates how he once found himself alone in an elevator with Hearst. It was the night of Citizen Kane‘s 1941 San Francisco premiere, and Welles invited him to the opening. “He didn’t answer. And as he was getting off at his floor, I said, ‘Charles Foster Kane would have accepted.’”
If we take the Welles/Borges argument seriously, then “Rosebud” doesn’t lend the film any substance, but a structure. Its structure is one of substitution, exchange, or replacement. “Rosebud” is replaced by “Crusader;” the Inquirer’s crusading troublemakers are replaced by the Chronicle’s establishment staff; Kane’s first wife, an aristocrat, is replaced by his mistress, “a cross-section of the American public.”
When this wife leaves him, she’s replaced by her tchotchkes, jigsaw puzzles, and snow globes. It’s one of these, not his supposedly beloved childhood sled, that Kane clutches both times he utters “Rosebud” — first when she leaves, then again at his death.
Kane is an indiscriminate collector of people and things. He buys priceless ancient statues by the gross and never opens their crates. At the end of the film, a clerk reads from a catalog of everything Kane has ever owned, as Thompson’s photographers document “the junk as well as the art.”
Assembling so many priceless and worthless objects without a corresponding order actually flattens their value. Kane’s staff burns great piles of it, including the sled — still crated together with the contents of his mother’s auctioned-off home — just to make some sense of it.
Kane is always exchanging substance for structure, value for trash and back again. His inherited wealth comes from the deed to a silver mine thought worthless, given to his mother in lieu of payment.
“I’m not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, or real estate,” a young Kane tells Thatcher. Instead of squandering his fortune on the newspaper, he transforms it into a media empire. Instead of inherited wealth issuing forth from the earth, he uses his newspapers, radio stations, grocery stores, and paper mills, to create value from nothing. (That news empire, in turn, is swept aside by magazines and film; as Kane is chased by Thompson, so Hearst was chased by Henry Luce, the gas lamp replaced by the electric light.)
Kane’s goal is self-invention, without obligation to anyone or anything, even reality. “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough,” he tells the Inquirer’s staff. When his first wife tries to impose boundaries on his behavior, he shows his true ambitions:
EMILY: People will think–
CHARLES: What I tell them to think.
His gifts to others, though, are always a snare. “You’ve never given me anything I really wanted,” Susan complains. “You want to be loved — that’s all you want! I’m Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want — just name it and it’s yours! But you’ve gotta love me!”
“That’s why he went into politics,” Kane’s discarded friend Jed Leland tells Thompson. “It seems we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too. Guess all he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.”
After Kane loses the race for governor, after refusing to be blackmailed by either the political boss Geddes or his wife Emily — “Fraud At Polls!” leads the Inquirer — Leland confronts him, drunk. Kane’s progressivism is a sham front for his own narcissism. “You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you,” Leland complains. “As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered.
“You used to write an awful lot about the workingman,” Leland charges. “He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your workingman expects something is his right, not as your gift!
“You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ‘em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.”
“A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms,” Kane replies, finally taking a drink. “Those are the only terms anybody ever knows — his own.”
“He never gave himself away,” an older Leland remembers. “He never gave anything away, he just left you a tip, hmm?” he laughs.
When anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied the gift economies of Pacific Islanders and the potlatch culture of the American Northwest, he found that none of these peoples renowned for their generosity ever actually gave anything away. Instead, these “gifts” bound together both parties, whether individuals or nations, through mutual obligation. It does not matter whether the gifts are objectively worthless — beads, tokens, shells, paper script. What matters is the commitments they represent.
If I trade with you, A for B, straight up, our relationship is finished when the sale is completed. If I give you A outright, you give me, implicitly or explicitly, the right to call on you in the future. We stand in a definite and perpetual relationship to each other, even after the debt is discharged. (Besides Citizen Kane, this is also the structuring principle of The Godfather, The Odyssey, and many more besides.)
This implies two things:
- The gift economy’s so-called primitive form of exchange actually enables richer and more complex social bonds than pure monetary exchange or barter, with which it uneasily co-exists, even in capitalism. This was Mauss’s conclusion, which became one of the foundational principles of modern anthropology.
- The so-called “pure gift,” a gift without expectation of reciprocity, is impossible. The only thing that can be given is time, which is no “thing” at all. This was philosopher Jacques Derrida’s conclusion, and this “condition of impossibility” became one of the late foundational principles of deconstruction.
Citizen Kane helps us see a third conclusion. I think it’s the conclusion Kane reaches after he destroys Susan’s room, pausing only when he finds the snow globe on the floor. It’s the hidden structural meaning of “Rosebud.” Let’s call it the Ecclesiastical conclusion.
What Kane sees, as his mirrored reflection is doubled and redoubled across the cinema screen, is the fundamental contingency of all value: the realization that the statues as well as the souvenirs, the love of trophy wives and lost mothers, are equally worthless. That even when we reject what poses as the inherent value silver or love in favor of a fiction we orchestrate ourselves, that fiction is doomed to end in failure. The miser cannot stand apart.
We can shout and rage, but our cardboard lies collapse with just a tiny push. At the end, all that is left is a whispered voice and broken glass.