Jorge Luis Borges Reviews Citizen Kane — and Gets a Response from Orson Welles

kane borges

When we dis­cov­er Jorge Luis Borges, we usu­al­ly dis­cov­er him through his short sto­ries — or at least through his own high­ly dis­tinc­tive uses of the short sto­ry form. Those many of us who there­upon decide to read every­thing the man ever wrote soon­er or lat­er find that he ven­tured into oth­er realms of short text as well. Borges spent time as a poet, an essay­ist, and even as some­thing of a film crit­ic, a peri­od of his career that will delight the siz­able cinephilic seg­ment of his read­er­ship. “I’m almost a cen­tu­ry late to this par­ty,” writes one such fan, Bren­dan Kiley at The Stranger, “but I recent­ly stum­bled into the movie reviews of Jorge Luis Borges (in his Select­ed Non-Fic­tions) and they’re fan­tas­tic: gloomy, some­times bitchy, hilar­i­ous.” He first high­lights Borges’ 1941 assess­ment of Cit­i­zen Kane, which Inter­rel­e­vant pro­vides in its inci­sive, unspar­ing, ref­er­en­tial, and very brief entire­ty:


Cit­i­zen Kane (called The Cit­i­zen in Argenti­na) has at least two plots. The first, point­less­ly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain mil­lion­aire col­lects stat­ues, gar­dens, palaces, swim­ming pools, dia­monds, cars, libraries, man and women. Like an ear­li­er col­lec­tor (whose obser­va­tions are usu­al­ly ascribed to the Holy Ghost), he dis­cov­ers that this cor­nu­copia of mis­cel­lany is a van­i­ty of van­i­ties: all is van­i­ty. At the point of death, he yearns for one sin­gle thing in the uni­verse, the hum­ble sled he played with as a child!

The sec­ond plot is far supe­ri­or. It links the Koheleth to the mem­o­ry of anoth­er nihilist, Franz Kaf­ka. A kind of meta­phys­i­cal detec­tive sto­ry, its sub­ject (both psy­cho­log­i­cal and alle­gor­i­cal) is the inves­ti­ga­tion of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spo­ken, the many lives he has ruined. The same tech­nique was used by Joseph Con­rad in Chance (1914) and in that beau­ti­ful film The Pow­er and the Glo­ry: a rhap­sody of mis­cel­la­neous scenes with­out chrono­log­i­cal order. Over­whelm­ing­ly, end­less­ly, Orson Welles shows frag­ments of the life of the man, Charles Fos­ter Kane, and invites us to com­bine them and to recon­struct him.

Form of mul­ti­plic­i­ty and incon­gruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the trea­sures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, lux­u­ri­ant and suf­fer­ing, plays with an enor­mous jig­saw puz­zle on the floor of a palace that is also a muse­um. At the end we real­ize that the frag­ments are not gov­erned by any secret uni­ty: the detest­ed Charles Fos­ter Kane is a sim­u­lacrum, a chaos of appear­ances. (A pos­si­ble corol­lary, fore­seen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Mace­do­nio Fer­nan­dez: no man knows who he is, no man is any­one.) In a sto­ry by Chester­ton — “The Head of Cae­sar,” I think — the hero observes that noth­ing is so fright­en­ing as a labyrinth with no 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 cor­dial and spon­ta­neous cama­raderie, are essen­tial­ly hor­ren­dous. Cit­i­zen Kane is the first film to show such things with an aware­ness of this truth.

The pro­duc­tion is, in gen­er­al, wor­thy of its vast sub­ject. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy has a strik­ing depth, and there are shots whose far­thest planes (like Pre-Raphaelite paint­ings) are as pre­cise and detailed as the close-ups. I ven­ture to guess, nonethe­less, that Cit­i­zen Kane will endure as a cer­tain Grif­fith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose his­tor­i­cal val­ue is unde­ni­able but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigan­tic, pedan­tic, tedious. It is not intel­li­gent, though it is the work of genius—in the most noc­tur­nal and Ger­man­ic sense of that bad word.

“A kind of meta­phys­i­cal detec­tive sto­ry,” “a labyrinth with no cen­ter,” “the work of a genius” — why, if I did­n’t know bet­ter, I’d think Borges here describes his own work. Welles him­self did­n’t go igno­rant of his film’s Bor­ge­sian nature, or at least of the ten­den­cy of oth­ers to point out its Bor­ge­sian nature, not always in a pos­i­tive light. “Some peo­ple called it warmed-over Borges,” Welles recalled in a con­ver­sa­tion 42 years lat­er with the film­mak­er Hen­ry Jaglom. Nor did he for­get Borges’ own cri­tique: “He said that it was pedan­tic, which is a very strange thing to say about it, and that it was a labyrinth. And that the worst thing about a labyrinth is that there’s no way out. And this is a labyrinth of a movie with no way out. Borges is half-blind. Nev­er for­get that. But you know, I could take it that he and Sartre” — who thought the film’s image “too much in love with itself” — “sim­ply hat­ed Kane. In their minds, they were see­ing— and attack­ing — some­thing else. It’s them, not my work.” Defen­sive though this may sound, it iden­ti­fies the impulse that had the author of Labyrinths see­ing all those labyrinths in the movie: to quote Anaïs Nin, a writer con­tem­po­rary though not often brought into the same con­text with Borges, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

You can also read Borges’ 1933 review of King Kong here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Two Draw­ings by Jorge Luis Borges Illus­trate the Author’s Obses­sions

Jorge Luis Borges: “Soc­cer is Pop­u­lar Because Stu­pid­i­ty is Pop­u­lar”

Borges: Pro­file of a Writer Presents the Life and Writ­ings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Sto­ries (Read 7 Free Online)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • bubba says:

    “per­cep­tion is pro­jec­tion” as jesus says in the gnos­tic bible. george berkeley(philosopher) said it this way. “all we can per­ceive is our per­cep­tions.” or “thou art that” of hin­duism,

  • Ridiculous Fiction says:

    Or, per­haps we can draw a more mean­ing­ful les­son from these, the only words that were actu­al­ly spo­ken by the his­tor­i­cal Jesus:

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