Thursday, January 19, 2017


What is the greatest movie ever made? The two movies which tend to be mentioned most often, at least amongst ordinary people in the English-speaking world, are Citizen Kane and Casablanca. I can dig both those choices, not only for their intrinsic merit but for their sense of timelessness, and for the cultural halo that bathes their every frame.

I'd much rather watch Casablanca, because so many of the scenes in Kane are so bleak-- especially the montage showing the dissolution of his marriage and his loneliness in old age. However, many scenes are absolutely haunting. (Spoiler alert immediately ahead, just in case anybody still doesn't know the story.)

Some of the most haunting scenes involve 'Rosebud', the last word Kane utters (before he drops a snowglobe which shatters) and (as the final frame reveals) the name of the sled he was playing with when we see him first, as a little boy. (If those details are slightly wrong, I don't care. That's the essence of it.)

In the final scene, one character suggests: "If you could've found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would've explained everything." Another character dismisses this, calling it "just a missing piece of the jigsaw", and the viewer is left free to make up his own mind on which is right.

Perhaps 'Rosebud' is a symbol of such power because we all have our own 'Rosebuds'-- some image, memory, atmosphere, something at the heart of our whole personality's maze, of our whole life's maze.

I once read that Freud was more of a poet and a storyteller than a scientist. I don't really give much credence to Freudianism as science, but he certainly seems to have tapped into a potent idea; the idea that our deepest secrets, the sources of our mental and emotional life, might be things that seem banal on the face of it, but which are unimaginably significant and poignant to us-- things which might send us to the ends of the earth, or lead us to change the world.

There's something very exciting about the very imagery of Freudianism (perhaps I mean pop Freudianism): excavation, interiority, discovery, and so forth. I've always been captivated by stories of tunnels, attics, caves, trap doors, hidden panels, and so forth. The conjoined attics that Digory and Polly explore in The Magician's Nephew (and which they use as a kind of hideaway) were wildly exciting to me, as was the Wood between the Worlds which they subsequently discover-- a magical limbo between alien worlds, which takes the form of a wood full of pools that are portals to these worlds. Lucy stepping through the wardrobe, perhaps the most famous moment from the whole of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, is another example.

(Now, I'm not naive enough to miss the obvious Freudian or pop-Freudian symbolism that may be detected here. I mention it only because I wouldn't want anyone to smirkingly assume that I simply don't see it. But, like C.S. Lewis himself-- and he wrote a very thoughtful essay on Literature and Psychoanalysis-- I don't think this explanation goes deep enough. Why this particular symbol and not another?)

I could mention plenty of other examples from my childhood reading, but I'll leave it at one other; the eponymous secret garden in The Secret Garden, a novel which fascinated me as a boy (and which I've re-read with pleasure as a man).

In more recent times, the movie Inception is a 'text' (I cringe to use the word, but there you go) which arouses this same fascination. In case you haven't seen it, the entire movie is about professionals who can literally enter a subject's dream, from which they seek to extract secrets. The twist to which the title refers is that, in this case, they are seeking to implant an idea in a person's mind. The person in question is the inheritor of a multi-billion business empire. The influence they wish (or their employer wishes) to exert upon him is entirely pragmatic, but the idea they seek to implant is unspeakably poignant and tender, and refers to his relationship with his father. So this film has both of the fascinating concepts I've been discussing in this post-- the concept that the ultimate springs of our outward actions are very personal and apparently banal, and the concept of hidden and subterannean things-- indeed, the heart of the billionaire's psyche is symbolised by an iron safe in the dreamworld, and the heroes (or anti-heroes) have to plumb several 'layers' of reality. (There's also a descending lift involved.)

On this blog, I've also transcribed a passage from one of my all-time favourite novels, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, which has nothing to do with tunnels or corridors or gardens, but which inhabits the same spiritual terrain, and which also wildly excited me as a boy:

"Liz", I said urgently. "Liz, listen, listen." I took her hands, trembling almost, and began to speak rapidly, leaving staccato, deliberate pauses between my words.

"Liz, do you know what I do? When I want to feel invisible?" I had no experience of wanting to feel invisible, but the text was perfect. I was doctoring my words as I went along, quickly and carefully. "I've never told anybody. I have a sort of-- well, it's an imaginary country, where I go. It has its own people--"

"Do you do that? I knew you would," cried Liz triumphantly. "I knew you would. Why are we so alike, Billy? I can read your thoughts. A town like Stradhoughton, only somewhere over by the sea, and we used to spend the whole day on the beach. That's what I used to think about."

I was full of excitement, frustrated, painful excitement at not being able to tell her properly, yet at the same time knowing she would understand. I wanted to drag her into my mind and let her loose in it, free to pick and choose.

Julie Christie as Liz

I began counting to slow myself down, and said, only half-feverishly:

"This is more than a town, it's a whole country. I'm supposed to be the Prime Minister or something. You're supposed to be the Foreign Secretary or something--"

"Yes sir", said Liz with grave, mock obedience.

"I think about it for hours. Sometime I think, if we were married, and living somewhere in that house in the country, we could just sit and imagine ourselves there--"

"By a log fire", said Liz softly. "And the fir trees all around, and no other house for miles."

I looked at her squarely. She was as excited as I was, in her own settled way. I was tossing a coin in my head, teetering on a decision. heads I tell her, tails I don't. Heads I tell her this last thing.

"I want a room, in the house, with a green baize door," I began calmly. "It will be a big room, and when we pass through it, that's it, that's Ambrosia. No one else will be allowed in. No one else will have keys. They won't know where the room is. Only we will know. We'll make models of the principal cities, you know, out of cardboard, and we could use toy soldiers, painted, for the people. We could draw maps. It would be a place to go on a rainy afternoon. We could go there. No one would find us. I thought we would have a big sloping shelf running all the way down one wall, you know, like a big desk. And we'd have a lot of blank paper on it and design our own newspapers. We could even make uniforms, if we wanted to. It would be our country." I stopped, suddenly aware of the cold and black, peeling branches all around us and the ticking quiet of it all. I had talked myself right through the moment of contact. Liz, her old self, was grinning, pleased with life, seeing it all as our old fantasy, a kind of mental romp in the long grass. "And let's have a model train, that the kids won't be allowed to use", she said. "And a big trench in the garden."

I sank back, spreadeagling my hands in the grass to rid them of the webbed sensation that was coming back into them like a nervous tic.

"Liz", I said, all the thoughts exhausted in me. "Will you marry me?"

This, in fact, is really what I intended to write about, when I started this blog post: the aching impossibility of really sharing these 'secrets of the soul', even with the people we love the most, and no matter how lyrical or expressive or articulate we might be. Even if the reporters had known about 'Rosebud', how would they have ever understood what it meant to Kane?

I cannot avoid here quoting the lines of Matthew Arnold:

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild, 

We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.

But when the moon their hollows lights,

And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour—

Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain—
Oh might our marges meet again!

Who order'd, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire?—
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.

Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise, or a mixed blessing, or a curse with compensations. Because I very often suspect that this very urge is what drives artists and visionaries-- at least, many artists and visionaries-- to their greatest efforts, even though it is ultimately impossible. The impossibility is what keeps them trying.

Is it only artist and visionaries? Perhaps this is what drives all of us. After all, isn't everybody an artist and a visionary?

I've often suspected that the real motivation for any work of art is a burning desire to share some image, atmosphere or moment which is intensely personal and specific. Let me put it this way; a woman might write an eight-hundred page novel which contains all sorts of deep observations on human nature, on memory, on language, on any number of other universal themes-- but the real essence of the novel is not any of these, but a short description of a mother brushing her daughter's hair before a mirror, while snow falls outside. This is what the lady yearned to express, to give life to; everything else was really just to keep the readers and the critics happy. All the philosophising can be analysed to death; this is irreducible and living.

What I have read of the genesis of creative works encourages me in this theory.

The greater the artist, perhaps, the closer he or she comes to expressing this irreducible secret. Or perhaps the reader or viewer or listener simply senses its presence, its power.

The first novel I wrote (unpublished and unpublishable) was a fantasy called The Black Feather. It was hilariously talky and quite disturbingly reactionary. (And bear in mind, this is me saying that.) It was an allegorical denunciation of globalization, homogenization, secularization, disenchantment, and all the elements of 'progress' which romantic conservatives dislike. My hero was very much on the side of progress and the future at the start of the book, but by the end he has become an arch-reactionary-- indeed, he has become the Dark Lord of this particular world.

At an early point of the story, an oracle says these words to him: "The darkness between the stars is more beautiful than the stars themselves." Throughout the novel, he seeks to understand the meaning of these words. By the end, he has decided on their meaning: that perfect unification, perfect unity, would destroy all the beauty of the world. What if the sky was one gleam of starry white, and there was no engulfing darkness between those points of light? How would they maintain their distinct existence?

This, I think, is the answer to Arnold's lament. A lover may long to be perfectly united with his beloved. But if that were possible, how would it still be love, how would her otherness be preserved? The distance between them is essential to love, to discovery, to longing, even to the joy of togetherness.

What if men really understood women, if they perfectly understood women? What if women really were Stepford wives or male fantasies-- not even, necessarily, the most tawdry sort of male fantasy? Would the sexes even still be attracted to each other in either case?

A famous champion of "Irish Ireland", the newspaper editor Daniel Patrick Moran (1869-1936)-- a man often dismissed as a chauvinistic buffoon, but one who was actually a profound thinker-- remarked in his book The Philosophy of Irish Ireland that he hoped there was never a complete understanding between the Irish and the English, because they would at that point have ceased to be separate nations. I think this is extremely insighftul.

Indeed, this principle of blessed separation is one of the reasons I am a Christian. Hinduism and Buddhism, along with gnosticism and many strands of the New Age, promise me a future when I will leave behind the wound of self and become submerged in the Absolute.

Well, I don't want to be submerged in the Absolute, any more than I want Ireland (or Sweden or Australia or India) to be submerged in a post-national melting pot, any more than I want men and women to leave behind the 'shackles' of gender and walk hand-in-hand towards a brave new world of infinite gender fluidity. 

I pray instead to be a citizen of the heavenly Jersualem; a soul that enjoys the beatific vision of God, but that remains forever (and joyfully) distinct from Him.

This is why I think the ache expressed in scenes like the 'Rosebud' scenes in Citizen Kane, or the imaginary country scene in Billy Liar, is ultimately a sweet and blessed ache. But how it aches, in spite of that!


  1. So much to comment on!

    The depths of friendship can go a long way to overcome this ache (though not all the way, just as you say). Yet people are as lonely now as they have ever been. Perhaps friendship, as an idea and an ideal, is losing its currency? There's the obvious example of the amassment on Facebook of hundreds of 'friends' who are really 'acquaintances', or the way, in schools, that boys cultivate only 'mates' and girls use friendships as weapons against each other. And one point about same-sex marriage is that it devalues friendship as well as marriage: marriage, as we know, because it removes the procreative ideal, and friendship by claiming that a deep, sincere, chaste relationship between two people does not suffice.

    Yet 'friend' is one of the most beautiful words in the English language - in simplicity, sound and sense.

    Is this a new thing? I'm not sure. I do treasure the anecdote of Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney, who were so affected by the premiere of Vaughan Williams's Tallis fantasia in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910 that they spent the entire night wandering the city's streets together, talking about it. They had to get it off their chests: the power of art and the power of friendship.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dominic. I was slightly embarrased, having put so much into this post, that it drew no comments!

      Friendship is a fascinating concept. I had no friends for all my childhood and teens. The audacity of calling someone your friend seemed unhinkable to me. I made some friends in my early twenties but they were all bad friends who gave me bad advice and one by one drifted out of my life. More recently, in the last ten years, I have made good and lasting friends. In a way the friendlessness of my early years is a boon, as friendship seems exotic and endlessly fascinating to me. Even now, though, I often find myself irrationally expecting all friendships to pass. This might make a good post in itself.

      Yes, literary friendships like that are very moving...I think especially of Chesterton and Belloc, and Tolkien and Lewis. Friends who are comrades as well as friends seem the best.

    2. Oh, and your point on gay marriage reminds me of how much I detest the term "bromance"...

    3. You post more quickly than I can comment!

      Friendship IS fascinating, and rare, and requires patience and effort, and is often therefore counterfeited, or we settle for too little.

      Yes, the word 'bromance' is the result of such an aversion to sincerity. If it's a friendship, that's what it is!

  2. I read this post three months after it was written, because of the disclaimer about Citizen Kane which I hadn´t seen until a few days ago. It was interesting to read now! Lewis, as told from experience, had sensitive things to say on this subject too. The first book bought the only time Í visited Ireland (one of only three books bought) was his "Four Loves" and that has a full chapter named Friendship and there is so much indeed about this even in other parts of his writing. In a book published about ten years ago, the young son to his wife Joy tells about the stepfather´s private life from his own first-hand memories, and you get confirmed an impression that he was "altruistically friendly" to all while also maintaining most tight distinctions towards Friendship proper. Where does an acquanitance turn into a friend then? Modern times doesn´t help friends either (to put it laconically).
    Is Billy Liar the film btw good enough to skip the book, in your opinion? Being the slow reader I am, a shortcut might be preferable in that matter!

    1. I started writing a post about friendship but I abandoned it. I will probably get round to it eventually. A big subject.

      The book version of Billy Liar is better than the film, but the film is worth watching for its own sake.

    2. Good to know. I will try one or the other. Thanks!