In the famous library scene in James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus expounds a theory of artistic creation based on an account of Shakespeare's relationship to his plays and the characters contained in them. Buck Mulligan, Stephen's mocking nemesis, sums up the theory by saying that it "proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father." Peter Conrad's book, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life, makes a similar case for the relationship of Welles' own life to his various artistic productionsfrom Citizen Kane through The War of the Worlds to Touch of Evil and multiple productions of Shakespeare. Conrad's thesis is that Welles took "possession of Europe," its art and literature, and turned "texts into commentaries on himself."
The book, organized around Welles's preoccupation with character types such as Faust, Kurtz, Quixote, Falstaff, and Prospero, breaks from the traditional film-study analysis to be found, for example, in James Naremore's fine book, The Magic World of Orson Welles (1978). Conrad's book moves with ease from scenes in a variety of films to observations about Welles's own artistic quest and his multifarious sources, which range from Homer to Joyce. The result is a gem of a book, at once a biography and a filmography, on nearly every page of which one finds illuminating insights.
In lesser hands, such an interpretive approach would prove disastrous. But Conrad relies very little upon the fatuous one-to-one correspondences between art and life. Instead of diminishing drama to augment psychology, Conrad expands our understanding of both work and author. Orson lost both his parents while still a child and this, according to Conrad, prompted him to construct various tales about his origin and nature. He certainly felt free to make up stories about his father's death, which he variously and falsely called a suicide and a murder, committed by his son, Orson. But Conrad does not give us yet another deconstruction of greatness. Welles was not just working out private psychoses on the screen; instead, he was exploring great questions about the nature of art, the resources and afflictions of creativity, and modernity's apparent erosion of knowledge and purpose. Of his many and contradictory self-descriptions, Welles perhaps came closest to the truth when he said, "I am really a man of ideas. Yes, above all else."
Welles aspired to be what he called a Renaissance man, to draw "scattered things together and make sense of them." Of course, drawing together fragments in the hope of discovering intelligibility is a distinctively 20th century-occupation. Like both Joyce and Nietzsche, Welles is obsessed with the elusiveness of truth in the modern world, with the erosion of the old metaphysical framework.
Welles's thinking seems to reflect the Nietzschean thesis that the Christian concept of creation, coupled with the decline of belief in the deity, causes the ground to shift beneath our feet. Everything now is, as Joyce's Dedalus puts it, predicated "on the void." In such a context, creation itself comes to portend destruction. As Grisby, a character from Welles's The Lady From Shanghai, proclaims, "the world had a beginning, why not an end?" In this sceneshot on the edge of a cliff, with camera angles that make the characters appear as if they will at any moment plunge to their doom, Grisby prophesies a nuclear apocalypse. Conrad sees more than a flirtation with nihilism in Welles's obsession with annihilationTouch of Evil begins with an explosion, his film version of Kafka's The Trial ends with a blast, and The Lady from Shanghai ends with the famous shattering of images in a fun house.
Welles had a certain devotion to, or sympathy with, romantic poets such as Byron and Coleridge, who experienced the creative compulsion as a curse. Welles reinterprets Macbeth in this light. He depicts the witches themselves as "generative forces," a theme that suggests the identification of creation with the demonic. Welles' first and definitive film, Citizen Kane, opens with a traditional metaphor of creation, a mouth whispering, but just as the word is spoken, the speaker dies, as his little world, in the form of a glass ball, crashes to the floor and shatters. Kane's attempt at self-deification issues, not in creative productivity, but in the capitalist project of owning everything, a version of the romantic, "exorbitant, self-dissipating culture." Modernity, it seems, exacerbates to the point of exploding the central theme in Western culture, which Welles identifies as "the lost paradise."
Welles is drawn to characters that can easily be cast as parables concerning the self-destructive tendencies in modern humanity's project of self-deification. In this sense, his apparently contradictory assertions that "all my characters are Faust" and that he was "against every Faust" can be seen as perfectly compatible; something very much like this dramatization of modern humanity's self-destructive quests is at the heart of film noir, a style of filmmaking for which Welles had a special affinity.
Preoccupied from his youth with the ancient media of books and oratory (he began declaiming Shakespearean speeches at the age of ten), Welles became wedded to the distinctively modern media of radio, especially for his The War of the Worlds broadcast, and cinema. Like one of his great contemporaries, Hitchcock, Welles makes films that are reflective of the process of filmmaking itself. The inference to be drawn is, according to Conrad's persuasive case, a very pessimistic judgment about the possibility of redemption or transcendence through art. Film "ought to stop time," but it does the opposite, "depleting reality, using it up, and reducing it to a replica."
Laboring against the very tendencies of the medium in which he practiced his craft, Welles sought stability. Hence, his attraction to Shakespeare, whom he describes as "profoundly" opposed to the modern world. According to Conrad, Welles eschews the "upward historical" thrust of progressive modernity in favor of a return to myth, with its "cruel cyclical justice" and its "reassurance that, although all is mutable, nothing changes." This, too, sounds awfully Nietzschean or Joycean. What is Ulysses but an attempt through a return to classical mytha myth that in Joyce's hands now encompasses all the great literary epicsto discover some sort of shape in the form of recurring patterns? That is the upshot of Molly's comically erotic mimicking of Nietzsche's eternal return in her concluding repetition of "yes I said yes I will Yes."
Welles never seems quite capable of Joyce's comic embrace of the void. And Truffaut was only partially correct to call Welles a liberal, on account of his "sad, smiling acknowledgment that nothing can be conserved." At least on occasion, Welles glimpses the possibility of an alternative to liberal progressivism and mythic nihilism. Very late in his career, in F for Fake, a film explicitly about art and the personality of the artist, Welles pauses to venerate the anonymously constructed Cathedral at Chartres and its song of statuary, from which speak the "dead artists out of the living past." Despite Conrad's assertion that it is Chartres and not the romantic paradise of Xanadu to which Welles is most devoted, Welles never enters the cathedral. His enduring romanticism leads him to treat the Cathedral as no more than an object of wistful nostalgia. For him, there is no way out of the noir labyrinth, caught between his longing for a sense of continuity or purpose and his sense that everything erodes as rapidly as it appears.