Chasing Rosebud

September 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stories about what very rich men do with their money bring out my inner Freud. This week, it was Paul Allen

Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is, of course, a billionaire. And with his billions, he does many of the things that very rich people do. He owns a 414-foot yacht plus a smaller yacht that’s only 100 yards long. He bought some sports teams (Seahawks, Trail Blazers). He has also supported medicine, science, and the arts. But his true love is aerospace..

His latest project is “Stratolaunch”– a dual-fuselage plane with a wingspan longer than a football field. It will carry a half-million pound rocket ship to its cruising altitude a mile or more above the earth, then drop the rocket, which will then blast off for space. An article about it in Wired  had the title “385 Feet of Crazy.”

Mark Palko at West Coast Stat Views, (here), my source for this story, pulls the quote that would have caught my attention too.

As a teenager, Paul Allen was a sci-fi and rocketry nerd. . . .His childhood bedroom was filled with science fiction and space books. . . . . As Allen tells it in his memoir, he was crushed when he visited his parents as an adult and went to his old room to reference a book. He discovered that his mother had sold his collection. (The sale price: $75.) Using a blowup of an old photo of the room, Allen dispatched scouts to painstakingly re-create his boyhood library.

Allen never stopped thinking about space.

As Mark says, “You have here a fantastically wealthy man going to great lengths to recapture childhood dreams.”

Mark posts period images of Willy Ley Space Models and Galaxy magazine that might well have been part of Allen’s childhood. The current project, says Mark, is part of the culture of “Silicon Valley futurism . . . heavily (and I would argue not at all healthily) influenced and bounded by the tropes, rhetoric, and imagery of postwar science-fiction.”

My ideas run less to sci-fi and more to Freud and “Citizen Kane.” I’m not so much concerned with the specific type of fantasy. It could be sci-fi or winning the Superbowl; it could anything. What’s important is that the object of the chase is just that, a fantasy — an ideal that can never be realized. It’s a dream object that, if only it could be grasped, would bring total fulfillment. The trouble is that it can’t, and it wouldn’t.

But (and here comes the Freud*) the fantasy does have a basis in reality — the reality of the warmth, security, and fulfillment of early childhood.  That reality can never be fully recaptured — we’re adults after all, living in the adult world. Yet it remains in the unconscious as a motivating assumption — the idea that somewhere out there, something can bring that same level of gratification.

A man (it’s usually a man) driven by this kind of motivation converts that unconscious ideal into something more tangible; often that something is wealth or power or both. These goals have the added benefit of being infinite and therefore unattainable. No matter how much you have, you can always have more.**

“Citizen Kane” illustrates this idea in near-perfect form. From the very outset, the film makes it clear that Charles Foster Kane has spent his life trying to recapture the childhood he had with his mother.  In the opening scene, the dying Kane lets fall from his hand a snow globe, a perfectly contained snowy world of happiness and peace. Soon after, a flashback shows us Kane as a boy, playing in the snow, gliding downhill on his sled. But this is the day that Mr. Thatcher arrives to take him east. It’s his last day with his mother. Minutes earlier the sled had been a source of delight. Now he uses it, as a shield-like weapon against the man who is taking him away from this childhood..

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

“Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or lost,” says Thompson, one of the investigative reporters who, according to the screenplay is “the personification of the search for the truth about Charles Foster Kane.” Thompson, in the next sentences,  hedges his hunch. “No, I don't think it explains anything. I don't think any word explains a man's life.”

But of course, it does. Rosebud symbolizes something Kane lost and then couldn’t get. And he couldn’t get it because he didn’t realize what it was that he really wanted – the human warmth and happiness of childhood. He displaced that goal onto the narcissistic goals of wealth and power.  Each victory in pursuit of those goals brings him no real or lasting pleasure because they are not really what he is seeking.
Is Paul Allen a version of Kane with sci-fi memorabilia instead of snow? I have no idea. Wikipedia tells me only that “Allen has never married and has no children. He has been, at times, reclusive.” More important, in real life, motivation is not purely a matter of individual psychology. Movies are very good at showing us individual reactions, emotions, and ideas. But as I argued a while ago (here), motives, even motives like greed,  also reside in institutions and situations.

* The ideas that follow also owe much to Philip Slater.

**  “A million dollars isn’t cool,” Sean Parker tells Mark Zuckerberg (or at least he does in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay).  “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” But people with a billion dollars several times over are rarely cool enough with that amount that they stop trying to make more.


Unknown said...

You reminded me of a joke from my teenage years. Two of the Chess books I acquired had (roughly) the same title. "The Psychology of the Chess player" vs. "Psychology in Chess". One was about sex, the other about chess. You can guess which was the one by the Freudian shrink, and which was the one by the Russian chess team's trainer.

But, more related to the article itself, those of us who had reasonably well-off childhoods were, perhaps, reasonably able to find and spend time on things that matched our personalities. So in our old age, we're happy returning to those things. In retirement I'm doing exactly that: Go (instead of chess), photography*, music (jazz instead of classical). Since SF was a big thing for those of us born in the early 50s, maybe it's not so odd that the rich ones of us are into playing in that area. Maybe. Or maybe rockets are Freudian.


Jay Livingston said...

Nice photos.

That Freudian stuff is embarrassing to read now. Maybe Fine should have stuck to chess, though at the time, he could make a better living as a shrink.

I've mentioned chess only twice in this blog that I can recall, here and here in case you're interested.