The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mansion on the Hill

What is judged by the world these days to be a mansion is relative to income and location. The American dwellings of some at the low end of the spectrum with their flat screen TVs, microwaves, refrigerators, central heat and air, laptops, etc. would be viewed as "mansions" by millions of people in the world.

But in the U. S. at least, we're pretty sure we know what a mansion is. The "mansion on a hill" theme has run through culture for many generations. In songs, TV shows, and movies, we've seen them setting high above the town on the hill, or behind a fence far off the main road; they're always isolated in someway from the rest of us and our seemingly mundane lives.

To satisfy our curiosity, we buy books, or magazines, or view TV shows that take us inside the mansions to sneak an intimate view of their opulent furnishings and get a glimpse of what the lives of the people who live there are like.

In the film appreciation class that I regularly taught, we viewed Orson Welles' famous "Citizen Kane." The mansion that Kane built is called Xanadu (modeled after Hearst's San Simeon). Welles deftly shapes our perception to make us see that Xanadu is not a happy place. One of the themes of the movie (the movie that's been ranked #1 film of all time for decades by critics around the world) is that the American Dream--that anyone here has a chance of earning great material success and that that success will make you happier--is really a nightmare, a lie.

Welles' Xanadu from "Citizen Kane"

The thousands who still come to America each year to pursue that dream probably demonstrate both the power that the American dream has and how powerless film critics are.

Many leftist films attack capitalism by focusing on the downtrodden in society, the false implication being that our economic system is the cause of these ills. "Kane" instead, focuses on the wealthy, the topmost tier of the class hierarchy supposedly created by our "unfair" system.

In my opinion, capitalism isn't built on a false assumption, it's built on human nature. It is a mirror of what we all are. People are naturally self centered. They want things for themselves. Capitalism uses this desire as its prime motivating factor.

After Kane matures, he uses his tremendous wealth to buy media power and a beautiful wife. He gets both but at a terrific personal and psychological cost. The brilliantly conceived narrative told in several flashbacks from different points of view is structured to show that ultimately Kane's wealth can not buy him happiness/love, which is what the famous image of the burning sled, "Rosebud," at the end of the film is all about. It's interesting that the Beatles delivered the same message in four words: "Money Can't Buy Me Love."

In spite of all this, I still like "Citizen Kane" as a movie. Orson Welles was at the peak of his creative powers and it shows. The film is full of cinematic innovations. It's a great and very influential film. Too bad about the leftist subtext. Before we leave "Kane," and to bring us back to the subject of mansions, let me tell you a slightly altered version of an old joke.

Two guys are looking up at a mansion high on a hill. One's a conservative and the other's a liberal. The conservative guy says, "Mr. Van Snoot has a fine and beautiful home and one day I'm going to get a big house like that myself."  The liberal guy says, "One day I'm going to get that bastard."

Mansions have been a theme in country music as well. Usually there's a lady who chose to marry a wealthy guy instead of the narrator in the song who ain't so wealthy by a long shot. He's imagining how sad and lonely she feels in her "Mansion on the Hill," so this song and probably a hundred others like it in country music picks up that same theme: money can't buy love/happiness. 

Judging by his statements, Bruce Springsteen may accurately be labeled a liberal/leftist. What about his famous and very beautiful "Mansion on a Hill" song? Is it just a nostalgic memory from childhood, or does it carry a leftist subtext? What about those iron gates that "completely surround" the place? Considering the dirge like music, are we supposed to admire or condemn owner of the mansion, the man who also owns the mill and makes his money off the backs of the common workers like the narrator's father?


  1. Kinda-sorta in keeping with your "mansions" theme... my Mom used to say she didn't want a mink, or a Rolls, or any of that other stuff unless she could have everything that went with it. The poor woman never even got close...

    I think mansions are overrated. That said, I've been to San Simeon and was pretty impressed. Then again, I was also impressed with a lot of the old Brit manors I visited, too. I find it interesting that most of the old time, big-ass mansions are now museums or properties of the gubmint... few remain in private hands.

    One more thang and then I'll quit rambling without actually addressing your main point (heh). Last week I visited a web site (Forbes? USA Today?) that featured homes of NFL players past and present. I was appalled at the conspicuous consumption on display there, more because of WHO owned the places rather than what the homes themselves are. Are grossly overpaid sports figures a product of capitalism, too?

  2. As Dixie Carter once said, "I would rather cry in a Rolls Royce then be happy on a bicycle".

  3. George, Heh!

    Good post, Dan. I think (hope) by the time most people get to my age (mid-life) they've figured out what's important, and what's not.

    But, sadly many have not. Good post.

    Like Buck, I have been to The Hearst Castle. I was 11 years old, from a small town where I lived in one of the nicest houses. Yeah, the other kids would say, "Wow! You live in THAT HOUSE?"

    But, it was just an old 1930's model brick plantation house that was built without much of a plan. But, it was big. And, brick. And, it sat on 5 full acres (that hadn't been sold off from The Waller Plantation) right in the middle of tract houses on 1/4 acre plots.

    But, when I saw how REALLY RICH people live on our visit to San Simeon, I was stunned! It's been over 40 years, and I think I can describe that place like I saw it yesterday.

    I've NEVER been one to envy, or begrudge wealth. Not in my nature.

    Buck's comment got me to thinking about something. I saw a documentary a while back...have to try to locate it...that as a part of it showed the house where Vince Lombardi and his wife lived, and lived out their days.

    It was your average run of the mill brick house in your average old neighborhood. Have to try to find that.

    Good post, Dan.

  4. Hey, here's a piece about it.

    Can you imagine an NFL coach today???

  5. Buck, Your observation about most super mansions being run by the state, etc. is on the mark. One of the mansions we visited in England in the '80s was Chatsworth House, where the Duke of Devonshire and his family have lived for years. After WWII the Duke at that time died and his son found that he owed 80% of the worth of the place in taxes (talk about your death tax!). That place is now run by the Trustees of Chatsworth--it costs 4 million pounds a year to operate the dang thing.

  6. George, Dixie was right. And what I'm gonna say next isn't related to the topic, but I knew a couple of girls in my youth named Dixie. It used to be a fairly common name (at least in the South). Guess it would be very un PC to give a kid that name today. I still like it though.

  7. Andy, thanks for that link to the Lomabardi house. His house is extremely modest in comparison to some of the Titan players' homes I've seen pics of in the paper here. I liked what the article said about Lombardi too. Here's a quotation:

    "He lamented that society had sympathy only for the losers, the maladjusted, the misfits. [Lombardi felt] It is time to stand up for the doer, the achiever, the one who sets out to do something and does it. 'It's true,' he said. 'Society has become so pathetic. We're catering to the criminals.'"

  8. I'm a happy boy here in my cabin on the ridge!
    I've always admired folks who didn't flaunt their wealth, but had it on the hip!

  9. Amen to that Ed. And some people carry their security guard (that would be Smith and Wesson) on their other hip!