A post­graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas once went to the Swiss biol­ogist Louis Agassiz to receive the fin­ishing touches on his degree. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post­graduate Student: “That’s only a sunfish.”

Agassiz: “I know that. Write a description of it.”

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heli­ichtherinkus, etc., as found in biology textbooks.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student pro­duced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. 

At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decom­po­sition, but the student knew some­thing about it.

This story comes to us through the modern poet Ezra Pound, who often told it to explain to his audi­ences the empirical approach sci­en­tists use to under­stand biology should be the way common people under­stand art, lit­er­ature, and poetry. 

As with the anecdote of the sunfish, director, actor, and writer Orson Welles tries to explain a life by focusing on the details rather than on the events written up in obit­u­aries. This week, the Center for Con­structive Alternative’s seminar on Welles pre­sented the best of his films along with a series of talks from such lumi­naries as “Paper Moon” director Peter Bog­danovich and film critic David Thompson. The seminar encouraged its stu­dents to under­stand Welles, his legacy, and his character.

Welles’ most famous film, the 1941 “Citizen Kane,” presents the meaning of fic­tional news­paper magnate Charles Foster Kane’s life through an extensive autopsy of his final word, “rosebud.”

The film follows a faceless reporter — that’s right, audience, it’s you! — as he inter­views Kane’s acquain­tances shortly after his death. The audience’s mission: to dis­cover why the once ide­al­istic wun­derkind behind a news­paper empire could die so sad and alone, with nothing but a snow globe and the word “rosebud” to keep him company.

We track down the memoirs of Kane’s banker and learn Kane was a brash youth who once hit him with a sled. A visit with his former editor and his best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) reveal Kane was pas­sionate as a busi­nessman and cruel when he did not win. Through Kane’s second wife, we see him marry twice and adorn every­thing he owns with a giant “K.” He even runs for political office, offering no cam­paign promises — except that he’ll put his opponent in prison. It’s hard to watch the film in 2017 without thinking of Kane as anal­ogous to Pres­ident Donald Trump, instead of to William Ran­dolph Hearst, the man upon whom he is actually based.

As soon as someone like Trump comes into our minds, Welles’ project — making his audience under­stand the life of another through autopsy — fails. It’s not that “Citizen Kane” has been con­sis­tently been voted one of the best films of all time. It’s the fact that when audi­ences watch it or any of Welles’ other films, they can’t help but asso­ciate Welles’ char­acters with their own lives. When we watch movies or expe­rience art in this manner, we’re no longer trying to under­stand a story and char­acters; we’re using the film to under­stand ourselves.

Early in the film, we are told that he believed himself to be, above all else, an American. Maybe that’s why we read our­selves into Kane so often. Here is a man who got a pretty blonde girl and every­thing he wanted, just so he could lan­guish alone in Florida. 

Or maybe it’s Welles own self-destructive path that compels us toward “Citizen Kane.” Later in life, after a series of com­mercial failures, Welles would become enor­mously fat and act in bit-part roles just to keep himself on the screen. In perhaps one of his most comic moments, he plays a film exec­utive in the 1979 “The Muppet Movie,” a role he could never play in reality because he pos­sessed all the pride of his own characters.

When we watch Welles’ movies with all of this back­ground on his life, we’re no longer ana­lyzing a decom­posing sunfish — now we’re tearing out rel­evant details, rear­ranging them in the world of abstraction, and fitting them neatly into our lives. As the lights in the Phillips Audi­torium go and the little Blu-ray icon starts dancing around on the screen, we find our­selves ana­lyzing Orson Welles on our own terms — and fill our­selves with his slivers of darkness and light. 

Self-analysis makes us become like Kane himself, aging tycoon in our own minds, put­tering around the palatial hell of Xanadu — unfin­ished as Coleridge’s poem — reassessing the details of our failure. Kane found wealth and sex, but he never found hap­piness. And so it could be with our own lives. 

In the end of “Citizen Kane,” as he mutters non­sense to himself all alone in an out­sized Dis­neyland, Kane attempts to under­stand his life through per­sonal con­nec­tions and expe­ri­ences. In the final shot, as the camera slow fades on the word “rosebud” peeling off a burning sled, we realize an autopsy could never explain Kane — or anyone.

He’s not a sunfish. He’s human. We can only pity his fall and fear our own.