“In Quest of Knowledge I Watched Night Create Day”

Social media, known for its brevity (which abhorrently includes neatly leaving out both context and creator credit), has once again lead me to do some research and go down a rabbit hole of discovery in the wee hours. (If you do not keep me busy on the phone, writing, or otherwise share my company, this is what I might do!) This time about a quote. A lovely quote, as follows:

Your voice, your eyes, your hands, your lips
Our silence, our words
Light that goes, light that returns
A single smile between us
In quest of knowledge I watched night create day
O beloved of all, beloved of one alone
your mouth silently promised to be happy
Away, away, says hate
Closer, closer, says love
A caress leads us from our infancy
Increasingly I see the human form as a lovers’ dialogue
The heart has but one mouth
Everything by chance
All words without thought
Sentiments adrift
A glance, a word, because I love you
Everything moves
We must advance to live
Aim straight ahead toward those you love
I went toward you, endlessly toward the light
If you smile, it enfolds me all the better
The rays of your arms pierce the mist.

This beautiful poetry is often attributed to the French poet, & one of the founders of the surrealist movement, Paul Éluard. But that’s not entirely correct. Each line was, in fact, written by Éluard; but not as a single work.

The poem itself is part of director Jean-Luc Godard’s work, French film Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965). As it is spoken dialog, the poem can be considered a film quote; but it really is a work of art unto itself.

Godard lifted each line from various Éluard poems creating a separate work — and I want you to see the word “lifted” here as intended, not as a vernacular for theft, but as a physical action. An action a visual artist might take.

Imagine poems by Éluard typed on fine onionskin paper.

Godard artfully selects lines, then deftly knifes slits around those lines and lifts them up, out of their original context, precisely arranging them as a collage. Now they are a new work — but the medium and context shifts again and again as the words are spoken and then edited into the visual images not just of photography, but of film.

And that work sits within the body of another work: the entire film.

It is for these reasons, I consider crediting Éluard — or at least only Éluard — with the poem to be a mistake.

Éluard passed in 1952, so we know not how he would have felt about all this. But I would imagine he would approve. Especially as Godard nods to the poet by having the beautiful Anna Karina read from Éluard’s Capital of Pain, which has rather become among the iconic images of the film.

As a creator, writer, and artist (including some prominence as a visual artist), I would be satisfied with such.

All of this, of course, has led me to add Alphaville to my movie-viewing list.

In part because of the fascinating discovery of a visual representation of a poetry collage — but also because in the writing of this, I feel a sense of… well, not quite deja vu… but a sense of memory… Have I seen this film before?

I discussed it with my sister, who says I likely did because she has. She was once an avid watcher of vintage films back in her college days. Among them, many a French film with subtitles. Being much younger, I would, much to her annoyance, beg to stay up late and watch those films with her. We have come to the conclusion that I likely won her over one evening while she watched Alphaville — but that I, as was typical at the time, fell asleep and never saw the film in its entirety.

Less confusing than the selkies situation. And easily rectified by watching the film one night soon. “In quest of knowledge I watched night create day.”

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