“I think that you see the world first, and then write.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, Scénario du film ‘Passion’ (1982)

Once again we are told that seeing comes first. It is beginning to be clear what “first” actually means here, even if it’s still hard to tell what implications will follow. Now it is a question of writing, which should not be treated as the inverse of reading. (Emerson is famous for saying “First we read, then we write,” which has become universal advice and reassurance for all readers who wish they could be writers.) For Godard, seeing takes the place of reading in preparation for writing. So now we ask: what is writing? And what does it have to do with seeing?

Godard accompanies his observation with two origin stories: Moses and Mack Sennett. The problem of seeing and writing, he says, goes back to the Bible:

“Can you see the Law? Was the Law written first, or was it seen first, and then written by Moses on his tablets?”

Without offering a direct answer (although he would elaborate the question in later works) Godard then claims that the first traces of writing were notations by merchants engaged in trade. Only much later was writing expanded into something like novels.  And then, on the far side of all that writing, he offers this story of the rebirth of seeing:

“So cinema, which copies life, comes from life, represents life, cinema begins with no script, nothing written down. You just go out in a car, like Mack Sennett in Hollywood, you have a buddy disguised as a cop, a girl dressed up as a bathing beauty, and a young man as a loverboy. You’d shoot it, and it would be a success, and so you elaborate. Each day cost money, and the accountant wanted to know where the money went. So he wrote in his ledger:

bathing beauty—100 francs

cop—50 francs

loverboy—three dollars

And gradually this became: ‘a cop is in love with a bathing beauty, being chased by the loverboy.’ Bookkeeping gave rise to the script.”

Whether on the slopes of Mount Sinai or the beaches of Santa Monica, the story is the same. A scenario is lived out, whether monumental or trivial, and then writing marks the end of it. Or rather it is only a certain kind of writing that kills the stories that come from life, and if you use writing to finalize what you’ve lived, you become a bookkeeper. Bookkeepers do not look beyond their double-entry columns: they can count their gains and losses and then balance the results—that’s what passes for reading—and thereby convert their retroactive reckonings into the cramped horizon of their future possibilities.

But in fact the stories are not quite the same, and the “origins” of writing are much more murky than these tales suggest. It is a matter of what comes “before the law,” whether that law is the Ten Commandments or the rule of the accountants. On one hand, nobody actually sees the Law: Godard’s questions are aimed at reminding us that laws are always written (by certain people, using certain words)—and this reminder strips the Law of any sacred pretentions. On the other hand, people in Hollywood (and elsewhere) dress themselves up and play out little dramas all the time. It is virtually all we ever do. To “script” those dramas according to the rules of costs and revenues, however, makes them totally ridiculous. In practice, Godard tells us elsewhere, we can do otherwise. As he says in 1975: “you should make whatever film is possible where you are.”

In spite of first appearances, then, Godard is not using these anecdotes to evoke the purity and immediacy of “lived life,” before the terrible intrusion of writing. (That way of seeing things belongs to what Derrida, in his 1967 book De la grammatologie, famously called “logocentrism,” a more than two-thousand year metaphysical tradition running from Plato to Rousseau to today.) Instead, he wants us to remember not only to see before we write, and to keep seeing as we write, but also to write as a way of seeing.

So now we want to know: what kind of writing actually enables us to see the world well? As Godard reminds us, writing need not happen in words alone. The kind of writing he has in mind is called “cinema,” which, as we’ll see, does not have much to do with what you can see at the local multiplex.


(still from Godard’s Le Gai savoir, 1969)