In 1956, Alain Resnais created a 20-minute long film entitled Toute la Mémoire du Monde (All the World’s Memory) that beautifully mixes documentary information with a fictitious style of filming and editing. What I just wrote is however symptomatic of a prejudice according to which documentary should tend towards objectivity in an attempt to capture the “truth” of what they are filming. We know that choosing such an ambition for a film is doomed to failure. On the contrary, when one voluntarily embraces the subjectivity of the documentarian, the chances are that the resulting movie would be much more powerful in communicating the piece of reality it is describing (we will see that soon in Peter Watkins’ movies). Toute la Mémoire du Monde is part of these movies. Through the dramatic journey of a book traveling through the registration and archival process of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (France National Library), Resnais reaches the essence of what is a library – in particular one that aims at the holistic collection of knowledge.
Before going any further in this direction, let us stop for a moment by talking about this France National Library as an architecture. It was designed by Henri Labrouste between 1859 and 1875 and its reading room, filmed by Resnais at the end of the short movie, constitutes one of the most remarkable cast-iron structure buildings in the world. One has to realize that a building like Paris’ Opéra Garnier was built at the same time than the National Library and despite its use for cast iron structure as well, it was conscientiously concealed under the classical architectural pomp of the past centuries. Labrouste’s deliberate choice to affirm the iron structure in its poetical potential (see below) constitutes the true innovation in the history of architecture. In this regard, New York’s Museum of Modern Art currently exhibits Labrouste’s work and its legacy to 19th century architecture.
Now that the setting of the film is set, let us go back to it. Once Resnais showed the course of a new book through the different steps of its processing in the archives of a sort of universal memory, he describes the same book as being requested by an insect-reader (see below for the insect reference) in the reading room:
And now the book marches on toward an imaginary boundary, more significant in its life than passing through the looking glass. It is no longer the same book. Before, it was part of a universal abstract, indifferent memory where all books were equal and together basked in attention as tenderly distant as that shown by God to men. Here, it has been picked out, preferred over others. Here it is indispensable to its reader, torn from its galaxy in order to feed these paper-crunching pseudo-insects, irreparably different from true insects in that each is bound to its own distinct concern.
Astrophysics, physiology, theology, taxonomy, philology, cosmology, mechanics, logic, poetics, technology. Here we glimpse a future in which all mysteries are solved, when this and other universes offer up their keys to us. And this will come simply because these readers, each working on his (her) slice of universal memory, will have laid the fragments of a single secret to end, perhaps a secret bearing the beautiful name of “happiness.”
With these narrative lines ends the film. This must be quite evocative for each “academic”, spending hours in libraries, reading words, taking notes, and then writing new words in what could be considered as a purely useless production if it was not, as Resnais points out, for the meticulous articulation of pieces of human knowledge in which might lie the “codes” of the universe. This exercise would therefore be a sort of strange kaballah for which the – probably illusory – key of the world’s origins is simultaneously contained within past scriptures and constructed within new ones. The vertigo created by this thought, associated by the labyrinthine architecture that hosts it, makes Toute la Mémoire du Monde a film as important as Jorge Luis Borges’ stories and their attempts to fathom the infinite.