Tom Phillips: A Humument
A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel
London: Thames & Hudson, Paris: Gallimard, 2016 (final edition), 384 p.
A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel is a strange fish within the neo-avant-gardist waters. An esthetic revisitation and poetico-political reappropriation of A Human Document—an obscure three-decker by the now forgotten W. H. Mallock—started in 1966, it remained a work in progress until Phillips published the “final” edition of the volume fifty years later, after having achieved his ultimate goal, that of refashioning every page of the source text twice, more often than not by overpainting and erasing most of the source text. Phillips’s found novel has subsequently become one of the foundational texts of literary erasurism, a technique appropriated by numerous other writers and artists such as Ronald Johnson, Jen Bervin, Jochen Gerner, Martin Arnold and Jonathan Safran Foer.
The genesis of A Humument is best described by the author himself:
Like most projects that end up lasting half a lifetime, this started out as idle play at the fringe of my work and preoccupations. I had read an interview with William Burroughs (Paris Review, 1965) and, as a result, had played with the “cut-up” technique, making my own variant (the columnedge poem) from current copies of the New Statesman. It seemed a good idea to push these devices into more ambitious services. I made a rule; that the first (coherent) book I could find for threepence (i.e., 1 1/4p) would serve.… on a routine Saturday morning shopping expedition, I found, for exactly threepence, a copy of A Human Document by W. H. Mallock, published in 1892 as a popular reprint of a successful three-decker … I had never heard of W. H. Mallock … he does not seem to be a very agreeable person: withdrawn and humourless (as photographs of him seem to confirm) he emerges from his works as a snob and a racist (there are some extremely distasteful anti-semitic passages in A Human Document itself) ... However, for what were to become my purposes, his book is a feast. I have never come across its equal in later and more conscious searchings. Its vocabulary is rich and lush and its range of reference and allusion large. I have so far extracted from it over one thousand texts [out of the 367 pages the original comprises], and have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover... (Phillips 2005: s.p.)
The “Unauthor” (Phillips 2005: 113) relates the genesis of his project as follows: “When I started to work on the book in late 1966, I merely scored unwanted words with pen and ink. It was not long though before the possibility became apparent of making a better unity of word and image, intertwined as in a mediaeval miniature” (Phillips 2005). “Thus painting (in water-colour or gouache)”, he continues, became the basic technique, with some pages still executed in pen and ink only, some involving typing and some using collaged fragments from other parts of the book (since a rule had grown up that no extraneous material should be imported into the work)” (Phillips 2005). Even though the collection (for want of a better word) displays a huge diversity of modes and styles of overpainting, the common denominator between the treated pages of A Humument is the presence of comic-strip like “balloons containing the words which Phillips preserved from Mallock’s novel and which the author terms “rivers”, a word which can be understood in a metaphorical as well as a typographical sense.
The “revisionist” act that underlies the art of Phillips’s erasure can be usefully related to the poetics of found art made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. Yet where Duchamp elevated ordinary objects to the level of art by separating them from their context and use value, erasure artists have pursued rather different goals over the last fifty-odd years as their main referent remains the original artwork itself. Through the process of erasure the original artwork is subjected to diverse forms of physical manipulations whose functions and significance can only emerge from the tension between the found and the revised, the original and its “effaced” avatar. In the best of cases the erasure artist works as a sculptor, chipping away bits of textual or visual monuments in order to give shape to new semiotic patterns which take the work to a different level of appreciation, sometimes to the effect of overpowering its predecessor. In short, “erasurism” is as much about adding and creating as it is about erasing and subtracting.
The opening page of Phillips’s book bears programmatic overtones (we are still referring to the 4th edition published by Thames and Hudson in 2005). Accordingly the “bubbles” or “rivers” of text that have been preserved (“The following / sing / I / a / book / a / book of / art / of / mind art / and / that / which / he / hid / reveal / I”) the goal is paradoxically to reveal by erasing and defacing. The big blue arrow directing the reader to the next page emerges as a rather humorous reference to Phillips’s own attempts to dismantle and reinvent the linearity of the original text (although one cannot help reading the poetic bubbles themselves in a conventional, linear fashion). As they are “framed” by drawn bubbles and rivulets, the isolated words no longer refer to an implicit totality located within or outside the text—the original novel is no longer the main referent; it has been replaced by the new narrative created by the sequential arrangement of the comic-strip like poetic “balloons” which come to the surface of the book’s paint-covered pages.
In the recent history of the visual arts, one equally famous example of “overpainted books” is that of CoBrA artist Pierre Alechinsky’s “marginal remarks”, such as the striking and aptly-named “Dispaint, Describe” (1979), in which the artist’s acrylic painting is framed by a series of smaller paintings executed on pages from old registers (Alechinsky 2007: 242). According to Alechinsky himself, this method is dictated by the need to “draw over the italic scripts of a bygone age, as a way of escaping the blank page” (115); like Phillips’s, it has also been likened to that of comic strips. One essential difference between Alechinsky (who has extended his method to school work, stamped envelopes and other found texts) and Phillips is that the former does not seek to manipulate or rewrite the text but, instead, often tends to use words primarily as an “expressive constraint”: more often than not, the handwritten words and figures suggest forms and images that are implicitly present in the writing, as in the more recent “Palimpsest, I-IX” series (2005) in which the overall form of the schoolbook divisions and multiplications inspire the painter to depict diverse objects, animals and characters, including, most prominently, his now world-famous snakes (2005: 268).
A Humument defies accepted generic boundaries and taxonomies, even within the sphere of the post-war avant-garde. Whether it is considered as an artist’s book, a poetic novel, a series of paintings (framed versions of Phillips’s pages are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries) or as a collection of concrete or visual poems, it would be a mistake to consider it solely as a satirical response to the late Victorian ideology which characterizes its ur-text. The full range of (de)compositional methods governing Phillips’s “treatment” of Mallock’s novel comprises chance procedures (including tossing coins or consulting the I Ching) alongside more controlled collages, write-through methods and various manipulations resulting in the creation of “textual characters” such as Bill Toge, whose last name derives from the words “together” or “altogether” (“the only words from which his name can be extracted”, Phillips 2005). The sum of these techniques has been praised by Mary Ann Caws as originating in and prolonging "the most fertile veins of Surrealism, Concretism, Spatialism, Conceptualism, and the inexhaustible Symbolism” (Maynard 2003: 86). Phillips’s models and references are equally diversified—they comprise works as diverse as illuminated medieval manuscripts and Francesco Colonna’s extravagantly arcane Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (the blueprint of Bill Toge’s story, according to the author).
To read A Humument as a neo-avant-gardist text demands a consideration of the critical narrative of the historical avant-garde’s alleged loss of revolutionary potential and its gradual assimilation into the world of commodities and/or dominant academic discourse. In order to place Phillips in the recent history of experimental writing and composition, one needs to concentrate on the subversive dimensions of Phillips’s œuvre and the specific strategies deployed by the author’s “treatment” of its source text. The outcome of Phillips’s erasure does not merely remediate the source document in order to purge it of its undesirable qualities (e.g., its anti-semitic and misogynous overtones), the way a censor would work, deleting material that is deemed unwanted or unsafe. The abundance of sexual innuendoes in Phillips’s “poems” and, more generally, the narrator’s self-confessed intention to reveal the hidden content of Mallock’s novel (“that / which / he / hid / reveal / I”) invite comparisons with the Freudian take on the detail. If one refers to Didi-Huberman’s analysis of the relationship between the visual and psychoanalysis (which sees the detail as a residual entity, the “rubbish of observation”, Schor 1984: 109), it would not be far-fetched to argue that A Humument “psychoanalyses” the original document, bringing out the symptoms of psycho-sexual frustration that lie beneath the varnish of Victorian respectability and which the equally respectable “realist” narrative tries to dissimulate, as in the following example which shows a “shy” incarnation of Bill “Toge” trying to look up a lady’s dress, a move to which the woman responds with a peculiar kind of “well-poised eagerness” (earlier in the book, another character named Grenville—who, contrary to “Toge” is present in Mallock’s novel—is “scan[ning] the sofa, / to see / Miss Markham, / raising her / dress / half-parted”, Phillips 2005: 39).
Phillips’s half-confessed attempt to “cure” the original text of its stiff, humorless and racist dispositions through various forms of collage, displacement, falsification, overprinting/painting, and surinterpretation, point to a tactic which frees the detail from the constraints of Victorian “detailist” realism while providing a corrective to the politics of the source text. It must be noted, however, that, unlike other write-through experiments (such as those of John Cage, Jackson Mac Low or Ronald Johnson) Phillips’s textual “rivers” do not give the reader the illusion that they can enjoy the pleasures of a truly nonlinear and “uncertain” text, at least within each individual page-poem. The pleasure afforded by Phillips’s text is of a different kind, one which mischievously destabilizes relationships between detail and totality, background and foreground, and which, in doing so, introduces an alternate kind of sinuous and labyrinthine linearity.
In an age of uncertainty that does not cease to proclaim the death of the avant-garde and in which “suspicious readings” have become the norm, the refiguration (and disfiguration) of found texts has become an important part of experimental literary and artistic production since the 1960s (which, incidentally, is when the failure of the “historical”, self-critical avant-garde reached its apex, at least according to Peter Bürger’s controversial thesis, see Bürger 1984).
To some, Phillips’s erasure art will appear a belated revisitation or, worse, a depoliticized rip-off of the familiar collagist, plagiarist and other foundist methods of modernism and/or a mere epiphenomenon of the much-celebrated cut-up method, write-through experiments, or what Kenneth Goldsmith recently theorized and promoted as “uncreative writing” (Goldsmith 2011). Others will regard it as an interventionist trend which seeks to rescue the critical and revolutionary potential of experimentalism from the aporias of postmodern pastiche and quotationism.
Be that as it may, and despite the exponential popularity of erasure techniques amongst contemporary experimental artists, A Humument remains the most important and successful avatar of overpainting erasurism to this day. By “ex-huming” the corpse of an obscure late 19th century novel A Humument constitutes a singular case of a rewriting whose reputation and achievements outdo those of its predecessor.
* All pages from A Humument and its source text can be accessed on Tom Phillips’ official website.
- Alechinsky, Pierre. Alechinsky from A to Y. Tielt: Lannoo, 2007.
- Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
- Caws, Mary Ann, and Michel Delville. Undoing Art. Macerata: Quodlibet, 2017.
- Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
- Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
- Maynard, James. “‘I Find / I Find Myself / and / Nothing / More than That’”: Textuality, Visuality, and the Production of Subjectivity in Tom Phillips’s ‘A Humument’”. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 36.1 (2003): 82-98.
- Mallock, W. H. A Human Document. London: Chapman and Hall, 1892.
- Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. Final edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2016.
- Schor, Naomi, “Details and Realism: Le Curé de Tours”. Poetics Today 5.4 (1984): 701-709.