(This post is the first segment in a series on Tom Phillips’s A Humument. The others—including an interview with Phillips—will appear later this month.)
Though billed as “a treated Victorian novel”—and while this may be, in a reductive sense, accurate—to call A Humument a “book” wouldn’t suffice to describe its facets. In terms of definitions, it’d be incomplete: A Humument is a book, but it is also a parade of paintings, a dis-assembling and a reassembling, an artifact and a Frankenstein. I remember the first time I encountered it: at a summer workshop in Iowa City, my seminar instructor pulled a brick of paper from her tote bag. And there it was—the first work I’d seen that so directly subsumed the past into itself (or itself into the past), and, in doing so, both desecrated and glorified it. Flipping through the pages for the first time I watched the algorithm of what seemed like chance sculpt the text of a forgotten novel into something both its heir and its antithesis. What had been done to this book-like object, and was this permissible? How could I, who’d been used to the flush left typography of poems, of the logic of left-to-right and up-to-down, cope with this boustrophedon creature?
The words I could enlist in a exposition of Phillips’s work are endless. And while I have my own qualms with the limitations of the term “project”—it too often implies what’s projected onto an artist’s work than what originates out of his or her intention—it seems the most appropriate descriptor. Unlike other published works, where publication indicates an induction into that special realm of “finished” things, each published edition of A Humument is at best a barometer of Phillips’s project as the moment of publication. He’s spent more than half of his lifetime creating and re-creating the creation of another man, one who came decades before him: the novelist W. H. Mallock, whose work of fiction, A Human Document, Phillips bought for threepence in a shop in England. Each edition is one slice of a state of flux. So far there are five, with the most recent having just debuted this May.
For those who haven’t picked up the work, I’ll cede the impossible task of pinning down what exactly A Humument is besides its being, from Phillips’s standpoint, a project. Reading the work is a trial of cognitive dissonance for anyone with any traditional education in literature. Critical arguments turn tenuous fast; close readings dig the labyrinth deeper. Every page is both its own work of art and beholden to the whole; it’s an investigation into the act of making disguised as a museum. Text is painted-over, censored, and exalted; foreign elements like found materials are incorporated, and Phillips’s incorporation of paint serves to group certain sets of words together that might otherwise be noticed only peripherally, if at all. The aesthetics and palettes vary, though neither the quality nor the end result do: A Humument mines a discarded novel’s unconscious mind, and thereby the unconscious mind of its epoch. And—maybe—of ours, too, if the human element in A Human Document and Phillips’s guiding hand hasn’t changed too much over centuries.
So why is A Humument so problematic in terms of analysis? Perhaps because it hovers between the rational and the irrational; perhaps because it so defiantly confuses what we might want to call intention in an artistic work. One the one hand, you’ve got words roped into sentences with clear syntactic order; sometimes, too, you’ve got flashes of semantic order, as well—quick returns to linearity before the work takes off in another direction. These we can be confident about. But on the other hand, mysterious juxtapositions and placements appear to be doing the most important work. To be on the receiving end of a message that we can’t immediately decipher is a position both frustrating and, if the popularity of A Humumentis any testament, gratifying.
But even if we can crack the translucent shell of convention and “get into” some new sort of meaning or experience when reading the work, the notion of authorship (which I’ll talk about more in a subsequent blog post) is also one we’re robbed of, or at least troubled by. It’s a trivial observation that all works are made using borrowed materials, even if those materials are language itself, but the point is not lost on Phillips, who extrapolates it so far its principles start to warp. This notion has been dispensed in a number of ways, from the Ecclesiastical axiom that there is “nothing new under the sun” to Hume’s claim that all of our ideas are composites of publicly-available impressions, but—prior to Phillips’s works in visual poetics—never has that sense been made so explicit.
Phillips is acutely aware of how it is that notions, ideas, strings of thought, and even geometrical placement come to be woven into the collective psyche, the Spiritus Mundi that appears in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” If language’s objects can be reducible to symbols, then what of the ancestry they encode? There’s a history of such symbols, but binary tokens can’t themselves convey the totality of the mind appropriating them for its purposes. The drama Phillips orchestrates between the past and the present isn’t quite a synthesis; it’s more of an emulsion, the dispersal of bits and pieces of one era into another, which isn’t even set in stone itself. They hover there, little orbs that make their own galaxies, some traceable and some refusing to be traced. The artist’s hand is always heavier than the dead hand of the past, but sometimes it raises.
To be sure, the project won’t elicit a response from everyone: its lack of signposts, or the brief interjections of ambiguous ones, can seem either a locked or an opened door but certainly not one with an arrow on it. We’re allowed in—the text is ours; there are no page titles or directives, and page numbers are atavistic hieroglyphs from the text itself. Or we’re not allowed in—we’re given no keys, no clues to unravel the creator’s process, or even possible templates for superimposition; it can seem hermetic, as it first did to me. We’re forced back to our defaults in each confrontation (and my first reading of A Humument plainly was a confrontation—I had thirteen years of formal reading education at stake) with such a work, and thereby forced to examine those defaults themselves. Every bias, down to the physical operation of scanning the page, was called up to explain itself. And some of my biases still cower when asked; they’ve no reasons other than You were taught so.
Be it opened or locked, the doors that the project hammers together all offer one thing indisputably: variance, alteration, or even wholesale deviation from the standard operating procedure of the printed English text. In an alternate universe, it might be non-linear meaning that’s taught in Comp 101 classes, but in this one we’re stuck with its straight-laced opposite. This isn’t, however, my way of lamenting the prevalence of formal modes over non-formal ones, even if the distinction between them is purely populist: a who’s-numerically-larger contest. In order for edifices to be destroyed, they must first be built. But not just built—built so extensively that their destruction can become, in a sense, meaningful. This is where A Humument breaks with even other similar avant-garde works: its constant creation and dispersion render unstable all attempts to structuralize interpretations about what it might be “saying,” if works like this speak (or if the speech, in this case, is a combination of Mallock, Phillips, and everyone who came before them). There’s no reconstruction of alternative options, or at least none that last for long.
What to make, then, of Phillips’s wrench into the analytical meaning machine? We gain much by what A Humument adds to the repertoire of possible navigations, probably more than we lose: the project puts forward an idea of dissolution vis-à-vis the formally repetitious vehicle of the page. In this constant withdrawal and extension of new windows for meaning, we’re stuck in a fixed unit. And just as there’s something vaguely distant or foreign, at first, about the human hand behind the project, it’s also subject to the same instability. Human forms appear here and there, almost as afterthoughts, thought the aesthetics of each page and its clusters of words steal attention first. But without Phillips—and his threepence-fueled resolution to walk into that store on Peckham Rye—there would be no hand to guide the brush and no mind to fuel it: the human is there, behind the authorship of the work. What’s missing are the easy answers.