Tom Phillips’s treated novel is a key text in the short history of deconstruction and experimental print.
Tom Phillips’s treated Victorian novel, A Humument, is one of a kind, not least becaue this most obsessive yet accessible of artist’s books was published as an ordinary trade hardback in 1980 by Thames and Hudson, whereupon it became an instant cult. In the mid 1960s Phillips had chanced upon a popular edition of William Hurrell Mallock’s A Human Document, a long-forgotten pot-boiler of 1892, in a London furniture repository. Inspired by William Burroughs’s cut-up technique, he began by simply crossing out unwanted words with pen and ink. He went on to use a combination of acrylic gouache, pen and inking, typing and fragments collaged from elsewhere in the book to pick out words and phrases and form unexpected links using the rivers of white snaking between the type. The novel’s original characters, Grenville and Irma, are joined by the mysterious ‘Bill Toge’, made by isolating letters in ‘together’ and ‘altogether’.
Below: a page detail from Tom Phillips’s A Humument.
To read, A Humument is by turns humorous, poetic, aphoristic, erotic and pleasurably baffling. It is also a key text for anyone interested in tracing the relationship of deconstruction theory and experimental print. Phillips’s treated novel embodies to a fault what critics mean when they point out that deconstruction in its original literary sense is not a visual style but an analytical method. ‘A Humument exemplifies the need to “do” structuralism,’ Phillips writes in the book’s afterword, ‘… to be of it rather than on it. At its lowest it is a reasonable example of bricolage, and at its highest it is perhaps a massive deconstruction job taking the form of a curious unwitting collaboration between two ill-suited people 75 years apart.’
While all the evidence suggests that Mallock was a racist, anti-semite and snob, by the time Phillips’s subversive re-readings of his text were published in this form, the original’s rich vocabulary and references had yielded over 1000 new texts, usually against the grain of the original. Twenty variations were teased from a single page.
Over the years, Phillips has used Mallock to generate a small cottage industry of spin-offs. The novel was preceded in the early 1970s by Irma, an opera. In 1985, Hansjörg Mayer published The Heart of a Humument, a miniature edition based on the central portion of the novel’s pages. A revised edition of A Humument with more than 50 new pages followed two years later.
First published in Eye no. 18 vol. 5, 1995
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