Writing in books is not a big thing. I’ve got copies of texts from my schooldays where I’ve underlined portentous encounters, highlighted exam-worthy tidbits and scrawled “what the shit?” more than once.
It’s not something I do any more, largely because I’m not 15 any more. Tom Phillips didn’t get the memo about stopping, though, and the result is a singular piece of art which takes the reader on a journey through art and opera, though still features the odd cock-and-balls graffito.
A lifelong art project, A Humument was born in 1966 when Phillips picked up a piece of superannuated literature on the cheap. W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document, a dry and antisemitic piece of cardboard, tells a particular story, though that’s of no concern to Phillips: through a mixture of styles (photomontage, painting, drawing) he picks out loopy strands of words to create a new story – an epic of love, loss and creation involving Bill Toge, a lumpy-faced man (there’s pictures, even, and his profile is spectacularly blocky) who lusts after Irma, fiddles about with opera and, seemingly, hears the last words spoken on Earth.
The art runs the gamut from high to low culture. There’s Nazism, great composers, Rupert Bear and more. By altering Mallock’s work in a manner similar to the cut-up approach of Burroughs and Cage, Phillips indulges in a trans-generational collaboration with a long-dead stuffed shirt, finding humour and colour in a text that’s as dry as chipboard.
(Seriously, you can read the original here if you’ve some insomnia requiring a wallop.)
This is the second time I’ve read A Humument yet is felt as if I were reading it anew. Admittedly, the version I read is different to this, the definitive work – each edition differs as Phillips revisited pages over the years, revealing terms that only now make sense (app, facebook) – but the sense of exploration and of surprise remains intact. This is such an all encompassing read that it’s hard to imagine knowing what’s coming even if you’d read it many, many times: there’s so many details in the art to examine, even if you ignore the effort needed to keep the narrative thread intact.
Of course, the narrative thread both matters and doesn’t, as Phillips has referred to the work as something closer to a prognosticatory deck than a novel. Indeed, he didn’t work on the pages in order – plates were approached at random, usually at a kitchen table – so it feels fairly sensible to use the tome for bibliomancy rather than simple reading. Certainly, it offers as much fruit for consideration as the tarot: and after all, isn’t Bill Toge everyman, walking through the art and music of his/our life?
The thing about A Humument is that the reader becomes a collaborator along with Phillips and Mallock. There’s so much room for interpretation, so many different things to focus on, so much detail that it’s the kind of text one could dip into for years and find a different reading each time. For that reason alone, it’s a book I’m happy to revisit.
There’s a bit of Toge in me too, after all.