Some pre-Socratic philosophers conceived the cosmos as contained in a ring of fire, so that there were no stars like bright stones sparkling in the sky; rather, night's dark sphere was colandered with holes through which the outer fire showed, and our spangled sky was illusory. Illusory or not, those holes through which radiance streamed formed constellations; meaning ran from point to point in every watching eye; and then the shapes assumed the features of Perseus and Orion, reflecting heroic lives alleged to have been lived here on our own fair fields. From windows of illumination through lines of meaning to a course of life: that's how I like to think Tom Phillips' extraordinary literary Elysium is cosmologized. There is initially the word board like the outer firmament of fire we cannot see, divided arbitrarily as the print fell, from page to page, with its prose going about its business in ignorance of anything else, telling its own dated tale of Victorian times, a story that has now disappeared from every mind: this is the word soil of Phillips' A Humument, W.H. Mallock's 1892 novel A Human Document, which Phillips tells us he fetched from a bookstall in Peckham Rye for three pence.
Influenced early on by William S. Burroughs' "cut up" experiments, limited by an arbitrary budget of three pence, guided by propitious chance to Mallock's volume (which, by the happiest of coincidental ironies, is a novel pretending to be a discovered journal), and finally favored by the fact that A Human Document was found in a popular reprint version that might furnish additional copies, Tom Phillips' A Humument comes rationally, arbitrarily, fortuitously, gradually into existence just about the way everything in life does. It begins the way an epic ought: "The following sing I a book, a book of art of mind art and that which he hid reveal I." A Humument purports to be The Progress of Love of its principal character, Bill Toge, the surname from letters found in the words "altogether" and "together," which alone contain it and sustain him.
The verbal elements that tell Toge's story appear in blobular spaces that seem to blend the figure of the cartoon balloon with the banderole or the ribbony scroll that sometimes issued from the mouths of praying figures in 16th-century engravings. These spaces drip or trickle down the page where most of the time we can still see traces of Mallock's original text, but occasionally they crawl amoebalike in muck and grow as germs do in laboratory jellies, or fly the way buffeted balloons might through a tempest, or float like used condoms on a wider river. Not infrequently, they seem like paths or roads or creeks. Many times they will be found to contain tender bursting buttons and other abrupt poems.
Some of these terse verses are proverbial, gnomic, erotic, surreal, silly, revelatory, prophetic. Perhaps it is just a phrase that surprises you: "reason under a ruined hat," for instance, or a brief command like "read on, emotions," or a caption for the painted page, "sixteen portraits hanging from a dream," but they are almost always cryptic, sibylline, and as arresting as "she folded her attention to the carpet," or as amusingly disconcerting as the announcement that "I am remaining in London for the death of my ambition." Just as words contain words (the "love" in "glove" has always amused me), these staid Victorian pages can conceal (hidden prudently away like weevils in a biscuit) a wittily raunchy moment: "Have one of mine,' said the lover, as he produced his owna gorgeous product of Viennaand offered it distended to the great Fanny."
Above all, however, it is the design of the pages themselves that astonishes the eye and amazes the mind. Although Toge will usually appear as a Playdoh figure, near his signature window or sprawled in a chair, most of the environments Phillips has designed are abstract in a dazzling multiplicity of ways, semantically suggestive more often than not and frequently serving as a commentary on the bubbles into which Mallock's (and several of his characters') words have been allowed to rise. There are crisply outlined and safely contained color rounds and rectangles; there are fanciful scribbles and simulated writing; there are parodies of popular painters; there are fractured images and spaces, regimented squares, rows of canceled words looking like squashed bugs, lines flying as furiously away as message wires, indistinct layers of smudge and grime, collages, cartoons, wallpaper, curves lying about like clipped dyed hair. The result as you initially leaf, skip, and bound through the book is pure exhilaration. It is a joyful thing to be in the presence of such a rich variety of form and idea, wit and resonance, color and figure, paradox and puzzle, where the profound is rendered rightly as a doodle, and the page is reentered to encounter a bravura'd new'd world.
A more thought lifting of layers reveals linguistic, artistic, metaphysical issues that are as many and various and essential as those in a text by Aristotle. Mark out A Human Document as much as Phillips likes, Mallock's words lie beneath his illuminations like weeds in a field, for they are still in William H. Mallock's story; still were written, printed, bound, back then, in those different, not so different, days; still are going on about their initial business. And the window that Toge mopes and dreams by, perhaps because he's been put together like Dr. Frankenstein's golem from pieces and parts, opens/closes onto/into what? Does it lead the eye to still another realm, or back to the earlier world the words came from? Or through it do we see the pages to be created next?
The field of collage, of color and line, in concealing Mallock's original, releases outbursts of words that find themselves in an altogether new syntactical space; and there, like notes, they sing a painted music.
Originally published in ART FORUM, November 1996