"This work started out as idle play," Tom Phillips writes of A Humument in his book Works, Texts, to 1974. He offers similar versions of this explanatory history of the conception and execution of A Humument elsewhere: for example, in the long discussion which follows A Humument in its 1980 trade edition.
"I had read an interview with William Burroughs in the Paris Review (Fall 1965) and, as a result had played with the 'cut-up' technique, making my own variant (the column-edge poem) from current copies of the New Statesman. It seemed a good idea to push these semi-aleatoric devices into more ambitious service.
"I made a rule that the first (coherent) book that I could find for threepence (i.e. one and a quarter new pence) would serve."
On a "routine" Saturday walk with his friend, the American artist R.B. Kitaj, Phillips found, for exactly threepence, a copy of W.H. Mallock's 1892 novel, A Human Document. This book seemed likely to serve for the project he had begun to form and, in late 1966, Phillips began to work on it. At first he "merely scored out unwanted words with pen and ink."
"It was not long before the possibility became apparent of making a synthesis of word and image, the two intertwined as in a mediaeval miniature; this more comprehensive approach called for a widening of the technique to be used and of the range of visual imagery. Thus painting (in acrylic gouache) 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)."
The heroes of Mallock's novel, Robert Grenville and Irma Schilizzi, both retained roles in Phillips's treatment of the work. But Phillips also added a new major character, Bill Toge, who could appear only when Mallock had written the words "together" or "altogether" on a page. These are the only two words from which this characters surname can be constructed.
The story of Bill Toge, Phillips writes, is related to the commonplace Renaissance neoplatonic tale of "the Progress of Love" and has deliberate parallels with Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499). Elsewhere, Phillips notes the influence of medieval manuscripts. In fact, A Humument is self-consciously an anthology of the entire history of the book, especially the illustrated book, from the medieval manuscript through the early printed book to the experimental and avant-garde book of recent vintage. Phillips himself called it "a paradoxical embodiment of Mallarme's idea that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book".
Phillips' emphasises the role of chance when ever he tells the tale of the creation of this book. He selected Mallock's novel for treatment, he repeatedly writes, only because it fit his sole major criterion: price. Its found nature seems to suit the new text and images Phillips found, re-envisioned, and then re-presented, all of which had lain embedded within the words already present on Mallock's pages. In an entry in his notebook for 1966, Phillips called A Humument a "personal I Ching." Together with Phillips emphasis on chance and the found nature of his art, that phrase locates him within one significant stream of the modernist aesthetic.
The I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of changes, was rediscovered during the 1950's and '60's by artists and writers, notably John Cage. Helen and Kurt Wolff of Pantheon Books, its American publishers, brought out the English translation for the Bollingen Series in 1950. They gave a copy to their son, Christian Wolff, a composer who studied with Cage and with whose works Phillips is familiar. After Wolff gave Cage a copy of the I Ching, Cage and several of those he influenced found it a means of pressing past the boundaries and against the supposed limits of their crafts. Dissatisfied with then still largely normative assumptions about the role of reason, rationality, and rules, even in the creative worlds of artistic modernism, they used the I Ching to subvert or avoid such assumptions in their work.
Consultation of the I Ching indicates certain chances, or fates, which a person may choose to embrace. For artists in Cage's tradition, subjecting aesthetic considerations to such chance operations serves to move their creative practices away from personality and towards anonymity. Seeking instructions from Tarot cards or from throwing dice might be comparable operations. Mallarme's coup de ds ("a throw of the dice"), an early statement of this view, became a standard reference point for later artists and writers working in this tradition.
Initially, a minor eddy within the many currents of modernism, this stream became increasingly influential as the century progressed. It has become one of those aspects of the movements we call "modernism" which have served to push in the direction of what we now call "postmodernism". Tom Phillips is among those modernists who can trace their aesthetic descent from John Cage (and, beyond Cage, from Marcel Duchamp).
Cage is a major influence on and inspiration to Phillips, in part precisely for his exploration and celebration of the ways in which the artist can absorb and use chance. Phillips's 1967 painting, Ephemerides II, makes explicit his sense of Cage's importance to his work. In Cage, Phillips discovered an articulate artistic spokesperson for an aesthetic open to the shifting pulls and changing balances afforded a work's various realisations by its creators sensitive response to the "found" - to the element of chance. Cage was also an artist who worked, like Phillips, in a variety of media.
Despite his endebtedness to Cage, Phillips does not follow him to the outer limits of chance. The chance emergence of Mallock's novel would not have prevented its deliberate rejection, had Phillips found it unsuitable. But Phillips did not reject it. "For.....my purposes," he wrote, " his book is a feast. I have never come across its equal in later and more conscious searchings...I have...yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot comprehend or its phrases be adapted to cover". However open he was to chance, Phillips had no intention of becoming its creature. Artistic control and authorial voice both matter to him more than they mattered to Cage.
However accidentally Phillips may have found the book, his use of it is usually only distantly dependent on chance. Mallock's text proved "a feast" rather for his conscious - deliberate and controlled - purposes. The amount of variation among his treatments of single pages indicates the workings of anything but chance in his creation of this work.
A reading of Mallock suggests that there are good reasons why Phillips found him such "feast," in addition to those riches of vocabulary, reference, and allusion which Phillips specifies.
Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University Of Pennsylvania