A Human Novelment  [1980]       

Tom Phillips has written no post-modern novel, but has instead constructed a human document from a Victorian novel of that name by W. H. Mallock. His construction, 367 color plate reproductions of paintings done on the pages of Mallock’s novel, is a thorough de-construction that releases the Mallock text and transforms it from a potential Mallock would have been horrified to discover: when Phillips was preparing an exhibition in Johannesburg he “turned (as some might do to the I Ching) to A Human Document, and found, firstly:—wanted. a little white opening out of thought.” Phillips extends a method used by Jonathon Williams when he placed rectangular cut-outs over pages of Havelock Ellis Studies in the Psychology of Sex (it’s appropriate that Williams, too, would have turned to a Victorian text) and created from its ponderous prose insightful, epigrammatic poems. Phillips’ construction is much more ambitious for he presents a narrative of the hero –toge- (found only on pages in Mallock where he used the words “together” or “altogether”):  ‘enter toge wheeled slowly / in / by / French and / German ladies of vague conditions in life/.’ (p.14)  Imagine Paul Metcalf’s books where the quotation marks and ellipses have been replaced by paintings that act as visual equivalents—and the best of them, and there are many, actually do—to the rescued words.

          Phillips does not hide his method or its intent; this is, after all, a public document. He allows Mallock’s text to proclaim it, accompanied by his own visual tour de force:

          scribe the

          once or twice

          story

          scribe

          art of

          the other hand,

          you have

          written a volume

          inside out.

          a thrown journal

          the

          thick

          drama of

          dead progress, and

          so the changes made

          the book

          continue now

          the

          arts

          connect.   (p.7);

 

and,

          I forsee

          a book

          which ...might

          most completely change.  (p.10)

 In short, though it is similar to other poems and novels that I have read, it is unlike any poem or novel I have ever read / seen.  It is an example of one man’s talent, but it is also more. It is public in a way that the best found poetry is public, it belongs to us all. It is not only a product of Phillips’ imagination “but / it is / a hum ument”  a genuine Human Document.