Tom Phillips's Introduction to the 6th Edition, 2016

A Human Document cover
A Human Document 1892W.H.Mallock
W.H.Mallock in 1907Page 33 first version, 1966
Page 33 first version, 1966Page 33 second version, 2010
Page 33 second version, 2010MASS MoCa 2014MASS MoCa, 2014Half-title illustration to Dante's Inferno, Talfourd Press, 19834
Half-title illustration to Dante's Inferno, Talfourd Press, 1983 Humument Skull 1996
A Humument skull, 1996Page 4 second version, 2012
Page 4 second version, 2012 p132, 1973 version
Page 132, 1973 versionrevisions for the 2nd version
Page 132, revisions in progress for the 2nd versionPage 85 from 1967
Page 85 from 1967Page 85 from 2010
Page 85 from 2010

A Humument started life around noon on the 5th of November 1966; at a propitious place. Austin’s Furniture Repository stood on Peckham Rye, where William Blake saw his first angels and which Van Gogh must have passed once or twice on his way to Lewisham.

As usual on a Saturday morning R. B. Kitaj and I prowled the huge warehouse in search of bargains. Arriving at the racks of dusty books left over from house clearances I boasted that the first one I found that cost threepence I would make serve a serious long-term project. I soon chanced on a yellow book with the tempting title A Human Document. Looking inside we saw the fateful price. ‘If it’s a dime,’ said Ron ‘that’s your book: and I’m your witness.’

It was a novel by someone that neither I nor my bookish companion had heard of, W. H. Mallock. The words ‘ninth printing’ above the date 1892 suggested, however, a certain popularity when it had been published by Chapman/Hall at three and sixpence. Mallock’s stock had luckily depreciated at the rate of a halfpenny a year to reach the requisite level.

Mallock was born in 1849 and after leaving Oxford started what promised to be a brilliant career with a rapturously received political satire The New Republic, followed by a stream of anti-socialist polemic and writings on religion as well as many novels. By his death in his seventies he had faded into somewhat embittered obscurity, his views all but obsolete. His snobbery pervades A Human Document and his attitude toward Jews (though not untypical of the time) supplies the crux of its love story. For Mallock the adultery of its heroine Irma somehow did not really count since her wealthy husband was Jewish. These negative aspects of his literary persona assisted rather than impeded my scheme, as did his intelligence, immaculate prose, luxuriant vocabulary and wide range of allusion. His complete lack of humour also helped: it is fun to fish the odd joke out of a dry text.

Like most projects that end up lasting a lifetime my version had its germ in idle play. A relish of words plus the influence of Burroughs and Cage with their use of chance had led me into casual experiments interfering with texts in the columns of The Spectator. I had indeed already begun to toy with the idea of treating a book in the same fashion. Now the die was cast, the dice thrown: chance had become choice and a notion grown into an idea.

Once I got my prize home I found that page after randomly opened page revealed that I had stumbled upon a treasure. Darting eagerly here and there I somehow omitted to read the novel as an ordered story. Though in some sense I almost know the whole of it by heart, I have to this day never read it properly from beginning to end. The book’s rechristening resulted from another chance discovery. By folding one page in half and turning it back to reveal half of the following page, the running title at the top abridged itself to A HUMUMENT, an earthy word with echoes of humanity and monument as well as a sense of something hewn; or exhumed to end up in the muniment rooms of the archived world. I like even the effortful sound of it, pronounced as I prefer, HEW-MEW-MENT.

At first I merely scored out unwanted words with ink leaving some (often too many) to stand and the rest more or less readable beneath rapidograph hatching. The first page I finished in 1966 was p33. Reworking it I have incorporated part of the original as a memorial to the start of things, now burned and pasted on to its successor. I discovered in the process some new words above: ‘... as years went on you began to fail better,’ featuring a much loved phrase of Beckett which did not exist until seventeen years after my initial version. Serendipity is the best collaborator.

A hidden hero emerged from behind the text to interact with the novel’s actual protagonists. Since the W in W. H. Mallock stands for William, its commonplace short form, Bill, would provide a good matey name for his humdrum alter ego. When I chanced on ‘bill’ it appeared next to the word ‘together’ and thus the downmarket and blokeish name Bill Toge was born. It became a rule that Toge should appear wherever the words ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ occured. The intended pronunciation is ‘toe’ (as part of a foot) and ‘dge’ (as in ‘drudge’ or ‘fudge’, two words redolent of the artistic enterprise). I have heard it variously pronounced, but Bill Toge seems about as unfancy a name as you can get; as are those of the anti-hero’s friends who make guest appearances (Eve Sardine, Ted Wink, et al.). Toge’s story, a little less glum now than in the first treatment, is the non-linear narrative of one who has a somewhat bumpy ride on the roundabouts of art and love.

In a work such as this it is helpful to have rules, and as far as I know the condemned presence of Toge, after he takes the stage on p9, is a rule never broken. Nor, more importantly (for otherwise the whole task would become too casual and easy) are there any but the smallest divergences from a general imperative that Mallock’s words should not be opportunistically shunted around: they must stay where they are on the page. Where they are joined to make some poetic sense or continuity of meaning, they are linked via the often meandering rivers in the typography.

By 1973 I had worked every page. The finished book was shown within weeks of its completion at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (in whose bulletin it had first been mentioned, by Jasia Reichardt, and a page from it illustrated, in 1967). It was shown the next year in an exhibition that travelled from London’s Serpentine Gallery to the Gemeente Museum in the Hague and ended up in Basel. There, at the Kunsthalle, it was seen by Ruth and Marvin Sackner, who were to become the owners of that entire first manuscript as well as keen supporters of the continuation of the project.

Seeing the book shown as a whole gave me some satisfaction, but the feeling that I could fail better than that began to nag. The first bound trade edition (1980), prepared by Hansjörg Mayer in Stuttgart and distributed by Thames & Hudson, marked the end of a dormant period. The book had become a book again and in its turn a suitable case for treatment.

I had originally avoided introducing outside material, thinking to keep the work ‘pure’. Since, however, Humument fragments crept in to almost everything I did, I felt the urge for reciprocal action and began to incorporate motifs and collaged imagery from other aspects of my work. In the original introduction I spoke of ‘mining and undermining’ Mallock’s novel. The first version could be regarded as preliminary opencast mining leaving hidden seams to be investigated.

So I set about doing the whole book again, showing bit by bit, as edition followed optimistic edition, what I could come up with. A few of the original pages however resisted reworking: I had grown fond of their words and designs. Occasionally I have been content in such cases merely to introduce variations.

As early as 1969 the novel provided the draft score of the opera Irma. In the seventies it also served to accompany many series of watercolours, largely based on postcard sources, such as Ein Deutsches Requiem, The Quest for Irma and Ma Vlast. The most elaborate of these excursions was the long suite of illustrations to Dante’s Inferno in which Mallock provided an excellent foil to the all-knowing Virgil. Here at the opening of the volume some blank verse echoes the metre of my translation.

This process has continued over the years, with Humument fragments providing gores for fictitious globes (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum) or decorating both the inside and outside of a skull. Most recently excerpts have accompanied an illustrated edition of Cicero’s Orations made for the Folio Society.

However diligent the compilers of some dreamed-of omnium gatherum might turn out to be, there will always be scraps and shards that elude them; a trivial greetings card here, a record sleeve or CD cover there or even a faded T-shirt at the bottom of a drawer.

It is, after all, my resource of greatest use – and all thanks to a man who, from photographs and contemporary accounts of his personality, would seem to be someone I would not at all have enjoyed meeting.

I have so far extracted from his book well over a thousand segments of poetry and prose and have yet to find a situation, sentiment or thought which his words cannot be adapted to cover. That Mallock and I were destined to collaborate across a century became quite clear when I tested other fictions and discovered nothing to equal him in the provocation of fresh conflations and marriages of word and phrase.

How this serendipity has worked is well illustrated by the result of a recent urge to react in some way to the catastrophe of the twin towers in New York. Many years ago I had a concordance made (largely by Andy Gizauskas) of the whole novel in a little notebook now frayed and stained to the point of unusability. This has recently been replaced by an electronically created version masterminded by John Pull and smartly bound, which I duly searched for the unlikely occurrence of ‘nine’ and ‘eleven’ on the same page and in the right order. To my amazement I found them, on the yet to be reworked p4.

As has always been my practice I look for a text first and let its disposition condition any imagery that is at the back of my mind. In this case I scanned the page on the lookout for apposite commentary. I recalled the event’s uncanny prefigurement in the Inferno where Dante compares the giant Anteus to the skyscrapers of his day, the bristling skyline of 13th-century Florence with its many tall and narrow towers. A postcard of King Kong was already featured clutching at the World Trade Center in A Postcard Century, as was a version of Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children. These pictures were thus ‘pasted on to the present’ as the text suggests. The accompanying Roman numerals make a twinning palindrome and their non-arabic presence suggests the ‘time singular’ also mentioned.

Thus classical mythology joins medieval poetry together with an early 19th-century Spanish painting, a Victorian novel and a 20th-century American film, linking late modern architecture to a 21st-century disaster.

Few pages are as complex in their devising as this one, yet, even though a lot of the book is intended as a diversion, there is a current of reference to literature and music throughout. I was specially thrilled, right at the other end of the book, to extract from the penultimate page the closing mood and actual words of Joyce’s Ulysses with the famously repeated ‘Yes’.

To a great extent this amenability in providing text after text comes from the typography and layout of the one-volume edition that I have been using. As was the normal practice of the time A Human Document made its first appearance as a luxury three-decker. When eventually I found a copy of this the whole story, spread over three volumes, looked very aerated, with highways rather than rivers through the type. Occasionally the network of spaces in the type is not only used to join up words and phrases (thereby avoiding a staccato effect except where wanted) but are brought into play to make drawings, usually a face or a figure. Other gaps, as can be seen in the preliminary artwork to p132, can be similarly exploited.

Inasmuch as A Humument tells a story it could be described as a dispersed narrative with more than one possible order; more like a pack of cards than a continuous tale. Even in the revision, I still have not tackled the pages in numerical order. A narrator, unreliable as is fashionable in contemporary literature, has most of the text. Sometimes he might be identified with the artist and sometimes not: and sometimes in any case it could be a ‘she’.

As well as words with meaning I have enjoyed the discovery of nonce or nonsense terms which provide a fantasy obbligato to the measure of the text. These are extracted from longer words. The less self-evident their source the more autonomously real they can seem, as on p46 where ‘derstan ansfig’ are ‘the last words on earth’.

This is only an extension of the more frequent practice of extracting sense from sense as on p1 where ‘sing’ is detached from ‘singular’ in order to provide the necessary formula for the launching of heroic, or in this case mock-heroic, tales. Here the words echo the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘Arms and the man, I sing...’ (Arma virumque cano...)

In the years since Mallock wrote his novel the English language has itself sent out new shoots. He could not have imagined the future use of ‘plane’ for example. Similarly at the beginning of my own endeavour I could not have predicted the dark resonance that ‘bush’ suddenly came to have or how a simple word like ‘net’ would grow immeasurably in significance. Thus in 2011 I can find on p9 both ‘app’ and ‘facebook’, which would have had no meaning at all even ten years ago.

The original copy of A Human Document that I started out with in 1966 was worked on without destroying any of its pages and is now, intact in its original binding, housed in the Sackner Archive in Miami. Unlike this integral and somewhat fragile version the revised pages with their greater use of collage and solid pigment have been worked on using one side only, mounted on acid-free paper. This makes them not only more durable but easily frameable for exhibition. Two complete copies form an accompanying archive, one noting changes and dates and another preliminary drawings and the gathering of sources.

One of the first copies I found was sacrificed to make A Heart of A Humument, a miniature book extracted from the middle of selected pages. In the production of various fragments, I have made substantial inroads into at least four others. Many have been sent to me by well-wishers, notably that miglior trovatore Patrick Wildgust. Most were bought by me at a time when the book could be more easily found and had not attained the price it now fetches which can run into three figures rather than three pence. Although that original book was unmarked except for its pencilled price and the signature of its former owner the pooterishly named Mr Leaning, others feature a little more bibliographical information. One, purchased at the Beresford Library, Jersey, in 1898 by Colonel J. K. Clubley, passed into the hands of someone who merely signs himself ‘Hitchcock’. Another came from a past president of the Royal Academy Sir Gerald Kelly (whom I once met when a schoolboy in Dulwich) though how he got it from ‘Nell’ to whom it was presented by ‘Michael’ in 1901 is not recorded.

I had thought myself the first to doctor this work until I happened upon a copy (coincidentally from that same furniture repository in Peckham) that had belonged to Lottie Yates who had herself treated it with much heavy underlining and word-encircling that seemed to reflect her own Togeian romantic plight, sighing into the margin from time to time ‘How true!’ It seems that she had used it as a means of saying to her beloved the things she lacked words for, passing the marked copy to him as a surrogate love letter. Thus in 1902 someone had already started working the mine.

The publication history of A Humument has many bibliographical byways after the first of those ill-fitting boxes in fugitive colours appeared in 1973 from the Tetrad Press. That publishing venture, heroically undertaken by Ian Tyson, was beset by economic crises as the subscribers dwindled in number, and pages destined to explore various printing media were hurriedly finished photolithographically. A full account of initial publications (including Trailer, the black and white book produced by Hansjörg Mayer which flagged the project) plus some variations I made of p85 in an effort to demonstrate the inexhaustible nature of Mallock’s text will appear in due course on the appropriate website. The App version for iPad and iPhone can also be employed as a Virgilian oracle.

A Humument has always been a kitchen table task, initially in Camberwell, then in Peckham, and occasionally in Princeton. Well into the second version it has been almost entirely an evening employment at the end of a studio day.

Although the whole of the second version of A Humument has been treated in a similar random order to the first, some pages resisted reworking until there was no way out. I had to stick to my rule. One page however was deliberately held back so that the original author and I might end our collaboration of fifty years together. William Hurrell Mallock died in Wincanton in 1923. I failed to find the grave in 1990 but it was eventually discovered and photographed by Patrick Wildgust. Partly hidden by bushes it had itself become treated by wear and gathering moss. On the last days work on A Humument in 2016 I was thus able to incorporate that photograph into p367 and finish my strange labour.