Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Tom Phillips: Treating and Translating

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Tom Phillips: Treating and Translating

Article excerpt

My poor little book very rich for eyes

--Cover text, A Humument

A Welsh polymath living in London, an Oxford-trained linguist and translator of Dante's Inferno, with a version for video and A TV Dante (the first eight cantos with Peter Greenaway, starring, among others, John Gielgud as Virgil), a translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a well-known portrait painter with his own exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery (1989), a member of the Royal Academy (which staged a major retrospective in 1992), a poet (his massive panels for his Curriculum Vitae, chiselled on great tablets, are in end-stopped verse, side-splitting and solemn at once. "You see," he says when questioned why there are twenty-two of them, "there are twenty-one and a supplement." And besides, the Royal Academy has a room that will exactly accommodate that number.)

He is a sculptor, a conceptual artist, and also an historian of music, a singer (until 1962, he sang with London's Philharmonia Chorus), and a composer. Irma, an opera, is based on the same originating text as A Humument, an example of how, in the modernist imagination, the chosen or self-imposed "constraint" is able to inspire a multiple number of productions. "A person," says Phillips in one of his notebooks, "is limited in direct proportion to the number of possibilities of which he is ignorant; he is self-limited by the number of possibilities which he excludes." Phillips himself seems to have excluded far fewer than most.

Phillips is perhaps best known for the remarkable treatment he did, and continues to do, of a chance discovery. (These have the weight of the surrealist marvellous about them, and the wonder: about one of these discoveries, a simple piece of linoleum, "one of the richest treasures I have found on my walk," he gives an extensive relation of his reaction, where he found it, and why he wants to share the discovery--this is his characteristic mode of being.) The celebrated finding (like the French "objet trouve" of the surrealists, something you come across in the outside world which gives you an answer to something inside you were not aware of seeking) was a triple-decker novel called A Human Document, by the Victorian writer W.H. Mallock. [1] One day, Phillips went out with R.B. Kitaj, determined to spend three-pence on some nineteenth-century novel, and found this object, which he has incessantly used thereafter as a source of inspiration. Such extraordinary fidelity has its own rewards.

The reinvention--or, literally, the coming across again--occurs most notably in Phillips's famously brilliant A Humument, in the subsequent group of discarded pages, called Trailer, and even in the illustrations of his Dante's Inferno. About the latter, Phillips states his (founded) belief that the cross-reference from the translated page to the illustrated page will uncover, as indeed it does, hidden riches. For a major motivation underlying all the diverse projects in which Tom Phillips engages his immense energies is that of uncovering--discovering, inventing, in the original sense of the word--the possibilities of what can be found. Found in a small radius: the block he lives in, the high-school class he was in (Where Are They Now?, his book with Heather McHugh and Richard Minsky), or as in this case, Mallock's novel (which turns itself into other shapes: A Haunted Comma, by H.W. Collam, and so on. The possibilities seem endless.) At one point, Phillips meditates on just taking one page, page 85, and "tr ying to make as many variants of it as there are pages in the original version or something daft like that" (notebook entry).

As it stands originally--for it has other versions and revisions, replacing itself as it goes along, renewing fifty pages at a time--A Humument is remarkable enough. The title is already what we literary types would call a crasis: it is made of folding a page to eliminate from the explicit lettering of A Human Document a few letters that remain potentially active or implicit: a venture already calling on the Mallarmean pleat (the pli of the explication de texte, or the unfolding) folding into itself what is to be read as a subtext. …

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