designing dante 2015|2021

July 6th, 2015
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Since the Divine Comedy appeared in the fourteenth century, myriad visual artists—ones as diverse as Sandro Botticelli is from Michael Mazur, Gustav Doré from Salvador Dalí, the medieval illuminators from Tom Phillips—have assumed the challenge of illustrating Dante’s epic poem. Woodcuts, charcoal, oil paints, watercolors, pen and ink, clay, photography, gold, stone, video, film, theater, 3D printing, digital graphics, and countless other media and techniques have been employed to portray the inconceivable torment and ineffable beauty of Dante’s vision of the afterlife. Many artists, especially graphic novelists, have magnificently depicted the poem’s settings, characters, and plot; others, like John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli, have chosen to focus on Dante-the-Pilgrim’s facial expressions and reactions to the people and places around him. Some artists have strongly projected their inner-worlds onto the text (e.g. William Blake), others have attempted almost clinical objectivity (e.g. Peter Waterhouse and Walter Hutton). There are illustrators, such as Barry Moser, whose woodcuts offer zoom-in intimacy; and others, like Sandow Birk, whose paintings and drawings depict panoramic sweeps. Still others present us with imagery so abstract (e.g. Robert Rauschenberg), or imagery so densely packed with detail (e.g. Paul Laffoley), that we may experience, for an instant, one of the Pilgrim’s frequent bouts of vertigo.

Of the Comedy’s three canticles, the majority of illustrations (and often the most striking) have been based on the canticle that is also the most read, Inferno. The sins, sinners, and retributions described in Inferno evoke an imagery more vivid than either the struggling penitents of Purgatorio, or the blissfully blessed of Paradiso. There is a great wealth of “humanity” in Inferno: the ease with which a person can enter Hell; the frightening familiarity of the damned’s mistakes; horror at the thought of their eternal anguish. In Dante’s fortified mountain city of Purgatory, conversely, the human begins to dissolve into a fantasmatic ascent toward the Divine. And in the Paradise—the most exquisitely poetic and abstract of the three canticles—the human self vanishes to become something much bigger. The Paradise is a process of trasumanar, of “trans-humanation,” of going beyond the human. Visual reproductions of the Love “that moves the heavens and the stars” can only be suggestive outlines of what one might be able to feel in the most sublime of dreams.

Venus Febriculosa (John Bertram) and Marco Sonzogni’s initiative Designing Dante 2015/2021 in honor of both Dante’s 750th birthday and the 700th anniversary of his death is a testament to how Dante’s life and writing, especially his Comedy, remain sources of inspiration for the visual imagination. Artists from around the world will be invited to submit postage-stamp evocations of Dante as an individual—medieval poet, scholar, Florentine, exile, and traveler—and as a synecdoche for nostra vita, our life. Designing Dante and his thought on a canvas of any size is a daunting task; but a collective commemoration project such as this one is sure to help us all gaze more deeply into who Dante was, and who we are today.

-Arielle Saiber, Associate Professor of Romance Languages, Bowdoin College

In 1965, the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the birth of Dante was marked in the United States (as elsewhere, including, of course, Italy) by the issuance of a commemorative postage stamp . The realization of the Dante stamp (designed by Douglas Gorsline) was largely due to the efforts of The Dante Society of America, founded in 1881 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton. The Society’s mission is “to promote the study and appreciation of the time, life, works and cultural legacy of Dante Alighieri.

Fifty years on, in recognition of Dante’s 750th birthday* and looking forward to 2021 and the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death and the opportunity for another Dante stamp, we are pleased to introduce Designing Dante 2015|2021, a new initiative exploring the meaning of Dante’s life and work through art and design in the form of a new commemorative postage stamp. We are issuing a call for submissions and inviting artists and graphic designers to participate.

Designing Dante 2015|2021 is a collaborative venture between Venus Febriculosa, Marco Sonzogni (Victoria University of Wellington) and The Dante Society of America as well as artists, designers, and scholars, that will culminate in the projected publication of a book about the project featuring a gallery of the submissions as well as related essays and hopefully, in 2021, a new United States commemorative postage stamp.

Designing Dante 2015|2021 follows the format of previous projects that have been realized either together or independently by Venus Febriculosa and Marco Sonzogni, including design competitions related to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, Umberto Eco, and Tadeusz Borowski that resulted in the following books:

Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design Edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving. New York: Print, 2013, 256pp.

This Way: Covering/Uncovering Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen Edited by Marco Sonzogni. Wellington: Dunmore, 2011, 141pp.

About Eco Edited by Giuliana Adamo and Marco Sonzogni. Novi Ligure: Edizioni Joker, 2014, 200pp.


United States Dante Commemorative Stamp of 1965

The Dante Society of America

The First Hundred Years of Dante Society

Dante Today

Società Dantesca Italiana

Dante On Line

*2015 is also the 40th anniversary of the completion of Dante scholar Charles S. Singleton’s monumental six volume annotated prose translation of the Commedia, published by Princeton and part of the Bollingen Series (LXXX); as well as the 30th anniversary of Singleton’s death.


Submissions and/or queries should be sent to

Requirements: At a minimum, per current USPS standards, submissions must include the words ‘USA‘ and ‘Forever.’ Individual stamps can be of any proportion or orientation, but the smallest dimension may not be less than 3/4″ and the largest dimension may not greater than 2″.

the secret sonnets, joseph mellen (glucocracy, 1976)

June 5th, 2015
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you are my queen and at our coronation

a hallelujah chorus I will sing

and celebrate with hymns of trepanation

the fact that you are queen and I am king

– the secret sonnets, xxiv




We live in a quotidian age. Those experiences when the thread deliriously unwinds from its bobbin, (those descents into chaos of the good and exciting kind as opposed to the screaming in fear and pain variety) have become increasingly rare delectations. Every so often, however, a thread is pulled and in unexpected fashion the metaphorical sweater thrillingly unravels and the world once more is shot through with magic and possibility. Recently, one such experience happened to me. While perusing the shelves in a thrift store I found a small hardbound book that bore the hallmarks of being self-published (somewhat crudely bound, no ISBN), and I bought it, simply because embossed in silver on its navy blue faux pigskin bindings were three words: THE SECRET SONNETS. I thought it might do as the basis for a book art project along the lines of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, which had of late been very much on my mind.

family_snapshotJoe Mellen, Amanda Feilding, and Rock Basil Hugo Feilding Mellen

Written by Joseph Mellen, and dedicated to ‘Amanda,’ The Secret Sonnets (Glucocracy, 1976) comprise forty sonnets that, at first glance, appear to be proper love poems, mostly traditional, if somewhat on the cosmic side. They are lovely to read, wistful and optimistic lines of absence and yearning. But strange terminology crops up with nagging frequency among the Homeric and Arthurian allusions: brainblood volume, cerebrospinal fluid, constricted veins, vitamin C sugar rule, sugarlack. Curiosity prompted me to take a closer look and I was surprised to discover that Mellen has a website on which in short order he presents the bare facts:

Born 1939. Turned on to pot 1963, mescalin 1964. 1965 met Bart Huges in Ibiza, took first acid with him and helped him with the English version of his scrolls, “Homo Sapiens Correctus” and “The Ego”. In these works he described his discoveries of the two mechanisms of blood flow inside the brain. The first explains how expanded consciousness is caused by an increase in the capillary volume of the brain and the second how the speech system controls the distribution of blood to the centres in action by repressing function in other parts.

Bart’s vision was from an evolutionary standpoint. What he saw which had never been seen before was the effect of adopting the upright position on the volume of blood in the brain and the significance of the sealing of the skull at the end of growth. The loss of a mouthful of blood from the brain at this time explains why man has always sought the means of restoring the lost paradise of childhood by various methods such as standing on the head, including taking drugs.

The realization that the sealing of the skull had the effect of suppressing the pulsation in the brain arteries, that is the expansion of the arteries on the heartbeat, led Bart to conclude that the opening of a hole in the skull would restore the expansibility of the brain membranes and allow this pulsation to reappear, bringing with it the spontaneity and playfulness of youth that was lost with the onset of adulthood. In 1965 he trepanned himself. In 1970 I followed his example. With my partner Amanda Feilding, who stood for parliament on the ticket “Trepanation for the National Health”, I later campaigned to have the operation made available for those who want to regain the brain metabolism of childhood.

Huges, who Mellen called ‘my teacher, or guru if you like,’ was perhaps the first contemporary person to practice self-trepanation. Mellon was the second:

after a few bosh shots, which are described in my book Bore Hole, I trepanned myself. Originally I used a hand trepan, something like a corkscrew but with a ring of teeth at the bottom of the shaft. It was an awkward procedure, a bit like trying to uncork a bottle from inside it, and it was unsuccessful. Subsequently I used an electric drill, which was much easier. It was comparatively simple.

I was alone in the flat – Amanda was in New York – so when it was done I busied myself with clearing up the room and then waited to see if anything happened. In the next three or four hours  the feeling I had was one of increasing lightness, literally as if a weight was being lifted from my mind. I began to notice it probably an hour after I’d finished the operation, and then it grew stronger. I hadn’t really known what to expect and it was rather exhilarating feeling this gradual lightening.  Would it last? Well, it remained with me till I went to sleep, and the next morning I was amazed to find that the feeling of lightness was still there. I hadn’t come down. And in the days that followed I realized that it was a permanent change in my consciousness that had taken place. I was in a better place, ready for anything.

I always found the worst part of the coming down from a trip was the last part, when the heaviness of the old familiar adult routine set in again. After trepanation that is the part that you don’t have – you stay just above that. I have to say that it is well worth it.

 * * *

 The high from a hole in the head is no more than a gentle lift. If you call an acid high 100 and, say, a good hash 60, then the hole would be no more than 30. What it does, however, that is extremely valuable, is relieve the Ego from the need for chronic repression. The speech system can float again, as in childhood.


Shortly, thereafter, Mellen filmed Feilding, performing the same procedure. The film Heartbeat in the Brain, has rarely been shown and has never been officially released, although alarming stills and snippets circulate on the web and a few choice moments are included in the 1998 documentary film A Hole in the Head.

efced50c61ebea7980e869bf67150c7aAmanda Feilding, still from Heartbeat in the Brain (1970)
47c04c0b17f3ccb25fcc943cfd376f35Feilding and Birdy

Mellen and Feilding opened the Pigeonhole Gallery on Langton Street in Chelsea and in 1975 Mellen self-published through his imprint Glucocracy an account of his experiences entitled Bore Hole, which contains one of the most unforgettable first lines in the history of the printed word:

This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my skull to get permanently high.




I was fortunate to catch up with Joe Mellen who was willing to submit to an interview. It turns out that the world is also apparently catching up with Joe Mellen. After 40 years Bore Hole is being properly published and Mellen will be lecturing in July.


vf: It goes without saying that much of your notoriety is surrounding your advocacy of trepanation, and your relationship with the two other advocates and fellow self-trepanation pioneers Bart Huges (of whom you have said you were a disciple) and Amanda Feilding; the fact that you wrote a book, Bore Hole, in 1975 about your experience; and that you filmed Feilding performing her own trepanation in 1970, which became the legendary ‘lost’ film Heartbeat in the Brain. In a world where everything seems immediately available, and no book or record album is so obscure that it cannot be located online in two minutes, this film seems almost not to exist at all, although of course I have seen stills and a few snippets. Will it ever enjoy a proper release and it is ever possible to see it (I read that it was last screened in 2011)?

The film certainly does exist – the original, which was on Super 8, Amanda still has. The quality of the film was exceptional – so good that when we put on an exhibition of blown-up stills from it at PS1 in New York (I guess it must have been in the seventies, though I can’t remember for sure), the exhibition was called “Trepanation for the National Health”, the blow-ups were as large as 30” by 40” and they were still of good definition, if a bit grainy, and the colour was excellent. I’m afraid I can’t say if and/or when Amanda might show it again. I know that she once gave a film maker called Eli Kabillio permission to include an excerpt for his film A Hole in the Head on condition that he wouldn’t let it be reproduced, and, needless to say, he did. The exhibition in New York was amazing I must say. It was in a large room, 30 x 40 feet, and the blow-ups were arranged in three tiers all around the walls – it was extraordinary, something Egyptian in scale, and there were pieces of text cut in amongst the pictures explaining what was happening and why.

vf: It must be gratifying that Bore Hole is receiving proper respect by being republished later this year by Strange Attractor Press and you that will be speaking on Bart Huges at the third Breaking Convention in July. How did these two events come about for you?

I went to an event at the October Gallery a few months ago – they hold psychedelic evenings once a month – and my friend Dave Luke asked me if I could get him a copy of Bore Hole. I said I couldn’t, that I tried many times to get it published without success and he said I know someone who’ll publish it. I should say that Dave is central to all the psychedelic events that take place. He is energetic and sympathetic, just a great guy.

Here are the emails relating to this, which I like very much. First Dave’s to Mark Pilkington, the publisher, and then his reply:

Hi Mark, 
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Joey Mellen (cc-ed in) the other night and he was discussing his classic book Bore Hole which is now out of print (I know because I tried to get a copy recently). I suggested it would be ideal for a print on demand type of distribution. Is this anything that Strange Attractor would be interested in? 
All the beast,
* * *
Hi Dave! Hi Joey!
Cosmic coincidence control must be in full effect – I was quite really just thinking how great it would be to reissue Bore Hole
I’m actually in Los Angeles until the weekend – dahhling – but Joey it would be great to discuss this with you, and I have no doubt we could do a fantastic edition, ideally with some extra material.
Transatlantic greetings to you both

You can imagine how wonderful that was for me – for forty five years I’ve been trying and suddenly, whoof, just like that!

 At the same event that night I said to Dave that it was time I gave a talk about Bart and he put me in touch with the organisers of Breaking Convention. As Elvis would say, “Oh such a night!

vf: What is/was Glucocracy?

Glucocracy was the name Amanda and I gave to our business, which was colouring antique prints and trying to sell them. We had a card printed with GLUCOCRACY in the middle and under it was printed “non-mistake making organization”.  On our first attempt to sell some we went to the Army and Navy Department Store in Victoria, because it was the first name that appeared in the Yellow Pages under Department Stores. We asked someone for the picture department and they said third floor. On leaving the lift we met a lady and asked her for the picture buyer. It’s me, said Mrs Grant. She bought 26 of our prints for £3 each. I gave her our business card. She looked at and said “that’s rather a sweeping statement isn’t it?” Well I said you wouldn’t want us to make any mistakes in our colouring would you? Phew!

vf: Why did you select the word and what is its significance?

Glucocracy was a word I coined. You can surmise that I had a classical education.  I thought “rule by sugar” had a comical aspect, but also described exactly what was required in expanded consciousness.

vf: Did it produce titles in addition to Bore Hole and The Secret Sonnets?

No. Both of these were published by me in editions of 500. The sonnets were spotted by a lady who wrote about shopping in The Times. She printed one just before Valentine’s Day, offering the little book for sale for £1. We sold 500. I still have a few copies from the overrun.

vf: The postscript of The Secret Sonnets reads: There is a secret message in these sonnets | the key to the code will be printed | when the illuminated version is published. Can you tell me a little bit about the illuminated version?

It remains to be seen! The original idea was that Amanda would illustrate it one day, but that day never arrived. But who knows … ?

vf: Is it in progress? Will it be published by Strange Attractor?

 Who knows?

vf: Can you give us a hint about the secret?

It was a statement of the basic facts about the mechanism of brainbloodvolume. I wrote it out and then divided it into 40 short bits of two or three words each and then wrote each sonnet around those words. I can’t remember now what the statement was, but I’ve still got a record of it somewhere.

vf: Does the Pigeonhole Gallery still exist?

No, sadly not. It was opened by Amanda and me in 1974. We had a pigeon that lived with us – we had found it as a baby when its mother died and it grew up fixated on Amanda – so the name Pigeonhole combined Birdy with the hole in the head.

vf: I understand that you read classics at Oxford. Is that an upside down copy of Kierkegaard (half blue/half black, divided by a white stripe) on the bookshelf behind you in your photo? 

My classical education was at prep school and Eton, not Oxford, where I read law. I learnt Greek and Latin from age eight. The book in question is actually The Brothers Karamazov. My favourite novel, by far, is Wuthering Heights. I read Freud deeply, 14 books, studied on acid – he is a real hero – I consider The Interpretation of Dreams the greatest book of the 20th century. I also like Nietzsche very much – particularly The Genealogy of Morals …. nowadays I read mainly factual books, especially in the field of evolutionary biology … in literature I stick mainly to the classics, since there are so many great books that have stood the test of time, all the obvious ones, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky etc – I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, naturally …

* * *

Joe Mellen is alive and well! On Sunday, July 12, he will present his paper Introducing Bart at Breaking Convention 2015, The 3rd International Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness at University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College, London, July 10-12, 2015. Amanda Feilding, who ran for British Parliament twice on the platform Trepanation for the National Health, is founder and director of the Beckley Foundation for Consciousness and Drug Policy Research. Bart Huges died in 2004.


Further reading:

Bart Huges Questioned by Joe Mellen, The Transatlantic Review, No. 23 (Winter 1966-7), pp. 31-39

Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions (Chapter 12, The People with Holes in their Heads), 1999, John F. Michell

Like A Hole in the Head, Cabinet Magazine, Issue 28 Bones Winter 2007/08, Christopher Turner

209759_202652699772843_697325_oJoe Mellen


winners, contest 10: a humument, tom phillips

June 4th, 2015
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We are pleased to finally announce the results of our latest contest. Our sole judge and juror, Tom Phillips has selected a winner, a runner-up, and a highly-commended from among the many excellent submissions. Congratulations to Alan Beattie, Jeanette Walsh, and Ali Francis Garcia.


Alan Beattie, Winner


jeanettemwalsh Jeanette Walsh, Runner Up


Ali Francis Garcia

Ali Francis Garcia, Highly Commended


There were many fantastic and intriguing entries and we are delighted to feature some of our favorites below.



Anne Hars


Lynn Skordal

Lynn Skordal



Chris Westbury



Rory Walsh


alisa golden

Alisa Golden



Roland Vazquez Rodriguez


Ingrid Ruthig

Ingrid Ruthig



Of special note is the work of Ana Quintas, who writes:

My work was inspired by World War I, more specifically the Battle of La Lys (known in English as Battle of the Lys) that took place on 9th April of 1918. On that day, the 2nd Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (which was incorporated on the British Army) was attacked by German troops that were trying to pierce through Allied lines. The Portuguese troops were decimated. Everyone who wasn’t killed was taken prisoner. My great-grandfather was in that battle and he was taken prisoner. After the war was over, he returned to Portugal just to die soon after due to exposure to German poison gas.


I used two photographs of him in my work, which tells the experience of a soldier immediately after the battle. I imagine him seeing the dead scattered around him, broken bodies, pieces of metal. I tried to convey in my work a sense of disjointedness, a progressive dehumanization of the body and the soul. I wanted also to convey a certain claustrophobia. I imagine a net of channels that criss-crossed one another like branches on a tree. Those channels would represent the trenches and also the curves of the river Lys, except those curves were not filled with water but with dirt and blood.


All images in the work are my own: the background texture, the photographs of the metal pieces and the photographs of my great-grandfather (these are photographs of old photos). The background texture was made by crumbling a piece of paper, burying it on a plant vase, pouring water, digging up the paper and digitalizing it. The numbers ‘19’ and ‘18’ I cut from a newspaper.


Ana Quintas

Ana Quintas


And Raymond Harmon provided as his entry an animated .gif “using a method of hand editing the code in the compressed jpg to reveal hidden color and form.



Raymond Harmon


contest 10: a humument, tom phillips

February 27th, 2015
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[NOTE: The submission deadline has been extended to May 10, 2015.]

the book rules ok  -A Humument


 A Humument by Tom Phillips is, in the words of Marvin Sackner, co-founder of the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry a ‘visual-poetic artist’s book,’ a found novel whose every page has been altered by the artist through painting, collage, drawing, cut-up techniques, and even burning. The result is art, but it is also poetry (concrete, found, haptic), narrative, autobiography, oracle.  This ‘strange, beguiling work,’ as Adam Smyth calls it, is all of this and more owing to the erudition and humor of its immensely gifted and indefatigable creator.  And, importantly, it is also a work in progress. Since the artist has been at it now for nearly fifty years (Phillips first procured his source material, having decided to use the first book he could find for threepence, W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document in 1966) it is arguably in contention for being the work of longest duration by a living artist (or perhaps any artist living or dead).  Initially published in 1973, the latest version and fifth edition of A Humument was published in 2012. In it the work of revision continues with second versions of most of the pages. A Humument is also available in formats for iPad and iPhone, as well as a modified audiovisual version housed in a USB device. A perennial favorite, it has collected dozens of affirming articles over the years, some quizzical, some fawning, and some particularly intelligent and discerning such as Smyth’s  from the London Review of Books and William H. Gass’ from Artforum (My own admiration for Tom Phillips is no secret. I have previously written about him and interviewed him here.).

As Mallarmé said…

que tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre (that everything in the world exists to end up in a book)  -Le Livre, instrument spirituel


Phillips clearly relishes the significant role that chance plays in this endeavor (to such an extent that he views A Humument somewhat as an oracular device), beginning with his more or less arbitrary selection of raw material. Had he chosen another volume that morning (or even another edition of the same work), the result would have been different and possibly even unsatisfying enough to compel him to abandon the project. Phillips admits that the project began ‘as idle play at the fringe of my work and preoccupations’ and that ‘virtually all the work on A Humument has been done in the evenings, so that I might not, had the thing become a folly, regret the waste of days’. But perhaps chance is simply part and parcel of the artists’ life.  In the end, he develops a strange and intimate relationship with Mallock and A Human Document, going so far as to suggest that the resulting work is ‘a curious unwitting collaboration between two ill-suited people seventy-five years apart.’

I asked Johanna Drucker , visual theorist and book artist and author of the seminal study The Century of Artists’ Books to discuss the significance of A Humument:

In some ways, A Humument is one of the most canonical and visible works in the field–perhaps the most visible. Phillips’s genius is in his graphics: the graphical imagination and inexhaustible invention of his intervention in the pages is fantastic. He plays with every trope of illustration and illusion, of textual reference and bibliographical construction, and he has a great sense of color and design. A Humument is absolutely his most compelling and public work, and for good reason. It is both a conceptual piece and a wonderfully executed work and will stand the test of time, I think, as an engaging and virtuosic exercise de style and demonstration of invention. Other artists have worked in the altered book format. Many have done more sculptural, spatial, or physical transformations. Many artists have cut, painted on, or otherwise made use of found books. So, in some ways, the elements of Phillips’s project–an excised text, altered book or pages, and painterly transformations– all connect to other strains of book art. This doesn’t take anything away from Phillips’s work, or its originality, but does situate it within a set of practices of which it is a part. 

I am truly delighted that Tom Phillips has agreed to bless our latest (and tenth!)  contest, which is to create an original visual and/or poetic work using any media or methods (You can view the entire book here! Or, better yet, why not purchase it.). He has also selected the page from A Human Document that will be the prima materia for this work. Of its particular significance, he says:

‘The first version of page 4 dates from the late sixties, with the usual minimal text for that period and the page otherwise covered with linear abstract penwork. When the time came to make the second version I was amazed to find ‘nine’ and ‘eleven’ in the appropriate order to echo that recent catastrophe. A Human Document has often turned up trumps in this way. Other words on the page will spur other people to quite different resulting pictorial and textual strategies.’

A high-resolution .tif of page 4 is here (Alternately, you can use the lower resolution .jpg here). The winner or winners selected by Tom Phillips himself will receive a limited edition Humument screenprint signed and editioned by the artist. Entries must be received by 10 May 2015 11:00PM GMT. See Humument Contest Brief for more information.

Many, many thanks to Tom Phillips and Lucy Shortis!

4-humtetrad-1152x1536A Humument, p. 4, first version (late 1960s)


4-humapp-1152x1536A Humument, p. 4, second version (2012)


AHDp4A Human Document, p.4


Selected pages from A Humument:














hope against hope, nadezhda mandelstam

January 19th, 2014
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My darling Nadia – are you alive, my dear?

-letter from Osip Mandelstam, October 1938


I have no words, my darling, to write this letter that you may never read, perhaps. I am writing in empty space.

-letter from Nadezhda Mandelstam, 22 October 1938




In all likelihood, Osip Mandelstam, considered by many to be Russia’s finest poet, perished in the final days of 1938 during an outbreak of spotted typhus shortly after arriving in the overcrowded Vtoraya Rechka transit camp outside of Vladivostok. Already in ill health after four months of presumed beatings and torture in the NKVD’s notorious Lubyanka prison, he would have arrived at the camp with unhealed injuries, starving, emaciated and barely able to walk after five grueling weeks in a stifling prison transport, a journey that covered the nearly 6000-mile length of the Trans-Siberian Railway line from Moscow to Vladivostok. There, delirious and raving, having bartered his yellow leather coat for a half kilo of sugar (as one camp survivor claimed), suffering from dysentery, exposure, malnutrition, and unable to stand, he would have died of typhus or some other disease caused by his ordeals and the inhuman conditions at the camp. Thus at least he was spared the unimaginable horrors of the dreadful two-thousand mile journey by slave-ship across the Seas of Japan and Okhotsk to the cruel Gulags of Kolyma where he was to begin serving his five-year sentence of hard labor for counter-revolutionary activities.

I hate to think that at the moment when my mind was set at rest on being told in the post office that he was dead, he may actually have been still alive and on his way to Kolyma.

Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s startlingly clear-eyed recounting of great personal tragedy amid the immeasurably greater Soviet tragedy that unfolded during the second quarter of the twentieth century would be extraordinary by any account, but it is her equanimity, her self-composure impossibly balanced between resignation and defiance that makes it such an indelible and powerful document. Self-pity, paralysis and self-righteousness are nowhere to be found, in spite of the intense persecutions suffered by her and her husband (in her memoirs always referred to simply as M.). They simply continued on together, living as best they could through more or less chronic poverty and M.’s increasingly poor health, on constant alert for informers and secret police, weathering M.’s first arrest and imprisonment, their long periods of exile, the loss of possessions and livelihood, the painful separation or alienation from friends (of which she discusses many, most notably the great poet and lifelong friend Anna Akhmatova, but also Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg, Andrei Bely, and many others), and alternately battling and accepting the false hopes, gnawing uncertainty, and growing fear, until M.’s final arrest in May 1938.

The main feature of Russian history, something that never changes, is that every road always brings disaster – and not only to heroes. Survival is a matter of pure chance. It is not this that surprises me so much  as the fact that a few people, for all their frailty, came through the whole ordeal like heroes, not only living to tell the tale, but preserving the keenness of mind that enables them to do so. I know people like this, but the time has not yet come to name them…

During all of this, and in the decades following his death, Nadezhda Mandelstam dedicated her life to protecting and preserving Osip Mandelstam’s poems, memorizing them and writing out copies to entrust to friends or to secret hiding places. As Joseph Brodsky noted, she was the wife of Osip Mandelstam for 19 years and his widow for 42.

This, then, was how the beauties of my generation ended their lives – as the widows of martyrs, consoled in prison or exile only by a secret hoard of verse stored in their memory.

Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam by Seamus Heaney in the London Review of Books, Vol.3 No. 15 – 20 August 1981 pp. 3-6



I have invented a new genre – the genre of silence

-Isaac Babel, August 1934

the case of comrade tulayev, victor serge

December 13th, 2013
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CCI12102013_0000In the vast, intricate tapestry of Russian history, the pattern and weave is of almost incomprehensible complexity. In particular, the events of the years 1934 – 1939 are so dense as to be nearly impenetrable. Arguably the most repressive years of the Soviet Union, these half-dozen years are bookended on the one hand by the 17th Congress of the Communist Party, the ascendance of the NKVD, and the assassination of Sergei Kirov; and on the other by the end of the Spanish Civil War with the loss of the Soviet-supported Republican forces, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, and the Soviet invasion of Poland.

The peak years were undoubtedly 1937-1938, dominated by the Great Purge, that frenzy of repression and paranoia largely in service of Josef Stalin’s consolidation of power, in which Stalin took the opportunity to dispose, en masse, through Nikolai Yezhov‘s brutal NKVD, of ‘counter-revolutionaries’, ‘enemies of the people’ and any and all threats, real or imagined. These comprised the vast majority of Old Bolsheviks, high-ranking military personnel, and Communist Party officials, including the Central Committee and the Politburo.  This so-called Yezhovshchina was marked by mass arrests, detentions, torture, forced confessions, and show trials (more frequently, there were no trials at all) resulting in the execution of somewhere between 750,000 and 1.5 million people and probably even more, and the sending of countless millions more to the hundreds of labor camps and colonies of the vast GULAG system (all of this after collectivization and forced resettlement contributed to the famine of 1932-1933 that killed at least 3 million, but possibly as many as 8 million people).

Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev takes place during these peak years. Written in 1942 from Serge’s exile in Mexico, and harshly critical of the cruel repression of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, it highlights with startling clarity the madness of the time through a handful of elegantly interwoven stories of individuals ensnared by an investigation into the assassination of Tulayev, a high-level Party official. At no point is it a detective story; we know the identity of the murderer the moment Tulayev is killed at the end of the first chapter. Nor is it a satire, since the chain of events depicted are hardly outlandish given the paranoia of the time. Rather it is a beautifully nuanced experience in dreadful slow-motion of the arbitrary violence caused by an enormous out-of-control machine as it decimates everything in its path. Here are shown not only the high-level Party members, acting out of delusion, fear, and self-preservation, but also the old guard, the idealists and the disillusioned, former members of the Left Opposition, followers of Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky.

Christopher Hitchens notes in his essay in The Atlantic Monthly (December 2003):

After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.

For many years Serge was almost lost to view. He was one of those intellectual misfits (I intend no disrespect by the term) who were ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler.

The cover of the edition I own (above) is by George Giusti.

konstantin paustovsky, the story of a life

September 8th, 2013
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26733ABI’ve been reading Memoirs 1906-1969 by Manya Harari, perhaps best known to the world as the publisher and translator (with Max Haxward) of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, which first appeared in English in 1958 under the imprint of the Harvill Press. Harvill was founded in 1946 by Harari and Marjorie Villiers, who met during World War II when both were attached to the Department of Political Warfare in the Foreign Office. Its foremost legacy remains as publisher of the first English editions of contemporary Russian authors among them Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog, Black Snow), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle), Anna Akhmatova (Poems), Ilya Ehrenburg (The Thaw), Yevgenia Ginzburg (Into the Whirlwind), although it also translated and published many non-Russian authors: in particular Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) and much later W.G. Sebald (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn). Lesser known but equally important is Harvill’s interest in religion, metaphysics, and psychology, which it shares with its contemporary in the United States, the Bollingen Press. Among the authors Harvill published in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s are Mircea Eliade (Rites and Symbols of Initiation (Birth and Rebirth); Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism; Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: the Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities), Gabriel Marcel (The Philosophy of Existentialism, Man against Mass Society, The Decline of Wisdom), Victor White (God and the Unconscious), Max Picard (The World of Silence), St. John of the Cross (Poems), and Blaise Pascal (Pensees).

Harari’s memoirs were in progress at the time of her death and the resulting book is incomplete and haphazard. Sadly, there is nothing here about her wartime years in the Foreign Office, or of the founding and operation of the Harvill Press. In the first of the books three sections, there are only cursory descriptions of Harari’s early childhood in St. Petersburg, her family’s emigration to England on the eve of World War I, her subsequent education at Malvern Girl’s College and Bedford College, University of London, and her marriage to Ralph Harari in 1925. In a brief middle section, The Middle East, she describes her years spent in Egypt and Palestine in the 20s and in Jerusalem in 1948-49, along with reflections on Zionism and her brief tenure in a kibbutz. The last section, fully two-thirds of the book, comprises accounts of three visits she made to her native Russia in 1955, 1956, and 1961, and these observations and descriptions of her encounters with ordinary people during the post-Stalin cultural thaw under Khrushchev are the most engaging portions of the book.

In some ways they remind me of my first introduction to Harvill, the remarkable six-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky (published between 1964 and 1974, volumes one and two translated by Harari and Michael Duncan, volumes three and four by Harari and Andrew Thomson, and volumes five and six, published after Harari’s death, by Kyril FitzLyon). The Story of a Life spans barely thirty years (with a few brief excursions farther into the future), from Paustovsky’s early childhood in the waning years of the 19th century to the middle of the 1920s, and so covers the tumultuous years of World War I and the Russian Revolution which, as it says on the jacket of the fourth volume, ‘he can be said to have lived through…three times: in 1917 in Moscow, in 1918 in Kiev, and…in 1921 in Odessa.’ Paustovsky’s encounter with Nestor Makhno, the leader of the Ukrainian Anarchist Black Army at a train station in Pomoshnaya, halfway between Odessa and Kiev, is one of the most horrifying passages in the book.

Geographically, The Story of a Life spans the immensity of Soviet Russia: as a student, journalist and adventurer Paustovsky travels from Kiev to Moscow, Odessa, the Abkhazian capital of Sukhum, the Georgian cities of Batum and Tiflis, various far flung cities on the White and Barents Seas in the north and on the Caspian Sea to the east, as well as the western front in Poland and Belarus. Here as well is its immense and fertile literary life, with too many names to mention but including Mikhail Bulgakov, Isaac Babel, Ilf and Petrov, Sergey Esenin, Eduard Bagritsky, Alexander Blok, Seymon Hecht.

Helen Muchnic, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1964, gets it right:

But he has seen so much, looked on with such rapturous attention, recalled everything so well and retold it all so vividly that his story gives the impression of sharply focused close-ups that add up to an authentic record, though not an explanation, of a crucial period in the world’s history. The pages are crowded with big and small events—sometimes profoundly moving, sometimes humorous, sometimes horrifying. There are passages of lyric beauty, inspired by his love of the sea and of the Russian countryside; and the hundreds of men and women, famous or obscure, whom he sees, works with, loves, or befriends are sharply drawn: Lenin subduing an unruly gathering by the sheer authoritativeness of his presence and his conversational speech, eccentric teachers, well-known artists and writers, anonymous passengers on trains and trolley cars, illiterate peasants, fishermen, bandits, soldiers, newsmen, priests, doctors, nurses, coachmen, children—they are not a mob, but a myriad of individuals, every one distinctly seen, though only a few are intimately known.

lolita, tom phillips

August 19th, 2013
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In 1994, during my final weeks at the Yale School of Architecture, I attended a lecture at the Yale Center for British Art, the repository for some of philanthropist’s Paul Mellon’s vast art collection and a building which was, incidentally, architect Louis I. Kahn’s last major work. Kahn was an architect with close ties to Yale (where he taught in the ‘40s and ‘50s and where his first significant commission, the Yale University Art Gallery, was completed in 1953) and his work interests me professionally, but my interest in Mellon is more personal: we each attended not only Yale, but also tiny St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland (although Mellon attended St. John’s only briefly in 1940 before joining the OSS). Among innumerable philanthropic endeavors Mellon is well known for commissioning or endowing important works of architecture, notably I.M. Pei’s West Wing at the National Gallery of Art and Eero Saarinen’s Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale, as well as Richard Neutra’s and Robert Alexander’s Mellon Hall at St. John’s. Significantly, Mellon was also the financial support behind the Bollingen Press, founded by his wife Mary Conover Mellon and discussed elsewhere in this blog.

The artist Tom Phillips was the person I went to hear that evening. He was speaking at the opening reception for a retrospective exhibition of his work originally organized by the Royal Academy of Arts. Painter, poet, composer, creator of series, illuminator, maker of books, illustrator and gloss of Dante’s Inferno, postcard collector, recovering stencil addict, and discoverer of the secret and the magical and the enduring amongst the most quotidian and ephemeral, one of Phillips’ most engaging practices is that of isolating fragments of text or images from artworks, postcards, books and from them creating startlingly original, expressive, and intellectual work. I was introduced to Phillips’ work while an undergraduate at St. Johns where I discovered his Inferno and soon thereafter his ‘treated’ novel A Humument. The latter (an ongoing work begun 47 years ago and enjoying its fifth incarnation, or six if you count the iPhone/iPad app) is only the most well-known, but there are many examples of this mode of creation, most poignantly (for me) the series After Ter Borch in which he painted what by any standards is a rather uneventful section of the Dutch artist’s painting The Concert and elevated it to a powerful abstraction; and another series,The Flower Before the Bench, which could be viewed as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of his work Benches, but what is in reality a form of transubstantiation in which representation is miraculously abstracted into pure color and form and then back again into representation.

Tom Phillips has designed book covers and his work has also appeared on album covers, notably King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black (a cover I cannot see without hearing Richard Burton intoning the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood) and Brian Eno’s Another Green World (a detail from After Raphael). Eno’s own processes owe a great debt to Phillip’s, and no wonder: Eno was Phillips’ ‘best student’ and Phillips obviously taught him well. To listen to Tom Phillips discuss his daily use of A Humument as an oracle along the lines of the I Ching, and to read his A Postcard Vision, is to experience the uncanny source of Eno’s various predilections and processes, not  to mention his Oblique Strategies cards.

Two years ago, while working on Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design(co-edited with Yuri Leving), I approached Phillips about providing a conceptual cover for the book’s gallery. Let it simply be said that I missed the opportunity to include it in the book, but for his part Phillips actually did create a cover, and now this cover is available as a large limited edition print.

Tom Phillips was kind enough to submit to an interview, and I am delighted to include it here:


JB: First of all, presumably the image on your wonderful Lolita cover is a postcard from your collection. What is its provenance and where did you acquire it?

TP: You’re right, I have a huge collection of photographic postcards from before World War II. I am currently publishing some of them in a series of books for the Bodleian Library under various headings (Bicycles, Hats, Walls, Weddings etc). When you mentioned Lolita I went to the file of ‘Girls’ but not one of the five hundred or so really spoke her name. I was stuck. Then I tried other headings and there she was under ‘Dance’ and Humbert Humbert with her. Unlike the film Lolita she is the right sort of age, or slightly under, perhaps eleven rather than twelve. But I love the dance itself which has both a touch of lepidoptery and a charged proximity/separateness of the dancers. All no doubt innocent enough in that distant period, yet answering the question ’Lolita?’ emphatically for me. There was no point in looking for another image. Sultry colours in the slightly Russian border finished the job. She is creeping out of the chrysalis and he is tiptoeing into the trap. What I like about the privately produced cards I collect is their implications of possible narrative. Here Nabokov’s book takes up one such story.

JB: I was disappointed to learn that your series of treated books Humbert’s Obliterated Rhymes has nothing to do with Lolita’s narrator, but no matter! You’ve been quoted as saying “My work is a kind of game. A serious game.” This is something that Nabokov might have said (or perhaps Samuel Beckett, although it was M.C. Escher who actually did say something very similar). Do you feel an affinity with Nabokov on any level? Do you enjoy any of his books?

TP: The Obliterated Rhymes stalks another Humbert, Humbert Wolfe, a minor poet but popular in his day. I kept on seeing his ‘Cursory Rhymes’ in secondhand bookshops and it was the connection with Nabokov that finally drew me to it, as well as its spacious pages. I’ve made or partly made ten or so versions of the book. My favourite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. No surprise there. But Lolita ranks second for me and another ideal read for the game player.

JB: Earlier I mentioned After Ter Borch and The Flower Before the Bench. It’s difficult to express what is so compelling about these, and so many others of your works, but I can imagine your boundless curiosity, your habit of looking deeply and closely, and your interest in the processes of creation and disintegration, not to mention processes of mechanical and photographic reproduction.  And so I want to ask you in a very clumsy way: alchemist that you are, what is it that you are revealing from behind or within what might otherwise be termed ‘banality?’

TP: I was very touched that you mentioned the Ter Borch variations, which no one has ever remarked on before and which are favourites of mine. Like the postcards they are part of an acceptance world. Each different reproduction of ‘The Concert’ is in it’s own key of colour and has its own vibrato and each is individually poignant. Each for its observer was also a truth. And the same with postcards. These views of bits of the world have the guarantee that they were accepted as depictions of the real, not fictions and to their original observer/purchaser not at all banal. More likely the ideal.

JB: How about an Eno tidbit?

TP: You mentioned that I taught Brian. Others did too, but music made for a specially strong bond. However I remember that on the first day in the first class he announced his inventive mind. The class was doing a life drawing which I’d told them to make only using dots. The noise was fun in itself but I recall that, once we stopped, he tore off all the bits of his paper that didn’t carry the image, thus making the figure twice, a two dimensional sculpture, and this in deeply provincial Ipswich in his home county in his first hour of art school. Brave and bold as he still is, now not my student of course but a friend of forty years standing.

JB: Finally, the floor is all yours: is there anything else you would like to say?

TP: This seems a good opportunity for promotional adverts; so here they come. I’ve enjoyed using new technologies since co-directing my version of Infero with Peter Greenaway. The whole idea of a website instead of lots of catalogues is wonderful. I take pleasure in maintaining it and in keeping up a personal blog. I love my iPad and have produced an app for it which contains the whole of A Humument looking like church windows, each page truly part of an illuminated book. My latest venture in medieval modernity is to make a USB of Humument pages with myself reading the text. Recently I’ve started with Twitter. I like its constraints and add one of my own to make it more interesting. All my tweets are in rhyming pentameters. Not poetry exactly, but fun to do; and another vanity.

My sincerest thanks to Tom Phillips and Lucy Shortis!

sulki & min

February 28th, 2013
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0220_Lolita_A“I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls. If we cannot find that kind of artistic and virile painting, let us settle for an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with LOLITA in bold black lettering.”  – Letter from Vladimir Nabokov to publisher Walter J. Minton of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, April 23, 1958 in response to five submitted cover designs for the first US edition of Lolita.

Sulki & Min‘s cover for our new book! The gray rectangle shows the area of glossy varnish on the otherwise matte white cover.

the rings of saturn, w.g. sebald

January 27th, 2013
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For those who love the work of the late W.G. Sebald, erudite, elegaic, steeped in melancholy and Weltschmerz,  it is not a stretch to declare his somber books sacred texts. Little wonder, then, that the prospect of a film based on The Rings of Saturn could produce in such a person anxiety bordering on panic. However, Grant Gee’s superb film, Patience (after Sebald) part documentary, part gloss, part travel diary, manages to achieve the unthinkable: an intelligent and interesting exploration of Sebald’s world. And, organically woven through the film, inseparable from it, is the extraordinary music of James Leyland Kirby or, rather, his project The Caretaker.