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The Feminist Surrealism of Unica Zurn’s Outsider Art

By Subashini Navaratnam.

The Trumpets of Jericho by Unica Zurn

Unica Zurn, The Trumpets of Jericho, translated by Christina Svendsen (Wakefield Press)

According to the Bible story, the walls of the city of Jericho fell after the Israelite army blew their trumpets. In Unica Zurn’s The Trumpets of Jericho, words take the place of the blare of the trumpets, and penetrate the fortress that is the body. Specifically, it is the female body in the midst of childbirth that disintegrates, losing its boundaries and merging with language. As Christina Svendsen, translator of this edition, explains in an introduction to the text, Zurn “dramatises the frontiers of the body”, and does so in a way that may even alienate her readers—especially her male ones. The female body here is not a soothing balm for beleaguered male souls, or a source of potent erotic energy. In its maternal possibilities and trappings, it is rendered potentially hostile and ugly. This is not the female form of the traditional Muse, providing a channel to the creative powers of the unconscious for the male artist. Instead, the female body, as Zurn writes it, prescribes its own logic and language upon the universe. In particular it is the pregnant woman, always overdetermined in her corporeality, who is able to exist metaphorically and symbolically.

Zurn, a writer and artist born in Germany in 1916, was deeply influenced by French surrealism. Though she predated French feminist theorists like Helen Cixous and Luce Irigaray who would, in the 1970s, delineate a form of writing known as ecriture feminine against the kind of writing produced by the stable, rational Enlightenment masculine subject, The Trumpets of Jericho is a textbook example of “writing the body”. Unlike the easily-consumed forms of “women’s writing” that saturate the publishing market today, much of which seems designed to discipline female creativity and imagination in capitalist-friendly ways, Zurn’s female body is a thing of both horror and absurdity. The sketchy autobiographical information available in English on Zurn indicates that her relationship with German surrealist artist Hans Bellmer may have been the catalyst for many of her writings, including the notion that their relationship led to physical complications for Zurn, including abortions and miscarriages. The bodily burdens of a heterosexual relationship, whether it’s a troubled or fulfilling one, or indeed a combination of both, are often borne by the female body; in Jericho, Zurn writes: “All births should be forbidden from today onwards. All births should be punished by the death penalty.” It might be helpful, then, to consider the kind of experiences Zurn had to endure as a woman in order to write those lines.

The Trumpets of Jericho, when read alongside her other writings, demonstrates in fascinating detail how Zurn harnessed the principles of surrealism and the facts of her experience as a woman to produce what Svendsen refers to as “outsider art”. Zurn was treated throughout the 1960s for depressive and schizhophrenic episodes, before leaping out of a window to her death in 1970. Her novel Dark Spring is a foreshadowing of what was to come—the young girl narrator commits suicide in the same way at the book’s end. Dark Spring is unremittingly bleak, demonstrating just how much a young girl knows, and how much she absorbs from her immediate surroundings. It also details the girl’s rape by her older brother (a fact which, too, appears to be autobiographical), but also the girl’s identification and infatuation with a distant and absent father. There are signs that the girl is repulsed by much of what she sees as the feminine body as symbolised by the figure of the mother; the maternal and the feminine combine to create an image that is at once suffocating and alienating. In Jericho, Zurn creates singular images of animals breaching the physical fortress of a castle, or tower, that the female character is in. As the ravens swarm in, the narrator says of the baby she is birthing, “Out of pride and a sense of justice, I cannot allow this hateful creature to smother me. I’d rather smother it first.”

Maternal hate and repulsion for the being that emerges from the body is not allowed, of course; even in fiction and in art, one must work to make allowances for the badness of the woman expressing these thoughts before one can proceed to evaluate the work. Zurn demonstrates how the visceral disgust a woman might feel for her own child has everything to do with the history of women’s bodies and how it has been put to use by a capitalist-militarist society with patriarchal social norms: “The sweet days of youthful peace are over, when I was still slim and hurried with big steps from one lover to another, impatient for the biggest adventure, the adventure that didn’t want to appear. Who was it, anyway, who fathered this hateful child in the sixteenth year of my life. I’ve forgotten.” A few sentences are enough to capture the biological condition of the female body in a society where freedom is for those who have been designated owners; whether of property, or of other bodies.

Unica Zurn - 1965

But while much has been made about Zurn’s life and experiences—her madness, her relationship with Bellmer, the sexual abuse and maternal neglect she endured as a child—very little information is available about Zurn’s ideological confrontation with Nazism, which Svendsen alludes to briefly in her introduction, describing it as “deep psychic distress and projected guilt at the atrocities of the Nazis as revealed in the postwar period, an undistanced suffering that caused one of her breakdowns”. This seems, to me, a particularly crucial piece of information that somehow or another is subsumed under the more glamorous (and potentially more erotic and, even, marketable) factors of female madness and sexual abuse. It seems valuable, in this context, to examine the formation of the bourgeois German female subjectivity under a fascist regime—one that, as Klaus Theweleit explores in fascinating detail through close-reading of the writings of the Freikorps in Male Fantasiesand how it was erased. As Theweleit writes, “Real men lack nothing when women are lacking”, and European feminism and women’s writing, particularly by bourgeois women, would benefit from an understanding of how bourgeois Western patriarchy gained in strength via the project of fascism. As Steven Shaviro explains in his brief overview,

Theweleit uncovered a configuration in which militarism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were driven by a fear of dissolving boundaries, a reactive need to affirm the body’s hardness and invulnerability, a phobic resistance to the “oceanic,” and to flows and flexibilities of all sorts: these latter being associated with the maternal, the sexual, the feminine, etc. Theweleit both grounded this configuration very closely in the particularities of time, place, culture, and social class; and suggested how the pathology he uncovered had larger resonances throughout the history of misogynistic Western culture.

Liberal-humanist readings of literature that draw meaning from autobiographical factors but consider the political too crude may miss some of the deeper resonances of the kinds of work that are taken for granted as mere products of an artistic movement, or of gendered violence and sexual difference. But the resonances are there. A biographical sketch on artnet indicates that despite working for a German film company, Universum Film AG, Zurn was unaware of the full scale of Nazi atrocities until 1942, which caused a psychic break. “How is it that I think about death so much, violent death?” the narrator wonders in Jericho. Similarly, one wonders how bourgeois artists living in the heart of fascist violence were oblivious to it until it came to light later. One immediate answer is that to be unknowing of Nazism is to have been one of the social classes who were protected from its violence. In this sense, then, the brutal fantasies and images in Jericho, and also the games of sadism the young girl narrator engages in in Dark Spring, don’t necessarily have to be interpreted as a universal feminine condition, but a specifically Western-European one under a brutal fascist regime. In Jericho, Zurn writes that “Moloch is waiting to tear you to pieces with his 333 teeth and his sharp claws … The Moloch smolders with bloodlust.” It would be futile to take these images in the most literal sense, but it is useful to consider these images of sublimated violence in the context of Zurn’s supposed lack of knowledge of Nazi violence. There is much to ponder in Zurn’s writings about the psychic costs of this “innocence” and which class of women can, up to a point, afford this innocence.

In Dark Spring, Zurn writes of the young girl and her friend: “Their monotonous, sheltered family lives have bored them for a long time; now anything goes to keep up the excitement. Life is unbearable without tragedy.” What seems clear is that real life is too much to bear because of unspoken tragedy; Dark Spring is rife with Freudian overtones of a girl’s love for her father, her rape by her brother, and her neglect by her mother. There are thoughts of suicide and death and bestiality. It would seem that various personal, social, and political factors create the subjectivity of the tormented bourgeois young girl. The stultifying bourgeois sphere of repressed emotions and concealed violence is a horrifying environment in which to grow up because there is no sense of accountability or responsibility among the adults who run the world. This is a class of people from former colonising European nations, now bringing the fascist project back home, who don’t want for physical comforts and financial safety and who don’t need to explain or talk about the crimes of their people. As such, the young girl and her friend create their own language: “They invent a howling theatrical language through which it becomes possible to express the grief of the whole world, a language understood by no one but both of them.”

The narrator in Jericho, meanwhile, writes, “You were a poet as a child, but you forgot your early poems long ago and there was no one to write them down back then. Now you speak in the reasonable, unimaginative language of all people.” The protagonist’s old friend Ruth who appears in these pages is also part of Zurn’s full name—Nora Berta Unica Ruth—and thus Jericho can be seen as a conversation with her past selves. The images are vivid, and the language is neither disciplined nor tamed. Svendsen notes some of the challenges of rendering the translation of German anagrams into English, while hoping to repeat “the estrangement of Zurn’s anagrammatic practice on linguistic meaning”. The ruptures in the language preclude easy comprehension, or even any form of comprehension, for the reader. It is as alienating as childbirth or madness. In this way, Zurn challenges the inherent misogyny of the concept of the Muse and female madness that tainted some versions of Surrealism by not merely writing automatically. Instead, she constructs it with painstaking imagination (as Zurn’s writing demonstrates, even the act of imagining can be painful and traumatic, and is very rarely “fun”, even if it can be funny) that has thematic resonances with her other writings.

The Trumpets of Jericho is a challenging text that places the reader where Zurn wants them to be—both inside and outside of the female psyche. In doing so, it creates a surreal landscape and a language that is startlingly new, demanding that the reader be willing to risk being an outsider—even if for a little while—if she wants to participate in Zurn’s imaginative world.


Subashini Navaratnam

Subashini Navaratnam lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has published poetry in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara Literary Review, Poetika Malaysia, Aesthetix, and Sein und Werden. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH’s anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi’s ebook, Semangkuk INTERLOK as well as fiction in KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets at @SubaBat.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 21st, 2015.