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Unica Zürn’s Trumpets of Jericho

Unica Zürn, Untitled, 1966, ink on paper, 9 7/8 × 7 1/2". Photo: Ubu Gallery, New York & Galerie Berinson, Berlin.

The Trumpets of Jericho, by Unica Zürn; translated by Christina Svendsen. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2015. 80 pages.

“MINE IS THE REALM OF SILK.” So Surrealist artist Unica Zürn weaves a material backdrop for her slender but gutting 1968 novella about childbirth. And yet nothing here is smooth. As she dips and stutters through telegraphic references to mythology and personal memories, hypnagogically recounting a violent delivery, she can’t help but see the fiber everywhere. Silk is the blood that runs from the naked breasts of pillaging Tartars to mix with the semen from a duck’s love nest. Silk is the blue of the sky as it waves to a child. Silken is the tail of Moloch. She would know the god of child sacrifice; she considers tearing her newborn son’s head off, severing his body into seven parts and sending one to each of her last seven lovers. Terror’s lips are silk, and silk is the way lust swells. Silk, of course, is also the chrysalis that harbors metamorphosis, a prismatic material substrate of the self becoming other.

One of three fictions Zürn penned in the final decade of her life, and the last to be translated from German, The Trumpets of Jericho appeared two years before the artist and novelist threw herself from a window of the Paris apartment she shared with her partner and collaborator, Hans Bellmer. In these pages, Zürn explains that laziness is all that has kept her from defenestration, and indeed the book alludes to her many traumas. An incestuous rape as a child, abortions, losing custody of her children from her first marriage in 1950, her discovery of the Nazis’ unthinkable activities (during the mid-’30s, she worked at the Universum Film AG studio in Berlin, which produced National Socialist films), and her mental break in 1960 that some attribute to schizophrenia and others to a phase of psychedelic drug experimentation with her lover Henri Michaux—these are underscored in her biography and entwined into the readings of her sinewy biomorphic ink drawings and automatic writings. But to interpret The Trumpets of Jericho as some imprint of an untethered mind would be to disregard the acute control with which Zürn wields her anagrammatic language (sensitively translated via alliteration, repetition, and word association by Christina Svendsen) and deploys her madness. She loves her instability, like any good Surrealist: “Let me first finish with this obscene birth,” she proposes, “and then I’ll devote myself again to the beloved madness.” Her unconscious, though, is only liberated by the throes of labor.

Zürn’s urges toward meaning-making are elliptical. She by turns takes the reader’s hand, thrusting it lucidly into the wound of her hostile birth, implicating him in sadistic musings (she uses the first person here, in declarative statements), and then abandons the reader, forgetting him as she drifts off into the third person, offering exhausted but self-possessed lines about depression: “She is a weary donkey. . . . She is already quite weak from so much lying down. She doesn’t leave the house anymore.” These passages of sad clarity veer into delirious fits worthy of Ophelia: “O dream, you drapes, odor on you, if only death won’t strike us now.” Through each of these shifts, Zürn’s melancholy remains self-aware: “Are you thoroughly bored by my story? I promise you, I’m as bored as you are while I’m writing this. . . . Let’s do something else.”

Zürn attempts to write herself into and out of matter, perhaps, in a proto–écriture féminine gesture, to test the indivisibility of body and language. But her flights from form always return to a concrete reckoning with repressive forces. Like Zürn’s life, The Trumpets of Jericho is weighed down by men; men who are particularly burdensome because of their own sense of levity. In the book, one “slut-father” sweeps up aborted fetuses with his many brooms; another (her aged uncle) bloodlessly gives birth to a daughter, Jupiter-like, through his ear. In brutal contradistinction, Zürn nearly delivers through her mouth, the site of her voice: “I feel as if I were about to suffocate, as if he were blocking off my windpipe. . . . I’m carrying a child in my throat! Enigmatic situation.” The metaphor is freighted with the frustrations of a woman artist attempting to communicate on her own terms. While the novella details the cleaving of one being into two in all its abjection, it seems this fraught evacuation is ultimately less about childbirth and more about language, about the breakdown of the self and other that occurs in the process of writing.

Zürn tries desperately to rid herself of “the reasonable, unimaginative language of all people,” but her “addiction to recording [her] memories has only given rise to stupid, heavy ink-thunder and word-murder.” Her frustration recalls Henri Bergson’s adage “We need not be surprised if only those ideas which least belong to us can adequately be expressed in words.” What is language if not a contract to uphold collectively imagined constructs? But return to the cadence of the inscrutable “ink-thunder and word-murder,” or the fricative crack of “seven eyes suck silk, fog, ink, foam”: These are turns of phrase that want to be read aloud, that ask to be held by the tongue and thrown against the teeth. As utterances, they might resound like the Bible’s trumpets of Jericho, felling impenetrable walls and bringing new meaning into the violent breach.

Annie Godfrey Larmon is an assistant editor of Artforum.