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Unica Zürn, Reporting

“The universe continues to remain in the present tense”

– Ibn ‘Arabi

Unica Zürn was devoted to an absurd heresy: she refused to recognize more than one dimension. She existed in Flatland both in mind and body and brought back several artifacts from this level mathematical plane. Best known today as the muse for Hans Bellmer and sometime associate of the Surrealists, Ms. Zürn wrote several books, as well as some bewitching poetry and drawings. The Trumpets of Jericho, the latest to be translated into English, owes at least two things to her countryman Jakob Grimm: linguistics and fairy tales.

The Trumpets of Jericho is a game of anagrams that pushes meaning out like ripples over the bare letters (“Shudders that break the nonsense”). Words are jammed together either by rearranging their atomic parts or by rhyming in a sort of hopscotch morphology.

Here is a simple example, German/English:  Beil (hatchet) into Lieb (love) and Leib (body).

A longer series of such rhyming words and particles yields:

The wiggle-sand grunts to Wurst-Louise: water-clock, sugar-coin, dust drops to the root. If you want it, pick it up, run to the wall and hay-ho back again, if you want a hundred hay-hos, eat wonder-sugar.

Alliteration and rhyme begin to govern meaning. A real, if witchy, way of telling does appear, fleeting and often absurd. Someone once called Glenn Gould a ‘willfully idiotic genius’ and his recordings of The Goldberg Variations share the same jittery game of roots and progressions. Christina Svendson works some real magic in her English translation of the whole trick. Her Zürn is an eerie brew of pseudo-Bashō and revolution:

But, just wait, slut-father. Your downfall on the level of our city is nigh. Weapon-lice are beginning to stream through all the streets. The population arms itself secretly.

The feathers rustle. Sleep is over. The cliff refreshes nobility of the eye. I greet the old one, the feather, the moth, the boundary between dread and pleasure, and the spirit of the bottle…

“Fly, my arrow room, the fog sweeps icily in the tea. You unfiddle the elf in the bosom. Find, incline, beloved Muse, the bloody end cowardly in the sea. The lying limbs go stiffly around in circle…”

The book begins in what we are told is a tower surrounded by ravens.  We are then given an account of the birth of the narrator’s unwanted child, a horrible nativity which resembles a Punch and Judy show in a medical amphitheater. The narrator (who may also be the father of her own hairy child) then tells us that the whole thing was a lie or perhaps a fantasy. From then on, odd Black Forrest fairy tales full of limpid ponds, birds and buzzing insects ripple up. Moloch and Tristan get cameos, backed by the two World Wars. Childhood flows in and out as if it were a current senility. The anagram device starts in fits and then increasingly absorbs the narrator (or she starts to absorb it), until there is a second birth, the work of Uncle Falada (Grimm again, the name of a talking horse in one of the Tales).  The whole crazy tale comes across like a trumpetsjerichodisturbance in an arctic broadcast: static and busy at the same time. The finale is a singular or universal suicide: dust, earth, everlasting winter, howling wind.

There are also several examples of her line drawings, which resemble alien taxonomic renderings. The sketches of her friend and obsession Henri Michaux give off a similar impression, but he describes land and mind and not arthropods. The sure line drew her in; haze and indistinct zones were vulgar and probably perilous. Her pictures are the expression of a stranger entirely, a silent partner who must keep his means and total project a secret.

In the devoutly materialist view of Unica Zürn, all things exist in a state of potential or constant metamorphosis. The insect is the perfect form in the chain of life because its body can be added to, subtracted from and rearranged in endless combinations. Her classic book of anagrammic poems and drawings is entitled Hexentexte (1954). Häxan is Old German for witch (as in hex). The word also suggests the number 6 (hexa as in hexagon; sex in Latin). In entomology, insects make up the subphylum hexapoda (six-legged): fly, mosquito, butterfly, beetle, praying mantis etc. Hexen also recalls the Greek-Anatolian Goddess Hecate (Shakespeare has Hekat), dark mistress of crossroads, the Moon, witchcraft, necromancy and the art of herbs and poisons. The photos of her trussed and bound in Hans Bellmer’s famous book The Doll recall the casement of the beetle and the pedipalps of the scorpion.

There is an obsession with concrete, rooms, daylight and time spent waiting throughout the pages of The Trumpets of Jericho. One of its many obscene missions is to make boredom hypnotic because nothing really happens except boredom and finally, only perhaps, oblivion. There are some outright clues: “Are you afraid? Have I achieved what I wanted? You’ll believe any stupid thing! …Are you thoroughly bored with my story? I promise you I am as bored as you are while I am writing this.”  Despite the Gothic elementals and coiled beasts in the corner, her revelations always occur in broad daylight. This is a trap: the harsh glare of a daylight interrogation is far more corrupt than the night.

Inventory of the Day: hour of confessions, medical operations, police procedurals, psychiatric evaluations, daydreams, unwanted spasms of memory, childhood play (there is no business more serious), financial transactions, Vermeery light at the windowsill, indistinct outlines, totalen kriegs, ominous lulls in boardrooms, a siesta without spirits, decisions, missing names, clarity, clarity, open streets and open city, clarity.

A good scientist until the end, Miss Zürn’s final investigation into the concrete nature of the world led her to step off her windowsill at the Hotel de l’Espérance, 88 Rue Mouffetard, Paris, on 19 October 1970.

More articles by:

Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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