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The Memorien of Unica Zurn.

The last "notes" of German author and painter Unica Zurn, written in 1970 some months before her suicide, confront the "family curse." Already in childhood she seemed to know that she too would end her life like her mad uncle Fallada and her adored stepmother Orla Holm. Writing, in "The Whiteness with the Red Spot" (1958*), "This life has not become my life," she formulated a motif of both her drawing and writing. Her autobiographical texts are never written in the first person, but always in the third. Like a camera, she takes a picture of her actions, writes about herself as though about some nameless, enigmatic, other woman. Always loyal to the inner difference between "I" and "she," Zurn never attempted to smooth over her strange, singular distance regarding herself and her life. "Impressions From a Mental Illness," an account of her illness and sojourns in psychiatric hospitals published in 1967, is recorded in the tone of a distanced witness. At the same time, she claimed not to have written one sentence that did not correspond to her life. In the end, in 1970, she wrote: "How poor has her life become" (5:19). At this point, after the separation from Hans Bellmer, her companion since 1953, and after she decided to separate from a life that had become resolutely aimless, she nevertheless seemed to catch a glimpse of the possibility of a final breakthrough. Faced with a self-imposed deadline of several months, she succeeded in producing a narrative that broke with her former concept and proceeded to follow another order, one born of poverty. She goes back to untold coordinates in a language that documents her ever-beckoning erasure. The last notes, which leave off with her voluntary death, before extension and interweaving could take over, reveal memory to be a seldom functioning machine that, faced with a deadline, wants to tell the untold in the form of intransitive images. These images seek to cross over into oblivion or toward the prospect of yet being experienced in the future.



Zurn's body of work opens up the interior of a perceptual system of madness. The texts are located at an intersection, a point of transfer. Madness becomes the supplier of literature, literature transports madness. Both drawings and texts show the "image processes" (Zurn) or hallucinations haunting her. "I'm haunted as though I were the only home for something unknown" (4/1:36). It is not she who writes or draws, as images "stream in" or "arise" (4/1:53). A dictation she feels compelled to take down circumvents "sublimated elaboration" (Kristeva). For Zurn, some thing or other--what Lacan calls extimacy ("extimite," a foreign body, composed of what is intimate)--seems to take charge in the missing place of authorship and sublimation. She is remote-controlled and the rote observer of a delirium that runs on ahead like a movie. She writes down what can be caught. The notes resist, as pure record, the inaccessibility of madness.


There can be no doubt, however, that madness has a method. Even the smallest task becomes cryptography.
   She asks the daughter to get the box with the money
   and to count the money; she herself is not able. One
   looks at her in amazement. In the meantime the nurse
   comes back and she goes into the kitchen and looks at
   the enormous, fat leeks rising up from a casserole
   dish that's too small, in which there is only a little
   water. This meal will never be ready and she feels herself
   incapable of cutting the vegetable into pieces. This problem
   grows so monstrous and is so unsolvable that she, overwhelmed
   by vertigo, goes back to the bedroom, starts to stagger and falls
   to the ground. (5:93)

In other words, changes of dimension foreground inconspicuous things. The world of things spreads out. Proportions distort themselves in a surreal way. The transformation of material reality serves to close the narrator off from her surroundings.

The texts preceding her last notes move along the edge of a psychotic discourse, and can be described, following Kristeva's Pouvoirs de l'horreurs (1980), as speech based on foreclosure, the virulence of which dislocates the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious. "The unconscious contents remain locked out here but in a bizarre manner: not radical enough to allow a solid differentiation between subject and object and not with sufficient selectivity for the unfolding of a position of defense, refusal, but also sublimating elaboration. The contents, which are normally unconscious for the neurotic, become explicit now."

Madness constantly deciphers itself within a realm of unintelligibility. Although Zurn's writing and drawing border conceptually on automatic writing and drawing, she nevertheless also developed a certain competence for selection. Cutouts of inner images are edited from a continuum we will never get to know. A natural metonymy is replaced with an artificial montage. With the montage, there appears attribution of meanings. But no pure, immediate mimesis results, but rather a simulation and translation of inner "image processes." Zurn's alleged female "non-authorship"--the conversation of another agency through her, the dictation of her illness--is also a rhetorical trick that is supposed to withhold from the reader the difference between madness and literature. Madness is neither told from the perspective of rationalism nor does it speak with its own voice. As the manuscripts show, there are decisions made in advance, revisions, deletions, several versions, as well as a general orientation toward the program of surrealism. Regarding the best pages, one gets the impression of an unfolding signifying chain, a mad externalization of memory, without any obstacle getting in the way.


In contrast to Zurn's best-known texts from the 1950s and '60s (The Witches' Texts, the "Anagrams," and The Man of Jasmine), the last notes perform a realization of separation. Zurn seems in the end to break with the surrealist concept of a blending of boundaries between madness and reality. The prospect of their amalgamation has been withdrawn. The posthumously published leftovers bear the marks of a violent erasure that will not be ignored. Whatever is able to grab us as hallucination, promise, fiction, has vanished. With the separation from Bellmer, her "other" or "symptom," and with the decision at the same time to end her life, the (Lacanian) real as the nothing of the other becomes manifest, one of whose signs is the separation of tenses and times. Present, past, and future, which were once used interchangeably in the world of hallucination, are assigned different places. It is this process of separating out that distinguishes the last notes from all preceding texts. Now the emptiness can be represented, not sublimated. The former delusion of signification, which functioned to screen this emptiness, leaves off. What is registered now is what was missing before: the empty reality that is no longer modulated by any fiction or alienation. But in Zurn's late, nearly dispassionate narrative style, which departs both from the art of interpretation and from madness, there remains a kind of consolation.

They smoke--the smoke becomes thicker and thicker around them. The surroundings disappear, only their two pale, tired faces are still visible. Suddenly they are the only two remaining in this world of pain. Nobody is there--the house, the world--everything is emptied out, gone are the living and the dead. An endless solitude and probably an eternal night without a morning to follow. They are silent and smoke. It is deathly still in the house, in the world. What sadness life--what solitude--death. (5:229)

She has left the space of madness and accepted instead the place of the dead.

In the process she comes up with divisions that she had previously rejected. She cuts her life into pieces--her time in Paris, her time in Berlin, her encounter with Bellmer--and attempts to maintain a simple verbal construction of life and time. She resists the dictation of madness, the hallucinations and paralysis, and permits herself access to individual memories, which, once again but from a different standpoint, refer back to the origins of her system of madness.

The last fragments return to particular situations in her life that signified an original break. A few untold memory-images detach themselves from the emptiness that encloses the memories. With the deadline, tightening condensation sets in. "At the end of one's life"--as Benjamin writes in "The Storyteller" (1936)--"a sequence of pictures is set into motion, unfolding views of oneself, in which one has, without knowing it, encountered oneself." Benjamin conceived the emergence of memory-images as a form of "self-encounter." "To the highest degree, it bears the stamp of the critical, dangerous moment" (Gesammelte Schriften, II:449).



Without question, the memory of the sight of a five-month-old "embryo" is this image of horror. In the early 1960s, after a series of failed attempts to abort the far too developed fetus, a physician in Berlin gives her "a box of quinine."
   At the climax of pain, she goes to the
   toilet and gives birth at this sad place to
   a big embryo. No blood flows. She holds
   with horror and at the same time with
   admiration this unfinished being in her
   hand that looks like a very old, nearly
   Aztecan object. Horrible picture how
   this solemn and strange-looking being
   sinks into the darkness of stinking,
   subterranean canals. (5:89)

What is nearly impossible for her to narrate--the unnamable violence against bodies--comes to be told in one of the last possible moments. The dynamics of the writing process is, in the end, a "retouching" of irreversible separations, here in sight of the "incomplete," "solemn and foreign-looking being." In the end she seems to cease merely receiving dictation and works with her own suffering, grants it discourse. No longer in an autoerotic or self-enclosed way as during the phases of recording hallucinations, her discourse reaches another type of image, another psychic layer. It seizes a moment of crisis and emphasizes the separating line as a leftover set aside for writing.


For Zurn, there is one motif that always returns. It refers back to the origin of her system of delusion in her most fundamental operation: the splitting apart of face and body. In the context of her individual mythology, she dates or mystifies the "beginning" of her system of madness back to the fixation on the "solemn and foreign-looking," yet beautiful face of a man. She calls this apparition the "man of jasmine." The first time she sees him, in a "vision," she is six years old, and she will go on encountering him again and again, now in a movie (Jean-Louis Barrault in the 1945 film Les enfants du paradis), now in reality: it is the face of Bellmer, the face she follows to Paris. As she remarks, she has grown ever more like this face herself. In "Dark Spring" (1967), Zurn relates how she, as a twelve-year-old girl, eats the photograph of a young man to keep the grownups from discovering it. "She puts the photograph in her mouth, chews it up carefully and swallows it" (4.2:199). She incorporates the man as her imaginary double image. Bellmer followed this curve: "She carries the picture of Hans in her eyes, ears, hair, and in her body and in her soul: he was omnipresent to her--she was under his spell--wherever she walked" (5:126).


In Paris, she meets the mystery man also in the incarnation of Henri Michaux: "Later she experiences the first miracle of her life: in a room in Paris, she faced the man of jasmine. The shock of this meeting was so powerful that she could not recover from it. From that day on, she begins ever so slowly to lose her mind" (4.1). It is a face associated with something inscrutable, an image with a staying power that can't be exhausted. As Benjamin once put it, "For everyone there exists an image over which the whole world disappears ... for how many does it arise out of an old box of toys?" (Gesammelte Schriften, III:132). The evocation of many images gives way to their condensation in one inscrutable image that replaces all the others and lets them go. The mystery of the face in Zurn's poetic system--twice identified as a "Chinese face" (4.2:188)--signals the narrator's preferred mode of love: adoration, love at a distance, that of the bodiless kind. The man of jasmine is paralyzed; he sits in a wheelchair. His image always arises in a specific constellation that repeats itself in a nearly somnambulist manner. The mask of the esoteric love is a screen image, a screen memory, which points to something behind it or invisibly connected to it. "Object" and "abject" are inextricably entwined. On the first page of The Man of Jasmine, the narrator, immediately before mentioning the "vision," recounts a dream involving a well-known surrealist motif: the dreaming woman walks through a mirror on the wall. She passes through and finally stands in front of a table. On the table is a small white card. "As she picks up the card to read the name on it, she wakes up" (4.1:137). The dreamer knows that there is a name written on the card, but this name, this attribute, stays inaccessible to her. The decipherment fails. Shortly afterwards, we read:
   Filled this morning with an inexplicable loneliness, she enters her
   mother's room in order to get into her bed and return, if possible,
   to the place where she came from--so as to see nothing more.
   Suddenly, a mountain of lukewarm flesh, enclosing this woman's
   impure spirit, rolls over on the horrified child, and she flees
   forever from the mother, the woman, the spider! She is deeply

The next sentence:

Then her vision appears to her for the first time: the man of jasmine! Never-ending consolation! Sighing with relief, she sits down opposite him and studies him. He is paralyzed. What luck! He never leaves his seat in the garden where the jasmine blooms even in wintertime. (4/1:137)

The violation of boundaries identified with the mother immediately precedes the first appearance of the hallucination. From this point onward, the "screen" with the face of the other will always be called up whenever an unbinding of affects breaks through the protective layers. The visual sense protects against the memory of the body and the affects it holds in store. The "face" occupies the threshold between image space and body space, and splits them apart. The screen solution is activated whenever there is a repetition of the sense of being overwhelmed. Although the two scenes always follow one another, the gap between them and their necessary connection is suspended, disassociated. There is no passage to the zero degree of meaning. Through the symbol of the face, the text gains a figure, a facade--and hides a radical moment of loss, the eclipse of signification.

One of Zurn's psychiatrists, Rabain, who worked at St. Anne in Paris, remarks likewise: "Violent breaking into a body, which is under attack by a bizarre object, invested with intolerable emotions--an obscene and dangerous object like the mother tongue." The transgression, traced by the protagonist to her sixth year, destroys and contaminates the body's frontiers--at the level of incest--and becomes the catalyst for biography, work, and the system of delusion. One will never know if this scene is the "origin" of schizophrenia or already part of the system of madness (as an inner image). Traumatization is often missing its origin in time. One finds oneself constantly before or after the beginning. What happens, or is said to, can also always be a consequence, and again a consequence of consequences, until the chain loses itself in the horizon of the "too early." Even if the violation, as reported in the text, took place "in the sixth year," it is already mediatized in passing through the memory. And so the question remains: how could this event take on such importance, such doggedness?


For her, there remains the saving clause of a distant father, who travels a great deal. The adoration of an inscrutable face remains in her imagination, like the body bound to a wheelchair, unchangeably situated in the same place, in white jasmine. A delegate of the father without a body, someone whose face counts for her--who cannot leave her, dependent as he is, like herself, on assistance--becomes the model of love she holds up to the diffuse body of the mother, a model that won't permit the regression. This image is always called forth whenever a return to the merger with the mother's body, which has never completely broken away, takes place. The advantage of this inner splitting is that another solution doesn't have to take place: the slow, step-by-step separation from the mother. The connection as well as the break with her couldn't be integrated; the mother survives, internalized, as an overpowering, contaminated being, as the one who dictates. The logic of this traumatic "break-in" determines the quality of Zurn's psychiatric institutionalizations. In the hospitals she is surrounded by the polymorphous-perverse female bodies she always described in her texts about her hospital stays, and which she drew (with Chinese ink) as overlapping, interchangeable bodies. The hospitals connect her atmospherically with the unconscious image of the mother. The corridors are lined with the openings of a memory-less memory. In one of the last letters to Herta Hausmann (May 1970), she writes from Chesnailles: "Weather fine--[in French] as for me, the melancholy resulting from that dismal sojourn in the belly of Helene Helly-Zurn, my mother, still remains ..." (5:263). She spends her last ten years divided between two places or scenes, the contour-less, regressive place of the mother (Wittenau, St. Anne, Maison Blanche, Chesnailles) and Bellmer's Parisian apartment, home to one of the many bearers of the "Chinese face."

The singular image of this face would seem to be without history. That would be its protective function. But the texts show that the timelessness of the face is marked from the beginning by withdrawal. It is the discrete sign of the destruction and of the wish for destruction that has inscribed itself in Zurn's body. Overwhelming, excessive, overlapping, never graspable by the one thus seized, the body is disturbed or destroyed at its borders, which never seem functional or protective. To the very end, Unica Zurn's memoirs (for which she contrived the neologism "Memorien") represent a solitary attempt to re-inscribe her own bodily contours with repetition, narration, and drawing--but the countervailing forces were so much stronger.

* All sources referred to this text come from Unica Zurn: Gesamtausgabe, 6 vols. (Berlin: Brinkmann und Bose, 1988-2001). Unica Zurn: Alben, a new Brinkmann und Bose volume, appeared in December 2008.

RIKE FELKA, a literary scholar, translator, and publisher, teaches in Germany and abroad. Her German publications include Vorlaufig Beiseitegelegtes (2000) and Geschriebener Raum (2008). An exhibition of Zurn's work took place at The Drawing Center, New York between April 17 and July 23, 2009.
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Author:Felka, Rike
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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