UNICA ZURN'S PROWESS IN TAKING BACK THE FEMALE BODY FROM ESTABLISHED POWER STRUCTURES IN THE TRUMPETS OF JERICHO
When exchanging literature recommendations with a man on Tinder, I message, “You ever read or see Unica Zurn’s stuff? Lady is my goddess.” He replies, “Unica was a dadaist. She leapt out a window. But unlike Yves Klein, she ACTUALLY did it.” I reply with the faint breath of my exhausted litsoul, “Le sigh. Why must goddess’ always be remembered by their deaths? Why not just say, she knew what she wanted and took flight?” Zurn made a choice. She enacted her power. She was not passive even in her death. That’s my argument for remembering the artist, but also for remembering the protagonists of Zurn’s work, protagonists all their own despite their resemblance to Zurn.
Christina Svendsen agrees with my original sigh. As the translator of The Trumpets of Jericho, she writes, “[c]ritical writing has tended for too long to accept Surrealist tropes of women’s creativity as rooted in madness or childlikeness in the case of Zurn…” but that “The Trumpets of Jericho is an important corrective because...the autobiographical is subordinated to the oneiric, the fairy tale, and the anagrammatic spell of language here.” (The Trumpets of Jericho, xi-xii). And that is Svendsen’s theory, that Zurn “seeks: language as magical action in the world.”
I agree with Svendsen in part. I think Zurn does use language as a force of power, but I disagree that Zurn’s power is strictly in the language. The Trumpets of Jericho redistributes power back to the female protagonist through the use of scientific and socio-historical symbols, often morphing the self (female/victim) with the other (male/power).
The protagonist, albeit a shapeshifting protagonist, subsumes the socio-historical power structure of God and man into the weak and rejected figure of the unwed pregnant woman. In the book of Joshua that depicts the fall of the city of Jericho to which Zurn alludes, it is written: “At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:
At the cost of his firstborn son
he will lay its foundations;
at the cost of his youngest
he will set up its gates. (New International Version, Joshua 6:26)
The protagonist in The Trumpets of Jericho is doing just that. She is laying the foundation of Jericho, which here is her own body, “at the cost of [her] firstborn son.” Only to her, it is not a cost but a benefit: “I cut through the umbilical cord and am finally freed of him” (The Trumpets of Jericho, 7). While in self-induced birth, the protagonist says, “I curse the seven fathers of my son, because they are the ones to thank for my being in such pain” (TJ, 4-5). The protagonist displays the complexity that Zurn consistently grapples with throughout her work, that overlaying between victim and aggressor, between the weak and the strong. The seven fathers here are the seven trumpets of Jericho, which when blown caused Jericho to crumble, killing all who lived within. The protagonist here is Jericho, but although her body quakes with contractions, it does not crumble, it gives birth and kills its child. The protagonist is also the one who induced the labor. So even though she blames the trumpets for her pain, she is not passive in her pain. She did not want her child, and suffered to reclaim her body from the child.
Furthermore, later in the book, Zurn introduces the slut-father: “Do you know the slut-father? He’s laden with rooms and sweeps up abortions… He allows the trumpets of Jericho to be blown three times every month and enjoys it when people quake in fear and believe the world is ending” (Trumpets, 19, 20). Slightly earlier in this section, the protagonist openly equates Jericho with her body: “My ugly city lives on daybed-squabbling” (Trumpets, 19), and then says, “Some say that he is insane, which I would like to believe. But just wait, slut-father. Your downfall on the level of our city is nigh” (Trumpets, 20). I argue that this slut-father is one in the same as the protagonist. It is the protagonist earlier in the story who induces and takes care of her own abortion. Yet, here by invoking the male “father” instead of mother, she is invoking the the socio-historical power in the male head-of-household and conflating it with the slut, the socio-historical outcast and destroyer of “family.” Esra Plumer, author of Unica Zurn: Art, Writing and Postwar Surrealism, to date the most extensive critical engagement with Zurn and Zurn’s work, addresses the role of such fragmentation in Zurn’s work:
Zurn’s use of multiplication and fragmentation, as emphasised in her adoption of anagrammatic composition and automatism, is taken further into a reconsideration of the representation of the female body with the use of fragmentary tools in forming multiple ‘subjects’, a variety of ‘selves’ and subjectivity. (Plumer, 11)
Zurn reorganizes the female experience, especially the experience of one’s body, as many disorientating representations. The multiplicity of selves in the The Trumpets of Jericho from young woman having a baby to the city Jericho to the slut-father to the uncle who births a head-baby shows at once the fragility and the strength in her female protagonist, to be socially destroyed by pregnancy but to actively take charge of this destruction by destroying that which destroys herself, namely her baby. This action subsumes the power of the “father” and “male” who historically and politically holds the power over the female body and her reproduction. Zurn uses fragmentation as a kind madness-as-literary-tool to show the lengths in which the protagonist, a woman, must go “to salvage her ‘crimes’ against authority” when that crime is the protection of her own reproductive body.
In the last section of the book, the protagonist’s uncle gives birth to a head-baby (Trumpets, 46). However, once giving birth, the child quickly leaves: “...he took Ambergris out of his breast pocket to see what she desired. She leapt out of his hand, grew up, and vanished” (Trumpets, 47). Then the uncle meets his daughter again and she is rude and angry with him. The uncle asks, “Is that really my daughter?” and “the doctor impatiently [answers,] You probably failed to ask Ambergris for permission to be her father” (Trumpets, 48). This last section of the book distorts so many power structures, that the reader is not sure where the power lies. The mother is the father. The daughter is independent and authoritarian. Zurn introduces the idea of consent when a parent births a child, which undermines the reader’s very understanding of the power structure in a parent-child relationship. To the reader, it likely seems very natural that parents have a right and ethical responsibility to enact nonconsensual authority or dictatorship over their child for the good of the child, because the child’s reasoning ability and moral compass are underdeveloped. Zurn jumps to the most extreme and uncanny edge of the parent/child dynamic by suggesting that a parent ask for consent from a child for the child to be born. Zurn identifies both power and weakness in one form, in many forms, in all forms. She is not giving the reader an easy answer. However, she is not depicting the female protagonist as a trope of sickness, powerlessness, and despair, but rather one of sickness and restoration, powerlessness and power, despair and happiness. Joanna Walsh makes a startling sharp connection between Zurn’s project in The Trumpets of Jericho and the male dominated school of Surrealism from which Zurn came about as a writer:
“The simplest Surrealist Act,” wrote André Breton in his Second Surrealist Manifesto, “consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” “An ordinary person is not permitted to buy pistols or potassium cyanide—that is the major problem,” Unica Zürn, a later Surrealist, would write in The Trumpets of Jericho. (Walsh)
Walsh’s connection between Zurn’s line in The Trumpets of Jericho and Breton’s line in Second Surrealist Manifesto captures beautifully and precisely Zurn’s entire project that crosses her many works, the one I attempt to lay out here, how a woman must reimagine power and utilize her other resources because she is not granted access to the tools of the various political and social power structures that are allotted to men. This is exhibited in Zurn’s depiction of The Trumpet of Jericho’s protagonist’s self-induced abortion. The “ordinary person” Zurn refers to is Woman in a socio-historical context. Even the seemingly simple act of procuring a gun has historically been a right favored to men. So when Breton writes such a suggestion as above, it is privileged to the male experience. And even if a woman were to enact surrealism as Breton suggests, society would not interpret it as such. Rather, the woman would be deemed hysterical and mad, no one would grant her action the power and condemnation of a conscious willful act. The woman who acts outside of societal norms is mentally ill and has often been committed to mental institutions for such outlandish ailments as depression and discontent. Therefore, Walsh’s juxtaposition of the above quote implicitly depicts the powerful zeitgeist that Zurn’s protagonist’s are up against, protagonists that are powerful agents despite their surroundings and despite the constraints of their female-bodies-in-the-world, protagonists who use the means available to them to claim the societal power structures denied them.
The book ends with the call, “The wonderful last hour--will it not appear?...Round about it became evening and traveled with me, who had become a blessed child again, into the land of Howthewhere” (Trumpets, 52). A book that begins with filicide ends with a rebirth into childhood. Zurn has no desire in false binaries, but rather carves the true complexity of existing into the dark landscape of motherhood, childhood, and the space a woman occupies outside both of these two realms of child and mother, the two identities that have historically been the only ones allowed women. Unica Zurn’s protagonist’s are willful actors upon the world, not passive, weak recipients. And in this way, I suppose I must cede, they resemble their creator.
The Bible. New International Version. Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com, Accessed Dec. 13, 2018.
Plumer, Esra. Unica Zurn: Art, Writing and Postwar Surrealism. I.B. Tauris, 2016.
Walsh, Joanna. “Book Review: French Surrealist Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho is a Powerful Tale of Maternity and Depression.” The National, July 9, 2015. Accessed Jan.13, 2019.
Zurn, Unica. The Trumpets of Jericho. Wakefield Press, 2015.