unica zürn’s dark spring: a portrait of the artist as a young corpse

Dark Spring is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel that reads more like an exorcism than a memoir. In it author Unica Zürn (1916-1970) traces the roots of her obsessions: The exotic father she idealized, the impure mother she detested, the masochistic fantasies and onanistic rituals which she said described “the erotic life of a little girl based on my own childhood.” Dark Spring is the story of a young girl’s simultaneous introduction to sexuality and mental illness, revealing a different aspect of the mad love so romanticized by the (predominantly male) Surrealists. Zürn emigrated in 1953 from her native Berlin to Paris in order to live with the artist Hans Bellmer. There she exhibited drawings as a member of the Surrealist group and collaborated with Bellmer on a series of notorious photographs of her nude torso bound with string. In 1957, a fateful encounter with the poet and painter Henri Michaux led to the first of what would become a series of mental crises, some of which she documented in her writings. She committed suicide in 1970—an act foretold in this, her last completed work. (Cribbed from the Web site of the great, great publisher of experimental literature, Exact Change).  


From Dark Spring:
 

Each time, she finds herself tormented by her terrible fear of the rattling skeleton of a huge gorilla, which she believes inhabits the house at night. The sole purpose of his existence is to strangle her to death. In passing, she looks, as she does every night, at the large Rubens painting depicting “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” These two naked, rotund women remind her of her mother and fill her with loathing. But she adores the two dark, handsome robbers, who lift the women onto their rearing horses. She implores them to protect her from the gorilla. She idolizes a whole series of fictional heroes who return her gaze from the old, dark paintings that hang throughout the house. One of them reminds her of Douglas Fairbanks, whom she adored as a pirate and as the “Thief of Baghdad” in the movie theater at school. She is sorry she must be a girl. She wants to be a man, in his prime, with a black beard and flaming black eyes. But she is only a little girl whose body is bathed in sweat from fear of discovering the terrible gorilla in her room, under her bed. She is tortured by fears of the invisible.

Who knows whether or not the skeleton will crawl up the twines of ivy that grow on the wall below her window, and then slip into her room. His mass of hard and pointed bones will simply crush her inside her bed. Her fear turns into a catastrophe when she accidentally bumps into the sabers, which fall off the wall with a clatter in the dark. She runs to her room as fast as she can and slams the door shut behind her. She turns the key and bolts the door. One again, she has come out of this alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow night? . . .

Sometimes, when Franz visits, he makes her laugh so hard that she ends up wetting her panties. The smell of it attracts the dog, who puts his head between her legs. This gives her an idea. She goes down to the basement and over to the dog pen, where she lies down on the cold cement floor with her legs spread apart. The dog starts to lick in between her legs. The cold only increases her sense of pleasure. Feeling the ecstasy, she arches her belly towards this patient tongue. Her back hurts from the hard stone. She loves to be in pain while enduring her pleasure. She is greatly aroused, even more so because of the possibility that, at any given moment, someone might come to watch her. Through the door she can hear the sound of her father’s secretary typing. While she yields to the dog’s tongue for hours, her brother discovers something new upstairs. Sitting at his mother’s dressing table, he busies himself with the electric vibrator their mother uses for her beauty care. This vibrator stimulates whichever part of the body it is applied to. The mother massages her face with it; the son puts it into his open pants. When she comes upstairs from the basement, weakened and dizzy, she sees her brother lose his semen, his head thrust back and his eyes closed. The sky has darkened. There is the threat of a thunderstorm and the atmosphere is tense. The adults pay no attention to the two children, who have nothing better to do than to keep experiencing, over and over again, this indescribably powerful feeling.

(pp 50-52; 57-59)

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