One of the things that always troubled me about the fascination with madness and the intertwined eroticism and death that always pervaded the Romantic and Surrealistic sensibilities was that they were almost always expressed by people who seemed to be celebrating those things without having known their cost in personal suffering. I’m not trying to apply some kind of politically-correct standard to the appreciation of such works, just pointing out that while some were idolizing the dark underbelly of the human psyche, others were helpless to it, and found nothing remotely romantic about the experience.
Unica Zürn seems to have been one of the victims. From 1953 until her death in 1970 she was close to one of the most important Surrealists, Hans Bellmer, living with him in Paris and posing for some of his notoriously disturbing pictures. She came to become dependent on him, and not long after he was hospitalized for a stroke and broke off their relationship (he believed he could no longer care for her in his condition), she threw herself out of the window of the sixth-story apartment they shared. She had been suffering from her own decline for some time: not long after meeting fellow artist Henri Michaux in 1957, she began to experience one shattering episode of mental upset after another that culminated in her self-destruction.
Michaux himself played a central part in these breakdowns: there was something about him which reminded her of a childhood fantasy that she had entertained, and his presence fueled the writing of two works: The Man of Jasmine, most explicitly about the Michaux-image, and Dark Spring. The latter has been described as a kind of erotic autobiography: a portrait of the artist as a young girl, and also a young corpse. Zürn killed herself not long after writing it, and in a manner so strongly redolent of the death of the girl within it that it became hard to see the story as little more than a kind of fictionalized suicide note. And yet at the same time it is more than that: it can be read entirely outside of the context of her life, and it has a stark power that stays with you even when removed from that context.
What makes it work, oddly enough, is that it is a remarkably short and compact story — barely 115 pages of large type — but the details that make up the story are so sharp and well-chosen that there scarcely seems to be anything more to add. It presents us with the life, and death, of a young girl — barely pubescent but with an erotic haze suffusing everything in her life, including her obsessive devotion to her father. Her mother is insufferable; her brother subjects her to various sexual torments and eventually rapes her; gradually, she recedes inwards and finds greater satisfaction in fantasy worlds than in her daily life. The fantasies themselves reek of depravity and torment — but at least a kind of depravity and torment that are of her own creation.
When she finally does turn her erotic obsessions back outwards, they fixate on a handsome young man — an adult, where she is still really only a child to the rest of the world — whom she encounters at a public swimming pool. There is nothing outwardly sinister about him, but again, he is an adult, and she is not, and from that comes a wall that she finds impossible to surmount. And from that rebuff her thoughts turn inwards once again, to find what consummation she can in fantasies of enacting her death for real. The last scene in the book has been widely compared to Zürn’s own suicide, although she seemed less to be “rehearsing” anything than admitting she was helpless in the face of what was, in her mind, a foregone conclusion about her life.
If the book is so relentlessly bleak and ends on such a phenomenally closed-ended and nihilistic note, why read it at all? For one, the compactness of the story alone makes it into quite an achievement: it’s a little exhilarating to see Zürn pack so much about her character into so few words, to make one sentence do the work of a paragraph, and to evoke this girl so sharply without needing more space than she does. The other reason is more general than that: we might want to read such things for the same reasons that people are compelled to write them — because places like this do exist within us, and if someone can not only talk about them but do justice to them, then the results are aesthetically exhilarating even if they imply ghastly things. That was after all a large component of what the Surrealist mission was: to dive into the unconscious, rescue the things that might normally be thrown away by the waking mind, and make them into the substance of their art. What makes Dark Spring so hard to put out of mind is that it shows Zürn diving into her dreamworld and coming up with nothing less than her own cenotaph.