I’m reading Farah Rose Smith’s Anonyma which is deliciously decadent, modern, and gothic; a work that situates itself in the tradition of the dark fantastic. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this short novella but am already impressed by its ability to hint at mysteries and undertones just off-stage waiting to erupt from the darkness. In it we are introduced to a young successful architect, Nicholas Georg Bezalel, whose art and life are fused in a sensibility of what he’ll term “Modern † Gothic”:
“Modern † Gothic starts with a feeling,” Bezalel says. “To describe those initial emotions with words would make no sense logically, in the grand scheme of allowing you in on the process. The act of creation, of production, of endurance. These are all my secrets, you see. What I can say is that the style has permanence. It is art, but more importantly, Modern † Gothic is a way of life.”1
In the opening scene an interview with unknown parties is taking place in which the various aspects of his past and present commingle revealing both the source and transgressive splendor of his ongoing project, Noctuary. The name “Noctuary” already aligned my thought to Thomas Ligotti whose own collection of weird tales would encompass a discourse on blackness and the aesthetics of shadow, goth, and the weird:
“No one needs to be told about what is weird. It is something that becomes known in the early stages of every life. With the very first nightmare or a childhood bout of fever, an initiation takes place into a universal, and at the same time very secret society. Membership in this society is renewed by a lifelong series of encounters with the weird, which may assume a variety of forms and wear many faces. Some of these forms and faces are private to a certain person, while others are recognized by practically everybody, whether or not they will admit it. But they are always there, waiting to be recalled in those special moments that are all its own.”2
What we discover in Farah’s novella is the mystery of architecture itself, a dreamscape of unreality that exposes a ritualized inscape into unfathomable chambers of a bleak cosmos. Bezalel himself is reticent about both his ongoing project and of a recent exhibit that we are lead to believe shocked both critics and public alike, a scandalous affair that brought the shrill critical gaze of certain extreme feminist enclaves to bare on his life and art. As he comments:
“There is a point at which one must separate the art and the artist. There is an intrinsic link, of course. But there is less of me in those images than there is of what I was trying to evoke. They misunderstand me” When asked about the process of creating the infamous images, he becomes brusk. “Let us move on.”
Like many eccentric and decadent artists Bezalel seems both piqued and tormented by the public and critics reception of his work and yet nonplussed he seems unsure of himself and is quiet and reserve about those who do not understand his dark vision. As he’ll suggest his conceptual relations with architecture began as a child in a dream; that, in fact, the very project he is working on now began as a dream. Of Noctuary itself he says: “I saw the building itself in a childhood dream, not long before the death of my parents.” A sense of darkness, death, and the symbolic relations between the two and this dream castle have drawn him toward his self-described combination of the “Modern † Gothic” described already. Yet, like many artists his work would not have been possible without an apprenticeship with a certain mentor.
Adopted at a young age he was raised by a Banker family in Berlin, a typical bourgeois nexus of money, wealth, and extravagance. A mother given to melancholy, which he presumes is due to the Father’s incessant pretensions to playboy of the western world affectations. Bezalel himself seems to have had the run of the house, and spent most of his young life reading and getting acquainted with classics in the well-stocked family Library. After the death of his adopted family he moves to New York, studies architecture because of the connection to his childhood dream, but is unimpressed by the current regard of such moderns as Frank Loyd Wright. After graduation he is tempted to join two different firms but decides instead to return to Germany to reacquaint himself with his roots.
It is in Germany that he discovers a life-long passion for the the idol-mentor, G.E. G.E. Von Aurovitch. Describing his current project as “dripping with the lifeblood (or deathblood) of Von Aurovitch”. He describes the artistic vision behind it, which is a mixture of Decadence and Symbolist motifs, he tells the interviewers:
Aurovitch. Here, in architecture, in interior design, in natural installations, in fashion, either directly or indirectly, I was able to mold and maneuver with a specific energy that, in a way, bridged the gap between the Decadent and the Symbolic by getting to the philosophical nerve of coexisting opposites, and honored those I drew from. But I still think it isn’t representative of any one movement from the past. It is, quite simply, Modern † Gothic. It is its own movement, its own improvement, its own reality.”
After several successful installations he moved back to New York where he met his current fiance, supermodel Coreya Witciewicz. She works with him in the Noctuary, and appears to be both his assistant and curator of affairs. So far in the story we have not heard much else about her or her life with the architect, and I’ll not reveal much more of the tale.
We understand his immediate project is an adaptation of “Von Aurovitch’s obscure fantasy play, The Curse of Ariette, which will be performed in The Noctuary’s own underground theatre, Antangelus”. Telling the interviewers that for him – “Every project is a vanity project.” – we’re told by them that the architectural wonder they are in “doesn’t seem to fit into that category upon first observation, but with a careful look into Bezalel’s literary tastes, one can begin to put together a theory which suggests that he is bringing the objects of fantasy worlds– worlds of his own, and others– into reality.”
This whole opening scene sets the stage for the actual tale to come, it’s as if Farah was writing an essay much in the tradition of Borges of an imaginary artist for the sheer pleasure of revealing the background and details of a new aesthetic art and lifestyle. One thinks back to the work that spawned the Decadent and Symbolist movements Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours (Against Nature), which more than a narrative was a series of lengthy essays on the various aspects of the decadent worldview. Much the same we are given in this opening chapter the sense and sensibility of the worldview of the “Modern † Gothic”. As we discover at the end of the chapter this new worldview is connected to the traumas of Bezalel’s childhood:
“The observation most people make about Modern † Gothic is that it has led them to find a balance between cognitive richness and materialistic extravagance. Bezalel acknowledges how the traumas of his youth led him to a new and comprehensive philosophy that nurtured this concept. “The instability, the darkness was unpleasant, but the only constant in my life. In it I began to find comfort, familiarity. The inverse of the uncanny. I wanted other people to understand that they could make peace with their demons. Find solace in the unfamiliar. Work with the darkness.””
What awaits us as the architectural wonder of Noctuary is completed, and the dark enactments within its theater of cruelty unleashes its strange powers of darkness is left to the reader to find out, all I’ve done is tempt you to enter the dark chambers of Farah Rose Smith’s Anonyma to find out.
- Smith, Farah Rose. Anonyma. Lulu.com; First Edition edition (November 30, 2018)
- Ligotti, Thomas. Noctuary. Il Saggiatore (October 12, 2017)