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Sopor Aeternus; or how a ghost takes flesh

PRIOTESE Sebastian-Constantin,
Stefan cel Mare University, Suceava
English-Romanian, 3rd year

Abstract

When it comes to Gothic music and Gothic imagery, the darkwave band Sopor Aeternus
stands out from the crowd; eye-catching, endowed with chutzpa, metaphorical
androgynous, abstemious, talented and passionate, Anna Varney-Cantodea, the entity
behind the music of this band is the perfect example for the leak of the Gothic not only in
other literary forms, but in life itself. The aim of this paper is to unearth all the Gothic
mechanisms that work within this band and show how they revolve around AVC, a
Gothic pariah in modern-day society.

Keywords: Gothic, monstrous feminine, dark wave, Jung, Sopor Aeternus, transgender,
horror, abject

Gothic fiction is a literary mode that began with Horace Walpoles novel, The
Castle of Otranto, which purportedly combined the two kinds of romance, the ancient
and the modern (GOTHIC: I). The decade following Walpoles death was scarred with
an effulgence of the Gothic, myriad writings in this mode contaminating the bookshelves.
Despite the fact that it became so popular, the tropes of Gothic fiction (gloomy castles,
the supernatural, catacombs, graveyard, monsters, etc.) ever remained the same, this
redundancy of the ingredients paradoxically assuring it its survival in the literary
environment. As we will see in the following, the same patterns will leak into music.
At the root, the Gothic was at once a literary and social phenomenon, because, as
Fred Botting claims in Gothic, The new critical idiom, it appears in the awful obscurity
that haunted eighteenth-century rationality and morality. It shadows the despairing
ecstasies of Romantic idealism and individualism and the uncanny dualities of Victorian
realism and decadence. (BOTTING: 1), thus it mirrors the anxieties and frustrations of
the 18th century individual and his rebellion against the frost of idealism and realism, seen
as malignant in respect with imagination. Moreover, the critics pertaining to these two
narrow currents detracted the Gothic because of its degeneration and its straightforward
atheism and immorality. The most eloquent example in this regard is the critical blizzard
enacted as a reaction to Matthew Lewiss The Monk:

Lust, murder, incest and every atrocity that can disgrace human
nature, brought together, without the apology of probability, or even
possibility, for their introduction. To make amends, the moral is general and
very practical; it is, not to deal in witchcraft and magic, because the devil will
have you at last!!. We are sorry to observe that good talents have been
misapplied in the production of this monster. (Lewis, online reference)

The Gothic, as literary mode, is a monster itself, because it constantly shifts its
own paradigms, its narrative is often fragmented, it seems to disappear only to unearth
itself with full force and it is not constrained to a certain historical period. We may well
affirm, without the risk of wandering unfertile ground that the Gothic still thrives and
fascinates us today as it fascinated the people some centuries ago when it first appeared.
Through writers like Anne Rice, Stephen King and Angela Carter, we experience new
forms of horror and haunting which have their roots in the very Gothic phenomenon.
Moreover, we need this type of fiction, because it nurtures our curiosity and because it is
a release of [our] repressed energies and antisocial fantasies (BOTTING:9). With other
words, writing and reading this type of fiction has a benefic, therapeutic effect on our
often repressed psyche.
In the late 1970s, the features of this type of fiction crept into music and gave
birth to Gothic rock, which, in its turn, burst out in a spectrum of manifold subgenres like
gothabilly, dark cabaret, deathrock and dark wave. The gloom and melancholy of Gothic
streamed not only in instrumentation, but also in vocal style and lyrics: the harsh vocals
of punk (from which Gothic rock derived in the first place) were replaced with deep,
baritone voices and the lyrics evinced introspection and dark romance.
Because of its monstrous nature, Gothic rock will be forever in search of new
methods in experimenting with atmosphere and will handle various instruments in order
to achieve the desired effect: when its characteristics were found in a sore redundancy
continuum (just like the tropes of Gothic fiction do), it started using the very technique
that the Gothic mode used in order to stay alive: it leaked in other musical subgenres;
when Gothic rocks nostalgia and often painfully-few-beats-per-minute pace found a dint
of escape in electronic music, dark wave was conceived. Bands like Dead can Dance,
Clan of Xymox, Lycia, Cocteau Twins and many others are to be considered the pioneers
of this subgenre. In the same let-it-change manner in which dark wave assured its birth,
this metamorphose will climax in 1989, in Frankfurt, when the prodigious band Sopor
Aeternus1 & The Ensemble of Shadows will take a baroque/ medieval approach to dark
wave, under the aegis of the troubled, Jungian Anna Varney-Cantodea.
In the case of the personage this paper deals with, the Gothic displaces from
literary techniques and transfers itself in life; Anna Varney becomes an embodiment of
otherness precisely through embodying the Gothic. The fact that (s)he does not impute a
genre makes Cantodea the ultimate Gothic other.

Anna Varney Cantodea

Very little is known about the history of the entity behind the Sopor Aeternus
music. From the shallow amount of interviews with Anna that can be found on the
Internet on obscure websites, it appears that her early life was tumultuous, scarred by her
parents verbal and physical abuse towards her, the encounter with a form of cancer that
almost led to blindness and twenty years of severe depression. From the message
SOPOR: Sedating the heart since 1952, which appears on the cover of the 2007 album,
Les fleurs du mal, it is assumed that her age is sixty-two.
Nobody knows her real name: Anna Varney-Cantodea, the name (s)he assigned
for herself, is formed by the common name Anna, the name of James Malcolm Rymers
notorious suicidal vampire, Varney, and Cantodea, which is a Latin neologism which
means I sing, goddess (Singing Goddess).

1
Latin for eternal sleep.
At the ripe age of six, (s)he suffered an operation of tonsillectomy, during which
she had an out of body experience, presumably because of anesthesia. (S)he asserts that
that was the moment in which her body and her soul took on different paths forever.
(S)he began having suicidal tendencies beginning with the age of twelve.
Up to this day, (s)he would refuse to sing in front of an audience or even to go out
in the world, opting for a life driven within occultism, darkness and becoming a mere
vessel for the music the dead souls dictate her (Sopor, online reference), music for
dead children and otherwise wounded souls, as (s)he labels it. In fact, Anna Varneys
inspiration purportedly comes from a group of obscure, shadowy entities whom (s)he
calls The Ensemble of Shadows, a collective ghostly being that is as impenetrable as
(s)he is herself.
According to psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung, the distinguishing
feature of introversion, as opposed to extraversion, is that whereas the latter relates
primarily to the object and data originating in the outside world, introversion finds its
orientation in inner, personal factors2. As Anna Varney puts it in No-one is there:

I am the mistress of loneliness,


my court is deserted but I do not care;
The presence of people is ugly and cold
and something I can neither watch nor bear.
(Sopor Aeternus, online reference)

(S)he lives in almost complete isolation and does not need and want to be near
people. The closest relation to humans (s)he ever developed was with the musicians (s)he
rarely employed for live percussions and other instrumentation on her recordings. In her
lyrics, (s)he often expresses a drive towards self-contempt and self-annihilation (not to be
confused with self-mutilation!). Cantodea is one of the greatest enigmas of 20th century
musical industry, because in sixty-two years, the things we know about her are only the
things (s)he wants us to know. (S)he mentions in an interview that there were years in
which (s)he would go out only once or twice a month, spending the rest of the time

2
Daryl Sharp, Personality Types; Jungs Model of Typology, Inner City Books,1936, p. 65
hiding from the sun and times (s)he would spend twenty-four hours in complete
darkness.
One of the distinct features of Gothic fiction is its embodiment and envisioning
of a fearful encounter with the Other, that is, the dark side of our subconscious in
physical form, or, more simply and all-encompassing, we being undermined by our most
incontrollable desires, by the feelings we constantly repress because they are not in
accord with the rules of our society.
Anna Varney was born male but (s)he started regarding herself as female
beginning with the age of five, only to state, decades later that (s)he is neither a male nor
a female, but somewhere in the middle. In the abstract, we said that (s)he is a
metaphoric androgynous, and that is because (s)he never underwent a gender
reassignment surgery procedure, thus being as at once male and female the former by
birth and the latter by choice.
To a certain extent, Anna Varney is the product of the five year-old boy that
realized his true sexuality and accepted the Other without resisting it, in a reversed,
turned-to-self Oedipal complex unfolding. Thus, Anna Varney becomes her own double/
alter-ego, leaving her old self prey to oblivion. In fact, this is a Gothic process, because
as Botting affirms,

Doubles, alter egos, mirrors and animated representations of the disturbing parts
of human identity became the stock devices. Signifying the alienation of the
human subject from the culture and language in which s/he was located these
devices increasingly destabilized the boundaries between psyche and reality [...].
(BOTTING: 7-8)

With the passing of years, the Sopor Aeternus lyrics began to be more and more
concerned with issues regarding sexuality, mainly the recurrent theme of morbid sex
change operation, often seen through the characteristic Varney-esque noir sense of
humor. However, the lyrics (as the music) remain Gothic; Anna Varney can be perceived
as a lonesome 20th century poet pertaining to the short-lived Graveyard School.
The Graveyard poets or Churchyard poets are considered the precursors of the
Gothic mode, although they were pre-Romantic. They will launch in poetry the tropes
that will imbue the Gothic fiction: the affinity for graveyards, coffins, gloomy landscapes
and the Sublime:

Graveyard poetry was popular in the first half of the eighteenth century. Its
principal poetic objects, other than graves and churchyards, were night, ruins
death and ghosts, everything, indeed, that was excluded by rational culture.
(Ibid: 21)
It seems that Gothic fiction inherited the critical detraction from the Graveyard
school, because it too treated on subjects that provoked aversion and contempt to a
society that strove to exhibit a live interest in realism.
The Sopor Aeternus lyrics are, indeed, imbued with the aforementioned poetic
objectives that Botting enumerates. Especially on the 1999 album, Ich Tte Mich
Jedesmal Aufs Neue...3, there is a reiteration of the themes of night, graveyards, death, as
it is on the 2003 record, Es Reiten Die Toten So Schnell4, which presents an empathizing
view towards vampires, seen through the lens of romanticism, and the world they live in.
Traces of Graveyard poetry can be found at any step in the Sopor albums. For instance,
here is an excerpt from Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est (Engl. Sleep is the brother of Death):

The silence of the graves is not silent at all:


Millions of the dead are crying in their graves,
But no-one can hear them, no-one ever hears...
No-one can hear them, except for the dead themselves.

Furthermore, a stanza from The Dreadful Mirror:

White as snow lie my lovers bones


in the soft, velvet soil of the vault,
And I, his bride, sleep by his side,
3
A literal translation would be Once again I kill myself.
4
In English, The Dead ride so fast.
to celebrate our sacred love.
At times it seems that Im existing only
within some fading memory,
but dreams are all sacred, dreams are all holy...
and, by far, still the safest place for my soul to be.

For what it concerns the horror and contempt that stem from Sopor Aeternus and
its creator, they are manifold. What strikes the watcher of a Sopor photo or video with
shock in the first place is Anna Varneys very appearance. The existing photos depict her
in the most grotesque and horrible poses, which can be viewed as a process of
exteriorizing the feelings of depression, anguish and terror that Anna Varney carries
inside. In particular, the grotesque of the photos comes from Varneys frequent use of
Butoh5 techniques, combined with her death-like aesthetics, both in the photos that
accompany the CD cases and the videos.
The Japanese Butoh dance technique is often interpreted as being the dance of
darkness, through which the individual expresses his most demonic and dreadful
emotions. On one hand, combined with the strange visual fashion that Varney vastly
employs, it creates a feeling of deep uneasiness and anxiety to the beholder; on the other
hand, it helps her create the trinity on which (s)he bases Sopor: the trinity of word, image
and sound. In doing so, every shred of the music, which is imbued with renaissance,
baroque and medieval instruments, becomes a precise reflection of the singers tat
desprit:

To me, art which in the case of SOPOR always means a complete album,
the sacred trinity of word, sound & image works like an exorcism its a
highly intimate act of purification. (Sopor, online reference)

Anna Varney presents a live interest in writer Edgar Allan Poe, often adapting his
poems to music; the newest Sopor Aeternus album, entitled Poetica (2013) contains
only Poe adaptations. Varney states in the single voice-interview (s)he ever did, that at

5
A Japanese dance theatre known for extreme, grotesque imagery.
points, (s)he felt that those were her very words, and not Poes, which gives a hint on her
level of identification with the American Gothic writer.
Another element that is nascent of horror is Cantodeas voice. One would never
believe that what they hear is the voice of a male, and not a females, as it might
misleadingly sound. One of the hallmarks of the band is Annas incredibly melodious
voice, which though it sounds feminine, still retains a trace of male timbre; this may be
baffling to one who does not know what Cantodea is (that is metaphorical
androgynous); the process of singing provokes disquietude or fright because it opposes
common sense.
Paradoxically, uneasiness might come from the contrast between the music and
the lyrics; whereas the music is often lush, containing a considerable amount of
instruments (wood pipes, piano, tuba, wind chimes, all masterfully dealt with), and
optimistic, danceable even, the lyrics can be horrendous; one of the best examples in this
sense is the song This profane finality (Todeswunch6 1995); whilst the music is a
very pleasant neo-mediaeval tune, the lyrics talk about death-drive and implicitly about
suicide (which is a common theme to Sopor):

Bury me deep in the blackest earth,


Drunken on maggots, house of thousand worms;
Nail me up into the deepest coffin
And bed me down into the deepest pit.
Shrouded I am waiting for my cold friends
The final beasts.

This quite strong contrast between the music and the lyrics is no mistake, for
Sopor Aeternus is based, as Anna Varney said, on a trinity which regards the word, sound
and image the optimism of the song, as sonic fragment, in a relation of tight opposition
with the pessimism of the words only emphasizes that Varney sees suicide and death as
joyful notions, as a release from the life (s)he never had a taste for.

6
Eng. Death wish.
In the case of Anna Varney, Gothic, indeed, has become not only a literary/
musical term, but a very mode of living, more intense than in the case of the eye-catching
Goths of the 90s. Hiding in the shadows for sixty-two years is too much even for an
artist; Cantodea becomes a ghost, a vessel for the music (s)he creates, purportedly of
spiritual (and spirited) inspiration. Whether or not (s)he wears a mask, pretending an
almost complete withdrawal from society and sporting a severe philosophical pessimism,
Varney becomes a ghost, an entity which lives for the sole purpose of creating Art. (S)he
also is an example that can be used against the detractors of the Goths, which are often
accused of Satanism and witchcraft not only that Varney is not any of the
aforementioned, but (s)he is a firm activist for animal rights7, pro-euthanasia and vegan
and vegetarian efforts.

7
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxn4K269pYs
WORKS CITED

Botting, Fred. 2005. Gothic, Taylor & Francis e-Library.


Hogle, E. Jerrold, ed. 2002. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Cambridge
University Press.
Sharp, Daryl. 1987. Personality Types. Jungs Model of Typology. Inner City Books.
http://www.innercitybooks.net/pdf/books/personalitytypes.pdf