Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner

Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2000 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.

Worth a read...

    Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet
    none will bore the lover of literature.
    Reading them, one will always find something of value...


Armenian News Network / Groong
June 21, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian

				  1.

An Armenian Master of Jurisprudence

Despite important reservations A. K. Soukiasian's monograph on Mkhitar
Kosh is an exciting read. Born around 1130 Kosh was the foremost legal
mind of his time and set out a canon of law that for many centuries
was to serve Armenian communities the world over. Kosh comes to the
fore during a short-lived period of relief from relentless
Seljuk-Turkish assaults on Armenia and seeks to formulate political
and civil laws and rights appropriate to this revival.

Kosh's conceptions were of his times. He was a devout Christian and
defender of the feudal order. But according to Soukiasian, in one
respect he stands head and shoulders above his international
contemporaries. Unlike so many others he was remarkably creative and
critical of the orthodox and inherited legal canon. While basing
himself on ancient religious and legal texts, he readily rejected that
which did not suit the circumstances of the day.  Bypassing many a
religious canon he elaborated his system of laws from reigning custom
and tradition.

Kosh's thought clearly marks him out from the mere talented. One
example reveals this brilliantly. Medieval Christian philosophy
grappled with issues of freedom, rights and law and recognised that
human beings are born free.  However its explanation for the unfreedom
obtained in feudal times never went beyond mystical assertions of
original sin, inherent evil, selfishness and greed. Kosh leaps well
ahead of these explanations. Reminding one of Rousseau, he claims the
source of serfdom and unfreedom was the seizure of land and natural
resources by the few.

While many have dismissed Kosh as a disorganised and unsystematic
thinker, Soukiasian in an exciting examination of Kosh's great text
`The Book of Judgements' argues convincingly that he was on the
contrary not only systematic, but a legal mind unparalleled in
Armenian history. In his work Kosh codified, adjusted and elaborated
an immense legal text covering all aspects of Armenian life at the
time. So thoroughly did he do the job that, adjusted as time demanded,
`The Book of Judgements' served Armenian communities wherever they had
a degree of internal judicial independence.

What has been obliterated from all official religious records about
Armenian civil and domestic life can with imagination be gleaned from
this book. Law and prohibition naturally comes into being only when
the alleged infringement appears. Thus the more comprehensive a book
of law the more fully will it incorporate and reveal the society of
its time. It can be a treasury of knowledge about customs, tradition
and social and domestic relations. So with `The book of Judgement'
which contains extensive and immensely valuable information about
property, the position of women, domestic violence, divorce, dowries,
theft, murder, the position of the poor, sexuality and sexual
deviation right up to bestiality.

Given the appallingly bowdlerised official religious histories and
records, it is certain fact that no serious or credible Armenian
history or historical fiction can be produced without taking into
account `The Book of Judgements'.

Kosh was a perceptive political legislator too who considered a strong
centralised monarchy necessary to reconstitute and reunite the
devastated Armenian feudal order. Anticipating an emergent independent
kingdom he argued that the monarch should have powers to enforce
common, universal laws and taxes across the land. Anticipating the
emergence of new and more individualist forces in Armenian society he
upheld a conception of governance according to the rule of law. This
would put a restraint on arbitrary, wilful and indiscriminate feudal
authority so damaging to the national and international trade that was
a foundation for the Armenian revival.

Seeking sustainable conditions for an Armenian state he strove for
measures that eased social and civil conflict. `The Book of Judgements
is replete with recommendations that temper the harsh treatment meted
out to women, to serfs and to the poor. His attitude to women marks
him out as more humane than was the custom of his time. He insisted
that husbands refrain from wilful and arbitrary domination, opposed
marriage to child-brides and the practice of abandoning women on
grounds of infertility.

A significant reservation concerns the author's claim that Kosh was a
humanist. This nonsense is evident from Kosh's attitude to Muslims.
Kosh was a medieval Christian who like all Christian thinkers of the
time considered himself part of god's chosen people. Non-Christians
were infidels undeserving of equal treatment. Thus `The Book of
Judgements' confers no rights on Muslims while recommending harsher
penalties for the same crimes committed by Christians.

Ending on one of a number of reservations should not diminish our
appreciation of the grandeur of this thinker who still has a record
more humane than many a barbarian Christian of his time and is the
recorder of fables of universal import.

				* * *
				  2.

A Witness to the Armenian Holocaust

`Those Dark Days' (Kardashian Printers, Beirut, Lebanon, 1985) by Aram
Antonian is a slim volume of six sketches. Each is a harrowing account
of life and death in the deportation camps for Armenians set up by the
Young Turk regime in the Syrian deserts. They remind one of Primo
Levi's recollections of survival in Nazi concentration camps. With
Antonian we are witness to the fate of hundreds of thousands of
Armenians who, during the genocide of 1915, were driven into these
camps there to be starved, tortured, robbed, degraded, humiliated,
dehumanised and forever maimed or murdered.

Antonian (1879-1951) was one of the few Armenian intellectuals who
experienced the deportations and survived them. He survived a terrible
death and lice-ridden camp in Meskene, not far from Aleppo. Aleppo, of
course, with its promise of escape, remained out of bounds. Death was
usually the penalty for those who sought to reach it. Antonian's human
sensibility and psychological insight combined with his linguistic
fluency enables him to communicate physical and psychological
suffering through vivid descriptions of bodily movements and
contortions, through a glance or a grimace and by means of gruesome
descriptions of dismal natural surroundings. Each sketch, as it
reveals aspects of the destruction of human being, also reveals
aspects of the structure and functioning of the apparatus of genocide.

The recounting of the sadistic murder of a 14 year old boy can reduce
one to tears, but this is not its most horrific aspect. Nor is it the
fact that camp guards, for their own amusement, habitually kill young
children.  `Impotent hatred is the worst of all suffering' Antonian
explains as he describes the mental and emotional anguish experienced
by onlookers who watch as the young boy's head is severed from his
body and can do absolutely nothing. Guilt and self-contempt are
compounded when they see in the boy's eyes not just a silent scream of
pain and a plea of help but an everlasting reproof against their own
inaction. Everlasting, for the image of the boy's eyes will be
imprinted in their memory till the day of their own deaths.

The almost indescribable suffering of millions of Armenians is
rendered real and tangible by focussing on individuals. A former
matriarch of a well-off household witnesses the death of her three
daughters and six grandchildren.  Images of happier days flash into
her consciousness as if to mock her present misfortune. Unable to
comprehend her misfortune she looses the will to live. A young boy
almost in despair as he searches for his mother, joyfully clings to
her dead body deluded by a smile frozen on her lifeless face among a
heap of other dead. Reading each sketch you grasp something of the
frailty of being human in the face of overwhelming evil, something of
that feeling of utter helplessness and hopelessness in the face of
incomprehensible calamity.

Extremes of want, deprivation, pain, hunger, thirst, torture,
bereavement and hopelessness stripped these people of their humanity;
a humanity that previously encompassed collective consciousness,
social solidarity, altruism, nobility, tenderness and gentleness. All
norms and rituals of social intercourse collapse. All remembrance of
things beautiful, all dreams of better days are annihilated by the
bitterness of the present. No tears are shed for the dead, even if
they be child or grandchild. The demand for individual survival
consumes all emotions, energies and passions. Camp society assumes the
character of the jungle: the strongest and most ruthless survive at
the expense of the weakest and frailest. The helpless unable to seek
retribution from the perpetrators of their nightmare turn their hatred
and venom upon each other. A mother bludgeons to death a hungry boy
who dared steal bread from her.

The book has additional merit for dealing with a darker side of the
genocide. As with Nazi use of Jewish collaborators, little is known or
said about the Young Turks use of Armenian collaborators. Yet Antonian
shows that the apparatus of genocide was staffed by its complement of
Armenian criminals and self-seekers. Some acted as night-watchmen and
proved to be more brutal than any Young Turk soldier. Others for a
profit supplied wealthy locals with abducted Armenian girls.
Speculators bought up desperately needed foodstuffs leaving families
to starve to death. These were particularly bitter experiences. As one
woman put it ``You are worse than them. You are doing what even the
Turk didn't do.'' .

It would be bizarre, even obscene to attempt an `artistic' or
`aesthetic' evaluation of a work which depicts human suffering at its
extreme points.  Genuine testimonies to human tragedy stand
independent of art or aesthetics.  However, one cannot but attempt an
intellectual evaluation. We must seek for more than a mute witness. If
we are not to betray our humanity, we must search for explanation, for
historical, social, human context. We must reach out for some rational
comprehension of human barbarism and by doing so indicate some
possible path beyond. Here `Those Dark Days' can be considered
lacking.

Moving descriptions and insights are not accompanied by sustained
philosophical investigation or explanation. This does not matter. For
those seeking to understand genocide and its human consequences this
book, alongside others, is vital. Hagop Oshagan rightly notes that
Aram Antonian's testimony stands alongside the best of those that
record tragic moments in the long history of the Armenian people.


-------------------------------------------------------------------
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |