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Why we should read...

'My Exiled Soul' and 'The Last Chalice'
by Zabel Yessaian
Selected Works Volume One, Antelias, Lebanon, 1987

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 6, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Zabel Yessaian's (1878-1943) 'My Exiled Soul' and 'The Last Chalice'
are not just two tremendously powerful and evocative love stories.
They are also masterly philosophic considerations on aspects of the
individual's subjective, 'spiritual' world. In an age where the
unending accumulation of material possessions is often regarded as the
only criterion of a rich and valuable life, Yessaian forcefully
reminds us of an increasingly sidelined truth: life cannot be lived to
the fullest unless society affords men and women the opportunity to
develop their individual creative, imaginative, emotional and
intellectual potential.

Adrine, in 'The Last Chalice', and Emma, in 'My Exiled Soul' are
acutely conscious of the diverse restraints upon what they feel as
their almost infinite emotional and creative potential. In charting
their efforts to surmount these restrictions Yessaian offers a telling
account of the crisis of the alienated individual in our own times. It
is a testimony to the enduring quality of her art that these works
bring into sharp relief the fraud of contemporary market-generated
individualism where mass consumption of useless objects is applauded
as the peak of personal realization, and where even one's most intimate
emotions are put to the service of the marketplace. As Descartes' 'I
think therefore I am' steadily gives way to the dull uniformity of the
global corporations' 'I shop therefore I am,' Yessaian's evocation of
the richness of the unique individual is inspiring.


A.

Both 'The Last Chalice' and 'My Exiled Soul' are set in pre-1915
Armenian Constantinople/Istanbul (Bolis). Adrine's life is blighted by
a loveless marriage. She is not however prepared to abandon her search
for 'those jewels which would decorate life with beauty, light and
glory.' She does not accept that her spirit should be forever 'forced
to retreat to some dark corner of her being'. She feels passionately
that deep within her there is a sphere of 'experience that can
generate a miraculous dream, a brightly burning flame or a brilliant
rainbow' and is determined to bring these to the fore 'in all their
glory, with smile and with song...'

Emma, a painter with a promising future, has just returned from Europe
to Bolis and is preparing a first exhibition. She confesses to the
stirring of 'fantastic expectations'. Her 'exiled soul' she feels
'awaits its imminent liberation' through strength drawn from 'the
depths' of her being, 'as if from an unexpected and unknown treasure
chest.'  Whatever the difficulties, she will therefore 'pursue my
dreams, along as many highways as necessary, until my soul attains its
full freedom.'

Authors of lesser talent frequently reduce such considerations of the
individual's emotional or creative life to abstract metaphysics,
irrational mysticism or plain sentimental romanticism. Yessaian is of
a different order.  The cogency and authenticity of her portrayal of
the individual's subjective/spiritual world emerges through the
organic development of acutely and vividly fashionded characters set
in a realistically conceived network of human relations. None of her
observations are asserted as dry and lifeless dogmas. It is through
Emma's and Adrine's unfolding experience that we obtain a vision of
the individual's actually existing potential, the social conditions
that preclude its development and the pre-conditions for its
realisation.

Furthermore Yessaian grasps human individuality and the subjective
'spirit' as it really is - an inextricably intertwined totality of
often conflicting but always co-existing individual and social
impulses. Through a fine presentation of the tensions, conflicts and
clashes that these produce in Emma and Adrine, Yessaian brings to the
surface some of the nobler, but frequently suppressed sensibilities
of the very contradictory human personality. In the process with some
remarkable and sustained fictional prose Yessaian elaborates on the
conception of the captured so exquisitely in Matteos Zarifian's verse:

	'Hokis hrteh m'e shkegh
	 Asdgheren i ver potzardardz
	 Ourge trchogh men mi gaydz
	 Gu zka anhounn isg shad negh...'

(Thanks to Rouben Rostamian for the following English rendering:
	 My soul is a magnificent fire
	 more luminous than the stars
	 Even the infinite universe
	 feels confining to its rays )

In 'My Exiled Soul' and 'The Last Chalice' the protagonists'
subjective world flourishes through the experience of individual
love. What raises Yessaian's work to the level of serious art is a
conception of love that is broader, and therefore more authentic, than
its commonly depicted romantic and isolated form. Love is indeed
romantic and sexual love, But it is at the same time more.  Love is a
form of human of relations when freed of mercenary motives, freed from
the soul-destroying drudgery of everyday life. In this respect love
here expresses those forms of human relations that are the necessary
preconditions for individual self-realisation. It is as a result of
such direct, unalienated human relations that Adrine and Emma
experience more than just individual romantic and sexual love. Love
enables Adrine to experience 'the budding of many an extraordinary and
beautiful flower in any one of the numerous temples of my soul'. For
Emma, love 'removes' from her spirit 'all limits of time and space' and
enables her to 'commune with the infinite, with the unknown'.  Their
entire subjective being, their creative, intellectual and emotional
life flourishes as if to confirm Goethe's remark that in love 'I
seemed to be more than I was because I was everything I possibly could
be'.

Needless to say the complete individual in 'The Last Chalice' and in
'My Exiled Soul' has nothing in common with the elitist, egotistical
and anti-social individualism one encounters in Nietzsche,
Schopenhauer or any number of other irrationalist thinkers, past and
present. Throughout, Yessaian affirms a profound humanist sensibility
as an integral element of the fullfilled individual.

In a striking passage recalling the great Armenian poet Medzarentz,
Adrine remarks that in love she 'strove to go beyond' her 'own
world'. She sought 'to share' her 'bliss with others, to sow it
everywhere and to leave a flame, a spark, a glow with hearts that are
lonely and sad.' If 'bliss' can be 'sown everywhere' clearly the
potential to live a full inner life is not the privilege of unique or
especially gifted individuals. Indeed 'everyone...brings with them
into this world' the emotional, psychological and intellectual means
with which to realize their human potential. That the overwhelming
majority do not do so is a function not of their individual inadequacy
but of a social order that 'corrupts and tortures our spirit from our
earliest days.'

Furthermore the individuals in both works remain conscious of their
social being and the responsibility that flows from this. Adrine
sacrifices her own happiness recognizing that it must not be 'secured
at the expense of others' misfortune.'  The 'others' in this case are
her two children. Explaining why she refuses to elope with her lover
Arshak, she says:

    'When I speak out against the idea of a woman leaving her home and
     children to be with her lover...I do not do so for Michael's
     (Adrine's husband) sake, nor for the comfort of the neighbours,
     nor to pay lip service to the laws that govern our lives. I do so
     because I see my children's smiling eyes. I do not want them
     tarnished with tears on account of my personal happiness. I do
     not want to be the mother of their misery.'

The profoundly authentic, human character of Adrine's decision is
manifested in her confession to the accompanying bitter and painful
clash between individual and social desire:

    'It was necessary to separate. But you cannot grasp, my love, that
     at the moment when resigned to my decision I planted my last kiss
     on your lips my entire being collapsed. If at that moment you
     were to have snatched me up and taken me away, I would have
     followed you willingly, helplessly, blindly, everywhere and
     forever.'


B.

As remarkable as Yessaian is in conveying the full richness of the
individual spirit, she is equally expert in grasping the social
relations that circumscribe it. It is evident, albeit indirectly, that
a level of material prosperity, a level of release from want, poverty
and the grim grind of daily life is a necessary precondition for the
flourishing individual. Emma is only able to 'soar to the highest
sphere' of her dreams because she has 'been brought up like a princess
and defended against all the harshness of life.'  Adrine, belonging to
a well-to-do family, is equally fortunate in having the opportunity to
cultivate her subjective sensibilities. But for the vast majority
these material preconditions are absent.

However material well-being alone is not an adequate foundation.
Individual potential cannot flourish when the individual is subordinated
to social relations dominated by egotistical or predatory ambitions.
In such circumstances individuals cease to be ends in themselves and
are transformed into objects to be exploited and used for another's
mercenary gain. Adrine even in early youth realised that male suitors
were not actually concerned with her as a unique individual. When
asking for her hand they had in mind not her, but her father's social
standing:

    'I knew that when looking at me, they frequently saw only this or
     that man's daughter... and... only wanted me in order to be able
     to use my father's influence for the purpose of their own
     advancement.'

Such social relations allow the individual, in this case Adrine, no
'opportunity to exercise her enormous spiritual energy' and leaves
little room for the budding of her 'passionate desires' which are
'left high and dry'.  Alas modern society reproduces a whole network
of such relations that condemn men and women to estrangement from
their real selves. In summarizing the consequences, Yessaian presents
an indictment perhaps even more compelling today than when first
written in the early 20th century.

Men and women have 'generally ceased to be what they are in their
essence'.  They survive on a diet of 'second hand emotions and second
hand principles...  and nothing but nothing flows from their own inner
being, from their individual selves...' Living with 'false identities'
they 'are strangers to themselves' having lost the boldness 'to
welcome the infinite possibilities of their spirit.' With a wit as
sharp and penetrating as a Balzac or Oscar Wilde she describes men and
women who have become 'completely alien to their real nature.'  They
are 'but ghosts of human beings' who though 'capable of standing
upright and moving' are in reality no more than 'corpses with but the
semblance of life'.

Nevertheless, as corrupt and soul destroying as society may be, it
cannot annihilate the human spirit which though 'having lost the
boldness to surface' endures albeit 'in our darkest corners'. And, as
Emma's and Adrine's experience testifies, so long as the spirit
endures so does the hope and the struggle that it will return from its
'exile' to the centre of one's being.


C.

It is impossible to read 'My Exiled Soul' without remarking on its
observations on the relation between art and life and the social role
of art.  With Emma we witness the anxiety of the individual artist
striving to render her inner world visible and comprehensible. While
she does not 'succeed in adequately focusing on the canvas my inner
music, my inner peace and inner storm' she does remain convinced that
art and culture play a decisive role in both private and social life.

Reiterating the humanist themes evident in Adrine's story, Emma hopes
her artistic endeavours will 'inspire in everyone some hope and faith'
and 'give to everyone generously.' She hopes to 'discover the path to
the souls of all men and women, to commune with them, to give them of
the fibre of my dreams and emotions...to unite and orchestrate their
disparate and solitary song.'  Art clearly does not have an
exclusively private, individual function. It is by its very nature
social. Indeed a friend of Emma's underlines the point insisting that
'men and women who are themselves unable to perceive the wonder of the
world and of life can cry and laugh through you. This after all is
what art is.' The work of art thus becomes an eye, an ear or a sixth
sense gifted to all humanity by those who possess particular artistic
talent, drive and ambition.

Genuine art furthermore is not the product of isolated individual
effort, however talented. In elaborating this point Yessaian offers a
brief but remarkably convincing explanation for the crisis of modern
Armenian, and indeed even contemporary international, culture. The
genuine artist must draw inspiration from 'the storms of collective
social life.' However in Bolis the Armenian artists are 'exiles in
their place of their birth'. Removed from 'the world that our people's
collective life generated' they cannot not produce an art capable of
authentically reflecting human experience.

In this connection it is worth remarking that the Bolis Armenian
artists' divorce from 'the collective sea' was enforced by the Ottoman
conquest and was indeed to have a damaging effect on 19th and early
20th century Armenian literature (See Worth a Read October 2000). In
sharp contrast, the contemporary 'post-modern' 'artistic' and
'intellectual' elite voluntarily divorces itself from the 'collective
sea' and treats art as a matter of no more than individual
concern. The results are evident in the marsh of modern culture where
talent is wasted without producing anything that enlightens or
endures.

Hegel placed art and literature on the same level as philosophy - they
are part of the human endeavour towards knowledge, self-consciousness
and self-realization. Indeed 'the higher an artist ranks, the more
profoundly ought he (and of course she, we may add, especially as we
are discussing Yessaian) to represent the depths of heart and mind.'
Yessaian is one of those authors whose works bear the stamp of such
high level artistry.


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Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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