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Why we should read...

'The Armenian Renaissance' by Vasken Chaloyan
Haybedhrad, 254pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1964


Armenian News Network / Groong
February 5, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


It may be unpopular to assert, but it remains an incontrovertible fact
that in its 70 odd years of life Soviet Armenian historiography
registered some enduring accomplishments. Much was written that
brutally bent standards of historical research to prevailing political
expediency. But beyond this we also have a substantial body of work
that has contributed significantly to our understanding of the
development of Armenian history. It is worth remarking that the best
of this work was produced not by the predominant opportunist
intellectual possessing no convictions but by committed Marxists.
Among this latter group was Vasken Chaloyan.  Focusing on Armenian
intellectual and cultural history from the 9th to the 13th centuries,
his 'The Armenian Renaissance' is an immensely thought provoking
though frequently contentious account of the emergence of significant
elements of a modern, secular and rationalist outlook from the
obscurantist milieu of the Armenian Middle Ages.

Chaloyan prefaces his account with an argument that extends the
Renaissance beyond its familiar European scope and Eurocentric
definition. The Renaissance, he claims, does undoubtedly embrace the
notion of recovering a 'classical' civilisation in the endeavour to
emerge from the ignorance of the long dark ages. Chaloyan however,
developing a theme prevalent in Soviet historical studies, argues that
this was not its essential feature.  Historical epochs traditionally
brought under the rubric of the Renaissance had at their core not this
return to the past but the flowering of a new secular humanism and the
affirmation of the priority of society and the human over mystical or
metaphysical religious concerns. The recovery of a 'classical'
heritage could aid, but was never a necessary condition of a
Renaissance thus comprehended.

Observed in this light, history reveals constellations of phenomena in
lands far beyond Mediterranean Europe which could legitimately be
grasped within the terms of a Renaissance. To emphasise the point
Chaloyan notes that some societies possessing no 'classical' history
nevertheless also attained levels of development that produced
components of a Renaissance culture.


				  1.

Being a Marxist Chaloyan naturally devotes a good deal of space to the
economic conditions that framed the flowering of Armenian culture
during the 9th to 13th centuries. Armenia, under the Bagratouni
Kingdom that was re-established in 886, became a significant actor in
regional and international trade. With strategically placed highways
and transit points it was an important component of an expanding
international trading network.  Armenian traders and merchants
developed links across the globe stretching from Genoa to China.
Armenia also experienced its own independent economic development with
a significant expansion of agriculture, mining, metallurgy and other
urban crafts produced to meet both domestic and international
demand. Town and country as a result begin to separate producing large
urban conurbations, the most outstanding being the Bagratouni capital
Ani. Persian poet Hakim Nizari travelling through Armenia in the 1280s
noted that: 'towns in Armenia will for me remain eternally
wonderful. There temples have been built the sight of which alone will
cause you amazement.'

Economic progress was of course only relative. Wealth accumulated at
one pole producing a massive social polarisation with poverty at the
other. Alongside a new class of usurers and merchants living in
sumptuous palaces and mansions, the Armenian landscape was scarred by
miserable shanty-towns inhabited by peasant families forced into towns
in search of survival. Indeed these features found expression in the
very architecture and design of towns and cities. Chaloyan brings
testimony from many such as Lasdivertzi, John the Philosopher, Vartan
Aykegtzi, Stephan of Daron and others to confirm the rise of usury,
the expropriation of peasant land, the terrible poverty that prevailed
and the resulting epidemic of lawlessness and banditry. Vartan
Aykegtzi in an appeal to God asks: 'Why have you made men thus? In the
same way as in the oceans the big fish swallow up the small, in this
world the well-to-do swallow up the poor (who have no defence) as gold
sneaks silently into the courthouse and seduces the judges.'

Whilst accumulated wealth generated conditions that produced the
Armenian Renaissance, Chaloyan suggest that the social tensions and
social movements resulting from the intensified poverty also played
their role. They brought forth, for example, the Tontragetzi movement,
a powerful plebeian revolt against the established Church. According
to Chaloyan this movement preached a humanised religion in which the
official structures and ornate rituals of the established Church were
dismissed as devices to fleece the poor and featherbed the wealthy.
Noting similarities with Martin Luther's reformation and the peasant
uprising led by Thomas Munzer, Chaloyan contrasts the Tontragetzi
movement with the earlier Paulicians noting that for the Tontragetzi
theology and religion were but forms to express essentially humanist,
secular and egalitarian ambitions.


				  2.

The main body of Chaloyan's book is however devoted to an examination
of the literature, philosophy, science, painting, sculpture and
architecture of the age. With frequent resort to original sources he
records and comments on features he regards central to the experience
of a Renaissance.

In the body of culture that Chaloyan examines, the natural world and
the social world of man begin to be apprehended, as he puts it,
'realistically', in terms of their own internal qualities and
character and independent of any a-priori theological assertions or
dogmas.  Human thought rather than merely reflecting a powerless and
passive subordination to an other-worldly omnipotence, begins to
acquire independent will and ambition. Human reason develops a
knowledge capable of comprehending the natural world. And in turn
this knowledge becomes an instrument of human liberation from brutal
bondage to natural forces. Human beings reveal a budding individual
consciousness, a preoccupation with terrestrial and material concerns
and a striving to live a full life on this earth. They thus begin to
consciously shape their own destiny in this world.

Science and philosophy cease to be handmaidens to theology. Some of
the more prominent philosophers, Hovan Orodnetzi (1315-1386), Krikor
Datevatzi (1346-1409), Hovanness Imasdaser (died 1129), Krikor
Makisdross (11th century) and Vahram Rappouni (13th century) begin to
premise their thought, humanity's position in and relation to the
natural world. This human-centric thinking both revives tenets of
classical philosophy and develops new ideas about the nature of the
objective world and about the relation between this objective world
and human knowledge. These thinkers also began to examine issues such
as time and space, the nature of the abstract and the concrete, the
individual and the general.

Given the era it is not at all surprising that all accepted the
existence of God as the creator of the universe and all its laws. But
they set upon a course that would eventually liberate the study of
nature from theological dogma. They claimed that human reason had the
power to deduce objective laws that explained nature's movements. In
the process, and some two centuries in advance of the English
empiricists headed by Francis Bacon, Armenian philosophers formulated
the outlines of modern empiricism. Hovannes Imasdasser insisted that:
'no assertion can be accepted without analysis and experimentation,
(for) labour and effort are necessary to establish the truth of a
theory for truth does not produce the object but is derived from an
examination of the object.'

In the best traditions of subsequent European philosophy, Armenian
thinkers also acknowledged the objectivity of the natural world and
saw the source of human knowledge in the interaction of this objective
world and the human senses. Like the later European rationalists Hovan
Orodnetzi argued that 'nature is the first cause' of knowledge while
Krikor Datevatzi elaborated affirming: 'that nature is prior to
knowledge. Knowledge flows from the object, not the object from
knowledge. The truth of an assertion is proved by the thing, not vice
versa.'

Gostantin Yerzengatzi (c1250-1328) went further in limiting theology's
role in explaining the natural world to the act of creation alone.
Thereafter human reason and observation were to deduce laws of nature
from an examination of the diverse combinations of fire, water, earth,
air which together constituted the basis for all matter. Yerzengatzi,
clearly familiar with classical Armenian and Greek philosophy, had a
conception of natural evolution in which all things undergo
development and then degeneration.  Despite the threat it posed to a
religious world view, he also claimed that matter was indestructible,
its form merely being subject to change.  Indeed in support of this
thesis he even wrote witty verse!

Medical science also stressed the methodological importance of
empirical observation and experimentation with Mekhitar Heratzi (late
12th century) asserting that only through experimentation, on both
humans and animals, could we acquire accurate knowledge about the
causes and cures for our ailments. Significantly Mekhitar Heratzi's
work, like much of the literature of the time was composed in the
spoken language of the day.

On another level, Mekhitar Kosh (1120-1213) perhaps the first Armenian
social scientist and the founder of Armenian jurisprudence, rejecting
blind obedience to religious canon, penned his 'Book of Judgements'
only after a most meticulous examination of past and present custom
and tradition. He was remarkable for his age not just for supporting
the rule of law against arbitrary feudal tyranny. He also was one of
the first to trace poverty back to an unequal division of natural
resources. Where poverty was generally attributed either to god's will
or to ungodly behaviour by kings and princes, Kosh, reminding us of
the later Rousseau, attributed it to the monopolisation of land and
water by the few.

Whilst science sought to understand nature, literary creation
apprehended the physical, sensual beauty of the natural world
conceiving it as containing its own inherent glory. In literature, as
in painting and sculpture, the natural world appears not just as
religious symbol or as testimony to god's greatness but as an object
for human life and human pleasure. Increasingly too the individual
begins to feature striving for personal happiness. Individual ambition
for the good life on earth begins to outweigh passive obedience to a
pre-determined Christian destiny of self-denial and otherworldliness.

Among the artists and poets Narekatsi (10th century) is rightly
accorded his customary pride of place. Narekatzi's Lamentations and
his poetry goes well beyond its evidently religious form. Pre-dating
Dante, he is one of the first great artists who delved into the
individual's vast and deep inner world of emotional, spiritual and
moral anxiety, pain, desire and striving. In the Lamentations man
becomes conscious of his own independent spirit and will, of his own
ability and power to strive for perfection. He is not just God's
passive creation. He is combative and challenging. He contests ground
with God, urgently seeking harmony and unity with the almighty who is
also a symbol of possible human perfection. In even his most devout
poetry there shines through Narekatzi a vivid appreciation of
nature. His poem in honour of the Virgin Mary, for example, is a
remarkably sensual depiction of physical human beauty.

Notable on another level is the secular and humanistic sensibility of
Hovaness Yerzengatzi's (died 1294) poetry which records not just male
but female love too. Unlike Bocaccio and other European contemporaries,
in Hovanness Yerzengatzi women appear not just as objects of men's
passion but as individuals themselves capable of experiencing love. In
a poem about a Christian priest's son falling in love with the
daughter of a Muslim Mullah, Yerzengatzi also wrote of a love that
transcends the religious and national divide!  In the sphere of prose
it may be a historical tragedy indeed that only three of Shabouh
Pakradouni's stories survive. These exalt the material and sensual
pleasures of this life, opposing them to the asceticism of Christian
religion.

The exaltation of temporal life is also evident in the arts, in
miniature painting, in decorative sculptures and ornamentation. Even
paintings with explicitly religious themes contain images of dances,
feasts, wild beasts and hunts, the best being etched in wonderfully
sensuous colours. Written records of ornamental sculptures tell of
theatres, of hunts, dances and debauchery.  Chaloyan notes that
paintings of the period reveal a variety of forms marked by realistic
detail and by a diversity and individuality of human features, all set
in precisely caught natural surroundings. Such artistic representation
contrasted sharply with traditional formal or symbolic depiction of
human beings or to the tedious accumulation of the repetitive and the
uniform.


				  3.

The contentious aspects of Chaloyan's volume do not undermine the
intrinsic and enduring value of the cultural and intellectual
accomplishments he describes. Yet problems of evidence, periodisation
and historical method call into question the validity and utility of a
theory of an 'Armenian Renaissance' and more importantly also reveal
some of the negative features of Soviet Armenian historiography.

Chaloyan seems driven by a dubious urge to establish something
historically unique about the Armenian Renaissance. Not only did it
precede the Italian by centuries, he argues, it was also marked with
an additionally unique feature: Armenian humanism had a broader
plebeian character absent in Europe where it was restricted to a
narrow courtly/aristocratic circle. As evidence Chaloyan cites among
other things the poetry of Frik (c1230-1300) and the epic David of
Sassoon.

In drawing out an undoubted egalitarian, democratic and popular ethos,
the examination of the Armenian national epic is impressive. We note
the absence of national or racial bigotry in this tale of war waged
against foreign, Arab, occupation.  There is no hint of ethnic or
religious exclusivism. At one point David, heeding the appeals of an
elderly advisor to spare ordinary Arab people, concentrates his attack
on the hated princes and tax collectors.  As if to underline the fact
that the conflict between David and his enemies is not based on
nationality or religion the main antagonists are even blood relatives.

But to claim David of Sassoon or Frik's poetry as evidence of a unique
plebeian humanism is a foolhardy exercise. A glance at any collection
of medieval European popular ballads or folk poetry will reveal
similar expressions of egalitarian and democratic thinking, much of it
indeed predating the 'high' Renaissance of the 15th century.  In the
British context for example, A.L. Morton's 'The Utopia in English
History' is packed with evidence of widespread humanistic sentiments
among the peasant and artisan classes.

In his eagerness to construct an argument for a unique form of an
Armenian Renaissance Chaloyan adopts a questionable attitude to the
issue of evidence and periodisation. David of Sassoon is a case in
point. The epic certainly has its origins in the 9th and 10th century
struggle against Arab domination.  But it underwent centuries of oral
evolution and embellishment before attaining a final written, quotable
form in the 19th and 20th centuries. Chaloyan seems to take no account
of the possibility that aspects of the epic's 'ideological' content
could have accrued in the centuries well beyond those in which he
places the 'Armenian Renaissance'.

Further, Chaloyan locates the Armenian Renaissance as opening with the
glory days of Ani in the 9th century and ending in the 13th . Yet a
great deal of important evidence he advances either post-dates these
glory days or is drawn from the latter part of the 13th century and
even beyond. The use of such evidence is not entirely illegitimate as
knowledge, modes of thought and influences could well have survived
the collapse of the Bagratouni dynasty in 1046 and the repeated
devastation of Ani. Yet if this is the case, a historian must show it
to be so.

Seeking to establish a sense of national identity and pride after
centuries of oppression is a legitimate enterprise. In this respect
Soviet Armenian historiography did play its role. But the problems
evident in 'The Armenian Renaissance' reveal some of the accompanying
and unresolved dangers. Forced interpretations of events that are less
rigorous with theory and evidence than is intellectually acceptable
contributed to generating a false and exclusivist sense of national
uniqueness and a supremacist national consciousness that would only
add fuel to the fires of a legacy of unresolved national conflicts.

Chaloyan's presentation, in seeking to establish the legitimacy of the
concept of an Armenian Renaissance, indirectly highlights other issues
that merit debate. The European Renaissance describes a historical
epoch that laid the foundations for Europe's intellectual, social,
political and economic development. It was, as it were, a historical
building block that was recognised as such only with the hindsight of
centuries. The same cannot be said about the 9th-13th centuries in
Armenia. Here definite features of a Renaissance are detectable. But
they were, as Chaloyan notes himself, cut short by foreign invasion
and destruction and never reached the standards attained later in
Europe nor did they play the same role in future Armenian national
development.

The truncated form of the Armenian experience does not allow an easy
equation with the European Renaissance. Unlike in Europe, a budding
development in Armenia gave rise to nothing. Its socio-economic
foundation was destroyed before it was able to fully flower and set
the basis for a new society. It did leave behind a set of brilliant
and enduring accomplishments. But for understandable reasons these had
little influence on the Armenian national revival of the 18-20th
centuries. Then Armenian intellectuals, artists and thinkers were
securing their main nourishment not from their own historical roots
but from European intellectual traditions.

One cannot question the flowering of culture, philosophy,
architecture, painting, poetry and science in 9th to 13th century
Armenia. But these need not necessarily be placed beneath the rubric
of a Renaissance to assure them of enduring value and legitimacy.
These classical Armenian thinkers and artists that Chaloyan so
imaginatively presents for us cannot but impress anyone tired of
post-modernist philosophy and its irrationalist pessimism.  With a
positive faith in humanity's ability to understand and control the
world in which they live, they are a refreshing contrast to the
thinking of the past decades which negates all hope for the future.


-------------------------------------------------------------------
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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