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Why we should read...

'Krikor of Narek'
by Vatche Nalpantian
Khorhrtayin Grogh, 304pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1990

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 5, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


The 10th century poet and thinker Krikor of Narek (Narekatzi) once
enjoyed a pre-eminent position in Armenian cultural and intellectual
life. His work influenced the language, substance and contours of the
nation's literature for at least some 8 centuries. Before he became
the unread icon of modern days, Narekatzi and his monumental 'Book of
Lamentations' (Narek) were regarded with enormous reverence by the
common people too. Invested with miraculous powers the poet and his
book were held in awe, considered as balm for human woes and
tribulations, as guardians of the poor, the homeless, the sick and the
suffering. Today, in a tragic waste of cultural inheritance, Narekatzi
is referred to hardly at all and read even less.

Vatche Nalpantian's excellent introduction to Narekatzi contributes
to recovering his work for the modern man and woman. Despite some
stretches of weak, unsubstantiated and questionable argument,
Nalpantian successfully draws Narekatzi's dream of human grandeur out
of its religious shell. Full of well chosen quotation, it opens up a
world rich in reflection on the drama of human existence. This small
volume fulsomely substantiates Nalpantian's claim that in Narekatzi we
have no less than a giant of international literature who speaks
directly to the troubled soul of the individual in the modern age.
This book is additionally a superb example of how to read that
superior portion of religious/theological literature which, despite
its religious forms and conceptions, touches on essential human
concerns.


Preludes to the 'Book of Lamentations'

Time has left us only 20 odd samples of Narekatzi's shorter poems. Yet
these already contain some of the features of his vision as they
appear later, in perfected form, in the 'Book of Lamentations'. In
them, suggests Nalpantian, religious form becomes a vessel for a
secular appreciation of the natural world and human life. Against the
grain of Christian thought and tradition, nature and the human body
are not regarded simply or exclusively as sources of sin, corruption
and evil. They are also treated as objects having their own unique,
inherent beauty, worthy of their own praise and glory. Cited as
evidence is a poem in which the Virgin Mary appears as a woman of
flesh and blood, possessing a human beauty far removed from prevalent
lifeless Christian images.

Nalpantian endorses Levon Shant's view that Narekatzi's vivid, lush
and sensual descriptions of nature, of human beings and of human
labour that appear in the shorter poems often serve no religious
purpose at all. In many of the poems there is only the most formal
obeisance to religious concerns, sometimes expressed only in a title
or tucked away in end lines. In effect human beings and nature are
presented as ends in themselves.

The shorter poems also hint at the function of the natural world in
Narekatzi's later poetry. Nature makes superfluous any resort to
metaphysical mysticism. Nature can supply the images and the metaphors
with which Narekatzi renders comprehensible the deepest and most
passionate of human experiences and emotions. With Narekatzi the
elements of the natural world prove adequate to the task of portraying
the finest, profoundest and most spiritual of human experiences. In
this connection Nalpantian, along with others, argues that Narekatzi
draws on those traditions of pagan Armenian culture that in folklore
survived the Christian destruction.


The Book of Lamentations

The scope of the 'Book of Lamentations' is vast, stretching over a
thousand lines and consisting of 95 elegies or prayers, headed 'Words
Unto God From the Depths of My Heart'. Some claim it lacks genuine
inner unity. False, retorts Nalpantian.  Narekatzi conceived of his
epic as a unity and it should be our business to grasp this unity.
Indeed only in doing so will we appreciate its true grandeur, its
humanistic logic and its modernity.

The virtue of Nalpantian's commentary is that he unveils the human
core of Narekatzi's vision, without any distortion or evasion of the
powerful Christian, mystical, ascetic features of the book. But he
does show how sometimes through them, sometimes beyond and sometimes
in opposition to them Narekatzi grapples with the spiritual and
material troubles and turmoil of human life here on earth.

Often referred to as a prayer book, Narek is, notwithstanding its
religious form, a stunning poetic encyclopaedia of the symptoms that
together constitute humanity's existential condition. The book's
central object is the rational, thinking, feeling and suffering human
being. 'I am everyone' says Narekatzi, and 'what is in everyone, is in
me also.' So each elegy portrays aspects of human experience -
emotional, physical, spiritual - which are dissected, reconstructed
and laid bare in their essential, universal and enduring manifestations.

In Narek we see men and women alienated from their own potential,
suffering insecurity, gripped by fear, hesitation, trepidation and
loss of confidence in life, enduring bitter spiritual and bodily
pain. 'If a hand is raised I bend;/ If I see a small scarecrow I
shake;/ If I hear a light noise, I start;/If I be summoned for
questioning I grow silent;/If I justly be examined, I become numb..'
Worse still, 'foreshadowing the destructive peril of my death' many of
the 'most miserable and pitiful doubts/ have accumulated above one
another/in the deep, sensitive substance of my heart' which is
'pierced with incurable pain'.

In each elegy Narekatzi, as spokesman for all human beings, strives
for release from the pain of life. Not however in the afterlife, but
in the here and now. Unlike the traditional Christian worshiper he is
not frozen in passive, powerless, beseeching genuflection before an
Omnipotent God. The human being in Narek has independent consciousness
and ambition and does not plead, but seeks to recruit the Almighty as
an ally to render life endurable and fulfilled.

Narekatzi is no beggar or supplicant but one who protests, argues and
negotiates. At different points he even takes it upon himself to
'explain' and to 'teach' God that the best way to express His
greatness is through 'audacious philantrophy'.  Indeed God is 'worthy
of the greatest praise' when He 'privileges the love of humanity'.
Narekatzi simultaneously humanizes god, making him more accessible and
familiar, less remote. In many a passage god is 'invited' to 'enter
the worshipers home' there to 'discuss' and 'honour' human concerns
and needs.

The Book of Lamentations can be read as a record of humanity's
negotiations and debates with the deity aimed at cancelling out the
traumas of human life and raising the human being to God's grand
level. This debate and negotiation eventually appears essentially as
man/woman struggling with him/herself to overcome his/her own limits
and weaknesses and realise the potential that rests concealed or
suppressed within the human being.


The perfectability of the human

Feuerbach, a 19th century philosopher, claimed that through religion
an alienated and powerless humanity projects its own potential
perfection on to an ideal, omnipotent deity of its own invention.
Amazingly, eight centuries earlier Narekatzi appears to be a step
ahead in suggesting that humanity has the ability to reappropriate and
realise this potential. According to Nalpantian, this - the human
capacity for transformation, to make a transition from an imperfect to
a perfect state, - is one of the dominant themes of Narek.

For Narektazi, a Christian person is inevitably tainted by a thousand
and one sins, is flawed and prone to evil. This is the very nature of
being human. Yet just as saints have the capacity to overcome, so does
a man or a woman generally. Narekatzi is relentless in cataloguing
every human weakness and failure. Yet he simultaneously reveals human
consciousness of their opposites. In counterposing human misery,
weakness, failure and sin to the glory, power, virtue and justice that
God retains for himself, Narekatzi defines a terrain for a contest with
God in which the human being presses all the time to acquire those
perfect qualities of a God.

In Narek, the common Christian assertion that man has been created in
the image of god acquires an entirely radical dimension. Man/woman
becomes more than mere image or form, becomes also content and essence
where God's omnipotence, wisdom, justice and perfection cease to be
beyond human reach. The human being is marked by unique qualities. God
has 'adorned me with reason;/ Made me radiant with breathing;/
Enriched my mind;/ Increased my wisdom;/Fortified mine intellect;/
..selected me out of animate beings; /mingled into me an intelligible
soul;' and 'Bedecked me with a princely existence'

The immense scope and capability of human reason, intellect and wisdom
unfolds through floods of remarkable metaphor, adjective and synonym
sometimes culminating in suggestions of the possible deification of
the human. So Narekatzi writes, 'even though to say so strikes me with
terror' that 'We also are able to become god;/ With virtues and
abilities fine' Thus does he dissolve the traditional Christian breach
between God and man into a single, whole, human experience.


The aim is man - body and soul

Completing the picture of the human being's emotional and psychological
experience, Narek contains startling images of social reality and the
ills of the time. This, Nalpantian argues, is indication, if any is
needed, of the poet's concern for the well being of the living, earthly
human being, in his or her bodily and spiritual unity. Knitting together
diverse passages from the 'Book of Lamentations' Nalpantian shows
Narekatzi denouncing the terrible conditions people had to endure -
the usury, plunder, war, plague, devastation and banditry among them.

It is as if the entire social and political structure has become a
corruption, inflicting itself on the population: 'If I see a soldier,
I await death;/If it be a messenger, severity;/If it be a clerk, a
bond of ruination;/If it be a legal man, malediction:/ If it be a
religious man, reprimand'. So the poet, becoming a spokesman for
humanity, urges God 'to bless those suffering more than I;/ To release
the incarcerated;/ To emancipate the condemned;/ To do goodness to the
cursed;/To bring joy to the humiliated;/ To be balm to the
heartbroken.'

Narekatzi's temporal concerns are evident not just in the social
content of the poetry but in its philosophic and artistic technique as
well. It would be inconceivable, Nalpantian asserts, for a thinker
preoccupied by mystical concerns to exhaustively, passionately and so
vividly describe the human body. Yet this is exactly what Narekatzi
does often in some inspiring poetry. And he does not do so in the
traditional Christian manner, to underline God's genius. In affirming
the marvel of the human body he lays the ground for appeals to God to
cure people of bodily ills, to restore them to their own inherent
splendour.

Underlining this concern for life on earth is a rejection of
traditional Christian notions of death as relief and redemption from
an unworthy bodily existence. With awesome poetic force Narekatzi
shows that death is no blissful transition to a better, everlasting
world. It is 'annihilation', it is 'the transition to nothingness', it
is 'loss' and 'emptiness'. Death is like 'a lantern extinguished', a
'dried up stream', 'an uprooted tree', 'a burnt bit of dead wood', a
'pitiful sight', a 'miserable form', a 'tragic thing'. It is no
accident therefore that pleas to stay the hand of death, to cure the
body, to give it strength to resist and live appear throughout the
poem.

Pressing home his point Nalpantian argues that when Narekatzi does pay
homage to the Christian concept of death the passages lack poetic fire
and passion.  Equally significant is the fact that in the 'Book of
Lamentations' one only rarely comes across significant references or
expressions of desire for the afterlife. Those passages that do
express such a desire also lack poetic power. Many scholars,
Christians among them, even claim these passages may be additions by
other pens.

Krikor of Narek wrote the 'Book of Lamentations' as a 'monument of
hope'. In a series of wonderfully uplifting passages we see at the
core of a truly monumental work a profound love of humanity and a
passionate desire to see all obstacles to human happiness -
psychological, emotional and material - removed. Reading these
passages we can see why the book had such an amazing hold over the
population. With a mesmerising poetry unrivalled in Armenian
literature, it inspired in men and women the hope of a fulfilled life,
and it sustained this hope during long centuries of darkness and
oppression.

Vatche Nalpantian's 'Krikor of Narek' is a marvellous introduction to
a body of work that belongs not to Christians, but to humanity as a
whole. Despite the aspersions cast upon it, Narek is not a sermon in
humility and resignation in the face of oppression and misery, even
though it does not, and could not, preach revolt as some have idly
desired. Despite its complexity and age the 'Book of Lamentations' can
still speak vibrantly to an era where hope has diminished and where
gloom and darkness need vanquishing.

Note: There is no adequate English language translation of Narek.
Extracts are rough and ready, remote approximations, with the help of
Misha Kudian and Gevork Emin


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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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