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The Critical Corner - 12/27/2003

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DANIEL VAROUJEAN: KEEPER OF THE FAITH IN THE HUMAN DREAM

Armenian News Network / Groong December 27, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian PART TWO: THE CELEBRATION OF FREE LABOUR AS CREATION [Part One is available here.] When Daniel Varoujean was arrested in Istanbul by the Young Turk government on 24 April 1915 he was working on a cycle of poems to be entitled 'The Song of Bread'. What would have been his fourth volume of poetry was never to be completed. Not released from captivity, Varoujean was murdered four months later, on 26 August 1915. His papers, along with them the manuscripts of the finished poems, were seized by his arresting officers and survived only by virtue of a bribe tendered to an Armenian accomplice of the Young Turk regime. Published posthumously in 1921 'The Song of Bread' takes one by surprise. On first impressions it seems to have little in common with his earlier volumes - 'Trembling', 'The Heart of the Nation' and 'Pagan Songs'. One feels here no throb of inspired and defiant confrontation with national and social oppression. One hears no echo from battlefields of political freedom, social emancipation, national liberation and individual desire or fulfilment. As if faithful to his claim that 'with each new project' he 'totally replaced the strings of his lyre,' Varoujean now sounds, apparently, an entirely new chord. In a 1914 letter to Vartkes Aharonian, he appears to contrast 'The Song of Bread' to his previous poetry explaining that he now wished 'to sing of the peaceful grandeurs of rural life' that were inspired by 'the land of my fathers' and by 'the labour of its peasants'. So 'The Song of Bread' sets out to chart the process that produces 'sacred Bread', from the ploughing of the land, the sowing of the grain and all subsequent stages to its consumption at the family table. The adventure alas came to a halt after the threshing and milling, with the remaining journey being indicated only by titles Varoujean left us - 'The Flour', 'The Cattle Shed', 'The Kneading', 'The Oven', 'The Family Table' and the final celebration 'The Song of Bread'. For all its indubitable originality this last poetic endeavour arises, nevertheless, on the very same foundations as Varoujean's earlier work. If earlier he had considered social, individual and national relations targeting them with the angry passion of his emancipatory ambition, in 'The Song of Bread' he sculpts a utopia of emancipation. Finely etched images of labouring men and women in the full bloom of consciousness, perception, sensation and movement produce an invigorating and refreshing panorama of life in its potential vigour and creativity. This utopia is however a 'realist' one, that designs in poetry an imagined world of truly possible human relations when these are freed of exploitation and oppression. 'The Song of Bread' unquestionably acquires additional layers of meaning when grasped with Varoujean's other work in mind. But it also stands magnificently alone as poetry of remarkable ilan and panache. Flamboyant and infused with passion and sensuality, touched by colour and moving with a musicality, pace, rhythm and verve that reproduce the sound and motion of living labour it becomes a joyful, proud, confident and easy song of free people living a life of free creation. On a first encounter it is experienced as a rural epic ennobling labour, honouring the animal world and glorifying land and nature as life's foundation. But 'To the Muse' that opens the volume suggests a broader and a deeper significance to the enterprise. Bread is not just material substance or biological sustenance. It nourishes not just the body but the spirit too, 'distributing countless joys and creative vigour'. So the poet defines it as 'sacred Bread' and turns to his Muse for inspiration to learn the secrets of this sacredness; to learn how the 'barren field becomes fecund' as it lies 'opened up by the muscular arm of labour' and touched by 'the swift motion of the sun'. Through the scope of its endeavour, the dramatic intensity of its narrative, the power of its searching and surprising metaphors 'The Song of Bread' flourishes into a celebration of free, unalienated labour that, as it produces Bread, generates the very foundations of life and community. Needless to say, as with Varoujean's conception of emancipation, his conception of labour is not narrow, exclusively political or economic. Its joyous rhythms woven into strikingly accurate and detailed portraits of both nature and the physical processes of labour shows it to be a pivotal, all-embracing and creative sensual, emotional and spiritual moment of being human. Expressed in the relation between labour and land 'The Song of Bread' also affirms the immanent and indissoluble unity between humanity and nature without which all life's promise would come to naught. On the modern reader the impact is immediate. In a world where men and women are increasingly removed and remote from the land, where labour is abused, held in contempt and reduced to stultifying, soul-destroying, wearying servitude 'The Song of Bread' recovers faith in and revives the ambition for labour as essential creativity; a faith and a hope that, as Zabel Yessaian would express it, endures but is forced by harsh reality to seek refuge in the farthest reaches of the human soul. Moreover the rich realism of 'The Song of Bread's portraits of our necessary communion with and enduring dependence on nature cries out against the contemporary abuse of the land that diminishes not just nature itself but humanity too. I. A DRAMA OF CREATION The 29 completed poems of 'The Song of Bread' constitute an unfinished three act drama of creation taking in the labour of ploughing and sowing; the land working its miracles; and then those stages that transform the harvest into Bread. Following the opening 'To The Muse', three poems - 'The Inviting Fields', 'The Labourers' and 'The Oxen' - introduce us to a trinity of creative and collaborating protagonists. The land is a living, sensitive being and exists in a directly, indeed explicitly, sensual relation to labour, a relation of procreation. In early spring 'when mornings now have April's smell', the retreating snow reveals it in its 'naked fertility', full of 'silent desire' beckoning the 'labourer to return to its embrace.' The labourers' relation to this land is elemental, almost instinctive, for, 'strong sons of the fields' they are wrought from the same essential nature. Beneath their matted chests 'throbs the heart of the soil', through 'their veins flows the sun' and 'knitted on their brows in beads of sweat they wear nature's crown'. The oxen too that will help plough the land and pull the harvest are companions in a joint endeavour tended and cared for during the winter months 'like fertile idols of the Temple'. Touched by nobility, their 'foreheads are of light' and their eyes 'reflect dreams of calm fields', 'their 'horns thrust down into the sunrise of dawn' as they plough. Varoujean does not oppose this trinity of natural forces to that of the Christian Holy Trinity. But the inference is unavoidable. In 'The Song of Bread' the whole cycle of life - in its material, spiritual, emotional and sensual manifestations - flows directly from human endeavour in collaboration with nature and beast, with not a hint of external intervention be it divine or otherwise. In this process labour is the conscious, organising and guiding force. It is free and creative men and women, assisted by nature, fashion their lives and their hopes for the future. Drawing powers from their own inherent nature and from their relationship to land and beast they bring about that condition of human freedom and fulfilment first hinted at in 'Trembling' and portrayed with greater power in 'The Heart of the Nation' and 'Pagan Songs'. As the protagonists embark on their endeavour their very first steps, the ploughing and the sowing, already contain the promise and the foundation for the future of life, family and community. Undertaken in 'the name of the labourer's family table' the poet hopes that the 'ambit of the arm that sows will be limitless'. Its final fruit will serve to also sustain 'society's needy' and so the poet also prays that the labourer's 'hand never emerge from the seed bag half-empty'. Later when the harvest is threshed and piled on carts the grain proclaims a promise of 'Joy to the cottages! Peace to the cottages!' This harvest now become, 'a mount of Hope' is 'treasure that protected within the embrace' of village stores sheds a 'silent contempt for winter or tomorrow's famine...' In 'The Blessing', perhaps one of the most beautiful of modern Armenian poems, the yield from the collaboration of land, labour and oxen is honoured as the guarantee of life's promise through all generations, for the present and for the future. The head of the home prays that when his 'valiant son, the belt to my waist', 'sows by the sum of his fingers he will reap by the sum of the stars'. For his grandson, the 'freshly blooming grip to my stick', he hopes that as he 'opens his corn-filled palm a thousand sheep will stretch to it.' A hand full of corn for his son's young bride is offered with the hope that in the cots she rocks 'scores of brilliant new dawns will sleep in glory.' And for the generation that is passing the harvest offers confidence for the family future and so therefore the expectation that 'the soil in which they will finally rest will have a touch of softness too.' In the second act nature plays its own independent role. As it deploys powers beyond human control, from within 'the womb of mother-earth' budding shoots of wheat 'touched with the dew of sweat' emerge 'with pearl in the mouth'. 'Decorating the empty land with the first flower of the bread' it transforms fields first to 'carpets of green and then to seas of gold' that 'burst into flame yet do not scorch'. Labour here acts as guardian to creating, pregnant land. It is 'the terror of any who endanger the fields', who dare disturb 'the flow of the sun or who seek to trample underfoot tomorrow's bread.' Besides the three protagonists almost the entire universe is drawn into a single constellation of creation that contributes something to the labour around which we weave intricate patterns of social existence in all their richness and diversity. The sun 'feeds the newly ploughed furrows from its fire filled veins', the rain 'pours as if stars melted by the sun', 'rich with blue, with delight and with jewelled laughter' and nourishes land already fertilised by mountain streams. Trees shade labourer and cattle at rest and field pools quench the weary oxen's thirst while at the mill 'stones that hug and gnaw at each other' 'absorb froth to produce flour'. Beyond that which serves the protagonists directly, nature's wild roses are 'plucked for village celebrations'. The tulips 'that decorate the fields of wheat', 'aflame like lovers' hearts', become the chalices from which people 'absorb the fire of June', drink 'the waves of the sun', and even 'the secrets of the husks'. Later, dancing, they will also drink from this chalice 'the wine of passion.' And as the night sky affords repose in the hay that will feed the cattle. There is the ready made bed for those like the poet's 'labouring parents' who conceived him 'in a rush of passion' 'beneath the bubbling stars'. II. THE POETRY OF FREE LABOUR AS CREATION Though the artistic reconstruction of the physical process of labour in 'The Song of Bread' is not complete, its projection as free and creative activity is as comprehensive as it is profound. In 'The Song of Bread' labour is not conceived of as divine punishment for humanity's transgression of divine will. Labour here is not traumatised by pillage or plunder. The blood that is spilt on the land is not that of the labourer but of the snake 'struck by a mighty blow of the plough'. It has ceased to be abuse of muscle, nerve and intelligence. It is not experienced as the tragedy that in 'Trembling' leads to babies dying in their emaciated mothers' wombs or as the oppressive and exploitative shackles that Varoujean raged against in 'The Heart of the Nation' and 'Pagan Songs'. 'The Song of Bread' is the nemesis of all this. Here labour is voluntary, self-determined activity. The seed that from the labourer's palm 'unfurls over the field like sunrise' returns to it and its community as rich yield. Working in harmony with both land and nature 'not a single bud withers beneath the movement of labour's sturdy heel'. This vision unfolds with compelling force throughout 'The Song of Bread' and particularly so in its remarkably vibrant grasp of the detail of nature and of physical labour and in its profusion of pagan allusions. Vivid imagery, metaphor, rhythm and music ennoble and deify the 'braves of the land' who 'sing along' as they plough 'in lines as straight as their souls'. They return to their villages standing 'upright like gods' atop carts that laden with harvest appear 'as moving pyramids furbished with light'. Later the cattle rest 'like marble idols moulded by moon silver'. Such is not the stance or the circumstance of serfs and of broken spirits nor of unjust social arrangement. These are the postures and the relations of people beholden to none but themselves. The images are powerful and persuasive for the ease with which they are seamlessly woven into the most ordinary and endlessly repeated physical postures of labourers at work. For Varoujean such pagan references did not serve to applaud any reactionary Nietzschean individual striving for power over others. In his poetry pagan metaphor and allusion with its deification of nature, man and beast and its preoccupation with terrestrial concerns and carnal desires affirmed instead the rights of all men and women of all nations to live freely and fully. This affirmation of freedom and fulfilment is underlined with descriptions of their own harvest stored as their security against possible adversity and through the association of their labour with their communal celebrations, love making, dancing, merriment and then repose and dreaming. These preoccupations flow forth with an overwhelming beauty in 'The Cross of Wheat'. If elsewhere in the volume man and beast are deified in 'The Cross of Wheat' the Christian Virgin Mary is refashioned as a pagan goddess before whom labour's 'first fruit is sacrificed'. The Virgin Mary becomes 'the sacred defender' of 'ancestral lands' that she herself has 'endowed with the immortality of paradise'. It is the Virgin Mary who in the lives of men and woman and in nature too 'creates 'the bud that flowers' and 'transforms hope to Dawn'. Thus she is assimilated into Anahit, Armenian Goddess of Fertility and is appropriated as an icon to express humanity's social, earthly desire. In the process even the Holy Cross loses its religious significance to become symbol for society's 'hopes and desires' as the poet weaves it from husks of wheat and by doing so imbues it with 'the motions of the field', the 'fire of the sun, the 'sparkle of the plough, the 'energy of my arm' and 'the pleas of my grandchildren'. Varoujean's vision develops even deeper and stronger roots in the masterly orchestration of those most ordinary and frequently overlooked yet peculiarly defining details of nature and labour. 'The Ploughing' is vivid and sensuous in its apprehension of the rhythmic flow of labour as it cuts the furrows, leaving them lined with mounds of soil still steaming with the inner warmth of the land. Almost every poem is injected with a detail or two that captures something essential about rural life and labour whether it be the 'darkened and charred beams' of village sheds upon which 'the spider has laid its ash covered cloak', the 'cattle jostling and locking horns' for 'a place at the watering hole' or the 'newly hatched birds balanced on a hovering branch' and 'hens pecking at corn left by the roadside'. As the cycle of 'The Song of Bread' flows, it becomes impossible to dismiss the notion and the vision of free and creative labour as fantasy and unrealisable illusion, for were it so, it could hardly be depicted so integrally and so harmoniously alongside the real and rough detail of the life of land and labour. III. THE INTELLECTUAL FOUNDATION OF VAROUJEAN'S REALIST UTOPIA Totally at variance with the often daunting and unforgiving struggle for life with which labour is associated for the vast majority, visions of labour as a free and creative activity embracing all dimensions of human existence are easily dismissed as absurd illusion or crass sentimentality. Even Hagop Oshagan, a brilliant literary critic who penned one of the most perceptive commentaries on Varoujean, dismissed 'The Song of Bread' as little more than a romantic rural idyll of no artistic value. It did 'not offer' he asserted 'a realistic' or 'an authentic picture' of the Armenian village that one reads of, for example, in Tlgadinzti. Armenian prose, Oshagan concluded, 'has given us some more or less accomplished depictions of rural life, but not Armenian poetry.' 'The Song of Bread' was in his view no exception. (An Overview of Western Armenian Literature Volume 6, page 200-201). This rather astonishing and vulgar evaluation masks an unusual and comprehensive artistic, philosophic and intellectual lapse. Oshagan, who in his novels proves capable of penetrating the almost inaccessible recesses of the human psyche, reveals a remarkable aesthetic incomprehension of Varoujean's poetic excavation of the creative, spirit enhancing and emotion-generating world of labour. Unlike Varoujean, Oshagan's intellect and imagination could not in this instance comprehend anything beyond the immediately evident grind and cruelty of Armenian village life marred as it was by Ottoman oppression, social exploitation, prejudice and superstition that Oshagan himself depicted so brilliantly in his novels both in their social and in their psychological forms. 'The Song of Bread' is not of course devoid of meaningful, critical, realist references prominent among them the threat of poverty and famine. Also chiselled into its gallery of pictures are scores of tiny details, such as 'the smell of cow sheds that cling to the labourers' jackets' that add to the authenticity of the rural world that he recreates. But Varoujean's aim was not to reproduce the authenticity of the village as it existed but as it could exist. This he could not through a realist reproduction of the then existing Armenian village that Oshagan seems to demand. But neither did Varoujean pluck his vision of 'grandeur' from thin air or construct it by cheap leaps of imagination. Rather by peering behind that veil of tears woven by exploitation, oppression and alienation, he reconstructed the world of work and labour in a pristine form free of contamination. That there is here no plunderer, no feudal lord, vicious landlord or greedy usurer to seize labour's yield or uselessly exhaust its energies does not in any way render the vision illusory. For in Varoujean's visualisation and imagination there is nothing that is inherently contradictory or unrealisable. In 'Trembling, his first volume, he had already alluded to the immanent possibility of unsullied human relations as they are expressed in the 'undeceiving goodness' that flow naturally and almost instinctively within those relations of filial and fatherly love and loyalty; social relations born of the very cycle of procreation and life. In 'The Song of Bread' this notion is enhanced, enriched and branches into his vision of men and women's emancipated life. Before the predator wields the whip or seizes the yield or before it is transformed into mindless and purposeless drudgery, labour, as the first means to life, is sensed in its creative essence even by the most downtrodden. However iniquitous the social conditions, its 'sacred Spirit' is rarely destroyed. As individuals we endlessly measure our experience of labour as mind numbing and soul-destroying against our consciousness, of our own stifled creative potential. Socially, this consciousness is recorded and preserved in song and myth, epic and fantasy, in art and in science and persists as a living impulse in human consciousness and its dreams. Examples are countless. A relevant one that defines an important dimension of the 19th century Armenian national revival is from Stepan Oskanian, one of its outstanding intellectual representatives. In his short story 'An Armenian Heroine' written some 50 years before 'The Song of Bread' the protagonist at one point proclaims: 'I shall go forth and sacrifice myself so that everyone can enjoy the fruit of their labour in peace, so that the tears of young children cease to flow and when they ask for bread we do not have to reply: "There is no bread. What we had has been plundered. They came and took it...' In 'The Song of Bread' Varoujean brings vision and this ambition to a level of artistic excellence that inspires sense and intellect with the confidence to conceive and imagine in unchallengeable terms a world of labour as creative freedom. Written as song, each encounter with 'The Song of Bread' generates new streams of meaning, new channels for the flow of emotion. It grows constantly into a startling, sparkling and living criterion against which to judge existing reality. It stands as a superb magnification of that hidden core of creativity in labour that demands release from all alienations. 'The Song of Bread' is the trumpet that announces the alternative to the exploitation and suffering against which Varoujean endlessly urged the common people to battle. The circumstances of the composition of 'The Song of Bread' raise some important social and political issues, among them the attitude and progressive expectations that Varoujean harboured for the Armenian people in the aftermath of the 1908 so-called 'Young Turk Revolution'. However evaluated, these expectations, shared with countless other Armenian intellectuals, artists and political activists, do not alter the substance of poetry which, though arising from immediate experience and hopes, soared with a majesty far beyond into independent song that echoes across the ages. -- 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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