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The Critical Corner - 10/04/2004

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Worth a read...

    Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding.
    Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature.
    Reading them one will always find something of value.

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 4, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


				  I

BEDROS TOURIAN - POET, INTELLECTUAL AND NATIONAL ACTIVIST

A. S. Sharourian's measured and erudite enthusiasm for his subject
makes this critical biography ('Bedros Tourian: his life and work',
362pp, 1972, Yerevan) of 19th century Armenian poet Bedros Tourian a
pleasant and educative read.  Tourian's literary reputation was
established in his lifetime (1851-1872), acquired critical acclaim
during after 1890 and has never since flagged. He is generally
regarded as the first truly brilliant modern Armenian lyrical poet
who, unencumbered by classical or clerical tradition, wrote
exclusively in modern vernacular and combined originality and
folklore.

Tourian's brief life is testimony to what can be accomplished by
combinations of youth, talent, energy and dedication. By 15 when
poverty forced him to abandon school he had already authored two plays
and established himself as someone of promise. At his death at 21
though dogged by poverty and ill-health he had to his credit a stock
of classical translations, begun at school, 10 plays, a volume of
poetry, some quality journalism as well as a hand full artistic gems
in the form of personal letters. The thousands who thronged the
streets for his funeral testified to the powerful chord Tourian had
struck in the popular imagination and spirit.

Sharourian is intent on presenting Tourian in what he believes to be
his true image - an all round intellectual and artist of the Armenian
revival. In Armenianising his name from the Turkish Zmbayan to
Tourian, the poet was not engaging in mere affectation. His plays,
much of his poetry and prose are shaped by an intense concern for the
fortunes of the Armenian nation and people.  Sharourian places Tourian
in what he regards as the radical wing of the Armenian revival, along
with men like H. Baronian, that was unceasing in its criticism of the
decadent order of the times. Going a step further, Sharourian even
tries to hitch the poet to the chariot of social and even class
struggle suggesting Tourian had a 's conscious commitment to the
interests of the Armenian poor of Constantinople. Whilst it is
possible to take issue with this evaluation, Sharourian's emphasis on
Tourian's social and political vision is welcome, for when this is
ignored it diminishes the man, the poet and the intellectual.

Though artistically unremarkable, Tourian's historical plays contain
passages of wonderful prose reflecting on national fortunes and on the
oppositions between Crown and peasant and prince and plebeian that
bring out sharply, albeit indirectly, the corruption and selfishness
of the ruling elite in his own time.  That through these historical
tragedies Tourian sought to address contemporary issues is proven by
his prescient preface to his last play 'The Theatre and the
Dispossessed'. Here he argues that to deal effectively with
contemporary problems one must leave behind the restrictive form of
historical plays so prone to empty bombast and rhetoric.

This valuable volume is somewhat tarnished by a largely though not
exclusively pedestrian appreciation of Tourian's poetry. Still, the
author does alert us to the broader, universal themes in Tourian's
small body of work that focused on personal love and pain. Tourian's
political or patriotic poetry express visions of justice and a
dedication to the collective good of the Armenian people. Though
intensely personal, his best work is suffused with a profound humanism
that is underlined in poetic technique that draws inspiration from
popular folklore and uses the spoken language to produce an authentic
Armenian poetry that dwells on the experience of all men and women. It
is not for nothing that Varoujan compared Tourian to Khatchadour
Abovian, pioneer of the Armenian novel, and bemoaned the fact that the
traditions of Tourian's genuine Armenian poetry were neglected by
successors bent on aping of western schools and trends.


				  II

GHAZAROS AGHAYAN - AN INTELLECTUAL FOR THE PEOPLE

The legacy of the great Armenian intellectuals of the 19th century
national revival, despite the enduring value of its moving principles,
is slowly being pressed into oblivion by the monolith of globalism and
its attendant cultural degeneration. Among the victims of this process
is Ghazaros Aghayan (1840 - 1911), poet, novelist, publicist, educator
and linguist. Leo's fine little biography is a reminder of why it is
worth preserving and utilising the heritage of figures such as
Aghayan.

Aghayan was a most unlikely intellectual who hailed from a tough and
rugged family, born in the heights of the Karabagh mountains and had
no formal higher education. His grandfather was a soldier in the ranks
of an Armenian feudal army in Karabakh while his father enjoyed a
bandit's career before settling in the Lori region. Ghazaros inherited
from them an enormous physical frame as well as stubbornness,
determination, audacity and a sense for adventure. Before turning to
cultural and intellectual activity he was a vagabond, a hunter, a
troubador, factory worker, farm labourer and typsetter. But with a
creative imagination and sharp intelligence he was ineluctably drawn
into the growing stream of national cultural and intellectual revival
that was regenerating Armenian life in the 19th century.

Though spreading his talents widely Ghazaros Aghayan excelled
primarily as an educator and folklorist, gathering and cultivating a
vast body of local fables, tales and stories and using them in his
outstanding pedagogical work.  Leo's view that Aghayan's poetry is of
value is questionable. He is right however to claim that Leo's novels,
albeit of limited artistic value, are significant as a historical
record of the backward social, religious and educational traditions of
the time against which Aghayan fought with all his talent and energy.

Like the best of his generation the animating principle behind all of
Aghayan's work was the advancement of the common people. The
enlightenment, education and advancement of the 'lower orders' was
regarded as the foundation for any serious effort to secure the
Armenian people equality and liberty in the world. To this end Aghayan
devoted years to teaching, earning in due course an outstanding
reputation. Besides he did seminal work producing modern pedagogical
textbooks that, unlike the mechanical and literal copies of foreign,
mainly Russian efforts that flooded the Armenian market, Aghayan
creatively appropriated and adjusted their work to meet Armenian
needs.

In this respect Aghayan's translation and adaptation of the work of
Oushinski, a pioneering Russian educator, was of particular note.
Oushinski was a driving force behind the introduction of modern and
democratic educational principles into Russian life.  Leo argues that
Aghayan was a man of the same order, in fact 'the Oushinski of
Armenian elementary education'. Coming from one not known for
generosity in praise, this is a remarkable evaluation.

Politically and socially, Aghayan shared with men like Mikael
Nalpantian a sort of communal, egalitarian even socialistic vision of
society and economy, which they believed would bring different
nationalities and their states into relations of harmony and equality.
In the 1890s claiming that the root of rural backwardness lay in
private property Aghayan argued for communal farming.  Believing such
property forms impossible in large urban centres he advocated instead
that the rich subsidise and finance the education and social welfare
of the community as a whole. In doing so he reveals a deeply
democratic sprit insisting that the Armenian elite, which had
disproportionate economic weight in the Caucuses, support not just the
needy Armenian but the destitute Turk, Russian or Georgian too. Such
measures were regarded by him as part of an effort to eliminate
national antagonism and secure mutual respect and peaceful
co-existence between nationalities.

Setting out Aghayan's contribution Leo offers a sharply critical
picture of the age. When Aghayan first goes to Tbilisi in 1853, this
'capital of the Armenian community' did not even have an Armenian
language newspaper and its educational system, controlled by an
obscurantist Church, still dispensed little more than a compound of
medieval theology and traditional superstition.  Prevailing social
backwardness was symbolised by the plight of women and children who,
like Aghayan's mother and her sons, were virtual slaves to the male
tyrant of the home. As for the Armenian intelligentsia its vast bulk
was narrow-minded, petty and sectarian, composed of 'intellectual
terrorists' guilty of 'extreme intolerance. Hypocrites, days before
Aghayan's death they had launched a bitter campaign against him but
still joined his funeral procession when after his death. Little
changes!


--
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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