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The Critical Corner - 03/23/2005

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ANALYZING THE BEAST

Armenian News Network / Groong
March 23, 2005

by Shushan Avagyan


In my analysis of Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon, I will reflect upon
the treatment of key recurring themes such as the internalization of
catastrophe, the inability or unwillingness to grasp the reality of
events, and the acting out of the origins of trauma inflicted upon the
human psyche. Furthermore, I will draw parallels between the act of
Genocide and domestic violence, -- the first being harnessed by
bureaucratic indifference and hard-line fundamentalist ideology, the
other driven by unresolved trauma. The horrors told by the survivors,
such as those depicted in Beast on the Moon, rise in a cacophony of
bloody memories of rape, lynching, murders by firearm and swords, and
most gruesome of all -- decapitation and crucifixion.

The play is set in Milwaukee, in 1921, in the home of Aram Tomasian, a
twenty-one year old portrait photographer. Aram has survived the
Genocide and escaped to America carrying his only possession -- his
father's coat. The coat is associated with Aram's survival, his
father, the old country, and a photograph of his family that was sewn
into the lining. During the act of Genocide, Aram was hidden in a hole
in their house and left for dead under his father's coat while the
gendarmes were hanging the heads of his family on the clothesline next
to his mother's wash. Aram's existence is driven by the anticipation
of resurrecting his perished family and saving them from oblivion.
Unable to verbalize his own grief, Aram impulsively acts out the
beheading of his family through the photograph, which like a
guillotine hangs on the easel in his living room. Concealed from the
killers' eyes, peeping from his hideout at the gruesome act of
beheading, Aram's haunting voyeuristic desire recurs in a repetitive
pattern: his only pleasures in real life are perceived through his
camera. Removed from reality, incapable of dialoging with his own
disturbed psyche, Aram finds solace in hiding behind his professional
camera and vigilantly waiting to record other people's lives.

Act I opens with Aram's meeting with Seta, a fourteen-year-old girl
from one of the many orphanages set up in Istanbul after the
Genocide. He has chosen Seta as his bride from thirty-seven
photographs, sent to him from the Istanbul Mission. Ironically, the
picture-bride, that Aram thinks he has picked, is dead -- Seta is her
replacement:

    "I'm sorry, that is a picture of a dead girl -- she's dead -- she
    died nine months ago of disease, but they must have used her
    picture. They put my name on the back, I think."

Aram is upset and confused, because he has done everything in his
power to organize his life according to a plan, but from the very
start he is faced with unanticipated circumstances. Quickly recovering
from an initial dismay, Aram resolves that he can forget the picture
of the dead girl by taking a new photograph of Seta: "Our life should
be recorded."  Aram is replacing a traumatic memory [dead girl], with
a falsely constructed happiness [Seta]. Here Kalinoski bares the
device of historiography through Aram, who insists on taking Seta's
photograph without the doll and with a strained fake
smile. In this act Aram is doing two things: erasing Seta's Armenian
subjectivity and appropriating a new American identity, and replacing
Seta's girlhood with womanhood.

    "Americans . . . they smile. Smile now -- a little, and
    hold. [. . .]  Ah! You've ruined it. I must get a new plate. Seta,
    smile. No grim looking Armenian girls."

But Seta protests, it doesn't "feel natural"to her; she isn't
registering self-identification within the imaginary order. In the
Lacanian schema, Kaja Silverman explains the "imaginary" to designate
that order of the subject's experience, which is dominated by
identification and duality. And since Aram thinks that pictures
shouldn't be natural, but posed, Seta must let go of her natural ways
through self-alienation. In this new record, Seta's identity is being
further reconstructed as she is forced to abandon her doll, the only
memory of her dead mother.  The doll is also associated with girlhood
and a source of psychological strength that Seta identifies with.
Only by means of this fabulous construct does Seta retain her own
self-recognition. By forcing her to fake a smile and by taking away
the doll, Aram is stripping Seta of her own subjectivity and
fabricating her as something that she is not. Seta's resistance to
such history-making is rather strong, but ineffective; after all she
really has no choice but to play along. The sources of Seta's
powerlessness in this situation are obvious: she is an orphan, she is
in a foreign country and in a house where nothing belongs to
her. Furthermore, metaphorically speaking, Seta belongs to Aram in the
sense that he has purchased her from the Istanbul mission and she
feels indebted to him.

Later in this act, Aram pursues his strategic "taming"of his
girl-bride, as he presents Seta her first marital gift -- a
custom-made hand-held mirror.  At the back of the mirror, Aram has
inscribed "For my wife"in English, a foreign and illegible language
for Seta. Aram orders Seta to look at herself, while he places himself
next to her and begins reading from the Bible: "Women shall adorn
themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety. I
suffer a woman not to teach, nor usurp authority over the man."By
looking at herself in the mirror, Seta is required to see in her image
a woman entering a new symbolic order, i.e., as Aram's new wife. In
The Subject of Semiotics, Kaja Silverman explains:

    "Not only is the subject split off or partitioned from its own
    drives, but it is subordinated to a symbolic order which will
    henceforth entirely determine its identity and desires. It will
    from this point forward participate in the discourse of the Other,
    and regard itself from the space of the Other."

In order to re-program her, Aram is committed to "a lot of
training,"as he tells her to "hold the mirror out and look into
it. I'll read from the Proverbs."Here Aram is manipulating both the
imaginary and symbolic registers at the same time, creating a binary
opposition between Self and Other through both imagery and
language. Seta's reaction to these manipulative games is to resist the
new subjectivity, as she looks and sees "just a girl"in the mirror, a
living-dead girl, just like Aram -- a living-dead boy.

From Seta's fragmented story it is evident that before the Genocide
she lived in the city and was raised in a much more liberal setting
than Aram. To Aram's surprise and outrage, his new wife used to read
the Bible to her father; in his family, it was the man who
read. What is even more abominable to Aram is the fact that Seta's
mother had been an educated woman, a teacher, who used to sing: "When
she sang, the whole house shook and the neighbors came out into their
yards."To which Aram replies: "When my mother married my father she
was not allowed to speak for a year. One whole year."At the turn of
the century, Armenian wedding customs varied considerably from region
to region, and were more rigidly observed in rural areas than in the
cities. As Susie Hoogasian Villa recounts women's experiences in her
chapter on marriage and childbirth in Armenian Village Life Before
1914:

    "From her wedding day, the lower half of her face was constantly
    veiled in most villages, for at least a year. [. . .] She was
    not permitted to speak to anyone except the children, and even
    that was possible only when she was alone with them."

This Armenian custom, known as moonch, which literally means
"mute,"is reminiscent of purdah that was practiced by Muslim Indian
women. Both customs are characterized with extreme forms of sex role
differentiation and provide a separation within the symbolic codes.
Reduced to the status of a child, or a lesser human being, the woman
in moonch was barred from access to other women and the rest of
society. Bereft of any rights, she was not allowed to partake in any
of the family affairs or decision-making. Once the wife in moonch had
successfully completed her initiation, she became a full member of the
extended family, enjoying its rights and privileges.  Aram's reference
to his mother's moonch is strategic in his attempt to silence
Seta and install reverence toward himself as the patriarch of the
house. Initiated by the photograph session, the gift of the mirror and
readings from the Bible, Aram is systematizing his oppression and
reconstruction of Seta's identity.

Later in Act I, in response to Aram's decision to perform "the
business of a man and a woman,"Seta giggles like a child and
persistently continues clutching her doll. At first seeming to be a
game, the act suddenly paralyzes her with the realization that she is
threatened by Aram the same way she was threatened by a Turkish
militiaman. When Aram uses force to grab Seta from underneath the
table, her temporary refuge from a stranger claiming to be her
husband, Seta shrieks: "I saw a Turk. Oh no, I saw a Turk."Sexual
intercourse for Seta is equivalent to crime, as she recounts her older
sister's rape by a Turkish gendarme during the purges. Seta was spared
because her sister sacrificed herself "in my place, she did it for me
[. . .] but I saw him, I saw just then, oh I saw him on your face, in
your eyes I saw him."Aram's tyranny invokes the memories of rape and
genocide in Seta as she is re-traumatized and re-experiences an
atrocious act from her past.

Clearly, Aram's behavior in Freudian terms could be described as the
repetition compulsion, where "a thing which has not been understood
inevitably reappears; like an inlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the
mystery has been solved and the spell broken."In Act II, with Seta's
help Aram articulates his compulsion to repeat through symbolic
beheading:

    "I sat alone and looked at the picture coming alive in the
    chemicals and I took a knife and cut out the heads of my father,
    Toros, my mother, Vartuhy, my little sister, Karin, and my brother
    Dickran . . . I cut out the heads of my family. I thought I could
    replace them. I really thought that's the way it would be. I
    thought . . . a wife . . . children . . .  then I would
    forget. Completely. But I never forget. I never do."

Aram is finally faced with what Freud would call his restitutive
tendency, a function working by various means to re-establish the
situation which had existed prior to the trauma; it exploits
repetitive phenomena in the interests of the ego. Furthermore, by
acting out his unconscious wishes and fantasies, Aram relives them in
the present with a sensation of immediacy, which is heightened by his
refusal to recognize the source and its repetitive character.

Aram fails to realize that this impulsive acting out is at the expense
of another human being and is absolutely destructive. His desire to
father a family and resurrect his lost family has consumed him so much
that he is completely in denial of Seta's body refusing to conceive.
In his delusional state, Aram hears Seta, but is deaf to understanding
her reality:

    "He [doctor] said girls who starve sometimes . . .  can't. [. . .]
    Mr. Tomasian, when I was nine, I starved. I starved. [. . .] And
    you bought a carriage -- was this to be my surprise? Or was it
    your surprise . . . Mr. Tomasian, a carriage does not make a
    baby."

After his systematic forced attempts to realize his dream, Aram simply
cannot come to terms with the thought that his desire alone is not
enough to fill the empty holes of his family photograph. Flagrantly
blaming Seta for his failed mission to continue the Tomasian family
tree, he deploys psychological aggression against her. Using the Bible
as an instrument of power and authority, Aram attacks her:

    "Proverbs: Chapter 25 Verse 24. "It is better to dwell in a corner
    than in a roomy house with a quarrelsome woman'"and "Genesis!
    Chapter 25 Verse 21. "Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife
    because she was barren.'"

Raised in a traditional patriarchal society, Aram fails to acknowledge
that Seta's traumatic experience was as painful and inhuman as his
own. In her essay "Not Outside the Range,"Laura Brown explains that
trauma is usually identified as something abnormal experienced by
white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual men. Brown critiques
the definition of human and how our images of trauma can be narrow and
constructed within the experiences and realities of dominant groups.
Aram, as the patriarch, refuses to see Seta's experience as legitimate
as his own, since he fails to see her as an equal human being. And so,
Aram's treatment of Seta as a lesser human being is analogous to the
Turkish leaders' reasoning behind their politics of violence against
the Armenian infidels. Once the Armenian subjects, living under the
Ottoman rule since its creation, were ostracized as gavurs, or
contemptuous beings, it was legitimately permissible to treat them
inhumanly.  According to British ethnographer William Ramsay, the
Christian subjects of Ottoman Turkey were regarded as

    "dogs and pigs . . . to be spat upon, if their shadow darkened a
    Turk, to be outraged, to be the mats on which he wiped the mud
    from his feet. Conceive the inevitable result of centuries of
    slavery, of subjugation to insult and scorn, centuries in which
    nothing that belonged to the Armenian, neither his property, his
    house, his life, his person, nor his family, was sacred or safe
    from violence -- capricious, unprovoked violence -- to resist
    which by violence meant death."

While Aram is dogmatically obsessed with his barren solution to the
healing process, Seta, burdened by Aram's despotism, is resisting her
subjugation and at the same time trying to salve whatever is left from
her past life. She is fighting for her own dignity and also for the
cultural heritage which her parents left her before they perished. In
response to Aram's denigrating comments from the Bible, Seta cleverly
counterattacks:

    "Mr. Tomasian, you know Proverbs. "When one finds a worthy wife,
    her value is far beyond pearls.' Chapter 31. And . . . "She opens
    her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.'"

Seta is concerned with healing together with Aram; she is smart enough
to realize that only together, and only on equal terms can they
overcome the gory baggage of memory. As a child, in her father's
house, Seta had been taught values based on human equality and even
now, as an orphan, in a foreign country, Seta refuses to abandon her
own familial values. As much as she has adopted Aram's new world, Seta
is the vigilant keeper of their Armenian identity, which she is keen
on preserving no matter what. And in her memory, the identity of the
Armenian woman is not the silenced bride in moonch, but the
image of a strong-minded vociferous woman, who would rather be
crucified as an infidel, than forsake her convictions.


The peripeteia in Act II is key to the politics of memory and Seta's
metaphoric emergence from moonch. Upset by Aram's
self-internalized tyranny and silencing of her own traumatic
experience, Seta becomes belligerent. For the first time, she refuses
to go to bed with him by threatening him with the iron that he
purchased for her as a gift -- a classic reenactment of what Audre
Lorde would call "using the master's tools to dismantle the master's
house."Then Aram finds her in the middle of the night, pounding nails
into the hands and legs of her doll, kneeling in front of a lit
candle. Seta has taken down the photograph off the easel and crucified
her own doll on it. Unlike Aram's compulsive repetitive and delusional
processes governed by the unconscious, Seta in this demonstrative act
is deliberately mimicking and confronting Aram.

Aram's first reaction to this is, of course, that he is witnessing
some sort of witchery or hysteria, which is a disgrace to him. Aram
quickly resorts to pathologizing and marginalizing her as the
hysterical Other. His inability to cope with the situation is,
"naturally," Seta's fault. Similarly, Sultan Abdul Hamid blamed the
Armenian reformers for revolting against the Empire's centuries of
oppression and as punishment thought it logical to "give them a box on
the ear, which will make them smart and relinquish their revolutionary
ideas."

To Aram's berating accusations, Seta replies:

    "It is a disgrace like your portrait is a disgrace. A grown man
    who cuts the heads off his murdered family.  And here sits the
    murdered family, here sits the dead family, holes for heads,
    sitting, staring with no eyes, day after day after day after
    day. [. . .] Now after these years you have never told me what
    happened to you -- you brought me here -- you put this (indicating
    portrait) in front of me and said fill it up, nothing else."

In her next line Seta confronts Aram for treating her inhumanly and
attempting to erase her experience by replacing it with his own
burdensome trauma:

    "Did you listen? Did you hear me? Did you hear that the person who
    is a wife is a person? I do not just do -- make cakes! Sell cakes!
    Cook!  Wash! Iron! Sew!  Count money! Shop! Make your bed
    . . . and make your bed warm. I weep. I feel. [. . .] Your grief
    is so great you make me carry it."

Because of his insensitivity and dogmatic religiosity, Aram is
completely oblivious to his own oppression and his mimicry of the
Turkish perpetrator against Seta.  Aram's denial to accept his
destructive actions and construction of a delusive repetitive memory
are analogous to the politics of the Turkish conduct in creating false
allegations against the Armenians and then denying the violations
committed during the Genocide.

Where language gives way to silence, as the human mind gives way to
madness, the symbolic order becomes inadequate to express
reality. Because Aram is in denial, he is constructing a partial
memory and closing the doors for negotiation with Seta's memory.  He
has locked himself in a cellar of grievance throughout the years,
perpetuating both his and Seta's psychological wounds. Juxtaposed to
him is the spirit of Seta, the resilient life-loving girl, who, because
of her gender and social status, is positioned at the margins of the
patriarchal order. Her struggle for self-preservation has helped her
develop a pluralistic stance, where she can negotiate with the various
realities and is better adapted for survival and psychological
regeneration. It is due to these qualities that in the end Seta shows
Aram how the origins and meanings of a traumatic experience can be
recognized and worked through various contexts.

The complex relationship between Seta and Aram constructed by
Kalinoski in this domestic setting is an allegorical reenactment of
the internal affairs between the Turkish and Armenian people. For
centuries initiated into moonch, Armenian subjects were silenced
and oppressed through various strategic schemes. Like a metaphoric
Seta, they were treated inhumanly, their schools were closed, they
were imposed with heavy taxation, and legally barred from ownership
This systematic subjugation culminated in the Genocide, which
attempted, but failed, to annihilate the Armenian spirit.

And today, by neglecting the Armenian experience and constructing a
partial historiography, the Turkish politics of retaining memory
becomes skewed and delusional. It perpetuates victimization and
obstructs the process of rehabilitation and recovery from the
traumatic baggage that haunts generations of the Genocide victims. In
Deborah Lipstadt's words, denial of genocide is the "final stage of
genocide," because it "strives to reshape history in order to demonize
the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators."The trauma experienced
by the Armenian people, like an unhealed wound in our brains, persists
from generation to generation without closure or psychological
recuperation. Through his play, Richard Kalinoski helps re-construct a
history absent from the Turkish memory and complete the partial
historiography of the Armenian Genocide.



REFERENCES

Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Brown, Laura. "Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on
Psychic Trauma."Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed
C. Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York.  Oxford UP, 1983.

Villa, Susie Hoogasian. "The Married Life and Childbirth." Armenian
Village Life Before 1914. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1982. 

--
Shushan Avagyan is currently working on her master's degree in English
Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship
at the Illinois State University.

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