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DANIEL VAROUJEAN: KEEPER OF THE FAITH IN THE HUMAN DREAM Armenian News Network / Groong December 31, 2005 By Eddie Arnavoudian PART FOUR: `Pagan Songs' and the art of living `Only he can grasp the enchanted Dream Who drinks both of the incense and the muck of life Who is a Being kneaded both with light and mud A Being, also, who is created with a tear.' (p324) `Pagan Songs' (Selected Works, Yerevan, 1984) was the third and last volume of poetry that Daniel Varoujean was able to personally prepare for publication in 1912, three years before his murder in 1915. If his 1906 `The Heart of the Nation' was explicitly nationalist in its intent, `Pagan Songs' that followed, though also imbued with the urge for emancipation, is of an altogether different order. It is about the art of living free, in one part adventure of the senses and of free relations among individuals, in another a protest against social conditions that prevent life's potential bounding free. As with each of his new collections, in `Pagan Songs' Varoujean again explores with a new brush, this time of sometimes darker, brooding hues, but also with vibrant colours from a palate enhanced by personal and intellectual maturity. For the first time, he opens up his inner self and also ventures into the realms of individual desire. Varoujean also returns more systematically and rigorously to themes of universal social emancipation touched on in `Trembling', his first volume of poetry. Displaying consistency in artistic technique and vision `Pagan Songs' abounds with the dramatic narrative, finely etched images and flamboyant metaphors that we have come to expect from Varoujean. Fashioned with his masterly command of language and rhythm these exhibit those possibilities of individual and social life that in the everyday are corrupted, suppressed or but fleeting and when not so, still, apparently beyond expression. One must beware however. For reasons we shall turn to, this evaluation is conditional, tenable only with reference to select poems, not the volume as a whole. I. PRELUDE Among the volume's first significant poems is a tribute to nature that defines a central aesthetic and intellectual dimension of Varoujean's poetry. Nature's grandeur is more than beauty to be admired. It is more than inspiration for literary image or metaphor with which to grasp and express the many layered mysteries and ambitions of life. Nature in Varoujean's vision features as the essential, the primary and omnipresent source and foundation for all life; men and women are seen and depicted as an integral part of nature, depending on it to create their own lives, often in collaboration with its other living creatures. In `Vanadour' that is dedicated to the Armenian pagan god of the same name Varoujean deifies nature and its life-generating force. Vanadour becomes the personification of nature's imminent and eternally creative power. Though the `moss has grown over the temples' of other gods, Vanadour `with his crystal clear laughter' remains `immortal like the soil does, like the fire does, like the salt of the seas'. He returns each spring to `cover the land's white stone beneath a green blanket graced with dew' and ensures that beneath `bushes weighted with flowers, nests are full of blessings'. In harmony with Vanadour's gifts that come with the four seasons, human beings labour and create their own lives. Conscious of his bounty the peasant's `scythe that sparkles in the rich grained wheat' sings to Vanadour and as the `smoke from cottage chimneys' `ascends to the skies as peacefully as incense' `every guitar, in every household, makes music to Vanadour'. (p208-11) Varoujean's poetry also displays a keen awareness for other living creatures that we share space with, creatures that like us are also possessed of that energy, ambition and delight for life and freedom. `The Insect That Drowned' feels for the tragedy of even this tiniest of creatures for whom: `my pupil flooded with the light of my soul Became your grave. The tear that killed you Was the same that wept.' (p281) At moments of exhilaration even the insect `flits about without a care', as if `all things put their ear' to its song and as if it `owned the universe and the sun'. Like human beings in confident stride, it also feels that when `on the wing of the wind, it rules all horizons'. But only until it is randomly trapped in the poet's eyes and drowns `in the tears it involuntarily produces'. Then the poem also becomes a metaphor for the unpredictable that can transform into catastrophe the march of human life itself. In Varoujean's time the affirmation of an elemental unity between nature and human life, between men and women and other living creatures and the celebration of men and women as part of nature's cycle, had something exhilarating about it. It served to liberate consciousness and ambition from the fatalistic, passive and ascetic mental and emotional moulds generated by Ottoman tyranny and an obscurantist Armenian religious establishment that denuded everyday life of its many possibilities. Today such affirmations have a different, but still powerful resonance, underlining the damage to mind and body caused by our systematic divorce from and abuse of nature. As tens of millions of people are herded into vast urban conglomerates they are robbed of a fruitful relation with nature and suffer limits on their lives as harmful, dispiriting and enervating as the influence of any obscurantist Church. II. THE POET'S PERSONAL JOURNEY In a 1914 letter Daniel Varoujean writes that as a student at Ghent University in Belgium, he had suffered his `greatest personal distress'. But, he added: `This was the 1904-1907 period when the Armenian people were being overwhelmed by blood and sword. Then I chose not to delve into my personal woes. I virtually silenced my own heart and preferred instead to sing of the heart of the nation whose beat I felt within me, within my very blood.' (p530) One result of this reaction to his distress was `The Heart of the Nation'. However, Varoujean's personal plight did not end with his student days. On his return home, his life, particularly in the provinces, became in his words `an exhausting struggle against prejudice, popular ignorance and the follies of the political parties' (SW p530). But now, with conditions altered during a brief period of illusory freedom after the 1908 Young Turk putsch, Varoujean felt free to distill his personal experience into poetry. Though `it is a terrible sight to see the bottom of a drained and empty soul' Varoujean bares his own, without fear and without any melodramatic postures that would draw attention to or sympathy for his plight. He transforms the wounds of his inner being into miniatures of objectified human emotion in its essence. In dark surreal images he summons up the intensity of emotional pain that can isolate anyone from collective life. Ambition and hope are incinerated and the poet travels alone, his hands `weighed down carrying the ashes of his own life.' This is pain that renders one incapable of delighting in the bloom of surrounding life as: `Infinite suffering, like a black tombstone Has blocked my heart to all the saps of spring.' (p 274-275) The poet's beloved, who once `opened his door to the smiles of a thousand springs', and to `all the vivid roses of the past' has abandoned him. People he considered friends have become `brothers who crucify', their shadows hovering `like the grim arm of a ghost'. Having given to people `generously of his essence and love' as well as all the `flowers of his being' he is stunned to `discover them to be always superficial'. Lost love and betrayal are compounded by a sense of humiliating political failure. When the Ottoman state was slaughtering a `People who ... had taken up the hammer to build an age of marble' Varoujean's `dejected spirits were reinforced with lightening', his `will that was broken by his private pain was repaired by another's.' Then he had `sung to inspire fortune's rejected children'. But to no avail. The burden of the failure that Varoujean feels is communicated in an image that describes his own dejection: were he to choose to end his life there would not be `a single empty grave' for him in a cemetery now full with `martyrs fallen' in a battle lost. But even through the grimmest passages that describe a spirit on the edge of the abyss, one senses nevertheless the force of resistance, the cry for help and the tension of protest and revolt. For all his desire to `shut his door to Nature, Dedication and Love' and to `seal it with his despair' the will to live and to strive endured. In this drama of suffering and overcoming, faith is neither solace nor guide as the poet has discovered God to be but: `... a sphinx like Adornment to nothingness (p285).' The central actors in recovery are nature and humanity. As a manifestation of nature's vitality, of the will of Vanadour so to speak, with the birth of a daughter the poet's barren and desiccated being is transformed and he becomes: `... the desert that smiles to the skies With but a single blooming bud'. (p320) So, Varoujean determined to refill `the empty container of his heart' (p272). He strove for Light, light that is metaphor for life, knowledge and beauty, the `bride of his Mind, the daughter of God'. Light that is `the wine of universal joy', `the blood of nature, night's crown and daytime's gown.' III. OF THE BODY AS WELL AS THE SOUL Personal distress did not dull Varoujean's urge for the beautiful and as a counter-point to poetry of private desolation `Pagan Songs' also relishes in the release of the pleasure principle from the chains of Christian asceticism. This release, despite the volume's title, is not conceived according to any notion of an idealized pre-Christian hedonism. Varoujean creates a vision of unsullied sensual delight and of sexual fulfillment that is untainted by submissive and servile relations by generalizing from moments of actually lived experience, moments that a cruel social order suppresses and prohibits. His poetry inspires the desire to transform such moments into lifetimes. Poems such as `The Embrace', `Eastern Baths', `To Ears', `Mitcho' reflect on episodes of love, passion, desire, luxury and sensual exhilaration in human relationships that are free, equal and mutual. `The Embrace', that in Armenian reads as if it could have been written either by a man or a woman, weaves sexual desire and emotional fulfillment into a single moment of mutual enhancement as: `my mouth upon her/his tantalizing mouth Drank from the well of the heart.' (p224) As the lovers are `knitted together like affectionate ivy', the world of nature, its flowers, leaves and aromas become both metaphors and actual elements of their fulfillment and renewal as they `flower once more' on their `bed of flowers'. Time will exhaust such passions but their memory endures to unite aged couples `in a blissful smile' even when it is only `two walking sticks that now lie entangled' at the foot of the bench where they rest beneath the sun. (p228-229) `Eastern Baths' as a contrast describes a collective experience of sensual luxury. The steam, the flowers, the stone benches, the water, the spring season and the human form are painted into a single luscious canvas of a group of women bathing. It is a depiction of social ritual that cleanses and purifies, that scents and adorns body and spirit and gives ilan to movement so that when the women later walk home: `...the streets of the Eastern City Will feel as if May is blooming from your footsteps And a new Spring passes along the revived pavements' (p221) A lyrical register of the ear's biological, intellectual, emotional and even erotic functions, `To Ears' captures something of the marvel and sensuality of the smallest parts of the human form. Through her ears `all the sounds of the globe reach' the soul of his beloved `there to be transformed to mysteries.' A vehicle for both sense and emotion, ears `alone can communicate the song from the strings of my lyre' to the `veiled soul' of the woman he loves. Recalling `The Miller's Daughter by Lord Tennyson, Varoujean's poem is touched by the same gentle eroticism as he asks permission to kiss `that which `shivers with indescribable delight' and to place as a gift `a pair of tears from my eyes' as rings' upon her ears.' (p237) If Part One describes aspects of life's beautiful possibilities, the poetry of Part Two focuses on the social context that suppresses and denies them freedom. IV. THE NECESSITY OF FREEDOM In accord with the spirit of his times Varoujean in `Pagan Songs' locates the sources of oppression and alienation in the social order of his day - the decaying Ottoman Empire and capitalist Europe. He also frames his vision of emancipation in socialist terms that then prevailed. But he did so free of tired rhetoric or lifeless sloganeering. One can measure the verve, energy, passion, imagination and magic of his poetry in any comparison with the mounds of dry versified political pronouncements in English and indeed Armenian language anthologies of socialist poetry. Consistent with his vision of nature's primacy Varoujean casts oppositions between capitalist oppression and social emancipation in terms of oppositions between the city and the country, between urban life and nature. But he does so in an original manner, with a vigorous mind and a still youthful imagination tempered by the influence of `Venice with its Titian and its colours' and the `Flanders with its Vandyke and its barbarian realism' (SW p525). In Varoujean's poetry the site and source of social decay and individual alienation is the City - the core of a social order where all nobility, generosity, mutuality and love have been corrupted. From the City Eros like `the exiled dove has fled.' (p239). In contrast to the corruptions of City, in the fold of nature the: `... sanctified imprint of god is not tainted, For nature does not harm or damage saintliness' (p288) For the majority, the common people, the City is a prison. There `for the sake of a slice of bread' people are forced to `bury the flames of their soul' in vast stifling factories where `the yellow soil of the grave spreads unsmiling death over men with blue eyes' (p295). Consistently nature is driven out of what becomes a gray, grim and soulless environment. In the city and its factories people `live always dying', `dreaming in vain of Spring', `dreaming in vain of the freedom of the air, of air through which even the mole drinks in light and perfume.' `Their large star spangled eyes succumbing to smoke now reflect only the dullness of tin', (p306) while upon `their long eyelashes there rests only the ashes of the furnace.' (p306). All `desire to put singing lips' to `the clean mouth of spring water' is shattered: `Instead of the song of love, on his lips There froths up a burning red cough.' (p295) The City that blights collective and individual lives also transforms passion and sexuality into crimes against women. For the wealthy urban dandy the `heart of the virgin is but like a wine glass that once emptied is smashed with pleasure.' (p296). Women `once pure and noble crystals' are `trampled to mud by such men.' (p297) Victim to the deceit of the rich a `cheated heart', a mere girl, is forced to become a `mother before she was a woman' and abandons a child she has no means to care for. In the `The Break', Varoujean offers a masterly and impassioned reconstruction of the foundations of exploitative social orders, past and present, upon which arises the corrupted City. For the working people `it was but a matter of luck if they had a full stomach on the day of their passing.' Yet: `They are the ones who built the immortal Pyramids, And became stepping stones to thrones Upon which Monarch and King climbed to the stars To this day beneath the foundations of their palaces You can find the lily of their Adam's apple, the starved and burnt out heart It is their blood that cemented the walls of the grim Yeldez Prison. The arches of the Vatican, even the slippers of the Pope Are adorned with the margaret of their shimmering sweat... ...And our age's Arch of Victory today rests On the steel shoulders of a hundred thousand labourers (306-307) The repeated oppositions between town and country that unfold through this poetry do not however represent a retreat from urban life into an alternative romanticized rural idyll. Varoujean's City does not depict urban life in general, but the social relations he experienced in decadent Istanbul and the cities of capitalist Europe. When writing `The Heart of the Nation' he had felt the throb of the Armenian people's heart beat in his own blood. Following his encounter with life in Europe's industrial cities he also: `Felt the cries of the working class like the tongue of a flame upon my soul. ... I also felt the...decadence and the debauchery of the supposedly upright wealthy families. (p530) Transforming this experience into poetry Varoujean, as he does in all his creative efforts, takes a common experience, this time that of the contrasts between city and country, and moulds them into images of possible freedom. Nature's magnificence, its vitality, freshness, expansiveness and delight, that we all experience albeit in the most limited and narrow form, are patterned into metaphors for the vitality, vigour, purity and freshness that are absent in the City. (In parenthesis it is suggesting that a discussion of the function of nature in 20th century Armenian poetry could be indeed profitable. This is also the case for those early 20th century poets who also wrote poetry of social protest, among them Varoujean, Shousanik Kurghinian, Hakob Hakobian, Rouben Sevak and others. Born and first raised in country as yet little touched by the dark side of industrialisation they then moved to live in urban centres such as Istanbul, Tblisi, Baku and elsewhere. Their early experience of nature appears to have fashioned their reaction to urban life and offered them means and terms with which to ponder and explain it.) But the corrupted City, this taint on Nature's beauty is not immortal. Tomorrow dear Comrade... over this arrogant City, the Storm will explode and light its barbarian fires'. Varoujean's vision of storm of emancipation from social ills in `Pagan Songs' registers not just a poetic but also an intellectual advance in comparison with `Trembling'. In the latter the agency for releasing the common people from social oppression conceived in the form of someone else's charitable act. The common people appear as essentially inactive victims of social circumstance. In `Pagan Songs' in contrast, fired by their own anger and their hopes and ambitions, it is the common people who will `clench their fists and thus shape the Future'. It was to inspire the people in this endeavour that Varoujean penned his remarkable `The First of May' summoning them to: `Come, come to me, I am the wizard of May. Your sweat I shall transform into priceless pearl Set in a rose I shall flood your dried bones with the fire of the Sun.' (p309) This poem is more than a decidedly original and dazzling hymn to Labour Day. It is a magical and exuberant declaration of human solidarity, generosity and hope for all ages as the poet invites suffering humanity to: `Come to me, come to me all of you My heart has so much flame, my soul so much light That even from your soft clay I shall mould A New Humanity and New Hope.' (p309-310) Today millions of lives are wasted eking out a living on virtually nothing, millions in the USA live dire lives on a minimum wage of $5. These millions still build the palaces and the mansions of the rich. The grim factories if they have vanished in the west it is because they have been removed to the east. And for the common people in the West the City has been transformed into an airless, green-less dungeon, polluted with exhaust fumes, disfigured with waste and abandoned ghettoes. For these women and men the blessing that ends `The First of May' retains its full force: `Let the doors to your homes be flooded with roses And when the moon wanders in with its flaming eye May your hearth be anointed with balsam tonight' (p311) V. AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE CRITICS When debated on its first publication, amidst wildly enthusiastic acclaim for `Pagan Songs' were some critical comments that appropriately qualified its accomplishment. These reservations have since, unfortunately been buried. Yet qualification is indispensable. So no apologies for the lengthy extracts from early debates. At the 1912 symposium on Daniel Varoujean's work writer Gegham Baresghian, though speaking highly of Varoujean's work noted that `Pagan Songs' was open to criticism. It was `most open' he argued in its attitude to women: `For example (in) `The Concubine' and `O Dalita', the Ethiopian woman in `Lalake' and the women in `Eastern Baths' ...it is not love and beauty that is honoured but only passion and lust, and that of men only.' Continuing, Barseghian added that in such poems: `There is not a word about women's own individuality. It is as if they did not exist. It is as if the only bond between men and women is that of the flesh. Even if we assume this to be the poet's view, we would at least have expected something about the desires felt by women. But in `Pagan Songs' the woman appears as but a creature created to satisfy men's desires.' (`Daniel Varoujean ` School Days, Unpublished Letters and his Literature' written and edited by Terenig Jizmejian, 1955 Cario, Egypt) H. Sourkhatian, a prominent Marxist literary critic remarked on an aspect that may not have occurred to Barseghian: `There is nothing pagan about these songs.... (Varoujean's) concepts of beauty...have nothing in common with the beauty of the classical age. Varoujean's love is... the lust of the harem, with the classical stamp of decadence...' Barseghian's evaluation and, despite the unacceptable sweep of its generalization, Sourkhatian's too, has weight when attached to a specific set of poems among them `Of Paganism', `O Dalita', `Lalake', `You Are Blessed Among Women' and `Saturnalia' (in disagreement with Barseghian one must exclude `Eastern Baths'). Seeking to emancipate the senses from Christian asceticism Varoujean, in these poems, failed to consistently emancipate himself from eastern misogyny. These poems have nothing of that quality of universal passion one sees in `The Embrace' and Eastern Baths'. Here there is none of the rage against the abuse of women one encounters in `Cheated Virgins' or `The Woman Worker.' Their technical virtuosity is but a facade for an interior that is base. Sexual pleasure is depicted as exclusively male pleasure and worse still, realized only in relations of male domination and female enslavement. In this connection, Khachig Tololyan, in an exception to uncritical encoma among contemporary commentators astutely notes that Varoujean's: '...specifically sexual imagination (that of a Catholic boy from the rural Sebastia region, and educated by monks) is powered by women as inciters of male lust, a lust he luxuriates in and expresses vigorously; he does not represent women as possessors of lust that would make them too active....Like most men then and many men now, to acknowledge in poetry what he rationally grasped (namely, that women can also have the agency of desire, as theorists say, that women can also lust) did not excite his imagination and might even have restricted the play of that poetic imagination. This is a shortcoming.' Even a cursory glance at these poems underlines the validity of such concerns. In `Of Paganism' the protagonist is `for tonight' a `monarch' of `eastern splendour' possessing a `throne, treasures and white women'. Consumed in this fantasy he enjoys the body of a beautiful female slave who dances for him: `Always subject to my sybarite will, that forever governs her.' (p213) What this enslaved woman slave feels, thinks or desires is not even hinted at. This misogyny is characteristic also of the much-lauded `Lalake' that Shirvanzade condemned as `pornographic'. The `pornography' however does not, as Shirvanzade believed, rest in any explicit sexual imagery but in the reservation of sexual pleasure for men only and in the allocation to women of a subordinate, instrumental and insensate role. Here again is a slave-owner who during his wife's pregnancy lusts after his female slaves, all of whom are half-naked picking the fruit of his orchards. The slave-owner revels in both orchards and slaves: `O my vineyards, vineyards in bloom ... (and) My diligent and submissive slaves in their hundreds (p224) His wife features little differently to barrels: `that are full with wines ` just like your womb' `You Are Blessed Amongst Women' purports to pay homage to the beauty and creativity of pregnancy. But it offers only a distorted male perspective: `In every throb of your vein I feel The beat of my own heart And the budding of the flower of my blood' (p227) The notion that pregnant women have feelings, thoughts and emotions of their own is totally absent. Woman is but a vessel for a child that is the man's alone: Despite this evidence critics have generally by-passed and even attempted to whitewash the moral and social taint in these poems. Hector Rshdouni can be considered representative. He writes: `In `Lalake', `Paganism' and other poems it is simplicity and naturalness, healthy, unrestrained human relations that are honoured. Here life receives vibrant poetic colouring.' (Daniel Varoujean, 1961, Yerevan, Armenia, p182) This clearly will not do! Critics are right to note in `Pagan Songs' and in Varoujean's opus, `the impress of authentic poetry' (Hagop Oshagan) that with the `dynamic, awesome' (Barouyr Sevak) and `unimaginably vital...imagery and metaphor' (Vahagn Tavtian) `recovers humanity, the human heart, the heart that suffered' (Father Mesrop Janashian). It is right to note that Varoujean strove for a `completeness and perfection' (Moushegh Ishkhan) and that in his best poetry `you cannot alter a word or change ...the order of a line'. (Minas Teoleolian). True, his art `attained such splendid fulsomeness' (Yervant Azatian) that `it is impossible to exhaust' its meaning (Vasken Gabrielian). Vasken Gabrielian by no means overstates the case. Yet still to taste the fruit best, one must wash away the mud. Barseghian's conclusion to his 1912 speech remains totally valid: ``Pagan Songs' would have benefited if certain poems in their entirety and numerous portions of others had been excluded.' Varoujean's lapses do not however disqualify him from his place in the pantheon of the greats. With `Pagan Songs', `Trembling', `The Heart of the Nation' and `The Song of Bread' as well as with other poems not collected into a separate volumes, Vaoroujean enables his audience to soar with him as he jealously protects the human dream of emancipation from all the `miseries of the world'. It is a dream that Varoujean believes can be conceived into reality, with a share of confidence in our own potential along with the will and determination to fight for its realization. [ Read Parts I, II and III of Eddie's Varoujean series. ] -- 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.