A BRIDGE TO THE RADICAL DEMOCRATS: Two Armenian Enlightenment stars: Mesrop Taghiatian and Stepannos Nazaryants Armenian News Network / Groong October 29, 2018 By Eddie Arnavoudian Leo's biographies of Mesrop Taghiatian (1803-1858) and Stepannos Nazaryants (1812-1879), published in 1917 and 1902 respectively, (Collected Works, Volume 6, 1987, pp727-853 and pp5-204) remain still timely corrections to a dismal want of knowledge about two important figures of the 19th century Armenian enlightenment. Leo does more however! He presents us figures who, however dated their world view may seem to us, stand as sterling examples of authentic intellectuals, deeply democratic intellectuals animated by and dedicated to public service, to the people and the nation. Meticulous accounts and evaluations, though the latter are sometimes questionable, vividly illuminate the broader socio-political terrain upon which they and others fashioned the early secular enlightenment and national revival. Leo reminds us of the powerful European intellectual currents that being absorbed into a recovered classical Armenian culture, provided this secular enlightenment with a formidable armory with which to battle for an over-riding ambition: the revolutionizing of culture and education then straitjacketed by a backward, superstition-ridden clergy. I. Throughout the 19th century, the eastern Armenian progressive movement had to do battle against two dominant organizing forces in Armenian life: the Church internally and the Tsarist State externally. As context Leo sets out the historic, all-embracing, unwavering Russian hostility to any independent Armenian development. Even as Taghiatian and Nazaryants grew into adulthood, Russian power moved to bury the remnants of autonomous Armenian principalities in Garabagh that endured as potential political challenges. Simultaneously it curtailed Armenian Church power while cementing alliances with local Turkish feudal estates initially judged more reliable agents of Russian rule in the Caucuses. Leo notes the utterly misplaced Armenian loyalty to and active support for Tsarist expansionism. Fervent though it was, it all counted for nothing. Armenians were first used and then discarded - in the interests of wider Russian negotiations with the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Tsarist officials did however grasp the benefits of a controlled Armenian Church. Propped up by Armenian merchant wealth, the Church, an immense parasitic feudal institution, wielded enormous influence among the people that it retained as virtual serfs shackled in ignorance and prejudice. Tactically manipulated the Church could be put to act as an important supplementary agent of local rule to secure placidity among a possibly obstreperous people (p746). The Armenian Church jealously guarded privilege and power from rational and scientific scrutiny and so padlocked its school gates to any radical reform or modernization. Yet ironically the first flames of a secular challenge to archaic religious hegemony would emerge from within the bounds of the Church itself. From the late 17th century more alert segments of the Church hierarchy had endeavored reform, albeit limited in scope and content. Impoverished schools, printing houses and libraries were replenished and improved and a vast range of ancient Armenian thinkers made available. Stern in his criticism of their adherence to classical Armenian, favoring as he did a literary language understood by the masses Leo is nevertheless overawed by the Catholic Mekhitarist Order whose critical role in the process of Church reform indirectly spurred the official Armenian Church to change. Narrowly clerical, devoted primarily to the education of an orthodox priestly caste, such reform was motivated in important part by the official Church's fear of the rising Catholic and Protestant threat to its positions. Though more a religious than a national revival there is no gainsaying that its educational, cultural, historical and literary accomplishments laid firm foundations for the subsequent flourish of the secular enlightenment, foundations further reinforced by growing contact with European culture and politics in the wake of the Tsarist annexation of eastern Armenia. It was from within the institutions of a Church thus altered that men like Taghiatian with his British tailored intellectual suits and Nazaryants with his German-Russian ones, were to emerge among the bricklayers of a modern national consciousness and identity. II. Mesrop Taghiatian (1803-1858), born in Etchmiadzin, is an impressive protagonist, artistic, talented (besides Armenian, he had fluent command of Greek, Latin, English and Persian), impetuous, obstinate, determined. Throughout his life he was driven by one ambition: to enlighten the nation through literature, publishing and the provision of the highest standard of education then globally available. Though as a boy taught by dedicated priests, the provincial and Church environment in Etchmiadzin and Yerevan suffocated Taghiatian whose intellect had been stirred by encounters with men of wealth and with experience of Europe. An adventurous fellow he upped and went off on travels through Djugha and India, then back to Etchmiadzin, to Istanbul, returning to Djugha and again to India in 1839 where he settled and was to spend most of his life. India then featured a thriving Armenian community centered round wealthy merchants who retained a decided Armenian national identity despite their distance from Armenian homelands. Together with making money they published Armenian language books on trade, business and commodities. A portion of their profit flowed to schooling and to the publication of periodicals and political tracts. If Armenian capital contributed anything to the national revival, it was its support for secular enlightenment argues Leo. Against the religious accented patriotism of the Mekhitarists, Indo-Armenian communities acted as bearers of secular thought shaped by British liberalism and the heritage of the European Enlightenment. They played an important part in introducing thinkers such as John Locke, Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu into the Armenian cultural ambit. It would profit to consider the grounds for Indo-Armenian capital's retention of its original Armenian features. Suffice for the moment to note that it was actually native to Armenia, before being deported by Shah Abbas to Nor Djugha from whence it set out for more profitable spheres further east. As it prospered in India, through many of its personnel, its servants, some of its markets and its goods, its family, business, religious and cultural contacts, it retained links to its origins, links that endured even as it set firmer roots in the Diaspora. In India furthermore Armenian capital occupied a distinct position often in direct competition to British trading groupings. A sense of nationality nurtured as a result was further fertilised by continued contact with surviving Garabagh Armenian principalities, conceived perhaps as a kernel for independent statehood in the face of increasing British antagonism to energetic Armenian challenge. Such was the milieu that was to stamp Taghiatian's world-view. His primary delight was the founding and running of schools inspired by ideas acquired whilst studying at India's British `Bishop's College'. He was the first Armenian to run a mixed school for boys and girls and established an Ararat Society dedicated to their advancement. A prolific author, a poet, historian and publisher Taghiatian remained first and foremost a teacher. This `The Patriot' (1845 -1852) focused naturally on matters of Armenian education, but covered much more. Translations from Shelly, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Firdusi (HT - See Note 1) ran alongside criticism of Church superstition, calls for women's emancipation, as well as denunciation of soul hunting American missionaries engaged in reconnaissance for US imperialism. A most remarkable feature of this veritable polymath - prolific poet, historian, novelist, folklorist, journalist and educator - was a laudable democratic opposition to colonialism, imperialism and oppression. Taghiatian and his `The Patriot' denounced the British protection of illegal slave traders in Egypt. He opposed the impoverishing colonial tax system Britain imposed on India. And North Africa `The Patriot' lashed out against French colonialism's slaughter of Algerians (HT). Almost simultaneously with Abovian, Taghiatian wrote one of our first historical novels `The Story of Vartkes' (1846), also dedicated to the Armenian national revival, though set in ancient times and alas written in classical Armenian. In his labour for Armenian national development Taghiatian prioritised recovering classical Armenian culture and utilising poetry and literature developed by the common people as a foundation for then appropriating best of global culture (HT). Reflecting his stay in India an epic poem `Unu and Santibi' (1847) tells of the unlikely love of an ancient Armenian prince and an Indian princess. Taghiatian also authored `A History of Ancient India' (1841), a first Armenian history on a non-Armenian subject. A volume on `Travels Among Armenians' (1847) is rich with socio-historical information on Armenian life in the Ararat and Syunik provinces and preserve value for modern researchers. Untiring dedication was rewarded with renown and respect. Taghiatian was never in want of support whether to cover debts, to acquire printing presses or for medical help when unwell. That today he has virtually no intellectual presence, invoked only sometimes in histories has less to do with talent than with the fact that writing only in classical Armenian his intellectual and artistic legacy is beyond the reach of most. Leo unlocks some of it! III. The paucity of biographical material on Steppanos Nazaryants (1812-1879) drove Leo to fill gaps and create context from detailed knowledge of Khatchatour Abovian's youth that in important ways paralleled Nazaryants' as it took both from the Caucuses to the German educational center in Torbat. Elevated from the stagnant waters of Armenian education Nazaryants flourished, subjected to the influence of Young German and Young Hegelian assaults on reaction in German philosophy, law, literature and history. Here it was that he began to evolve a vision for the rational and scientific education of Armenian society. Despite the secular milieu of his student days Nazaryants remained a deeply religious man. Yet, he had no time for a clergy that opposed reason and science, for Christian dogma that then prevailing expressed but the dominance of an ignorant and self-serving clergy. Judged as the primary culprit for the plight of the Armenian nation, Nazaryants wrote that: `In matters that concern the nation the priest today has no role. The people need another kind of teacher one that can give more than men locked away in their cloisters, utterly removed from society.' Nazaryants' campaign to place education on a modern footing was just one element of a fuller assault on the backward institutions that dominated Armenian intellectual life. In an early issue of his flagship journal `Northern Lights' he wrote: `Henceforth we want no more of devious Egyptian idols claiming to be the only founts of knowledge. Hereafter no Chinese wall that would bar the flow of enlightened thought into nations. Hereafter let there be light, truth and freedom from the tyranny of Babylonian darkness. To secure wider, popular, projection Nazaryants opted for a modern vernacular language that would be understood by the common people. In what was a radical step he urged the translation of the Bible into modern Armenian, a step that would of course make it available for critical consideration among the people (p97, 103). Denouncing religious sectarianism that had led to mob violence against Armenian Protestants he suggested a sense of nationality that would incorporate all irrespective of faith. Hostile to bombastic patriotism, Nazaryants rejected the then widespread nonsense that Armenian was the original language of Adam and Eve, dismissed myths of the Armenian people's Biblical origins and challenged literal interpretations of the epic of Hayk and Bel. He also took Armenians to task for a critical lack of community spirit, for an extreme individualism that bred indifference to national concerns. This absence of communal spirit together with an appalling educational establishment, the oppression of women, a crude materialism, widespread prejudice and superstition and ignorance of science were, he was convinced leading to the disintegration of Armenian society. For such views and for propounding comprehensive Church reform, Nazaryants was excommunicated by the Church that also turned to the Tsarist State for help to silence him! Yet in this opponent the Church confronted no radical or revolutionary activist, no Nalpantian or Raffi. Nazaryants was a thoroughly conservative reformer, a moderate if ever there was one. He was repulsed by the atheistic trends of the French Enlightenment, reserving particular hatred for Voltaire and the principles of the French Revolution of 1789. On the national front his `Northern Lights' passed in silence over the emergent Armenian national Liberation Movement devoting not a word to one of its most significant early moments - the 1862 Armenian Uprising in Zeitun. Church hostility to Nazaryants measures the depth of its own reaction and backwardness but so also the progressive quality of Nazaryants' thought despite his moderate liberal democratic convictions. Nazaryants's `Northern Lights', first published in Moscow in 1858, despite remoteness from the concrete issues of Armenian life, was the vigorous and uncompromising mouthpiece for his views on a modern, scientific and rational education and history. Through commentaries on and translations of European social science and literature and encouragement of Armenian letters, he grouped around the journal some of the most able thinkers of the younger generation such as Mikael Nalpantian and later Raffi who began to give the journal a more radical and nationalist dimension. When financial difficulties forced the journal's closure in 1864 it had already began to acquire a clearer democratic thrust and began comment on the Armenian liberation movement against the Ottoman destruction of Armenian life. Stepanos Nazaryants never recovered from the closure and his fading years proved to be deeply tragic. Moving from Moscow to Tbilisi he hoped to end life as an educator in a city with a substantial Armenian community. But he met with bitter disappointment. A brief period as head of the Nersissian College was marred by conflict with the clerical powers in control. After a lifetime in Moscow he was alienated by the backwardness of life in the Caucasus, by the appalling poverty and by the egoism of the rich. What he believed in most, social solidarity and sense of community, public spirit - all was lacking. But Nazaryants had established himself as a figure of substance, appreciated not just in Eastern Armenia but in faraway Istanbul too then a hub for Western Armenian intellectual development. His funeral was a mass, popular honouring. A most appropriate validation of Stepanos Nazaryants's historical contribution to Armenian thought and culture comes from none other than Father Mesrop Janashian, Catholic Mekhitarist priest, literary critic and historian of literature, who wrote that Nazaryants was `the personification of the idea of enlightenment in eastern Armenian life.' * * * The volumes are not flawless. Living in Britain, one cannot pass over an appalling blindness that Leo displays on the essence of British imperialism and its role in India. Incapable of distinguishing between the ideological English liberal tradition and the reality of British plunder and oppression, Leo speaks of British rule in India `bringing about a colony of European civilization where nations can be nourished with a now new, free, constructive and enhancing spirit.' Despite this and other stains, Leo's service remains of the first order. With another three-volume biography of Krikor Ardzrouni, published in 1905, Leo bequeaths us an engrossing intellectual history of 19th century Armenia. Taghiatyan, Nazaryants, and Ardzrouni, however circumscribed their worldview, did more than just appropriate and disseminate some of the best thought of the time. Though not political revolutionaries, they were bold and courageous public intellectuals, challenging and defying the permits of hidebound, reactionary authority whose indifference to the public and national good was then suffocating the nation. May Leo's revived heroes inspire a comparable daring and audacity today! * * * NOTE 1: I have supplemented this comment on Leo's biographies with a couple of additional points from Hrant Tamrazian's "History of Armenian Literary Criticism, Volume Three, 688pp, 1992, Yerevan. I indicate this with a bracketed (HT). - 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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