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Worth a read...

    Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet
    none will bore the lover of literature.
    Reading them, one will always find something of value...

Armenian News Network / Groong
August 24, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


The fascinating art of medieval Armenian manuscript scribes

'The Linguistic and Grammatical Theory of Armenian Manuscript Scribes
in the Middle Ages' (Academy of Armenian Sciences, 408pp, Yerevan,
1962) sounds as if it could be an awfully dull read. But quite the
contrary! If you don't want to read all four hundred pages, including
some original texts, at least read the author Levon Khacheryan's
thought-provoking introduction.

Seeking to explain the existence of Middle Age texts on grammatical
and spelling skills necessary for good manuscript copiers, Khacheryan
persuasively, if not comprehensively, argues that the best of Armenian
scribes had to, and did, have a thorough command of the laws of
etymology, spelling, pronunciation and hyphenation. Indeed a number of
scribes raised this knowledge to the level of a theory encompassing
aspects of grammar too.

Historically the craft of copying manuscripts embraced every stage of
production from the manufacture of the pens, the ink, the colours for
the paintings, the cured leather for the covers and parchment, the
binding as well calligraphy. As important, and if not most importantly,
the craft of copying required of the scribe the skill to copy
correctly and sensibly, to reproduce and render meaning clearly and
accurately.  This, it should be stressed, was not a mere technical
accomplishment akin to photographic reproduction.

Due to the divergent historical development of written and spoken
language, accurate copying, not just in form, but in content also,
required a great deal of specialised knowledge of laws of the written
language, its spelling, pronunciation, hyphenation and etymology and
grammar. As spoken language increasingly deviated from the its
original written forms which remain relatively fixed, the two appear
totally dissimilar. Through history, use polishes, refines and glazes
words to alter them beyond all comparison with their ancient and
originally written form. Frequently, not only appearance and sound, but
meaning also is substantially refined or even fundamentally changed. A
scribe possessing knowledge of the spoken and heard language alone,
and possessing none related to the structure, developments and
changes of the language from and within its written forms, would
inevitably have great difficulty understanding what he (as was then
invariably the case) was copying. Indeed the task would be full of

Blind copying in any circumstances is error prone. It also tends to
assume that written words that do not appear comprehensible or are not
understood are themselves errors. A process of 'correction' would
inevitably lead to alteration and even corruption of original
meanings. A truly skilled scribe, with a command of the laws of
language would be able to decipher more accurately the meaning of a
text, trace the transformations and variations between spoken and
written variants. He would be in a position to understand the meanings
of evidently senseless written words, phrases, turns of phrase,
expressions and thus transmit cultural heritage into the future in a
more faithful manner. Without such knowledge preservation of the
authenticity, and transmittal of cultural heritage in written form
would be immeasurably difficult if not impossible.

The recognition of these essential requisites of copying compelled a
number of Armenian scribes in the Middle Ages intent on correct
copying to develop theories of Armenian spelling and grammar. Among
them are the works of Krikor of Datev, Kevork of Skevar, Scribe
Arisdages and others reproduced in this volume with extensive,
informative and enjoyable commentaries on each.

For the record it should be mentioned that Khacheryan is, as
Armenians say, still on the barricades. In this Soviet era publication
it is evident that he remains a proponent of classical spelling
against any reformed version.  Clearly disdainful of the 1920 reform
he accepts the 1940 version only unwillingly. In his view, spelling
reform risks losing an important portion of our linguistic heritage
and from LA he has just published a history of Armenian spelling from
the 5th to the 20th centuries. This debate has yet to be resolved and
does not detract from the admiration of the works of Armenian scribes
from the Middle Ages.


Mgrdich Armen's (1900-1972) novel Heghnar's Fountain, (Nubar Printers,
1948, Cairo, Egypt) written in 1933 in Soviet Armenia, is a virtually
flawless masterpiece. One of a limited number of great works of
fiction produced during the Soviet era, it is a moving poetic journey
into a world of love torn asunder by obscurantism, religious and
ethnic division, bigotry and the traditional subordination of women to
men. The Gyumri of the early 1900s (one time Leninakan and Mgrdich
Armen's birth place), inhabited by Armenians, Turks and Greeks, is
vividly brought to life as the setting for the thwarted love of
Heghnar and Varos.

Heghnar is the victim of a forced marriage to a respectable and
skilled fountain builder. Varos is a local layabout. Their illicit love
leads to Heghnar's death. On her tomb Heghnar's husband constructs a
special fountain inscribed with the words "In this life woman is the
fountain only for her husband". As if to confirm this moral dictate no
one but the husband can tap any water from Heghnar's fountain. It
flows freely, only to dry up every time a stranger approaches.  Here,
an apparently miraculous sanctification of the tradition of arranged
marriage begins to slowly destroy Varos's faith in natural human love
which he had felt to be stronger and superior to social traditions and
more beautiful even than the love of God. It destroys his faith in the
goodness of natural love. Love is not to be of this world. It is not
part of the law of God.

Varos becomes a recluse and repents for what he now considers to be
his sinful escapade and spends his weeks in prayer. But as Heghnar's
husband is lying on his deathbed Varos is stunned by the discovery
that the 'miracle' fountain was but a product of the husband's
technical ingenuity.  He is devastated as he grasps that the
destruction of his faith and belief in a human love is caused not by
the supernatural but by that complex web of tradition which determines
other foundations for the bond between man and woman.

Heghnar's Fountain is a remarkable achievement for so adroitly
communicating the essential tragedy of the human urge for love trapped
beneath the crushing burden of tradition. To read it is to experience
something profound.

Alas Mgrdich Armen did not produce other work approaching the
standard Heghnar's Fountain. Even though suffering for many years in
Soviet prison camps, he was prolific, producing vast numbers of short
stories and novels.  The technique of Heghnar's Fountain is there - a
splendid command of language, a poetic sensibility, an ability to
observe, the capacity to create character and human dialogue - but the
real stuff of life is missing, squeezed out by the demands of
'socialist realism'. His post-war novel Yassva is a tragic example. It
has a superb opening, with a profound sensibility for the the times.
But it degenerates into ridiculous caricature because 'socialist
realism' required as a protagonist an ideal, flawless, totally
dedicated party cadre apparently bereft of any inner-conflicts between
party duty and private life.

Che Guevara, who was also an astute literary critic offered a stinging
criticism of the damaging effect 'socialist realist' literary theory:

    'General culture (in the Soviet camp) ... was transformed into a
    mechanical representation of the social reality they wanted to
    show - an ideal society, almost without conflict or
    contradictions... But why try to find the only valid prescription
    in the frozen forms of socialist realism... (which puts)... a
    straitjacket on the artistic expression of man who is being born
    and is in the process of making himself.'

For shorter or longer periods some Soviet writers managed to evade the
straitjacket and produce some enduring work. Along with Mgrdich
Armen, Aksel Pagoontz, Hrachia Kochar, Vakhtank Ananian and others
once in a while evaded the net and have left us literature that can be
read with benefit today - by Armenian or odar.

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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