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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
October 23, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


The tragedy of an essentially decent man.

There exist literary works which, whilst not masterpieces, nevertheless
say something meaningful about the human experience and offer critical
insights into often overlooked realities of social life. Dikran
Cheogyurian's (1884-1915) 'The Monastery' (Library of Armenian
Classics, 1983, Yerevan, Armenia) is a work of this order.  Horrifying
images of the 1895-6 massacres in Ottoman occupied Armenia form a grim
backdrop for the depiction of the backward and degenerate sections of
the Armenian clergy who dominated public life in the Armenian
provinces prior to 1915. This is the context for the work's most
enduring feature - the tragedy of Ardag, a newly confirmed priest. In
the form of Ardag's diaries we witness the personal and spiritual
disintegration of an essentially decent man.

Inspired by progressive ideals and fired by noble ambitions Ardag
abandons the bright and colourful lights of Constantinople to take up
duties in a remote monastery in the Armenian provinces. He wants to
reform the Armenian Church and transform it into an instrument for the
renaissance and liberation of the Armenian people. He plans to build a
school to create a generation of enlightened youth. He plans to
cultivate abandoned monastic lands. In this programme to put the
church to the service of the national liberation of the Armenian
people, we are reminded the political ambitions of the Latin American
'theology of liberation' clergy of the 1960s and 1970s.

However reforming the Armenian clergy would be no easy task. Ardag's
diaries form an unrelenting condemnation of the inertia and passivity
of Armenian monastic/religious life. Revolutionary national action on
behalf of the people is anathema to the clergy, who appear in the form
of the monastic abbot, as an 'exploitative' and 'heartless' class of
men 'whose sole concern is to fatten themselves on the monastery's
chickens, eggs and butter.' According to Ardag the Armenian people can
expect nothing from these men who for 'the sake of status, position
and a loaf of bread have sunk into a moral impasse where they betray
and tear each other to bits.'

But alas Ardag is not the one to challenge the conservative order of a
rotten world. On virtually every page of the book we witness a rather
confused, unsure, somewhat withdrawn and introverted creature with no
personal strength or power of will to take up battle against the
adversities of life. Cheogyurian offers no direct explanation of why
Ardag never sets about to implement his national ambitions. He does
not account for the fact that these ambitions virtually vanish in the
second half of his diary.

This absence is not however a flaw, as a more telling explanation
emerges from Ardag's very own record of his love for Shoushan, the
daughter of a labourer in the monastery. As a man of the Church Ardag
is an unusually successful creation. He is no caricature of an
idealized priest. Despite his religious vows he is gripped by sexual
desire and frustration. Indeed his paralysis arising from the
contradiction between his natural sexual instincts and his love for
Shoushan on the one hand and his religious vows on the other hold the
secret of his inability to deal with any pressing problems of life.

Despite his religious vows and convictions Ardag cannot suppress
either his love or his sexual desire. He is aware of his choices: give
up Shoushan or propose to her, leave the Church and marry her. But
Ardag's character has a fatal flaw. He is incapable of decisive
action. He lacks the will and determination to act. In a telling
passage he notes that Goethe's Werther, also smitten by an 'illicit
love', kills himself. Ardag however confesses that 'I do not have the
courage to throw myself to death.'

Early on in the book he remarks, that while watching the rapid flow of
a river, he felt that 'it would be beautiful to be free like a river,
to flow against unknown shores and vanish into the fold of the blue
seas.' Unfortunately Ardag has not the boldness to be free. This is
his personal tragedy.  Incapable of resolving the contradictions of
his individual life, he is also incapable of confronting the problems
of national and social life.

The book, even whilst having the stamp of a beginner is persuasive and
powerful. On virtually every page there are insights on life, on art,
on Armenian history and politics from which we can glean something of
relevance and importance even today. It could easily survive


A remarkable thinker assesses 19th century Armenian literature

Arpiar Arpiarian (1851-1908) was an outstanding figure in 19th century
Armenian public life. A prolific essayist, journalist, novelist and
short story writer he participated passionately in Armenian national
affairs. In a brilliant essay on western 'Armenian Literature in the
19th Century', he provides an impressive and still relevant commentary
on the fatal flaw that rested at the foundation of the 19th century
Armenian revival, one that was to have a negative yet decisive
influence not just on literature, but on every sphere of national

For historic reasons the main site for the Armenian national revival
was not in Armenia but Istanbul. It was here, underpinned by Armenian
owned mercantile wealth and social development, that Armenian
literature flourished first. However, removed from the direct and
immediate concerns of Armenia proper, Istanbul/Bolis inevitably
produced only an ©migr©' intelligentsia with little or no
connection to historical Armenia, then still the homeland for the vast
majority of Armenians. As a result, a substantial portion of the
literature they produced did not and could not reflect the real
psychological and social conditions of human beings in Armenia.
Instead, aping the latest European literary 'schools', 'theories' fads
and fashions, Istanbul's Armenian literary heritage was lumbered with
a large consignment of unreadable works that tried to compress an
essentially eastern reality into ill-suited western forms.

The fortunes of Armenian literature, and indeed of Armenian history,
we could add, would have been very different had there been any
significant economic and social development within historical
Armenia. On such a base, a cultural renaissance could have developed
in an organic relation with the real lives of the Armenian people and
would have also been able to draw more directly on ancient but
surviving folklore to feed a genuine national literature. But Ottoman
political repression, particularly the massacres of 1895/96, and the
venality of the Armenian elite in Bolis prevented this. It is indeed
one of the tragedies of modern Armenian history that those figures who
argued for relocating the centre of cultural, social and political
life to historical Armenia did not have the wherewithal to emerge

Despite his artistically critical overview of western Armenian
literature, Arpiarian rejects claims that the Bolis intelligentsia,
preoccupied with 'art for arts sake', was indifferent to national
concerns. On the contrary, the vast bulk of 19th century western
Armenian literature had as its central aim the task of cultivating an
Armenian national consciousness as part of a wider project of national
enlightenment and progress. In fact, as Arpiarian quite rightly notes,
reminding one of Yessaian's excellent essay on Mkrtich Beshigtashlian,
an important additional reason for the absence of high quality
literature was precisely that most writers had as their first concern
education not art, the cultivation of national consciousness not the
aesthetic senses. To contribute to the fashioning of a national
consciousness, writers sacrificed artistic standards to produce a
literature replete with sentimental, over-romanticised and caricatured
visions of ancient courage, achievement and freedom. (For those who
wish to read more on this subject, Sergei Sarinian's 'Generation and
Tradition' contains an excellent essay giving an overview of the
debates of the time with plenty of quotes from the contemporary press)
Whilst acknowledging the honourable ambitions of the men and women
Arpiarian writes about, one cannot but note that the national
consciousness that they served to develop was so idealised and unreal
as to have virtually no purchase on the actual conditions of Armenian
life in the Ottoman empire. The English historian Eric Hobsbawm speaks
of 'the invention of tradition' when noting that a romanticised image
of history is common to all newly emerging nations. In Bolis however
Armenian consciousness rarely went beyond outrageously romanticised
'invention'. Remote from Armenia and for understandable reasons unable
to deal with issues relating to political and state power, this
overwhelmingly romantic national consciousness did not furnish the
intellectual equipment to realistically assess the threat of a
reactionary Turkish nationalism that was to culminate in the 1915

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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