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The Critical Corner - 10/20/2003

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Armenian News Network / Groong October 20, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian Whatever page you open from Siamanto, it is always Siamanto - noble, magnificent, heroic. But on every page of Varoujean you discover a new Varoujean, a Varoujean with a novel light, a new strength, an original beauty.' -- Karekin Khazhak If around me all is darkness I shall flare and sparkle for my fellow men and women Hurling myself to the ground I'll block the path of despair. -- Baryour Sevak PART ONE - PREPARING FOR BATTLE Art is always critical, always radical. It is indeed always revolutionary in the sense that spurred on by the enthusiasms of a restless intellect and imagination it measures and tests the limits of the present. It validates or condemns and then goes beyond in an adventure of expectation born of a particular grasp of reality. Poetry does this at a more concentrated, intense, heightened level. It proposes surprising and invigorating pathways that arise from novel combinations of experience, intellect and imagination. Delving into all that rests dormant within us, in layer upon layer of past experience, it uncovers and refashions buried possibilities, forgotten options. Today, in the year of 2003, when reigning powers drag humanity one more step into the 'new dark ages' against which Barouyr Sevak forewarned, poetry can still, despite all the barbarisms of the age, be a 'flair and sparkle' to help guide our steps beyond the path of despair. Among those with an enduring place in that chorus that keeps faith in the human dream, alongside Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Barouyr Sevak and others, is another Armenian poet Daniel Varoujean (1884-1915). Varoujean's poetry (Selected Works, 576pp, Sovetakan Grogh, Yerevan, 1981 - contains his complete poems and a selection of his prose and letters) speaks directly and forcefully to our own age. Though penned prior to 1915 and steeped in the classical Armenian and 19th century European tradition, Varoujean's critique of the realities and injustices of the 20th century remain a living protest against 21st century abuses of the human spirit, the human mind and the human body. His poetry throws down the gauntlet to all barbarisms - individual, social, national, political - and celebrates the joy of living, the passion for freedom, the pleasures of the senses as well as the fulfilment and creativity of life-enhancing labour. There are no immutable criteria or checklists against which one can measure the contemporary purchase or the 'greatness' of a classic poetic work. Poetic greatness must be socially affirmed by each generation as it searches for inspiration, courage and conviction in pursuit of its dreams. Otherwise terms such as 'superb artistry', a 'wizard of metaphors', 'linguistic magic' or a 'compelling imagination' risk becoming little more than meaningless superlatives. So the business of the commentator is not to pass some impossible final judgement but to help liberate poetry and the poet from one-sided interpretation, or release his/her work from the prison of unread books. So too with Varoujean who is increasingly thus incarcerated but who, once released, can bring a new throb to hoping hearts. At a 1912 symposium launching Varoujean's 'Pagan Songs', Krikor Zohrab (1861-1915), a contemporary writer, noted the breadth and authenticity of the poet's vision: 'We find him always close to nature, a real optimist who believes in better days. He has great faith in and respect for life. He is, if you wish, a lover of life and that in its most noble and philosophical sense. Things that are often seen as little more than metaphysical abstractions he sees in real life.' (Daniel Varoujean, ed. Terenik Jizmejian, Cario, Egypt, 1955, p200) In contrast to Zohrab's appreciation there is something decidedly unsatisfactory in much of contemporary commentary on Varoujean. Even when correctly noting his excellence with metaphor and image, his modernism, his breach with old poetic forms or his rejection of purposeless rhyme there is either a silence on or superficiality about the philosophical and social substance of his work. Yet without an appreciation of this, an organic and inextricable aspect of Varoujean's poetry, even the best of critics can only perch at the edges, never to appreciate its substance or its capacity to address the lives of several generations. The interpretation of poetry within the objective limits imposed by the text can be immensely diverse, suggesting differing, conflicting or even incompatible meanings. But to disregard the dimension captured in Zohrab's evaluation, to bypass the vision of human emancipation that is so central to Varoujean's creative effort diminishes both its range and contemporary resonance. Needless to say Varoujean's conception of emancipation is free from any narrow, lifeless or metaphysical definition. There is no vulgar and unwarranted abstraction of society or its counter-position to the individual. Each is a living and necessary conditions for the other. In its individual as well as collective aspect, Varoujean's conception has a richness and profundity that flows from an intellectual and emotional proximity to lived experience and to the lived experience of the 'common people' in particular. His poetry that portrays misery and imagines release from psychological, emotional or material miseries is moulded by the contours of everyday life and not by any turgid, a priori philosophical conceptions or fashionable political slogans. I. THE BATTLEGROUND 'Trembling' was Varoujean's first book published in 1906. It is slim, containing only 18 poems. Expressing the conflicts and contradictions of his age ten others he submitted for the volume were rejected by the editors, the priests from the Venice Mekhitarist Congregation. 'Trembling' by no means represents the best of Varoujean's work. Yet every facet of its production - artistic, editorial and technical - marks it as the battleground on which he triumphantly measured his radical humanism and his emancipatory ambition against the conservative and reactionary authorities of the day. Varoujean was then only 22. In 'Trembling' we already witness Varoujean as the poet-philosopher, the analytical thinker and the sociologist as magician. We see here the authentic poet who can profoundly and movingly echo the times and the dreams of the common man and woman. From the outset he was conscious of both social purpose and poetic principle. Just months after the publication of 'Trembling' in a letter to his friend Rafael Bazanjian, Varoujean underlined both his analytical approach and the broad social import of his poetry when contrasting himself with an earlier poet, Bedros Tourian: 'The motive force behind Tourian's melancholy is himself. In my case it is the melancholy of others. Tourian weeps for being unable to smile. I weep from pity and anger. Tourian feels nature, I explain it. Tourian describes himself, I analyse myself.' (SW p509) So 'Trembling' is rich with social and philosophic substance. But it is also pervaded by significant internal tensions and contradictions that are expressed in the clash between a spirited humanist vision and a weary Christian mysticism. But in this opposition there is nothing that is abstract or dogmatic. It marks the real development of the poet's individual outlook and the broader struggle to democratise Armenian life, curtail the tyranny of the elite and to tear away the obscurantism of the Armenian Church as necessary steps in the journey towards cultural revival, political emancipation and national liberation. Varoujean was conscious of these tensions in his work. In the same letter to Bazanjian, a defence of 'Trembling' against its critics, he notes that one of the poems (At The Doorstep to Eternity): 'was conceived when I was at one and the same time reading Rousseau, Tolstoy and Voltaire along with the Bible. I cannot express those moments of spiritual torture and crisis I experienced. Taking place within me was a battle between light and dark, and I could not tell whether it was the light of a dawn or the dying light of dusk. (SW p516) This confession of individual turmoil is preceded by a remark that registers wider, social and political preoccupations. He writes ironically: 'I am one of the evil flowers of Murat Raphaelian (the Mekhitarist controlled Armenian school in Venice). I am one of the deviant rebels who reject its project (if it still has one). I regard myself as part of the blossoming of a new Armenian generation. Murat Raphaelian is old, desiccated and rusty. It is remote from the progressive and novel needs of the day.' (SW p512) Clearly Varoujean's interest in and passion for 18th and 19th century European thinkers was not just academic. He studied them as part of his preparation for storming the bastions of unacceptable authority. Educated within the stifling confines of the stoutly Catholic Mekhitarist Congregaton, it is not surprising that in Voltaire and Rousseau Varoujean would discover an exhilarating promise of liberation. In Europe, such authors may have been superseded. But in Armenian life where the conservative and reactionary elite and Church remained decisive forces, Enlightenment thought continued to provide all manner of 'deviant rebels' with powerful ammunition. II. THE PHILOSOPHIC PRINCIPLE However implicit, essential principles of Enlightenment thinking are an ever-present undercurrent throughout 'Trembling'. They do not however appear as mechanical or rhetorical reiteration. Creatively appropriating and enriching Enlightenment conceptions of human potential and the primacy of the secular social order, Varoujean deployed them to challenge and overcome a ruinous passivity, submissiveness and fatalism that had for centuries embedded itself in the psyche and consciousness of the Armenian people. 'To the Muse', the first poem in 'Trembling', immediately asserts a categorical separation between 'Nature', of which humanity is a part, and 'God' that marks a radical breach from fatalist theological thought. Varoujean cries out 'I want to sing, I want to sing, for Nature and God speak through song' (p19). This capitalisation of 'Nature' and its precedence over 'God' indicates more than just a diminishing of God's status in relation to Nature. God and nature acquire independent and equal status - both 'speak', that is both have their own inherent wisdom, significance and message. The poet's desire to sing like Nature and God contains that stamp of Enlightenment confidence in inherent human potential. Flowing from this confidence in the independent status and the potential of human beings there is in 'Trembling' an unmistakeable rejection of the notion of the divine ordination of social affairs. The human spirit and body is broken not as a result of a fall from grace or defiance of divine law, but from the corruption of secular relations between human beings. Entombed in the 'Snow Coffin' is none other than 'the hungry boy we turned away from our door.' (p26). It is not inherent sinfulness but poverty that 'drives a man to vice'. From a 'thousand drunks nine hundred are paupers/seeking to forget the world that has forgotten them' (p27). In a moving comment on miscarriages in pregnancy, Varoujean remarks that these are 'suffered/by impoverished women' eternally 'harnessed to harsh labour and hunger'. (p39) It is social iniquity that casts a deadly pall on life and human relations. For women so long as they are ' condemned to a thousand type of hard labour' the sexual instinct itself and 'the male kiss will be a misfortune' and her 'womb a tomb.' (p39) Firing Varoujean's 'pity and anger', these principles explode into a protest against a supposedly benevolent divine power who nevertheless 'would condemn man to man's exploitation/ condemn the frail forehead to the trampling of the victor's boot.' (p26) What sort of divine power is it that 'breaks/the arm upon which rests' the 'children and the ageing parents' of the migrant labourer? (p52) Unwilling to place hopes for human salvation on a deity that has displayed so much scorn for human life the poet explores emancipatory possibilities that flow directly from our condition of being human. Beyond theology Varoujean premises emancipation on a demand for 'universal human solidarity' that 'binding heart to heart' will replace 'the vastness of cold abandonment. (p33) Without making any profound philosophic claims about Vaourjean's thought one can see in his humanism a vital and democratic core that is either absent or only vaguely adumbrated in earlier European thought. The latter did insist upon the primacy of society and it did place the secular human being at the centre of their concern. But the human that inhabited its thought was little more than an abstract Being. In contrast the men and women inhabiting the world of Varoujean's poetry are not only of flesh and blood but represent the majority of humanity, the 'common people' with all their woes and ambitions. In this connection Khachig Tololyan aptly notes that Varoujean's 'imaginative sympathy, his ability to feel the suffering of others as his own, and then to render the pain-almost as his own, in the most extraordinary language, is his special gift.' It is this that divides Varoujean's humanism so radically from that of the European thinkers he read in Venice. So Varoujean's poetry ranges across anything from potentially life-enhancing human relationships (Bless Me Father) to the miserable death of the destitute and demoralised labourer (The Snow Coffin). He pleads in defence of the mentally ill schoolboy (Charity My Children), considers the grief of a humble family that has lost its home (Before the Ashes) and condemns the poverty that induces miscarriages (The Miscarriage). He touches also on a central aspect of the Armenian, and Third World experience - forced emigration (He is Ill). Still further he contemplates man's abuse of nature and his stifling of his own spiritual and intellectual flight (To the Fish in the Pond). Nothing in the experience of the common people is alien to his magic and in each instance he reveals its profoundly universal dimension. It is this that lends his humanism its richness, its depth and its enduring quality. In contrast to these poems, those with pronounced theological or Christian concerns lack verve and cogency. They suggest ruses to allay a guilty conscience or placate hostile authority. Despite polished language and wonderful metaphor they fail to startle. They lack intellectual or emotional passion. E. P. Thompson's evaluation of Wordsworth's later poems is apt for these lesser works in 'Trembling': 'They are too dutiful, too much the product not of the poet but of his inner moral censor; he wrote not out of belief, nor out of the tensions of belief but out of a sense of what he ought to believe. Good views seldom make good poetry, whether these views are those approved of by the Anglican Church or the vanguard of the working class.' (The Romantics p67) It is hardly surprising then that the Mekhitarists attempted to alter the tone of Varoujean's book. In a letter to poet Vahan Tekeyan, Varoujean explains that they found the poetry 'too scandalous for their ancient innocence and conservatism'. In another to Arshak Chobanian he complained that 'the better part of the volume was not published- thanks to the celibate sensibilities' of the publishers. Despite these excisions, the balance of the volume remained decidedly in favour of the 'deviant rebels'. The humanist vein stands out sharply, in part indeed by its contrast with those poems that are little more than listless religious genuflection. In view of the breadth of secular concern in 'Trembling' and its pronounced empathy for the common people as well as its critique of elite and Church one cannot but puzzle over prominent Soviet Armenian writer and editor Soghomon Daronetzi's view that it 'is seriously limited for 'never going beyond a narrow national-religious framework.' This somewhat perverse distortion is particularly surprising coming as it does from a man who devoted a good deal of his life propagating the virtues of western Armenian poetry. 'Trembling' in fact confirms the opposite and underlines a rather singular and remarkable fact about some of the best of modern Armenian poetry. Despite the Armenian experience of centuries upon centuries of national oppression the greatest of Armenian poets, even in their patriotic poetry, are among the most humanist and internationalist. With Varoujean this was a conscious starting point and a first principle in his creative activity. Writing, again to Bazanjian, he declares that his 'first principle is this: in our literature the art must be Armenian and the idea that forms its foundation or pillar must be universal.' (SW p503). III. THE CHALLENGE Supported by a firm scaffolding of humanist thought, Varoujean in 'Trembling' begins to contest the iniquities of contemporary life. A fine poem 'To The Muse' (p19) is rich with suggestions about aesthetic theory and can throw light on virtually the entirety of Varoujean's output. But primarily it is a radical manifesto of individual and social ambition setting out, in the form of a dramatic dialogue between Muse and Poet, the terrain upon which the battle between the representatives of 'a new dawn' and the decaying forces of the past will unfold. The poet's entire being 'throbs with budding song'. Propelled 'by an urge to battle the storms' he wants to unveil 'the secrets of Being.' He desires 'to bind his heart to the heart of the sea/to immerse its infinity within his own.' To this end he appeals for the Muse's lyre. This is not however just an individual adventure. The lyre will serve to bind the poet's 'lips to the fiery and loving lips of the people' in 'a kiss as intense and infinite as any at the side of the sea.' The metaphor may be clumsy but not the meaning. In searching for the 'secrets of Being' the poet will commune not with the deity but with the common people. Stressing this sense is an image that, though resonant with religious symbolism, is manifestly political and even socialist - the poet will 'baptise' the lyre 'in the basin of a martyred Brotherhood'. The Muse however seeks to temper such enthusiasm, conscious of its enormous social and political significance and its consequence for the poet. Though a lyre 'fashioned to the poet's desires' is ready its 'strings are plucked from orphans' curls'. Its 'song will be an ever restless/tracking of bitter oppression.' It is true that, albeit 'covered by a pauper's cloak', the lyre will 'sparkle with a new dawn'. But it is precisely this that will be greeted with hostility by the powers that be. The 'fiery brightness of its light' will 'not please many'. For heralding this 'new dawn' the poet 'will be dismissed with disdain' by his 'very own'. Ominously the Muse cautions disaster and even defeat. The lyre is 'an instrument that wounds/it is fire/it is your future' and 'your coffin'. Undeterred the poet responds 'Let it be, pass it over!' He is stubborn. He cannot, will not, remain silent. He will express his rage against all that is cruel and unjust. He will dream of the possibility of an alternative to corrupted human relations. Reflecting the tensions prevalent in the volume, 'To the Muse' does have religious and mystical reference points, but these are entirely secondary or merely perfunctory in contrast with the spirited secular 'declaration of social intent'. Some of the best poems thereafter carve out different dimensions of individual and social experience and become a radical critique and a protest against injustice. Here analysis and prescription are expounded in poetry framed by the most precise language and by impossibly versatile, crisp, startling and frequently astonishing images and metaphors. His message is wrought of rigorous reason and logic, but it is communicated in the style of painter and architect. Varoujean himself articulates a consciousness of the unity and 'equality between colour and thought' in artistic work citing Shakespeare and Victor Hugo as examples. (SW p504) As a result with their vivid colour, their context and their perspective, Varoujean's best poems suggest a classical oil painting, a Titian or Carvaggio. These spring forth into an almost three-dimensional existence offering inexhaustible angles for observation and meditation. Reading them is sometimes akin to appreciating a fine sculpture or an architectural monument, but one that is at the same time of multi-coloured marble and mobile too. The longer poems are enhanced by the incorporation of metaphor and image into an overall dramatic and narrative structure that remains almost always taut and finely balanced with rarely a redundant passage. It is through such artistry that Varoujean's philosophic assumptions and social vision acquire authentic and profound poetic universality. In 'He Is Ill' (p51) the description of the last days of a migrant labourer is haunting. But this is also a poem about the unity of individual and collective torn asunder by social malignancy, in this case that of forced migrant labour. In Istanbul, far from the security of family and community the sick labourer is cooped up in a slum tenement whose 'dampness drop by drop drains his body to its grave'. He lies lonely and abandoned with no network of support and solidarity. His only companions are 'intimate friends created in moments of delirium-and the insects on his wall'. He is young yet 'arms created for labour' to sustain life and family are now reduced to 'fighting to fend off death.' The migrant labourer's impending death is not just an individual tragedy. His death will dash the dearest hopes of 'parents and bride' back home in Van, once part of historical Armenia, both 'in need of bread' and 'yearning for his return.' His bride 'secure in the promises of hope' waits impatiently harbouring 'the urges of a kiss' But instead a traveller will soon return to tell 'that he was buried with one eye open.' Weaving in the experiences of delirium in illness, the pain of loneliness, moments of love, beauty and desire 'He Is Ill' is also a poem of human mortality, personal loss, exile and love bereaved. Like all great thinkers Varoujean grasped that life cannot be lived by bread alone. So beyond material poverty and social exploitation 'To the Fish in the Pond' (p53) that protests against man's abuse of other living things is also a metaphor for the caging of the human spirit and the chaining of intellectual and imaginative flight. 'Like a thinker' the fish 'roams the narrow waters' of a tiny pond whose 'limits have been defined' by 'man's craft'. No more 'shall you wander the world of infinite blue' where 'embracing freedom and joy' you 'once vanquished its mighty waves and dangers with disdain.' Man is the architect of this prison, 'selfish man who amuses himself gazing at the silver bubbles you create'. He is the 'tyrant of the globe' 'willing to sacrifice all' to 'his pleasure and his glory'. This human abuse of nature is but the other side of his abuse of his fellow man. The fish pond is a symbol of the prison he has made for himself. 'My life is exactly as is yours'. In vain does the poet 'strive high' in search of 'a world where freedom reigns' and with it 'an undeceiving goodness.' All around him are those 'wretched restraining forces that crush the spirit and its flight.' In human society 'life and the cemetery extend a hand to each other.' There is here a grimness and pessimism that seems to belie Zohrab's testimony to Varoujean's healthy optimism. It is real pessimism. But it is transient. The crystal clear depiction of social and spiritual anguish in 'Trembling' is not matched by an equally cogent vision of release. Notions of universal solidarity and spiritual fulfilment that frame a conception of emancipation are often inchoate, one sided or tainted by an impotent mysticism. In many instances the agency of release is not the realisation of individual or collective potential that is affirmed in the volume's philosophical premises. Instead a powerless subject becomes the object of others' charity. This limit will be overcome later. But in 'Bless Me Father' (p22) there is a philosophically significant suggestion of the possibility of 'undeceiving goodness' in human relations, of a genuine universal solidarity manifested in filial and fatherly loyalty that is born of the very cycle of procreation and life. 'With new blood flooding his veins' the young man sets out 'to labour, to challenge and to live' - but at no cost to his father. An unbreakable bond is at the very foundation of both their lives. 'My blood has come from your sweat/I am the bud of your sad weariness'. When 'your spirit, like a sturdy oak, braved the storm/I grew easy and silent in its shade.' So even as he sets out on his supremely individual journey he cannot forget his obligation to his father. 'Enough. you have laboured and borne. It is time now that your rest and I take over.' It is upon such unsullied relations of human solidarity that his life of daring, flight and challenge will be lived. In this poem, as in others, image and metaphor are more than delighting representations of ideas or things. They communicate deeper shades of meaning. In 'Bless Me Father' they hint at the love, devotion and loyalty in the father-son relation as a fundamental feature of human relations that is moreover an elemental, natural process beyond consciousness and prior to any thought or calculation. The sturdy oak braves the storm by virtue of its existence and nothing more. So does the father protect the son. But the son can also not do otherwise. The image of the father's sweat transformed into the son's life-blood, an image steeped in Christian religious symbolism, again suggests a process beyond human calculation. Thus metaphor and image suggest the imminent possibility of social solidarity manifested in such an essential condition of our existence as the parent-child relationship. *** For a full measure of Varoujean's grandeur one must turn to his second, third and fourth volumes - 'The Heart of the Nation', 'Pagan Songs', 'The Song of Bread' - as well as to a volume's worth of poems not included by him in any collection. Here the intellectual and philosophical grasp is more profound and comprehensive and the poetic treatment more thorough and magical. These volumes embrace more explicitly the Armenian experience of national liberation struggle and the international struggle for justice and equality. They sing to the cycle of human labour that eternally produces and reproduces life itself. They reach out to recover the ancient gods of classical Armenia and press them into the service of the present. They celebrate human pleasure and fulfilment and pay homage to the satisfaction of emotions and the senses. The best of these later poems in their novelty, originality and depth, defy all categorisation, each so rich that they demand separate and independent commentary. To them 'Trembling' is a worthy preface. With his passionate sense of mission articulated in perceptive thought and precise language he already reveals an imposing maturity. His authoritative confidence transforms listener and reader into an eager, attentive audience for the enunciation of a radical humanist outlook that developed into an enduring foundation for his entire work. Varoujean, his mind and spirit still fluent with budding visions and new projects, was murdered at 31 in 1915. One cannot but be driven to think upon the significance of the date of 1915 in commentaries on modern Armenian literature. This date raises a question beyond the politics of the Armenian Genocide recognition. It marks the end of the lives of so many talented novelists, poets and writers. Even those uninformed about the Genocide cannot fail to note that in 1915 an abrupt and sudden silencing of a vast wave of talent, creativity and energy: Rouben Sevak (1885-1915), Siamanto (1878-1915), Yeroukhan (1870-1915), Rouben Zartarian (1874-1915), Hrant (1859-1915), Tlgadintzi (1860-1915), Krikor Zohrab (1861-1915). One senses here a cataclysm, a tragedy, a terrible ending. Pity the reader or writer who does not care to investigate further. The vine of culture and creativity that was cut down, so brutally and prematurely in 1915 embodied and continues to embody some of the finest hopes and dreams of humanity. To remain wilfully ignorant of the reasons for such tragedies in human history puts one beyond any honest or authentic appreciation of literature and art. Literature and art does not tolerate murder and annihilation. END OF PART ONE [Read Part Two.] -- 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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