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Worth a read... Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value. Armenian News Network / Groong October 4, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian I BEDROS TOURIAN - POET, INTELLECTUAL AND NATIONAL ACTIVIST A. S. Sharourian's measured and erudite enthusiasm for his subject makes this critical biography ('Bedros Tourian: his life and work', 362pp, 1972, Yerevan) of 19th century Armenian poet Bedros Tourian a pleasant and educative read. Tourian's literary reputation was established in his lifetime (1851-1872), acquired critical acclaim during after 1890 and has never since flagged. He is generally regarded as the first truly brilliant modern Armenian lyrical poet who, unencumbered by classical or clerical tradition, wrote exclusively in modern vernacular and combined originality and folklore. Tourian's brief life is testimony to what can be accomplished by combinations of youth, talent, energy and dedication. By 15 when poverty forced him to abandon school he had already authored two plays and established himself as someone of promise. At his death at 21 though dogged by poverty and ill-health he had to his credit a stock of classical translations, begun at school, 10 plays, a volume of poetry, some quality journalism as well as a hand full artistic gems in the form of personal letters. The thousands who thronged the streets for his funeral testified to the powerful chord Tourian had struck in the popular imagination and spirit. Sharourian is intent on presenting Tourian in what he believes to be his true image - an all round intellectual and artist of the Armenian revival. In Armenianising his name from the Turkish Zmbayan to Tourian, the poet was not engaging in mere affectation. His plays, much of his poetry and prose are shaped by an intense concern for the fortunes of the Armenian nation and people. Sharourian places Tourian in what he regards as the radical wing of the Armenian revival, along with men like H. Baronian, that was unceasing in its criticism of the decadent order of the times. Going a step further, Sharourian even tries to hitch the poet to the chariot of social and even class struggle suggesting Tourian had a 's conscious commitment to the interests of the Armenian poor of Constantinople. Whilst it is possible to take issue with this evaluation, Sharourian's emphasis on Tourian's social and political vision is welcome, for when this is ignored it diminishes the man, the poet and the intellectual. Though artistically unremarkable, Tourian's historical plays contain passages of wonderful prose reflecting on national fortunes and on the oppositions between Crown and peasant and prince and plebeian that bring out sharply, albeit indirectly, the corruption and selfishness of the ruling elite in his own time. That through these historical tragedies Tourian sought to address contemporary issues is proven by his prescient preface to his last play 'The Theatre and the Dispossessed'. Here he argues that to deal effectively with contemporary problems one must leave behind the restrictive form of historical plays so prone to empty bombast and rhetoric. This valuable volume is somewhat tarnished by a largely though not exclusively pedestrian appreciation of Tourian's poetry. Still, the author does alert us to the broader, universal themes in Tourian's small body of work that focused on personal love and pain. Tourian's political or patriotic poetry express visions of justice and a dedication to the collective good of the Armenian people. Though intensely personal, his best work is suffused with a profound humanism that is underlined in poetic technique that draws inspiration from popular folklore and uses the spoken language to produce an authentic Armenian poetry that dwells on the experience of all men and women. It is not for nothing that Varoujan compared Tourian to Khatchadour Abovian, pioneer of the Armenian novel, and bemoaned the fact that the traditions of Tourian's genuine Armenian poetry were neglected by successors bent on aping of western schools and trends. II GHAZAROS AGHAYAN - AN INTELLECTUAL FOR THE PEOPLE The legacy of the great Armenian intellectuals of the 19th century national revival, despite the enduring value of its moving principles, is slowly being pressed into oblivion by the monolith of globalism and its attendant cultural degeneration. Among the victims of this process is Ghazaros Aghayan (1840 - 1911), poet, novelist, publicist, educator and linguist. Leo's fine little biography is a reminder of why it is worth preserving and utilising the heritage of figures such as Aghayan. Aghayan was a most unlikely intellectual who hailed from a tough and rugged family, born in the heights of the Karabagh mountains and had no formal higher education. His grandfather was a soldier in the ranks of an Armenian feudal army in Karabakh while his father enjoyed a bandit's career before settling in the Lori region. Ghazaros inherited from them an enormous physical frame as well as stubbornness, determination, audacity and a sense for adventure. Before turning to cultural and intellectual activity he was a vagabond, a hunter, a troubador, factory worker, farm labourer and typsetter. But with a creative imagination and sharp intelligence he was ineluctably drawn into the growing stream of national cultural and intellectual revival that was regenerating Armenian life in the 19th century. Though spreading his talents widely Ghazaros Aghayan excelled primarily as an educator and folklorist, gathering and cultivating a vast body of local fables, tales and stories and using them in his outstanding pedagogical work. Leo's view that Aghayan's poetry is of value is questionable. He is right however to claim that Leo's novels, albeit of limited artistic value, are significant as a historical record of the backward social, religious and educational traditions of the time against which Aghayan fought with all his talent and energy. Like the best of his generation the animating principle behind all of Aghayan's work was the advancement of the common people. The enlightenment, education and advancement of the 'lower orders' was regarded as the foundation for any serious effort to secure the Armenian people equality and liberty in the world. To this end Aghayan devoted years to teaching, earning in due course an outstanding reputation. Besides he did seminal work producing modern pedagogical textbooks that, unlike the mechanical and literal copies of foreign, mainly Russian efforts that flooded the Armenian market, Aghayan creatively appropriated and adjusted their work to meet Armenian needs. In this respect Aghayan's translation and adaptation of the work of Oushinski, a pioneering Russian educator, was of particular note. Oushinski was a driving force behind the introduction of modern and democratic educational principles into Russian life. Leo argues that Aghayan was a man of the same order, in fact 'the Oushinski of Armenian elementary education'. Coming from one not known for generosity in praise, this is a remarkable evaluation. Politically and socially, Aghayan shared with men like Mikael Nalpantian a sort of communal, egalitarian even socialistic vision of society and economy, which they believed would bring different nationalities and their states into relations of harmony and equality. In the 1890s claiming that the root of rural backwardness lay in private property Aghayan argued for communal farming. Believing such property forms impossible in large urban centres he advocated instead that the rich subsidise and finance the education and social welfare of the community as a whole. In doing so he reveals a deeply democratic sprit insisting that the Armenian elite, which had disproportionate economic weight in the Caucuses, support not just the needy Armenian but the destitute Turk, Russian or Georgian too. Such measures were regarded by him as part of an effort to eliminate national antagonism and secure mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between nationalities. Setting out Aghayan's contribution Leo offers a sharply critical picture of the age. When Aghayan first goes to Tbilisi in 1853, this 'capital of the Armenian community' did not even have an Armenian language newspaper and its educational system, controlled by an obscurantist Church, still dispensed little more than a compound of medieval theology and traditional superstition. Prevailing social backwardness was symbolised by the plight of women and children who, like Aghayan's mother and her sons, were virtual slaves to the male tyrant of the home. As for the Armenian intelligentsia its vast bulk was narrow-minded, petty and sectarian, composed of 'intellectual terrorists' guilty of 'extreme intolerance. Hypocrites, days before Aghayan's death they had launched a bitter campaign against him but still joined his funeral procession when after his death. Little changes! -- 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.