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The Critical Corner - 12/31/2005

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Armenian News Network / Groong
December 31, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian

PART FOUR: `Pagan Songs' and the art of living

            `Only he can grasp the enchanted Dream
            Who drinks both of the incense and the muck of life
            Who is a Being kneaded both with light and mud
            A Being, also, who is created with a tear.' (p324)

`Pagan Songs' (Selected Works, Yerevan, 1984) was the third and last
volume of poetry that Daniel Varoujean was able to personally prepare
for publication in 1912, three years before his murder in 1915. If his
1906 `The Heart of the Nation' was explicitly nationalist in its
intent, `Pagan Songs' that followed, though also imbued with the urge
for emancipation, is of an altogether different order. It is about the
art of living free, in one part adventure of the senses and of free
relations among individuals, in another a protest against social
conditions that prevent life's potential bounding free.

As with each of his new collections, in `Pagan Songs' Varoujean again
explores with a new brush, this time of sometimes darker, brooding
hues, but also with vibrant colours from a palate enhanced by personal
and intellectual maturity. For the first time, he opens up his inner
self and also ventures into the realms of individual desire. Varoujean
also returns more systematically and rigorously to themes of universal
social emancipation touched on in `Trembling', his first volume of
poetry.  Displaying consistency in artistic technique and vision
`Pagan Songs' abounds with the dramatic narrative, finely etched
images and flamboyant metaphors that we have come to expect from
Varoujean. Fashioned with his masterly command of language and rhythm
these exhibit those possibilities of individual and social life that
in the everyday are corrupted, suppressed or but fleeting and when not
so, still, apparently beyond expression.

One must beware however. For reasons we shall turn to, this evaluation
is conditional, tenable only with reference to select poems, not the
volume as a whole.


Among the volume's first significant poems is a tribute to nature that
defines a central aesthetic and intellectual dimension of Varoujean's
poetry. Nature's grandeur is more than beauty to be admired. It is
more than inspiration for literary image or metaphor with which to
grasp and express the many layered mysteries and ambitions of life.
Nature in Varoujean's vision features as the essential, the primary
and omnipresent source and foundation for all life; men and women are
seen and depicted as an integral part of nature, depending on it to
create their own lives, often in collaboration with its other living

In `Vanadour' that is dedicated to the Armenian pagan god of the same
name Varoujean deifies nature and its life-generating force. Vanadour
becomes the personification of nature's imminent and eternally
creative power. Though the `moss has grown over the temples' of other
gods, Vanadour `with his crystal clear laughter' remains `immortal
like the soil does, like the fire does, like the salt of the seas'. He
returns each spring to `cover the land's white stone beneath a green
blanket graced with dew' and ensures that beneath `bushes weighted
with flowers, nests are full of blessings'. In harmony with Vanadour's
gifts that come with the four seasons, human beings labour and create
their own lives. Conscious of his bounty the peasant's `scythe that
sparkles in the rich grained wheat' sings to Vanadour and as the
`smoke from cottage chimneys' `ascends to the skies as peacefully as
incense' `every guitar, in every household, makes music to
Vanadour'. (p208-11)

Varoujean's poetry also displays a keen awareness for other living
creatures that we share space with, creatures that like us are also
possessed of that energy, ambition and delight for life and freedom.
`The Insect That Drowned' feels for the tragedy of even this tiniest
of creatures for whom:

	`my pupil flooded with the light of my soul
	Became your grave. The tear that killed you
	Was the same that wept.' (p281)

At moments of exhilaration even the insect `flits about without a
care', as if `all things put their ear' to its song and as if it
`owned the universe and the sun'.  Like human beings in confident
stride, it also feels that when `on the wing of the wind, it rules all
horizons'. But only until it is randomly trapped in the poet's eyes
and drowns `in the tears it involuntarily produces'. Then the poem
also becomes a metaphor for the unpredictable that can transform into
catastrophe the march of human life itself.

In Varoujean's time the affirmation of an elemental unity between
nature and human life, between men and women and other living
creatures and the celebration of men and women as part of nature's
cycle, had something exhilarating about it. It served to liberate
consciousness and ambition from the fatalistic, passive and ascetic
mental and emotional moulds generated by Ottoman tyranny and an
obscurantist Armenian religious establishment that denuded everyday
life of its many possibilities. Today such affirmations have a
different, but still powerful resonance, underlining the damage to
mind and body caused by our systematic divorce from and abuse of
nature. As tens of millions of people are herded into vast urban
conglomerates they are robbed of a fruitful relation with nature and
suffer limits on their lives as harmful, dispiriting and enervating as
the influence of any obscurantist Church.


In a 1914 letter Daniel Varoujean writes that as a student at Ghent
University in Belgium, he had suffered his `greatest personal
distress'. But, he added: `This was the 1904-1907 period when the
Armenian people were being overwhelmed by blood and sword. Then I
chose not to delve into my personal woes. I virtually silenced my own
heart and preferred instead to sing of the heart of the nation whose
beat I felt within me, within my very blood.' (p530)

One result of this reaction to his distress was `The Heart of the
Nation'. However, Varoujean's personal plight did not end with his
student days. On his return home, his life, particularly in the
provinces, became in his words `an exhausting struggle against
prejudice, popular ignorance and the follies of the political parties'
(SW p530). But now, with conditions altered during a brief period of
illusory freedom after the 1908 Young Turk putsch, Varoujean felt free
to distill his personal experience into poetry.

Though `it is a terrible sight to see the bottom of a drained and
empty soul' Varoujean bares his own, without fear and without any
melodramatic postures that would draw attention to or sympathy for his
plight. He transforms the wounds of his inner being into miniatures of
objectified human emotion in its essence. In dark surreal images he
summons up the intensity of emotional pain that can isolate anyone
from collective life. Ambition and hope are incinerated and the poet
travels alone, his hands `weighed down carrying the ashes of his own
life.' This is pain that renders one incapable of delighting in the
bloom of surrounding life as:

	`Infinite suffering, like a black tombstone
	Has blocked my heart to all the saps of spring.' (p 274-275)

The poet's beloved, who once `opened his door to the smiles of a
thousand springs', and to `all the vivid roses of the past' has
abandoned him. People he considered friends have become `brothers who
crucify', their shadows hovering `like the grim arm of a ghost'.
Having given to people `generously of his essence and love' as well as
all the `flowers of his being' he is stunned to `discover them to be
always superficial'.

Lost love and betrayal are compounded by a sense of humiliating
political failure. When the Ottoman state was slaughtering a `People
who ... had taken up the hammer to build an age of marble' Varoujean's
`dejected spirits were reinforced with lightening', his `will that was
broken by his private pain was repaired by another's.' Then he had
`sung to inspire fortune's rejected children'. But to no avail. The
burden of the failure that Varoujean feels is communicated in an image
that describes his own dejection: were he to choose to end his life
there would not be `a single empty grave' for him in a cemetery now
full with `martyrs fallen' in a battle lost.

But even through the grimmest passages that describe a spirit on the
edge of the abyss, one senses nevertheless the force of resistance,
the cry for help and the tension of protest and revolt. For all his
desire to `shut his door to Nature, Dedication and Love' and to `seal
it with his despair' the will to live and to strive endured. In this
drama of suffering and overcoming, faith is neither solace nor guide
as the poet has discovered God to be but:

	`... a sphinx like
	Adornment to nothingness (p285).'

The central actors in recovery are nature and humanity. As a
manifestation of nature's vitality, of the will of Vanadour so to
speak, with the birth of a daughter the poet's barren and desiccated
being is transformed and he becomes:

	`... the desert that smiles to the skies
	With but a single blooming bud'. (p320)

So, Varoujean determined to refill `the empty container of his heart'
(p272). He strove for Light, light that is metaphor for life,
knowledge and beauty, the `bride of his Mind, the daughter of God'.
Light that is `the wine of universal joy', `the blood of nature,
night's crown and daytime's gown.'


Personal distress did not dull Varoujean's urge for the beautiful and
as a counter-point to poetry of private desolation `Pagan Songs' also
relishes in the release of the pleasure principle from the chains of
Christian asceticism. This release, despite the volume's title, is not
conceived according to any notion of an idealized pre-Christian
hedonism. Varoujean creates a vision of unsullied sensual delight and
of sexual fulfillment that is untainted by submissive and servile
relations by generalizing from moments of actually lived experience,
moments that a cruel social order suppresses and prohibits. His poetry
inspires the desire to transform such moments into lifetimes.

Poems such as `The Embrace', `Eastern Baths', `To Ears', `Mitcho'
reflect on episodes of love, passion, desire, luxury and sensual
exhilaration in human relationships that are free, equal and mutual.
`The Embrace', that in Armenian reads as if it could have been written
either by a man or a woman, weaves sexual desire and emotional
fulfillment into a single moment of mutual enhancement as:

	`my mouth upon her/his tantalizing mouth Drank from
	the well of the heart.' (p224)

As the lovers are `knitted together like affectionate ivy', the world
of nature, its flowers, leaves and aromas become both metaphors and
actual elements of their fulfillment and renewal as they `flower once
more' on their `bed of flowers'.  Time will exhaust such passions but
their memory endures to unite aged couples `in a blissful smile' even
when it is only `two walking sticks that now lie entangled' at the
foot of the bench where they rest beneath the sun. (p228-229)

`Eastern Baths' as a contrast describes a collective experience of
sensual luxury. The steam, the flowers, the stone benches, the water,
the spring season and the human form are painted into a single
luscious canvas of a group of women bathing. It is a depiction of
social ritual that cleanses and purifies, that scents and adorns body
and spirit and gives ilan to movement so that when the women later
walk home:

	`...the streets of the Eastern City
	Will feel as if May is blooming from your footsteps
	And a new Spring passes along the revived pavements' (p221)

A lyrical register of the ear's biological, intellectual, emotional
and even erotic functions, `To Ears' captures something of the marvel
and sensuality of the smallest parts of the human form. Through her
ears `all the sounds of the globe reach' the soul of his beloved
`there to be transformed to mysteries.' A vehicle for both sense and
emotion, ears `alone can communicate the song from the strings of my
lyre' to the `veiled soul' of the woman he loves. Recalling `The
Miller's Daughter by Lord Tennyson, Varoujean's poem is touched by the
same gentle eroticism as he asks permission to kiss `that which
`shivers with indescribable delight' and to place as a gift `a pair of
tears from my eyes' as rings' upon her ears.' (p237)

If Part One describes aspects of life's beautiful possibilities, the
poetry of Part Two focuses on the social context that suppresses and
denies them freedom.


In accord with the spirit of his times Varoujean in `Pagan Songs'
locates the sources of oppression and alienation in the social order
of his day - the decaying Ottoman Empire and capitalist Europe. He
also frames his vision of emancipation in socialist terms that then
prevailed. But he did so free of tired rhetoric or lifeless
sloganeering. One can measure the verve, energy, passion, imagination
and magic of his poetry in any comparison with the mounds of dry
versified political pronouncements in English and indeed Armenian
language anthologies of socialist poetry. Consistent with his vision
of nature's primacy Varoujean casts oppositions between capitalist
oppression and social emancipation in terms of oppositions between the
city and the country, between urban life and nature. But he does so in
an original manner, with a vigorous mind and a still youthful
imagination tempered by the influence of `Venice with its Titian and
its colours' and the `Flanders with its Vandyke and its barbarian
realism' (SW p525).

In Varoujean's poetry the site and source of social decay and
individual alienation is the City - the core of a social order where
all nobility, generosity, mutuality and love have been corrupted. From
the City Eros like `the exiled dove has fled.' (p239). In contrast to
the corruptions of City, in the fold of nature the:

	`... sanctified imprint of god is not tainted,
	For nature does not harm or damage saintliness' (p288)

For the majority, the common people, the City is a prison. There `for
the sake of a slice of bread' people are forced to `bury the flames of
their soul' in vast stifling factories where `the yellow soil of the
grave spreads unsmiling death over men with blue eyes' (p295).
Consistently nature is driven out of what becomes a gray, grim and
soulless environment. In the city and its factories people `live
always dying', `dreaming in vain of Spring', `dreaming in vain of the
freedom of the air, of air through which even the mole drinks in light
and perfume.' `Their large star spangled eyes succumbing to smoke now
reflect only the dullness of tin', (p306) while upon `their long
eyelashes there rests only the ashes of the furnace.' (p306). All
`desire to put singing lips' to `the clean mouth of spring water' is

	`Instead of the song of love, on his lips
	There froths up a burning red cough.' (p295)

The City that blights collective and individual lives also transforms
passion and sexuality into crimes against women. For the wealthy urban
dandy the `heart of the virgin is but like a wine glass that once
emptied is smashed with pleasure.' (p296). Women `once pure and noble
crystals' are `trampled to mud by such men.' (p297) Victim to the
deceit of the rich a `cheated heart', a mere girl, is forced to become
a `mother before she was a woman' and abandons a child she has no
means to care for.

In the `The Break', Varoujean offers a masterly and impassioned
reconstruction of the foundations of exploitative social orders, past
and present, upon which arises the corrupted City. For the working
people `it was but a matter of luck if they had a full stomach on the
day of their passing.' Yet:

	`They are the ones who built the immortal Pyramids,
	 And became stepping stones to thrones
	Upon which Monarch and King climbed to the stars
	To this day beneath the foundations of their palaces
	You can find the lily of their Adam's apple, the starved and burnt out heart
	It is their blood that cemented the walls of the grim Yeldez Prison.
	The arches of the Vatican, even the slippers of the Pope
	Are adorned with the margaret of their shimmering sweat...
	...And our age's Arch of Victory today rests
	On the steel shoulders of a hundred thousand labourers (306-307)

The repeated oppositions between town and country that unfold through
this poetry do not however represent a retreat from urban life into an
alternative romanticized rural idyll. Varoujean's City does not depict
urban life in general, but the social relations he experienced in
decadent Istanbul and the cities of capitalist Europe. When writing
`The Heart of the Nation' he had felt the throb of the Armenian
people's heart beat in his own blood. Following his encounter with
life in Europe's industrial cities he also:

    `Felt the cries of the working class like the tongue of a flame upon
    my soul. ... I also felt the...decadence and the debauchery of the
    supposedly upright wealthy families.  (p530)

Transforming this experience into poetry Varoujean, as he does in all
his creative efforts, takes a common experience, this time that of the
contrasts between city and country, and moulds them into images of
possible freedom. Nature's magnificence, its vitality, freshness,
expansiveness and delight, that we all experience albeit in the most
limited and narrow form, are patterned into metaphors for the
vitality, vigour, purity and freshness that are absent in the City.

(In parenthesis it is suggesting that a discussion of the function of
nature in 20th century Armenian poetry could be indeed profitable.
This is also the case for those early 20th century poets who also
wrote poetry of social protest, among them Varoujean, Shousanik
Kurghinian, Hakob Hakobian, Rouben Sevak and others. Born and first
raised in country as yet little touched by the dark side of
industrialisation they then moved to live in urban centres such as
Istanbul, Tblisi, Baku and elsewhere. Their early experience of nature
appears to have fashioned their reaction to urban life and offered
them means and terms with which to ponder and explain it.)

But the corrupted City, this taint on Nature's beauty is not immortal.
Tomorrow dear Comrade... over this arrogant City, the Storm will
explode and light its barbarian fires'. Varoujean's vision of storm of
emancipation from social ills in `Pagan Songs' registers not just a
poetic but also an intellectual advance in comparison with `Trembling'.
In the latter the agency for releasing the common people from social
oppression conceived in the form of someone else's charitable act. The
common people appear as essentially inactive victims of social
circumstance. In `Pagan Songs' in contrast, fired by their own anger
and their hopes and ambitions, it is the common people who will
`clench their fists and thus shape the Future'. It was to inspire the
people in this endeavour that Varoujean penned his remarkable `The
First of May' summoning them to:

	`Come, come to me, I am the wizard of May.
	Your sweat I shall transform into priceless pearl
	Set in a rose
	I shall flood your dried bones with the fire of the
	Sun.' (p309)

This poem is more than a decidedly original and dazzling hymn to
Labour Day. It is a magical and exuberant declaration of human
solidarity, generosity and hope for all ages as the poet invites
suffering humanity to:

	`Come to me, come to me all of you
	My heart has so much flame, my soul so much light
	That even from your soft clay I shall mould
	A New Humanity and New Hope.' (p309-310)

Today millions of lives are wasted eking out a living on virtually
nothing, millions in the USA live dire lives on a minimum wage of
$5. These millions still build the palaces and the mansions of the
rich. The grim factories if they have vanished in the west it is
because they have been removed to the east. And for the common people
in the West the City has been transformed into an airless, green-less
dungeon, polluted with exhaust fumes, disfigured with waste and
abandoned ghettoes. For these women and men the blessing that ends
`The First of May' retains its full force:

	`Let the doors to your homes be flooded with roses
	And when the moon wanders in with its flaming eye
	May your hearth be anointed with balsam tonight' (p311)


When debated on its first publication, amidst wildly enthusiastic
acclaim for `Pagan Songs' were some critical comments that
appropriately qualified its accomplishment. These reservations have
since, unfortunately been buried. Yet qualification is
indispensable. So no apologies for the lengthy extracts from early

At the 1912 symposium on Daniel Varoujean's work writer Gegham
Baresghian, though speaking highly of Varoujean's work noted that
`Pagan Songs' was open to criticism. It was `most open' he argued in
its attitude to women:

    `For example (in) `The Concubine' and `O Dalita', the Ethiopian
    woman in `Lalake' and the women in `Eastern Baths' is not
    love and beauty that is honoured but only passion and lust, and
    that of men only.'

Continuing, Barseghian added that in such poems:

    `There is not a word about women's own individuality. It is as if
    they did not exist. It is as if the only bond between men and
    women is that of the flesh. Even if we assume this to be the
    poet's view, we would at least have expected something about the
    desires felt by women. But in `Pagan Songs' the woman appears as
    but a creature created to satisfy men's desires.'
    (`Daniel Varoujean ` School Days, Unpublished Letters and his
    Literature' written and edited by Terenig Jizmejian, 1955 Cario,

H. Sourkhatian, a prominent Marxist literary critic remarked on an
aspect that may not have occurred to Barseghian:

    `There is nothing pagan about these songs.... (Varoujean's)
    concepts of beauty...have nothing in common with the beauty of the
    classical age. Varoujean's love is... the lust of the harem, with
    the classical stamp of decadence...'

Barseghian's evaluation and, despite the unacceptable sweep of its
generalization, Sourkhatian's too, has weight when attached to a
specific set of poems among them `Of Paganism', `O Dalita', `Lalake',
`You Are Blessed Among Women' and `Saturnalia' (in disagreement with
Barseghian one must exclude `Eastern Baths'). Seeking to emancipate
the senses from Christian asceticism Varoujean, in these poems, failed
to consistently emancipate himself from eastern misogyny. These poems
have nothing of that quality of universal passion one sees in `The
Embrace' and Eastern Baths'. Here there is none of the rage against
the abuse of women one encounters in `Cheated Virgins' or `The Woman
Worker.'  Their technical virtuosity is but a facade for an interior
that is base. Sexual pleasure is depicted as exclusively male pleasure
and worse still, realized only in relations of male domination and
female enslavement.

In this connection, Khachig Tololyan, in an exception to uncritical
encoma among contemporary commentators astutely notes that

    '...specifically sexual imagination (that of a Catholic boy from
    the rural Sebastia region, and educated by monks) is powered by
    women as inciters of male lust, a lust he luxuriates in and
    expresses vigorously; he does not represent women as possessors of
    lust that would make them too active....Like most men then and
    many men now, to acknowledge in poetry what he rationally grasped
    (namely, that women can also have the agency of desire, as
    theorists say, that women can also lust) did not excite his
    imagination and might even have restricted the play of that poetic
    imagination. This is a shortcoming.'

Even a cursory glance at these poems underlines the validity of such
concerns. In `Of Paganism' the protagonist is `for tonight' a
`monarch' of `eastern splendour' possessing a `throne, treasures and
white women'. Consumed in this fantasy he enjoys the body of a
beautiful female slave who dances for him:

    `Always subject to my sybarite will, that forever governs her.' (p213)

What this enslaved woman slave feels, thinks or desires is not even
hinted at. This misogyny is characteristic also of the much-lauded
`Lalake' that Shirvanzade condemned as `pornographic'. The
`pornography' however does not, as Shirvanzade believed, rest in any
explicit sexual imagery but in the reservation of sexual pleasure for
men only and in the allocation to women of a subordinate, instrumental
and insensate role. Here again is a slave-owner who during his wife's
pregnancy lusts after his female slaves, all of whom are half-naked
picking the fruit of his orchards. The slave-owner revels in both
orchards and slaves:

	`O my vineyards, vineyards in bloom ... (and)
	My diligent and submissive slaves in their hundreds (p224)

His wife features little differently to barrels:

        `that are full with wines ` just like your womb'

`You Are Blessed Amongst Women' purports to pay homage to the beauty
and creativity of pregnancy. But it offers only a distorted male

	`In every throb of your vein I feel
	The beat of my own heart
	And the budding of the flower of my blood' (p227)

The notion that pregnant women have feelings, thoughts and emotions of
their own is totally absent. Woman is but a vessel for a child that is
the man's alone:

Despite this evidence critics have generally by-passed and even
attempted to whitewash the moral and social taint in these poems.
Hector Rshdouni can be considered representative. He writes:

`In `Lalake', `Paganism' and other poems it is simplicity and
naturalness, healthy, unrestrained human relations that are
honoured. Here life receives vibrant poetic colouring.' (Daniel
Varoujean, 1961, Yerevan, Armenia, p182)

This clearly will not do!

Critics are right to note in `Pagan Songs' and in Varoujean's opus,
`the impress of authentic poetry' (Hagop Oshagan) that with the
`dynamic, awesome' (Barouyr Sevak) and `unimaginably vital...imagery
and metaphor' (Vahagn Tavtian) `recovers humanity, the human heart,
the heart that suffered' (Father Mesrop Janashian). It is right to
note that Varoujean strove for a `completeness and perfection'
(Moushegh Ishkhan) and that in his best poetry `you cannot alter a
word or change ...the order of a line'. (Minas Teoleolian). True, his
art `attained such splendid fulsomeness' (Yervant Azatian) that `it is
impossible to exhaust' its meaning (Vasken Gabrielian).

Vasken Gabrielian by no means overstates the case. Yet still to taste
the fruit best, one must wash away the mud. Barseghian's conclusion to
his 1912 speech remains totally valid:

    ``Pagan Songs' would have benefited if certain poems in their
    entirety and numerous portions of others had been excluded.'

Varoujean's lapses do not however disqualify him from his place in the
pantheon of the greats. With `Pagan Songs', `Trembling', `The Heart of
the Nation' and `The Song of Bread' as well as with other poems not
collected into a separate volumes, Vaoroujean enables his audience to
soar with him as he jealously protects the human dream of emancipation
from all the `miseries of the world'. It is a dream that Varoujean
believes can be conceived into reality, with a share of confidence in
our own potential along with the will and determination to fight for
its realization.

[ Read Parts I, II and III of Eddie's Varoujean series. ]

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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