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The Critical Corner - 07/13/2015

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Armenian News Network / Groong
July 13, 2015



Contemporary recollections of Missak Medzarents and Daniel Varoujean

Recollections about famous authors (`Missak Medzarents and Daniel
Varoujean: remembered by their contemporaries', 1986, Yerevan, 344pp)
are of course hugely valuable with multitudes of fact, incident,
impression and anecdote serving a richer biographical canvas. But they
do need to be read with judgement that distinguishes the authentic
from the hagiographic, the honest from those jumping onto fame's
bandwagon, especially those so shameless with cheap claims of having
been loved by the famous!


Missak Medzarents hardly had time to live before he was struck down at
22 by tuberculosis. Two slim volumes of poetry, the first published
one year and the second three months before he died in 1906, aroused
immediate critical passions. By most accounts, in contrast to Bedros
Tourian with whom he is compared, and who also died young at 21,
Medzarents appears to have been completely apolitical. No hint
tendered here of public life, of social or national dedication, no
evidence of patriotic effusion.

Yet hailing from a very well to do family in Armenia's heart, in Peng
near Kharpert/Agn, Medzarents delighted in the company of the common
people, associating with them where others would not. Critical of
those growing indifferent to their roots and even though himself
migrating to Istanbul, where in 1905 illness forced him to abandon
education, Mdezarents never let go of bonds to his homeland. Its
natural and social life featured prominently in his consciousness that
also accumulated its sounds and its colours, its rural music and its
song that together all flowed into his poetry.

Together with rural folk poetry and song Medzarents loved Narek. But
his interests were international too. He immersed himself in French
and English poetry having a fine command of both languages, evidently
speaking English with impeccable British accent. An avid reader he was
also a translator, of Rudyard Kipling among others. But writing was
his first love. Perhaps unable to live life `normally', he lived
through writing and with an intensity and concentration that he may
have hoped would compensate for the early dying of his light.

A sharp, witty, clever man-boy Medzarents was disgusted by eggs and
cheese and was fastidious too, in the extreme, about personal
cleanliness and tidiness. He was in his writing similarly single
minded and particular, producing endless drafts as he strove for
envisioned perfection. Sending his work to print he insisted
turbulently that publishers leave all his punctuation untouched. The
poetry that resulted has secured enduring acclaim.

In Armenian social and political history Medzarents's home town Peng
was significant, its fate indicative of the challenges and fortunes of
the Armenian national movement in a land of many nationalities. Amid
Turkish and Kurdish communities Peng was envied for its economic
progress and blessed too with natural defensive barriers and a
population that with access to arms was ready to use them in self-defence.
Small, it was still a significant nucleus for Armenian national
development and so was targeted and reduced to rubble in the 1895-96
Ottoman slaughter of 300,000 Armenians that was a prelude to the
Genocide twenty years later.


Twelve year old Daniel Varoujean had only just arrived in Istanbul
when the 1895-96 anti-Armenian pogroms exploded in the Ottoman
capital. The future poet was devastated by the slaughter he witnessed.
A quiet, thoughtful boy he became rebellious and truculent. He was to
remain rebellious and truculent but in aid of the Armenian national
movement, in aid of the underdog, the dispossessed, the poor, the
dismissed and the despised. Precocious, nothing escaped his attention
and his inquisitive questioning was relentless. Overcoming early
diffidence Varoujean became an inspiring teacher and a magnetic
speaker, mesmerising an audience when reciting his own poetry.

Of Armenian writers among his favourites were Mekhitarist Father
Alishan and historical novelist Raffi. But top of his list was the
founder of the modern Armenian novel, Khatchadour Abovian. He had high
regard for Srpouhi Dussap too, the first Armenian woman novelist and
despite different poetic styles he was among the first to acclaim
Medzarents. While appreciating Toumanian's language in `Anush',
Varoujean thought it unsuited for the Armenian national epic `The
Daredevils of Sassoon' and had hoped to render the epic his own
volcanic style and dramatic language. Obsessive about writing he would
use only clean white lined paper and would proceed only when
absolutely happy with the handwriting of a line he had just completed!

A critic of arbitrary, anti-democratic and obscurantist power
Varoujean pointedly rejected any glorification of the Church though
acknowledging its value as a national and social institution. He
clashed with the Church and bitterly so in his personal life too when
his community was split by the proposed marriage between the Roman
Catholic born poet and Araksi a member of Armenian Orthodox Church.
Araksi a daughter of a well-to-do family had been betrothed in an
arranged marriage to another man, of higher class! The issue was
resolved to the couple's advantage by Araksi's stubborn determination
and perhaps also by the threat of force following a visit to the
families by Murad of Sebastia, renowned Armenian guerrilla commander
and close friend of Varoujean's! In a compromise of sorts, two
priests, one from each denomination presided at the wedding.

Daniel Varoujean's unbelievably naive faith in the Young Turk regime
is shocking. Despite all the evidence of murderous Ottoman and Young
Turk nationalism, to the very end he saw Armenian futures within a
reformed Ottoman entity. Rumour, gossip and fear were all afoot. Yet
he remained utterly impervious, more even than an already impervious
Istanbul intelligentsia. Did he and they remain wilfully blind to all
the signs, to all the evidence, to all that was being reported of the
repression, the murder and the anti-Armenian organisation and
mobilisation throughout the rotting, dying Empire?

Varoujean's death was an almost surreal tragedy. Illusions in
Ottoman/Young Turk capacity for reform, even under arrest, manifested
itself in an unalterable personal equanimity, in a dismissing of all
urgings to seek safety! Even in the months of incarceration, confident
of release he wrote ceaselessly, producing a virtual volume of poetry.
Then his murder, his skinning alive and the burning of his body and of
that volume of poetry!

Fathoming the individual disaster is beyond mind and emotion. An
impossible, ineffable crime, this murder of a young poet, the most
naive of the patriotic intelligentsia, the one who was most trusting
of those who gave the order to skin him alive. In the story of this
single death one can see the Ottoman State's entire machinery of
genocide in operation: the police and Army, the Young Turk network of
political organisation and the mercenary bandits and criminals they
released from prisons to form death squads.



Hrant Tamrazian's substantial essay on poet Missak Medzarents
(Armenian Lyricists, Volume 1, 1996, Yerevan, pp105-185) is a
creative, inspired exercise. Tamrazian opens with a reminder that fine
poets are always more than just individuals, their work reflecting
something universal. To properly situate and evaluate his subject,
Tamrazian at the same time takes to task Yeghishe Charents for
diminishing Medzarents by limiting him to a brilliant poet of nature,
forgetting that in poetry the world of nature serves to illuminate
human drama, to reveal the tide and flow of human spirit, soul,
sensibility and emotion.

Suffused with stunning images of nature, Medzarents's is poetry of
pain, of tragedy, of death, but it is at once also a striving for
life, for beauty, for immortality even. It is art as manifestation of
the life instinct, a manifestation recast from the images of the world
of natural beauty that the poet inherited from his boyhood home and
that remained a hinterland, a spiritual retreat from where to grapple
with death. In this striving for life and light, Medzarents's poetry
blooms with passionate generosity and solidarity for fellow human
beings, poetry that compares with the best internationally.

Tamrazian's affirmation of poetic talent includes an enlightening
comparison to the flat/monotone of Ardashes Haroutyounyan's verse that
was supposed to be a significant influence on Medzarents. Tamrazian
reminds us that the poet was in addition a deep reader of Narek whose
humanist message he drew from beneath its religious blanket. A famous
`Self-Critique' is also valued for its grand humanism, its opposition
to symbolist vapidity and social isolationism and its readiness to be
stern and critical of his own poetry without however any false
Inventive as ever Tamrazian on occasion steps into dubious territory.
Perhaps as a nod to Soviet bureaucratic demands of the time he claims,
with not a single cementing quotation, that Medzarents's return to the
hinterland of his youth was driven by a desire for political
emancipation from national and social contradictions of the age. One
must also contest an untenable view that Bedros Tourian, unlike
Medzarents, had no hinterland of beauty from which to affirm life.
Quite the contrary!

But of course Tamrazian remains as always rewarding.

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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