Notes for a reading of the ‘Book Lamentations’ by Narek
Armenian News Network / Groong
June 26, 2017
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Reading Narek: FiveElegies 21-25
* * * * * *1.
In one aspect, Elegies 21-25 constitute a relatively coherent whole expressing clearly Narek’s conception of man/woman as a magnificent, richly-gifted, rational being who has however failed to live up to his/her essence and potential. Essence and potential frequently appear as silent oppositions in hammering images of failure and degeneration.
I am man/woman, but ‘never did I travel the path of goodness’. ‘Of my own free will I mortgaged myself to death, never standing as a man on my own two feet, never in possession of the mind of a rational being (‘Չընթացա բնավ ճիշտ ճանապարով – p61 ‘Անձամբ ինքս ինծ մատնեցի մահվան, չկանգնեցի ես որպէս մարդ ոտքի, չունեցա երբեք բանականի միտք’ – p61).
So I am less than myself, less than human. ‘How can I now consider myself man/woman? How can I deem myself rational’, when ‘the doors of my perception are locked (‘Ինչպէս համարեմ ես ինքս մարդ...ինչպէս պիտի բանական կոչվեմ’ ‘երբ իմացության դռներս են փակված’ - p63)? How can I be human when ‘I betray myself, destroy my body, when I am spiritually lost and mentally deluded, with twisted will and broken heart, absent minded and stagnant brained’ (‘երբ եղայ անձնամատն ու մարմնակործան ...մտախաբ ու հոգեկորույս, սաստիկ կամակոր, սրտաբեկ ու խենթ...անզգա, անմիտ ու խելացնոր’ - p65)
Narek is afflicted, his spirit tortured by the consciousness of his diminution. ‘I am vanished like the passing morning cloud, like the dew of morn (‘ինչպէս փութանցիկ արավոտվա ամպ ու վաղորդյան ցող անհետ ցնդեցի’ (p63, 64). He is crushed beneath ‘the pain and the danger, the hesitations and the tribulations that accompany the body consumed by sin (‘ցավն ու վտանգը, վարանումների ու տագնապների – երբ որ մարմինդ մեղքով է լափված’ (p66-7). His soul and spirit, his very being, is now ‘ugly, listless, weary and totally exhausted (‘տգեղ, նվաղ, ուժասպար, լիովին հյուծված’ (p62).
Every sign of nobility and rationality is snuffed out (Elegy 21c, 22b and c). ‘I cannot call myself a living, breathing being, let alone a spiritual and rational one’ ‘I am an olive-tree, deserted, sterile and withering. I am a body, saddening, condemning and torturing my soul. I am a string of imperial gold coins, now spent and lost.’ (‘Շարժուն ու շնչավորական իրավունք չունեմ ինքս ինծ կոչելու, թող թէ հոգեվոր եւ կամ բանական’ – p63, ‘Ձիթենի՝ լքված ամայի վայրում, անպուղ ու գոս: Մարմին եմ՝ հոգուս թախիծ պատճարող, տանջող ու դատիչ’ – p64) Desperation, pain and suffering are so acute that the poet shrieks out against life itself. ‘I lament the breast that gave me milk. Why did I not suck coagulated bile instead?’ (‘Ողբում եմ ստինքները այն որ ինծ սնեցին: Ինչ՞ու կաթի տեղ ես չծծեցի մակարդված լեղի:’ – p65)
Once again Narek presents the hapless condition of soul and spirit in images of suffering social man and woman (Elegy 23c and 25b). Not in control, powerless, the individual cowers in terror before the reality of everyday life. ‘If I see a soldier, I expect death, if it be a messenger, news of disaster…If a hand is raised, I bend, If I hear a slight noise, I start’ (‘Թէ զինվոր տեսնեմ մահ եմ սպասում, թէ պատգամաբեր, արհավիրքի բոթ...Թէ բարձրացած ձեռք կորանում նկուն, ընդոստում ամէն թեթեվ թնդյունից’ – (p68). The ‘ship’ of his being ‘is shattered by the blows of the wild waves’ (‘Եվ ալիքների վայրագ բախումից նավը խորտակվեց’ – p73). Then there follows an amazing description of a shipwreck, with the entire collapsing structure, its components, furnishings and contents captured in dramatic and dynamic detail. This is a stunning metaphor of the total collapse of the spirit of man/woman, ‘this image of destruction reminds me of my misery’ (p73), says Narek himself.
Narek’s emotional trauma, his psychological torture and his crushing mental travails are born of his acute consciousness of the contradiction between hellish reality and suppressed potential of grandeur. It is born of a terrifying grasp of the abyss that exists between the hellish actual and the heavenly possible. So great is the abyss that it casts a shadow of desperate doubt on our ability to bridge it. ‘Will I ever see the battered ark of my body restored? Will I ever see my shipwrecked soul healthy again? Is there hope I might see this exiled slave set free? (‘Կլինի արդյոք որ բազմախորտակ տապանը մարմնիս տեսնեմ նորոգված պիտի նկատեմ ողբալի հոգուս փշրված նավը ողջացած նորեն: Կլինի մի որ տարամերժ գերիս նորից ազատված’. (p74)
But hope does exist and does so as an ineradicable existential component of man/woman! It is revealed in our very consciousness of the contradiction between reality and our innate potential. Endless human weakness and failure sap hope and confidence, seemingly fatally. Yet rational, critical self-examination will generate yes a terrifying consciousness of the scale of catastrophe but also and more critically knowledge of that indestructible core of capability that we possess as human beings and that remains a permanent foundation for recovery.
Self-examination and the resulting knowledge of the contradiction within our being and between our objective reality and potential, together with the tremendous emotional and psychological storm it unleashes, is a first step, a condition for recovery. In the rational consciousness suffering and despair stand with the hope, passion and will for recovery.
Acutely conscious, intellectually alert, emotionally charged, utterly focused and fiercely determined Narek appears in ceaseless battle to secure the triumph of human potential despite the history of lapse and collapse. There is something inspirational in the drama of tortured struggle against constantly wavering confidence, in the passionate stirring of mind and will towards potential perfection against the bleakest reality.
This affirmation of the human being as a rational and responsible creature with the ability to act wisely, to be free, to live well and attain hitherto unprecedented heights prefigures some of the rationalist thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
The first 25 elegies are stocktaking of the human condition; a depiction of the broken man/ woman; images of social and individual landscapes of devastation we have caused. There is the affirmation of an existential contradiction in man/woman with a tendency to degeneration opposed by an almost divine-like essence and potential that with altruism and solidarity can again green the desert of life. The wreckage we have made of society we can reconstruct! Rational self-criticism, beyond catastrophe reveals inextinguishable human potential.
Rational consciousness of social reality and of human potential is at once, cause of deep suffering and of the firing of hope for the future. It propels us to positive battle.
Inevitably, but thankfully not too frequently and never significantly, aspects of unpleasant theological dogma have begun to seep into what remains in its essence a humanist epic.
• As if he has forgotten everything he asserts about the dignity and nobility of man and woman, we see Narek in instances of humiliating, slavish prostration, of surrendered independence, of pleading, beseeching, begging and even groveling for mercy and salvation. Occupying the margins of a broader breathless glorification of the free human being, such demeaning postures can be seen as expressions of passing moments of impotent pessimism, always overcome in Narek’s conscious, self-active and self-determining endeavor to attain the peaks of independent human possibility.
• The Christian notion of original sin also makes its appearance. However this cruel claim of vice inescapably inherited by every generation has no determining role in Narek. Our weakness, faults and failures are not caused by original sin but by the abandonment of the reason and rationality we are born with. Narek does not offer a social, historical explanation for human failure to live rationally. But neither does he attribute it to a view that emerged perhaps as an alternative for our inability to understand and explain the social causes of human vice and barbarism.
• Narek is not immune from deeply unpleasant, often misogynist instances of life-hating, life-denying asceticism. However on occasion and only when free of misogyny, delivered in fine poetry this asceticism serves a positive critical purpose. The ascetic rejection of social life is often a refuge from the toxic world we ourselves have created. Looking at this world from the outside, as a bystander as it were can bring into clearer relief the flaws, cracks and defects that require repair. But the critical function of the ascetic is of course conditional on a return to battle in the social world. And this Narek certainly does!
• The belief in the after-life of eternal paradise or inferno as reward or punishment for performance in secular life also features distinctly. But joy or terror about the after-life is never defining. Most telling and evocative, always more forceful and persuasive are images of reward in the form of the emancipation of man/woman in their terrestrial social life. The overwhelming ambition is always ‘to become one and indivisible with’ God (‘միանամ քեզ հետ անբաժանելի’ – p72) in this life and thus escape a life of inferno on earth!
-- 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.