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Worth a read Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet none will bore the lover of literature. Reading them, one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong October 23, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. The tragedy of an essentially decent man. There exist literary works which, whilst not masterpieces, nevertheless say something meaningful about the human experience and offer critical insights into often overlooked realities of social life. Dikran Cheogyurian's (1884-1915) 'The Monastery' (Library of Armenian Classics, 1983, Yerevan, Armenia) is a work of this order. Horrifying images of the 1895-6 massacres in Ottoman occupied Armenia form a grim backdrop for the depiction of the backward and degenerate sections of the Armenian clergy who dominated public life in the Armenian provinces prior to 1915. This is the context for the work's most enduring feature - the tragedy of Ardag, a newly confirmed priest. In the form of Ardag's diaries we witness the personal and spiritual disintegration of an essentially decent man. Inspired by progressive ideals and fired by noble ambitions Ardag abandons the bright and colourful lights of Constantinople to take up duties in a remote monastery in the Armenian provinces. He wants to reform the Armenian Church and transform it into an instrument for the renaissance and liberation of the Armenian people. He plans to build a school to create a generation of enlightened youth. He plans to cultivate abandoned monastic lands. In this programme to put the church to the service of the national liberation of the Armenian people, we are reminded the political ambitions of the Latin American 'theology of liberation' clergy of the 1960s and 1970s. However reforming the Armenian clergy would be no easy task. Ardag's diaries form an unrelenting condemnation of the inertia and passivity of Armenian monastic/religious life. Revolutionary national action on behalf of the people is anathema to the clergy, who appear in the form of the monastic abbot, as an 'exploitative' and 'heartless' class of men 'whose sole concern is to fatten themselves on the monastery's chickens, eggs and butter.' According to Ardag the Armenian people can expect nothing from these men who for 'the sake of status, position and a loaf of bread have sunk into a moral impasse where they betray and tear each other to bits.' But alas Ardag is not the one to challenge the conservative order of a rotten world. On virtually every page of the book we witness a rather confused, unsure, somewhat withdrawn and introverted creature with no personal strength or power of will to take up battle against the adversities of life. Cheogyurian offers no direct explanation of why Ardag never sets about to implement his national ambitions. He does not account for the fact that these ambitions virtually vanish in the second half of his diary. This absence is not however a flaw, as a more telling explanation emerges from Ardag's very own record of his love for Shoushan, the daughter of a labourer in the monastery. As a man of the Church Ardag is an unusually successful creation. He is no caricature of an idealized priest. Despite his religious vows he is gripped by sexual desire and frustration. Indeed his paralysis arising from the contradiction between his natural sexual instincts and his love for Shoushan on the one hand and his religious vows on the other hold the secret of his inability to deal with any pressing problems of life. Despite his religious vows and convictions Ardag cannot suppress either his love or his sexual desire. He is aware of his choices: give up Shoushan or propose to her, leave the Church and marry her. But Ardag's character has a fatal flaw. He is incapable of decisive action. He lacks the will and determination to act. In a telling passage he notes that Goethe's Werther, also smitten by an 'illicit love', kills himself. Ardag however confesses that 'I do not have the courage to throw myself to death.' Early on in the book he remarks, that while watching the rapid flow of a river, he felt that 'it would be beautiful to be free like a river, to flow against unknown shores and vanish into the fold of the blue seas.' Unfortunately Ardag has not the boldness to be free. This is his personal tragedy. Incapable of resolving the contradictions of his individual life, he is also incapable of confronting the problems of national and social life. The book, even whilst having the stamp of a beginner is persuasive and powerful. On virtually every page there are insights on life, on art, on Armenian history and politics from which we can glean something of relevance and importance even today. It could easily survive translation. 2. A remarkable thinker assesses 19th century Armenian literature Arpiar Arpiarian (1851-1908) was an outstanding figure in 19th century Armenian public life. A prolific essayist, journalist, novelist and short story writer he participated passionately in Armenian national affairs. In a brilliant essay on western 'Armenian Literature in the 19th Century', he provides an impressive and still relevant commentary on the fatal flaw that rested at the foundation of the 19th century Armenian revival, one that was to have a negative yet decisive influence not just on literature, but on every sphere of national life. For historic reasons the main site for the Armenian national revival was not in Armenia but Istanbul. It was here, underpinned by Armenian owned mercantile wealth and social development, that Armenian literature flourished first. However, removed from the direct and immediate concerns of Armenia proper, Istanbul/Bolis inevitably produced only an ©migr©' intelligentsia with little or no connection to historical Armenia, then still the homeland for the vast majority of Armenians. As a result, a substantial portion of the literature they produced did not and could not reflect the real psychological and social conditions of human beings in Armenia. Instead, aping the latest European literary 'schools', 'theories' fads and fashions, Istanbul's Armenian literary heritage was lumbered with a large consignment of unreadable works that tried to compress an essentially eastern reality into ill-suited western forms. The fortunes of Armenian literature, and indeed of Armenian history, we could add, would have been very different had there been any significant economic and social development within historical Armenia. On such a base, a cultural renaissance could have developed in an organic relation with the real lives of the Armenian people and would have also been able to draw more directly on ancient but surviving folklore to feed a genuine national literature. But Ottoman political repression, particularly the massacres of 1895/96, and the venality of the Armenian elite in Bolis prevented this. It is indeed one of the tragedies of modern Armenian history that those figures who argued for relocating the centre of cultural, social and political life to historical Armenia did not have the wherewithal to emerge victorious. Despite his artistically critical overview of western Armenian literature, Arpiarian rejects claims that the Bolis intelligentsia, preoccupied with 'art for arts sake', was indifferent to national concerns. On the contrary, the vast bulk of 19th century western Armenian literature had as its central aim the task of cultivating an Armenian national consciousness as part of a wider project of national enlightenment and progress. In fact, as Arpiarian quite rightly notes, reminding one of Yessaian's excellent essay on Mkrtich Beshigtashlian, an important additional reason for the absence of high quality literature was precisely that most writers had as their first concern education not art, the cultivation of national consciousness not the aesthetic senses. To contribute to the fashioning of a national consciousness, writers sacrificed artistic standards to produce a literature replete with sentimental, over-romanticised and caricatured visions of ancient courage, achievement and freedom. (For those who wish to read more on this subject, Sergei Sarinian's 'Generation and Tradition' contains an excellent essay giving an overview of the debates of the time with plenty of quotes from the contemporary press) Whilst acknowledging the honourable ambitions of the men and women Arpiarian writes about, one cannot but note that the national consciousness that they served to develop was so idealised and unreal as to have virtually no purchase on the actual conditions of Armenian life in the Ottoman empire. The English historian Eric Hobsbawm speaks of 'the invention of tradition' when noting that a romanticised image of history is common to all newly emerging nations. In Bolis however Armenian consciousness rarely went beyond outrageously romanticised 'invention'. Remote from Armenia and for understandable reasons unable to deal with issues relating to political and state power, this overwhelmingly romantic national consciousness did not furnish the intellectual equipment to realistically assess the threat of a reactionary Turkish nationalism that was to culminate in the 1915 Genocide. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.