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YEGHISHE CHARENTS: POET OF LIFE AS PERMANENT REVOLUTION PART THREE: An Armenian communist as world poet [ Review PART I | Review PART II ] Armenian News Network / Groong July 24, 2006 By Eddie Arnavoudian Yeghishe Charents's poetry (here Collected Works Volume IV, Yerevan, 1968) has a compelling quality, fashioned as it is with driving energy and with a spirit of bold confidence that usually accompanies human endeavour only at its freshest. Whether he writes about his life and loves, about Armenian nationalism, the Bolshevik Revolution, about the degradation of culture during the rise of Stalinism or about the act of artistic creativity itself, he pours into his work all the contents of his eternally tempestuous soul and all the inexhaustible zest that he had for life. And as always, the ever-present first person singular, the `I' and the `Me' are also synonymous for the universal `We' and the `Us'. In language pared down to the essential, with no word standing at a loss for significance, Charents creates the epic of everyman and everywoman who set out for `distances that shimmer with the promise of immortality'. With a gigantic, all embracing love of his fellow beings, he extends to them an open-hearted invitation to join in the adventure of Being, to defy, like he himself did, all the odds of adversity, to resist all tyrannies, recover from any catastrophe and thus steeled, with unbending desire to always go on and go beyond. I. A BRIDGE TO LIFE Charents's espousal of communism and his support for the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was never a mere fashion accessory, or an unthinking loan of soiled second hand ideological clothing, as Gostan Zarian would charge. He held his communist convictions consciously, firmly and passionately. But the poetry inspired by these convictions has a resonance far beyond its specific political content. Communism was for Charents the bridge to a more humane future, a path along which to reach the `far distances' beyond the feudal and capitalist social orders that in his view: `Have placed bonds of many kinds On man's talents, on his creative And infinitely able hands, On his wishes and his flowing desires And on his bold passions too... In the late 1920s, even as the Stalinist bureaucracy was beginning to dim what he felt to be the promise of communism, Charents explained the character of his continued commitment. He was `seduced by the energy' of communist society where `man does not just shape shoes', but inspired by `infinite love' `hues his own spirit too.' This was an age in which `man is richer with emotions and passions and with the things that he has felt and lived. Equally important for Charents who had witnessed the failure of the nationalist leadership to prevent genocide, was the conviction that the Bolshevik Revolution was a positive force capable of helping the Armenian people in their struggle for survival and revival. The point is put well by Barouyr Sevak: `If many artists from diverse nationalities welcomed the October dawn (i.e. the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution) as cleansing thunder, then Charents embraced that dawn, and that as the son of a people who could be saved from annihilation only by a miracle.' (Collected Works, Volume 5, p322, emphasis in original) Charents's revolutionary poetry accurately and even lovingly reflects many of these hopes as well as some of the concrete historical events, the organisations and the personalities of the communist movement of his time. But the very images, the very same verses and even entire poems that describe the actual revolutionary process are simultaneously a colourful canvas of those possible grandeurs and joys of life that have a deep truth beyond politics. In this communist and revolutionary poetry these truths acquire an imposing authenticity for being shaped not by declamation but from the flow and the detail of everyday life. It is both a characteristic and a virtue of Charents's imagination that it can reveal the bud of the extraordinary that is hidden in the ordinary, that it can uncover the seed of the monumental in the merely elementary and the necessary. In `The Frenzied Masses' Charents reconstructs the moment of Bolshevik insurrection. It is at the same time the moment of an explosion of repressed human energies, the unshackling of an accumulation of dreams and hidden desires. The act of political revolt is a movement of millions towards `the far distances, towards suns that are yet to be born'. The `frenzied masses', an army of working class and peasant rebels lays siege to the City, a `thousand year old enemy', a hub of wealth and power that has reduced their own lives to nothing. `Whoever came from far villages - had abandoned the humid soil, Upon which the obedient life did not give birth to one gold crop. Whoever had come from the steppes had abandoned the limitless Horizon's breadth that for him had become a jail. Whoever was from far city, where there was fog indefinite - Brought his heart of tuberculosis, as a red flag.' (translated by Shant Norashkharian) To the battle these masses bring not just anger born of impossible suffering, but a yearning that is inextinguishable and an inner strength that is inexhaustible. The peasants bring muscles surging with the `strength of the land' and the dwellers of the steppes that `lived as a slave' bring `in their blue eyes' a vision as `vast as those steppes.' Thus they wage battle to destroy the City, so utterly `that it can never, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes'. They intend to reduce it to ashes and to cast the ashes to the winds `so that it is carried away never to return'. Revolution here is that collective, social earthquake that brings down barriers that separate the masses from `the far distances'. The uprising against the state, the Church, the landlord and the capitalist is both a political act and an elemental blossoming of hitherto unlived potentials, of confidence, of energy, of strength for life. As they ready themselves for the final assault, the masses feel that: If they wanted they could give suns a new tempo and a new way... If they wanted they could hurl far suns up toward the sky above; If they wanted they could bring down suns from the skies... If they wanted with a brave will, burning with the fire of the world - What things could they not accomplish, the frenzied mobs...? (translated by Shant Norashkharian) Charents's particular, universal and humanist sense of communism is also evident in his poetry that deals directly with the Bolshevik Party and the October 1917 October Bolshevik Revolution. He did of course endorse Bolshevism as a political force striving for political power, but also as one that was designed to free and enrich the lives of those `many millions' who suffered impoverishment, illness, ignorance, war and carnage. `The Story of Majgal Sako', though not of the highest artistic order, is a touching account of why and how many ordinary young peasants became Bolshevik activists. Returning home from war Sako discovers his mother and father utterly impoverished and humiliated. Wealthy landowners have stolen his family land. No one but the Bolsheviks seemed willing to correct this injustice, this indignity, this theft not just of the foundation, but the very condition of their lives. Charents does not daub the poem with sloganeering images of non-existent factory workers or mass peasant uprisings. Instead real depictions of Armenia and the Caucuses - then provincial outposts of a decaying Tsarist Empire - illuminate the lives of ordinary people, a suffering people, but a people who retain pride and their dreams. Not dreams of `communist revolution', `Marxist theory' or `the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', but simple, and in their very simplicity, grandiose, dreams of a life to be lived free, with dignity, respect and a modicum of material comfort. Charents's insistence on portraying life in its actual, particular, specific manifestations, in the actual everyday of the social process frequently proved irksome to ultra-left and hack critics blinded by formulae about `the leading and revolutionary role of the industrial proletariat'. HH Surkhatian exposed the vulgar aesthetics of these critics in a 1925 defence of Charents. He writes that one such critic, K. Vanantetzi: `...did not approve of the fact that Charents in his epic poem (Amenaboem) also recalled the victims of the imperialist war, the refugees, the inhabitant of Van and Mush, as well as the porter from Yerevan, Sogho the teacher and others. Vanantetzi's misfortune is that he is afflicted by the disease of wishing to become the voice of an industrial proletariat that does not exist in Armenia. (Questions of Literature, Yerevan, 1970, p114-115) Of greater dramatic force than the story of Sako is `At the Communards' Wall in Paris' that synthesises the grand and the everyday with the individual's subjective and psychological conditons. Charents pays homage to revolutionaries executed after the fall of Paris Commune of 1871 explaining that that the Bolshevik victory is a latter day realisation of their ideals. However as an authentic human revolutionary he describes his own moments of inescapable human frailty and failure. `Comrades' he exclaims `I too am of your flesh, in me are your ashes resurrected.' But his is flesh that is human, touched by weakness, fear and cowardice. Honouring the courage of his heroes Charents confesses of how he once `saved his own skin'. He `crawled away like a cat in the dark' while another revolutionary stood firm and ended on the gallows, but with head held upright `as if he was brandishing a red flag in those blue-turquoise eyes of his', `as if with that look he was levelling numberless enemy battalions and armies.' A different measure of Charents's conception of communism features in his reflections on the relationship between Bolshevik power and the future of the Armenian people. Here he knits into his communist vision his own enduring preoccupation with the Armenian cultural and social revival. In `Nork' communism appears both as a process of industrial reconstruction and as a spiritual and cultural revival by means of which the Armenian people can now participate in an epic world adventure. Taking the form of a gentle polemic Charents rejects the melancholy of Vahan Derian's poetry that he believed expressed the historically passive and hapless spirit of a vanquished people. Derian's was: `That final song that clung to Our land's unproductive tree Dreaming a deluded dream Divorced from the wide, wide world.' The dying poplar that symbolises the backward and decaying nation is `saved from the axe': `The scythe was already nearing The saintly poplar of our land That stood, still, cold and frozen In the plains of Ararat When another storm, a salvaging one Thundered from the north, life-giving Like a running spring river It washed over our mountain land.' The storm was the Bolshevik Revolution. It `enthused the poplar with a new blazing joy'. Now the poplar-nation hears and scents `song and rose.' Instead of the `hapless, wilting hamlet of Nork' a `new Yerevan arises and gazes deep into our new soul.' The nation breaks out of its stultifying isolation, it `puts its ear to the woes of the world' and begins to `feel the crises of the world'. Doing so it does not cease to be itself. On the contrary it discovers and rediscovers itself. It recovers the power and the energy `to resuscitate the forgotten streams of our' own land. As the `old ash falls away from its face' the nation begins to `contribute its own original chords to the emerging symphony of the world.' No more are the people `sorrowful and pitiable', `lost somewhere in the vastness of the globe'. Once again they: `Carry within an inexhaustible flame And the dream of a life without fear...' Now both fully Armenian and fully citizens of the world the Armenian man and woman in the company of men and women of all nations: `For the first time soar Towards the fiery unknown farness In search of a burning container Into which to pour their flaming desires...' Reject Charents's communism and Bolshevism, question the politics of his poetry, still it is almost impossible not to be seduced by these images of free men and women, freed from centuries of social, political and psychological oppression, freed from passivity and the sapping burdens of inferiority and now confidently relishing in life before them. II. DEFENDING THE BRIDGE By the late 1920s and early 30s, with the growing ascendancy of an anti-democratic elite in the Soviet Union many were already speaking of a revolution betrayed. Charents was among those who saw clouds gathering. `Epic Dawn' and `Book of the Road' can in certain significant respects be read as his own specific and precocious response. Contrary to certain claims neither volume is primarily a reaction to Charents's past - to his alleged 1920s `ultra-leftist period' or the earlier 1915 Genocide. They do return to these but only to evaluate them as part of a total engagement with the present. `Once again' Charents cries out in the opening of `Epic Dawn' `there is battle all around' (p11). `It is the present that now raises its voice/like a sea of awesome passions' he exclaims as he maps the terms with which he will fight the hacks who regarded his poetry, and the literature of his allies such as Bakoontz and Mkrtich Armen, with terrible trepidation. The opening poems of `Epic Dawn' record Charents' battle against `knights of petty conspiracies', against mediocrities and careerists `who had neither struggled to attain heights, nor experienced fear and weariness'. With wide references to industrial labour and construction, economics, politics, art and culture these poems reproduce essential aspects of life in the Soviet Union. They constitute in effect a protest against and a challenge to the transformation of literature into state propaganda to a vulgarised theory of `socialist realism' that would conceal an emergent elite's corruption. Charents's primary preoccupation was the degradation of literature, a degradation that was symptomatic of the degradation of political and social life as a whole. In `Letter to My Poet Friend NN Written from Yerevan' he protests that instead of poetry there is `plenty of paper and ink.' `We have established a new life' yet `we do not have fitting songs.' `We sing of love, we sing of death We sing of struggle and of labour But in our songs today There is no love, no thought, no life.' Increasingly dominated by `self-satisfied poets' `charmed by their own song, art and literature was being reduced to `singing each others' praises.' Silencing life's `thousand-tongued songs' the hacks produce lifeless homage to steel and labour. Instead of echoing a world in which `thousands live, suffer sadness, weariness and joy', instead of singing of people's `living emotions', `forceful passions' and `the thousand feelings of their hearts' these poets: `Sing of the one-eyed, one-legged dummy with no arms, They sing of man who has a grammophone In his lungs, who Can utter only excruciating sounds And has no enthusiasms, no passions and no loves.' Another letter-poem, to the novelist `Aksel Bakoonts Written from Leningrad', confronts the same miserable condition of contemporary Armenian literature. Poetry should be `a flag unfurled to the heart, the mind, the spirit and the desire of the rising, coming generations.' Yet it is composed by men, who believe that `the essential is the plumage' and who readily `chop the wings off the eagle' and `cage its plucked naked skeleton'. Charents, who always demanded the highest artistic standard opposed that careless, thoughtless spouting of verse with officially dictated content that was beginning to prevail. He wanted `dedicated and concentrated effort' so that no `rust settles on our work'. For as `long as we have not learnt to look at each word with love' and `with a noble sternness': `It will be hard for our word to fire horizons Or reach the coming rising generations. (p37) But today those who rule the roost have neither passion nor care and write with no knowledge or feeling: Read them with an honest heart - and tell me Have these men ever actually worked?' These poems provide a personal evaluation of Charents's own journey from a youth who `was like a rushing river' to a mature poet `whose wild heart no more gallops through the fields like the unleashed stallion.' Combining a trenchant criticism of the times with remarkably honest personal self-criticism they are rich with images of the will to strive, to struggle and never to waver. They are also exhilarating statements about being alive and kicking, about the ups and downs of life and the struggles to overcome the odds it presents. There was a time when Charents also betrayed his muse, times when he had chosen `a cold lover' who to `sing songs of metal dreams' and carry him `without love or passion' to `some new metal world.' He too had once `cut his heart away from life and land', had shunned life even as it stood before him ample with `fields of thoughts awaiting harvest', beckoning `like a sea of awesome passions'. It is to this life that he now seeks to return, but more mature. `My spirit descends no more into petty issues Does not waste itself with bombastic words Such does the husk in the field become heavier When it is filled with solid, wise yield...' `Instead of the drum' he now `holds a copper stringed lyre heavy with thought.' (p18) and determines to `pass it through life's thousand coloured ocean' (p19): `We have arrived now at that border from where There commences a new and hardy ascent Let us wipe away from our thoughts the dust of vain desires And once again embark on the journey, the grand journey. (p37) III. THE THEORETICAL AND CULTURAL WARRIOR Charents engaged with life, revolution, communism and the future of the Armenian people not just as a poet but also as an intellectual and literary theorist. A skilled polemicist, contributions he made improved the quality of Soviet literary debates. One significant such intervention was an `Open Letter' to the `Literary Newspaper' that was never published in his lifetime. It gives important aesthetic and social-political definition to the then current formula of literature and art as `national in form but proletarian in content'. Attention to its detail, and to contributions from Charents's allies shows these to be, despite politically necessitated convolutions and Aesopian forms, effective arguments for an authentic art. They opposed writing to a schematic order that would conceal the flaws and corruptions of everyday life in the Soviet Union. They also feature as a defence of the literature of small nations from the threat of a resurgent great-Russian chauvinism within the central Soviet elite. Genuine literature, Charents argues, requires that it be `national in form', a form that embraces and in some fashion expresses actually existing life, life in its particularity, life as it is lived in a definite land, society and people with their own specific history and tradition. National form also requires that the author's language and style flow and develop organically from this environment. `National form' Charents summarises `expresses itself' as `a realistic and concrete unfolding of content': `...in such a way that the author's language and style, as well as the descriptions of the people and their conditions...are adequate to the given national environment.' (p133). This demand for `realism', for `concreteness', for `adequacy' in literature was a polemical counter to the unreal, propagandistic abstraction and lifeless generality that was so common in so much literature of the time. To underline the point Charents quotes and tellingly so from a famous and controversial article by Mkrtich Armen: `The proletariat and the peasantry that is written about in those works are not the proletariat and the peasantry or Armenia. Nor, however, are they the proletariat of Russia, Azerbaijan or Georgia, because there is no proletariat outside its national environment, no general, abstract revolutionary proletariat independent of concrete conditions and concrete environment.' Needless to say neither for Charents nor Armen, nor for their allies, did this formula imply a reduction of literature to exclusive Armenian `national' or `nationalist' themes. One cannot `deduce national themes from the conception of national form' (p135). National form does not exclude consideration of international themes nor does it refuse engagement with non-Armenian national groups, in Armenia or beyond. As evidence Charents cites Mkrtich Armen's short stories about Yerevan's Turkish community and his own writings about Istanbul and Turkish communists. But, he insists, this universal experience must be filtered through the perceptions afforded by the historically inherited concrete environment in and about which artists create and write. Literature that is genuinely `national in form', that engages with life and so attains artistic validity must also however, and of inexorable necessity, be `proletarian in content'. It must, goes the argument, encompass the experience of the masses (here `the proletariat' and `the peasantry'). The masses by virtue of the fact that they are the majority of the nation define and constitute it in its essential character. `National form' and `proletarian content' are, Charents therefore says, `dialectically', connected. `Proletarian content' follows inevitably from national form. National form cannot exist without proletarian content. `It is...an unarguable thesis that an authentic national form can be realised only with a proletarian content' (p145). The logic of the argument is clear. If art is to be national, if it is to consider life in its `concreteness', it must encompass the lives of the majority, the masses, otherwise it risks narrowness and one-sidedness and thus a loss of quality. The conception of the nation as the majority that is implicit but essential to the argument is of course not original to Charents, having been developed much earlier by Mikael Nalpantian. Charents however extends it into the sphere of literature as part of an argument for a genuine art and as a defence of the rights of Armenian literature, and the literature of other small nations, in the wider Soviet world. The latter point is developed with some boldness in Charents's speech at the First Congress of Soviet Writers held in 1932. The preamble expresses a consciousness of the danger of great-Russian chauvinism in Soviet Society. Charents speaks of fears that `the seniors (the Russian intelligentsia) will not recognise the juniors (those from small nations)'. He expects however that within the Soviet Union the art and culture of previously oppressed nations will flourish in a manner that was prohibited in the (Tsarist) past. For after all the culture of each nation contains unique treasures that must be `critically appropriated' by all as a condition for a richer Soviet literature. So his proposals for large scale, high quality programme of literary translation. IV. ODES TO LIFE AND THE FUTURE Both in public life and in his poetry Charents, as he himself admits, made compromises and accommodations. But never did he become `prisoner to thoughts learnt by rote' and never `did he yearn for the pitiable song of the marsh' (p15). Struggling to survive amid mounting treachery, deception and betrayal, he himself never betrayed comrade or colleague. In defence of his vision and conviction he also proved capable of almost suicidal courage. Just as the Stalin cult was gaining momentum, Charents submitted the `Book of the Road' for publication. It included `Achilles or Biero?' a comical critique of Stalinism, as well as lampoons of many an epigone of the time. The volume was eventually published, but bureaucratically truncated and crippled. Still the censors could not censor Charents's ode to life and to future generations. Alongside the critique of Armenian nationalism and affirmations of egalitarian principles, 13 `Odes' and `Words of Advice' stand as the highest peaks of the `Book of the Road'. They are dazzling contemplations of life untrammelled, of life moving towards its most possibly rewarding. All of them gems, with little qualification, they are inspirations to venture and to adventure; invitations to you and to me to become `investigators of the unknown farness'; an urging to us all to always go on and beyond as the very condition for self-realisation and fulfilment. Charents welcomes every single individual to the world. They arrive: `Each and every time with complete uniqueness Each and every time different and original Each and every time with an infinite freshness And each and every time without limits.' Inspiring each he also counsels responsibility and respect for others, for life, for society. `Life has been passed on to you' and `you are responsible for not letting it fall from your broad shoulders' (p367). The garden of life `remains still chaotic and disorganised.' Great efforts and `impossible drives' are need so that `each and every plot of land becomes fertile' and for life `to become joyous' for all. This is truly poetry for an unselfish age; an antidote to our egotistical times, to the selfish and destructive greed that passes for individualism today. Grasping life in its immensely diverse, deeply layered and complex forms these poems even as they may speak of socialist or communist concerns reach beyond. An `Ode to Nature' can be read, if one so wishes, as a Marxist philosophical statement on the relationship of nature and society. But it is also poetry, and not simply verse, that captures something of our eternal awe for nature, our unending delight in it, our ambition to command and to exploit it but also that overwhelming desire to be at one with its infinity and its grandeur. It is in addition a history of our developing command of the forces and resources of nature, and our abuse of it. `Eternally moving' and `eternal in existence' nature is `Mother' to all things, the source of light, of all life, of life's wealth and joys. But throughout history exploiters have `seized command' of `her infinite treasures' and `forged them into lock and chain' to enslave humanity. Today however the multitudes `that for centuries yearned Nature's caress and embrace', that had `sown but never tasted the yield' approach as rightful inheritors. `To the Builders of Cities' also allows for diverse appreciations that express different histories and different experiences of individuals and peoples. The poet advises the builders of cities to `mix the thousand year old ashes' of `those who sleep for ever' into `the stone of the city walls' and to `place their marble coffin' at the `the city's golden gate': `For the ashes of the dead make the strongest cement The strongest and most enduring binding And it is with that that the land becomes land, The people, a people, the future a future...' There can be no firm present that does not stand upon the accomplishments of the past. Here is a possible poetic rendition of Marx's formula that `men make their history own history but not in conditions of their own choosing'. But the poem is, and without contradiction, also an urging for men and women to absorb their own particular cultural, national, emotional and intellectual inheritance in order that they may live fully. Then again it is an affirmation of a fundamental continuity in history, with every stage utterly different but linked, with the past, the present and the future becoming a continuing whole fashioned by the legacy from our ancestors and by what we construct in our own time and bequeath to coming generations. Against all the harsh blows Charents held his faith and despite the contracting horizons of his own life he urged the new generations to `follow your path, though that path be stony'. He urged their will `to remain ever unbent' and wished that their `yearnings be sleepless.' Always encouraging them to adventure further he assured them that: `On your return your spirit will be richer Than the treasurers of a thousand caravans And as blessing you will bring inexhaustible wishes Gifting them even to those who wished you death and bitter loss...' Here is nourishment for `rebellious spirits', for those `burning with the fires of tomorrow', for those who, harbouring gigantic and generous ambitions, `do not look back when only half way up the mountain'. And even if weariness sometimes weighs down the wing: `When you are sometimes burdened With a yearning that is like a sickness Mended with these lines, with this noble medicine Strive for the unknown farness and it will give you the gift of immortality. In the absence of s body of adequate English translation (`Eghishe Charents Land of Fire' translated by Diana Der Hovanessian and Marzbed Margossian is entirely inadequate) an English language discussion of Charents's art, the aesthetics of his poetry, its technique and its inventiveness is not possible. But an indication of its magnetism is evident in its power to attract across artistic and political divides. Ardent nationalists marvel at the intently anti-nationalist `Vision of Death' and assiduously seek to supply it with a nationalist edging. Anti-communists acclaim the awesome force of `The Frenzied Masses', quietly overlooking its encomium to the uncompromising class struggle of the revolutionary proletariat. Communist commentators will sigh after an encounter with Charents's philosophical verse judging them to be fine expressions of Marxism. Even apolitical intellectuals delight in Charents's severely political poetry, while post-modernists are also seduced by his legacy but appear to have difficulty in clearly expressing their reasons. * * * * * * * Vahan Tekeyan writes that: `The saddest thing in life Because the most scornful Is not its passing but its Standing stationery in its old place.' Charents was of those who never stood still. A `self-propelled, unstoppable spirit', born in provincial Kars he became a communist and then a world poet without ever ceasing to love his own Armenia. Through his poetry he remains `destined to sing the song of a millions hearts' and to offer to `days yet to come' all the `grand flights and the passions' of his own better days and his own exuberant self. -- 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.