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VAHAN DERIAN'S PROTEST AGAINST THE FRAGMENTATION OF BEING Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian September 21, 2009 Let there always tears or laughter in your heart When it is silent, it becomes a dark death Vahan Derian (1885-1920) was a path breaking and vastly influential Armenian poet. With poetry of unprecedented gentleness and tenderness he refined eastern Armenian to an exquisite perfection, echoed with precision the pains of the lonely and alienated individual and registered the tragic disintegration of an oppressed Armenian people and nation. Vahan Derian was simultaneously a dedicated revolutionary, indeed a communist, a Bolshevik, a Soviet delegate with Leon Trotsky at Brest Litovsk and the first to translate Lenin's `State and Revolution' into Armenian. But there was no contradiction between the poet's art and his politics. Both derived from the same source - a consciousness of and an insistence upon community, collectivity and human solidarity as a condition of both individual and social wellbeing. With Derian politics and poetry served a single purpose - the effort to rebuild community as a means of overcoming individual alienation and social dislocation. This unity of purpose is evident even in ten arbitrarily chosen pages from his Selected Works (608pp, 1989, Yerevan) published as part of the Armenian Classical Writer series. Here Derian registers the existential dramas of the passing of time that wither loves and passions leaving behind only their memory. He describes those cold craters of loneliness and loss that we are hurled into by the harshness of everyday life. He reacts particularly against the terrible blight of forced emigration, an experience that for Derian was also a significant reflection of Armenian national oppression. In what becomes protest and struggle against individual atomization and loneliness and the dislocation of social being caused by ceaseless hostile, often violently effected change and instability Derian's poetry is totally contemporary. I. Very few Armenian teenagers who loved to read Armenian poetry would not have encountered Vahan Derian's melancholic, brooding, sighing poems of loneliness, regret, isolation and loss. Without precedent among Armenians, Derian acknowledged as authentic the emotional anxieties and woes of youth that parents and educators often dismiss as self-indulgent excess and even as nuisance. But the charm of Derian's poetry that is so completely and effectively reflective of teenage emotion expresses, in this very completeness, more than just the transient forms of life's early years. Derian caresses the soul of the young at a potentially most profound and fearful moment, at a moment when it begins to leave behind the securities and certitudes of family and close community in search of independence and self alone in a world not yet fully known. The `teenage crisis' that then foments, the almost existential loneliness and alienation, the fear and the anxiety is however only the first of many episodes, and so perhaps one of the most defining dramatic, that will recur throughout lives that will be pressed, constrained and shadowed. The passage of time and change of circumstance threatens to puts ends not just to our early cherished and formative experiences but to all those that follow, not just to our early loves and friendships but to all future loves and friendships leaving for the present only the promise but never the certainty of new bonds and communities. In its gentle rhythms, its wonderful alliteration, its enticing pastel colours and with the acutest feel for the most nuanced variations of emotion Derian's poetry offers something of a cathartic experience. It opens up to young and to old, our own troubled, alienated and lonely souls to reveal there an essential and enduring yearning for stability, love and community and that terrible melancholy and pain when these are absent. As he delves into the gloomy, the grim and the blighted Derian never wallows there, he never glorifies melancholy nor does he surrender to pessimism. Confessing his `weariness of sad thoughts' he feels however compelled to speak them out loud for he cannot ignore a social reality that has made `life a master and we its slave'. In this `master-slave' relationship Derian also marks critical distinctions between melancholies that are born of inescapable existential realities and those that result from our own constructed human relations. He is acutely conscious of the difference between the inevitability of the passing of time, of the ephemeral quality youth and of the finiteness of individual life on the one hand and on the other the crueler loneliness, the greater harshness of lives that are lived at the behest of other human beings over whom one has no control. In second aspect life becomes all the more harsh and cruel because it does not necessarily have to be so. However in both cases Derian's poetry is more than just the telling of truths, it is also the seeking for ameliorations and overcoming. II. In the alertness to youth's urgent impatience for the passions of body and soul and the premonition of their vanishing with time some of Derian's poetry reminds us of John Donne. In `Is It Not a Pity' (p224 No. 84) the poet bewails the fact that `this evening' when two lovers are `for the first time left alone' one of them spends the time reading an ancient classic. `Look!' exclaims the poet, `that old pensioner posted here to guard us is already deep asleep,' Let us seize the opportunity `I am your slave! Order me!' The poet challenges doubt and coyness: `Oh Margo, this night will pass Will vanish into the infinite At least let there remain in my book a page On which my sweet Margo will live for ever.' Passion must be enjoyed when its flame is at its most fierce for thereafter it will surely wane or be smothered by time and circumstance. `I remembered beneath the heavy flood of rain' and `This simple fragile song' - (Nos. 86 and 87) tell of the facts of waning and the smothering of those times when there were `kisses amid lustful embraces' when `breast burnt against breast' and `my soul stormed in yours'. But then there came the `sad and cold goodbyes'. Trapped before the public gaze, frozen by fear of public moral censure, the lovers even for their very last goodbye are `unable to embrace one another' and are condemned to `extending hands coldly and without meaning' as if they were already dead and lifeless, beings devoid of feeling and passion. There is certainly melancholy and grief in these poems but no bitterness. Memory of spent passions survives not to haunt the present or to counsel surrender to it. Nor does it speak of endless suffering after the passing. Memory of love and passion endures as a living thing, as an element of our present, as a luminous part of ones being that accompanies one to the end. But perhaps there will survive in your soul too A fiery song, a shimmering memory Like a page from a beloved poet That will always smile with a sweet caress.' III. The quality of injustice felt with the ineluctable passage of time, with the vanishing of youth and the dwindling of passions is however altogether different, less brutal than the alienation and fragmentation caused by social relations, one expression which is forced emigration where life's whip is felt all the more cuttingly for being wielded not by time and destiny but by other human beings. Vahan Derian was never able to reconcile himself to the fact of exile and of the loss that this represents in the life of man and woman. Oh heart of mine, beneath a foreign sky, Homeless and restless, you die. The experience of exile accentuates all the contrasts and abysses between early expectations and ultimate reality that can define life. When the poet first sets off for a foreign land all was hope: My soul was rich with proud song A new highway opened up before me But rapidly hopes are dashed. The highway has led into a nightmare. Now: In a foreign land I have been silenced By the endless sound of its unending sighs Tired of exile that is a `dark world' Derian wants to `be taken home, taken back to my mountains.' He dreams restlessly: Tonight I am far, far away It is as if I have returned home. Though only as suggestion, the roots of discontent are manifest in the absence of family, of home, of native community and of familiar homeland that are together all so central to the first shaping of the life of the individual. Home promises that which foreign pastures cannot - light and brightness, rest and protection. It promises a nobility of existence, a freedom: `Take me to my bright plains To my mountains untouchable and noble To my plains rested and sunlit Contrasted to free and fresh mountain and plain, to yielding fertile fields, one can readily imagine the substance of the exiled life the poet wishes to flee. From rural grandeur, from soaring mountain heights that perhaps expresses the contour and content of his spirit and soul the poet finds himself imprisoned in a `sunless land' - perhaps the stifling urban grime of dirty, airless streets and damp and dark abodes where life is but hardship, poverty, yearning, loneliness, isolation and endurance. On these foreign shores that may have beckoned beautifully in the past the poet has today been torn apart and worn away: If only you knew how many dreams And how many songs died in my soul. Torn from one's roots, isolated from family and community one has not the strength to confront the blows of a hostile life, to hurl aside the harsh task master to whom we become slave. If only you knew my distant comrade My bitter days and sleepless nights If only you knew with what stubbornness I have faced those blows That poured upon me flood by flood And with what deceitful fire and how dark If only you knew. (p221) Derian offers us this experience as a deeply personal, even a private and intimate one. But in its force and its emotion it echoes the tragedy and the desire of tens of millions who in our own day roam far away from their native homes `beaten and tortured in a world so cruel'. The anguish of emigration is only one blow from the lash of life as slave master. Others are equally savage, capable of breaking the spirit so utterly that: `My soul like a wandering dog Surrounded by night, surrounded by autumn With lost steps and with death in its eyes Terrified and helpless flees faraway. (p223 No.77) Life within a warm welcoming community bound by a common solidarity is now preserved only in memory, as a dream: How can the aching heart in today's bitter mists Not page memories, That are now but dreams... ...What have I left - a golden net, nothing more A pearl-string of treasured memories, nothing more There is here despite the wistfully moody refrain no self- flagellation, no self-pity, no embracing of a soulless masochistic despair. Derian enters the darker spheres of consciousness always guided by hope and the will to resist, both shaped in moments of remembered freedom. The longing that accompanies the sorrows of his poetry, the deep music of the soul that conjures up time past not as illusion but as a vision of hope and overcoming acquires direct and explicit expression in `Again my roadway is in the distance and takes me far away' (p223, No78): `Whatever the measure of pain borne in my heart, let your heart rejoice in equal measure However much bitterness you have caused me - let your days be much a joy However much you have worn away my heart with coldness and a mighty revenge That much celebration, that many songs of love, that many blessings. In `Let them slip and vanish like the clouds' (p222, No.75), that is a dedication to a beloved, there is both a desire for and an expression of the enduring hope and possibility of life re-rooted and blazing with energy and vigour. And like stars, may dream and joy Remain alight In your fiery heart... ...And like the sun just and generous In this dark world May your throbbing heart Smile bright, joyful and unblemished IV. Among the ten poems considered there are those that suggest that Derian did not accept that release from `life as a slave master' could be attained by a retreat from the external world, by refuge in one's inner spiritual self even if nourished by the world of the Book and the movement of the intellect. Reacting against the fragmentation of experience `I am weary of these countless books' and `Bent upon and lost in these old and new books' (p229, Nos. 88 and 89) - both indicate a rejection of the notion that immersion into the world of the Book and of the idea can be substitute for active engagement with the society in which one lives. When not rooted in the broader hinterland of nature and community the Book and the idea often become treacherous retreats, `sharp double edged swords' and `deep wounding thoughts.' Bent over these new and older books I did not see, did not see that it was spring again. Solitary submersion into the world of book and intellect is in fact itself a manifestation of alienation and fragmentation in which the world of the Book becomes a world of the dead: `And amongst all these dead, my blinded heart Did not see the roses that had bloomed In my darkened room I did not see the sun.' For Derian communism represented a passage out of this darkened room. Communist politics is Derian's chosen form of engagement with society to secure the triumph over the alienation, fragmentation and isolation that he depicts in his poetry. The communism that he professed expressed a vision and an ambition for social solidarity, generosity and community the absence of which inspired his poetry. This unity of poetry and politics is indeed suggested by Vahan Derian himself in one of his letters where he writes that: `Man/woman's most intolerable pain is loneliness...(and)...socialism annihilates loneliness....If socialism was to promise only material security I would never have become a socialist.' Needless to say Derian's poetry and his politics were free of any one- sided romantic or a-historical abstractions. He lived life as a concrete real Armenian individual born among people enslaved and oppressed by foreign imperial powers. As a man of the intellect and the arts, in the best of traditions, he devoted himself to both the business of serving the Armenian people's struggle for national emancipation and their emancipation as individuals. He did so with poetry in the sphere of art and communism in that of politics. He did so at a level which at its best touches the universal. -- 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.