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The Critical Corner - 05/02/2011

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Worth a read...
 
    Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet
    none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one
    will always find something of value.
 

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 2, 2011

by Eddie Arnavoudian

 
 
				  I.
 

Reteos Berberian `The Armenian Jean Jacques Rousseau'

Reteos Berberian (1848-1907) is another outstanding intellectual and
man of letters from the 19th century Armenian revival whose instructive
legacy is fast being submerged in the global glut of modern throwaway
culture. This 1989 biography by A M Tevoyan (292pp, Yerevan) does
something to recover him for us. Born in Istanbul Berberian was gifted
by nature with phenomenal talent and energy. This he devoted totally
to the education of Armenian children in the Ottoman Empire. To secure
the best for them, at the highest available international standards,
he set up his own school in 1876, the famous and highly prized
Istanbul-based Berberian College that he ran until his death in 1907.

Berberian's stature among his contemporaries was tremendous. Vienna
Mekhitarist Gabriel Menevishian proclaimed him `the Armenian Jean
Jacques Rousseau' and the `constitutionalist of modern Armenian
education.' Krikor Zohrab testifies to the democratic, popular quality
of his work noting that `this one man with his own meager resources,
educated more impoverished children than all other rich sponsors put
together.' A proponent of education for all Berberian also defended,
albeit limited to the narrow domestic sphere, the rights of women to
education.

The upbringing of a new generation was not however a purely private
passion. Berberian's dedication was fortified by the place education
and pedagogy occupied in his world-view. Of the Enlightenment
tradition, for him education served a wider purpose than individual
advancement alone. It was also an essential condition for social
advance, a guarantee of national progress and development. Within
these terms Berberian also rejected art for arts sake insisting on the
social duty and responsibility of the artist and intellectual. The
educated individual had a duty to serve the people, to tend to, to
advance and to protect the public interest. In the Armenian case
education served to create a cadre capable of leading and
revolutionizing life in the backward oppressive and stifling Ottoman
Empire. Education and with it art and literature was the means to
secure:

    `the death of ignorance, the annihilation of superstition, the
    elimination of inequality, the end of deprivation, the empowerment
    of the dispossessed and an end to the suffering of the weak'.

Belonging to an early, non-nationalist trend of the Armenian revival
Berberian's ambition was the transformation and reformation of the
Ottoman Empire. He aspired for a transnational democratic state that
would enable Armenians to live equally and with dignity alongside all
other nationalities. Against the decrepit Ottoman Empire's feudal
monopoly and privilege he vigorously propounded the virtues of the
capitalist market and of free trade and competition that he considered
indispensable for social and economic development. Significantly in
contrast to modern neo-liberalism Berberian's vision of capitalist
society was almost social-democratic including as it does a state
responsible for the welfare of the people as a whole and its
impoverished and the dispossessed sections in particular.

Tevoyan pays especial attention to Berberian's remarkable and still
readable philosophical writings and in particular to his passion for
Kant. We may question Kant's a-historical conceptions. But within the
decaying Ottoman Empire and the backwardness of Armenian society Kant
offered Berberian intellectual instruments to fashion his challenge.
Kant's philosophy after all expressed the ideal vision of the
bourgeois man. Open to science and knowledge, he or she was
simultaneously driven and guided by imperatives, by obligation, duty,
responsibility and virtue that are shaped by and flow from our inner
human essence. In Berberian's case, coming as he did from an oppressed
nation these qualities had in addition to their individual aspect, a
defined collective, social and national expression.

There is no questioning of this presentation of Berberian's
progressive vision, nor of the solidity of the man's erudition. But
there does lurk the suspicion that this biography goes a little too
far in molding the protagonist into a more radical antagonist of
backward Ottoman feudalism and its Armenian satellites than he
actually was. But on the barricades Berberian certainly stood
denouncing:

    `a clergy concerned solely with profit, the selfish rich, the
    official striving only after personal ambition and the venality of
    those who fashion public opinion.'

Berberian not only elaborated on such views he searched for agents to
effect reforms and transformation. He sought to encourage an
enlightening wing in the Armenian Church that he regarded as a central
organizing force in Armenian society. In the service of consolidating
an alliance between the Church's progressive wing and the newly
emergent democratic intelligentsia - Chlingirian, Svajian, Dussap,
Nalpantian and others - Berberian waged fierce battle against feudal
obscurantism. Chilingirian is showered with praise

    `...for never wavering in frank and honest criticism of the moral
    degeneration of our elites'

One Tchamourgian however that `dark crow' of Ottoman and Armenian
reaction is denounced for

    `...leaping upon and ripping to bits any dove he espies bearing
    good tidings.'

In the annals of Armenian history and Armenian thought Berberian's
contribution remains significant. One of the most articulate
representatives of the idea of history and progress in late 19th
century Armenian society his thought was for its time deeply
democratic, a sort of left-liberal, John Stuart Mill type enthused
with notions of a liberal-democratic society serving and advancing the
masses. This 1989 representation of Berberian to a Soviet Armenia then
in transition was perhaps a significant indicator of a socially
responsible ideological trend within the modern Armenian
intelligentsia. Even in the rush to the global neo-liberal free market
it attempts to fashion a vision of capitalist nation and state that
would cater for the interests of the people. Their ambitions for a
democratic market society alas suffered rude defeat at the hands of
the ruthless and selfish elite in the 1990s that had become the
plaything of US, British and other foreign interests. Still, with
notions of the public duty and the collective good at its centre this
particular Berberian is for all its limits a corrective influence to
neo-liberal ideology that has proved so destructive for the common
people throughout the world.
 

				 II.


Vahan Derian: poetry in search of hopeful destinations

This study of Armenian poet Vahan Derian (1885-1920) by the eminent
Soviet era literary critic Hrant Tamrazian (231pp, 1985, Yerevan) is a
pleasure, a breath of fresh air. Not so much on account of its
aesthetic assessment of Derian's poetry that is not entirely
persuasive, but because of its questioning, critical, challenging
approach that enlightened and polished by Tamrazian's usual fine
erudition is a rewarding defence of the poet against his crude
detractors.
 
Tamrazian opens with a combative assault on charges that succumbing to
symbolist mysticism and immersed in a gloomy despair Derian's poetry
was as a result inauthentic, lifeless and essentially without
aesthetic value. On the contrary the energetic Tamrazian retorts. Yes,
there is in Derian's poetry a powerful evocation of alienation and
pain, but with an inimitable gentility this is simultaneously an
unending quest for life and light. The streams of loneliness and
melancholy that run through his work are at the same time a search for
and travel to hopeful destinations, for home from an alienated
overseas, for release and relief from harshness, for freedom from
shackles of all sorts.

Tamrazian also counters claims that Derian's poetry was vacant and
deprived of depth for having no national roots or colour, for being a
mere aping of European fashions. Again he retorts, read Derian
carefully and you will see poetic inspiration decidedly born of the
land of his birth, its vast and mountainous heights, its rocky
treeless expanses, the mists of its plains and its blue skies. Their
magnificence, their rugged beauty and diversity offered Derian one of
his means to delve so meaningfully into the soul of modern man and
woman, into their suffering alienation as they confronted a hostile
world. And adds Tamrazian, the poet does this with a skill for nuance
and shade that is not equaled in Armenian writing.

Reinforcing his case Tamrazian turns also to Derian's love poetry
showing its inspiration in real lives, its images and vision woven out
of the fabric of everyday experience focused through the poet's unique
grasp and ability to express inner, spiritual emotional and
psychological sensibilities. Remarking on Derian's ability to evoke
their almost inexpressible variations Tamrazian deploys the term
`psychological realism' to underline the origins of psychological,
spiritual and emotional phenomena in real life. Contesting charges of
alleged mysticism Tamrazian significantly reminds us that Derian was
always a staunch supporter of realism in the arts, defending men such
as play write Sountoughian and novelist Shirvanzade when these great
realists were most scorned.

As passionate as Tamarzian is, his discussion of the art and aesthetic
of Derian's poetry is not altogether satisfactory. Derian's vulgar
critics are shown to be rather careless and superficial in their
judgements, animated perhaps by hostility to Derian's politics.
Nevertheless Tamrazian fails to convince us that Derian's poetry is as
meaningful, enhancing, evocative and magical as he presents it.
Quotes, taken independently and together, are not sturdy enough to
support what remain claims on behalf of Derian's artistic caliber. It
needs to be said also, in connection with Derian's love poetry, that
Tamrazian fails to reflect on a glaring ugliness that emerges from
some of his own chosen extracts - the portrayal of women as weak,
passive, and with tendency to moral failure.

However, even as Tamrazian does not necessarily win us to the poet's
art, his passion and erudition will persuade doubters to give Derian's
poetry another turn. Tamrazian's volume in addition introduces us to
an outstanding man of the age, a figure remarkable and admirable,
independent of his poetry. Of refined emotions and sensibilities, of
immense spiritual warmth Derian was at the same time an energetic and
tireless national and social activist. He sacrificed his life,
neglecting his fatally poor health in the service of the socialist
movement that he believed would salvage Armenia and the Armenians from
the barbarism of 1914-1918.

Derian was an Armenian man of the world, an intellectual of substance
ready and willing to utilize international cultural and intellectual
accomplishments in his quest for national revival. Indeed
appropriating all that international experience had on offer was, in
his view an essential condition for Armenian national development. To
define themselves Armenians must surely rest on their own historic
foundations and cultural legacy. But they must at the same time
reinforce and extend these by appropriating all that was around them,
by acquiring the `style of the age' as he puts it.

In Derian's time this `style' was socialism to which he devoted the
last years of his life. A member of the Bolshevik Party, Derian was a
representative at Brest-Litovsk and the first translator of Lenin's
`State and Revolution' into Armenian. His socialism and Bolshevism
were not however doctrinaire. Together with acute writings on
literature and language, his poetry, his politics and his socialism
were for him all and together part of a single project - that of the
emancipation and advancement of the people of Armenia. For his left
wing political stand Derian was unjustly reviled. When he died so
tragically early, there was almost universal silence and indifference
for one who had emerged as a dominant new stream of Armenian
literature.

For further discussion on Vahan Derian's poetry see two other notes,
`Vahan Derian and Three Kindred Spirits' at
    http://www.groong.org/tcc/tcc-20080114.html
and `Vahan Derian's Protest Against The Fragmentation Of Being' at
    http://www.groong.org/tcc/tcc-20090921.html


--
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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