Why we should read... `Ghazaros Aghayan' by Ardashes Hakobjanyan (496pp, 2007, Stepanakert, Karabagh, Armenia) Armenian News Network / Groong January 23, 2012 by Eddie Arnavoudian Honouring another eminent man of Armenian letters Published before the demise of Soviet Armenia, Ardashes Hakobjanyan's `Ghazaros Aghayan' is, without any abuse of the words, an absorbing and exciting study of an outstanding late 19th/early 20th century educationalist, writer and national activist. Supporting his case with a flourish of convincing quotations, Hakobjanyan successfully rescues Ghazaros Aghayan (1840-1911) from those who would tie him to the wheel of a conservative, Church-centred trend of modern Armenian thought. Quite the contrary, he insists. Even in his earliest novel `Aroutin and Manuel', Aghayan's sympathy for the anti-clerical secular democracy expounded by Stepanos Nazaryants is unquestionable and later, asserts the author, we see him looking even further left, towards the radical popular democracy propounded by Mikael Nalpantian. I. Hakobjanyan must be properly applauded for making an invigorating and exciting read of his 80 page commentary on `Aroutin and Manuel', Aghayan's first novel of mid-19th century rural Armenia warming to the rays of enlightenment. In the light of recent debates that limit and narrow Armenian nationality with religious and even genetic criteria, this novel however flawed asserts an exemplary non-exclusive, non-religious and secular-cultural conception of national identity that has vital contemporary relevance. Aghayan's Armenian village, as it here appears, has nothing romantic about it. Primitive, impoverished, gripped by all variety of prejudice and superstition, its men and women live lives that sometimes border on the bestial. A polemic against such conditions, `Arutin and Manuel' is also a proposal for reform and development, the condition of which is an assault on the bastions of rural reaction - the ossified sectarian Armenian Church and its clergy. In tune with the times in which education and enlightenment not political reform or revolution were seen as the critical motor of national progress and development, the challenge is in the preparation of a new generation that will cut through all the irrational obscurantisms of the Church and lead on to the highway of civilisation. With education the essential mechanism for producing agents of progress, the Church that dominated and controlled education was seen the main barrier that not only blocked the spread of science and reason but by so doing also obstructed the formation of a secular, democratic Armenian national identity deemed a necessary condition for uniting the people in the huge endeavour of transforming and modernising Armenian life. So, calling on Rousseau for support, Aghayan's protagonist challenges a Church educational system that is encased in prejudice and superstition and in which discipline is enforced by whip and baton. As was the case with other progressives of the era, a proper education for Aghayan too was to serve the preparation not just of `good people' but of `good Armenian people'. Contrary to the ignorant and hidebound clergy such enlightened people would possess a sense of national identity based on the Armenian language, written and spoken in its modern literary variant and a knowledge of and pride in Armenian history (including that of its pagan eras). Most critically, in the common project of constructing a free nation they would welcome men and women of all religious persuasions. The urging of a secular-cultural definition of nationality inevitably positioned Aghayan for conflict with the conservative clergy that equated being Armenian exclusively with affiliation to the Armenian Church, so making outcasts not just of Armenian Protestants and Catholics but of those of other or no faiths. Hakobjanyan rightly reminds us that on occasion the official Church's sectarian narrowness was deployed as a defensive reaction, albeit deeply defective, against European religious colonialism. It was a reaction however that demanded decided rebuff and not just because of its excluding definition of nationality. Opposition to Protestants and Catholics was used in addition to shut out science and reason that, appearing to derive from European Catholic or Protestant states, were denounced as ungodly weapons aimed at subverting the Armenian Church. In its combat against modern secular education the Armenian Church clergy was in large measure engaged not so much in defence of its theology buttressed by obscurantism and superstition but in a defence of its feudal, estate privileges that were acquired at the expense of the people but exposed sharply with the light of science and reason. Whilst no outlandish claims are made for `Arutin and Manuel's' artistic merits, Hakobjanyan urges acknowledgement, at least of its singular contribution to the evolution of the modern Armenian novel. Contrary to the fixed and finished protagonists of earlier novels, Aghayan's Arutin, he argues, is a qualitative departure, a character that undergoes personal development through the plot. Aghayan's creations furthermore are marked by a realist refinement, by a genuine complexity. The priest in his social role is indeed an ugly agent of prejudice and superstition. But he is not unalloyed darkness and personally remains a kind hearted fellow. Similarly Arutin's father, though shown in society as a highly respected man, is in his domestic life portrayed as the ugly tyrant that he is. II. Aghayan was not alone in the battle that sought to place science, reason and a secular definition of nationality at the centre of modern Armenian development. Here he joined Nazaryants of course, but also Nalpantian, Raffi and Ardzrouni, among others. But in contrast to may of his contemporaries and allies, his own contribution was in addition marked by a broader and emphasised social consideration, by an ambition to transform and improve the conditions of the common people whose plight features in his second novel `Two Sisters'. In an erudite sketch of the sociological landscape Hakobjanyan shows how the 19th century land question in eastern Armenia was tied firmly to Russian colonisation, to Tsarist efforts to build loyal indigenous elites and to the rapid development of capitalism that the Russian conquest engendered. One of Russian imperial power's first measures was to grant local landlords, primarily Muslim ones, legal title to land that they did not possess under Persian rule. Simultaneously the peasantry was deprived of traditional and historic rights and freedoms and were now to be bound as serfs to newly titled landlords. This imposition of Russian style feudalism not only destroyed the old communal village of `free' peasants but impoverished and dispossessed many as fraudulent `lords' and `royal estates' laid claim to land that was previously regarded communal or social property. Aspects of the new and bitter form of social oppression and class struggle that followed find reflection in `Two Sisters'. Once again Hakobjanyan does not slide over the novel's aesthetic limits, whose source is detected in an aptly defined `enlightening realism' that subordinated literary creativity to the needs of the campaign for social and national progress. Nevertheless in its acute focus on the plight of the Armenian peasantry, `Two Sisters', in tandem, makes another important artistic contribution to the Armenian novel. While Abovian's Aghassi is a militant battling foreign occupation, in `Two Sisters' Arzuman is the first Armenian literary protagonist depicted in social struggle against inequality and exploitation, a struggle that is portrayed, claims Hakobjanyan, with a historically accurate grasp of the flow of socio-economic relations. Underlining the role of social and political struggle to transform society, we may add that in `Two Sisters' Aghayan moves beyond his earlier conceptions of the educated individual as the prime vehicle for progress. There is no let up in the quality of Hakobjanyan's critical commentary as he moves on to Aghayan's short stories and novelettes that deal with resistance to Tsarist designs to assimilate conquered peoples. As part of the effort to quash national development and movements for national independence (p238-245) Russian authorities attempted to eliminate independent Armenian national education. With the Armenian Church and clergy still the organising hub of a specifically Armenian education, it became Tsarism's main target. Against this assault Aghayan urged a united front with the Church, never however holding back from the harshest criticism of its reactionary and corrupt administration and the venality of its backward bishops and teacher-priests all feeding off their students (p263-267). Ardashes Hakobjanyan's portrait does sometimes go that bit too far in the representation of Aghayan as radical democrat verging on a socialist revolutionary. Nevertheless a radical democrat he certainly was and not just on the Armenian stage. In the 1905 era of revolution and upheaval through the Tsarist Empire, he was an active participant in revolutionary demonstrations and even made speeches calling for the overthrow of the autocracy. Here it is perhaps worth recalling another acknowledgement of Aghayan's radical credentials from none other than Stepan Shahumyan, the foremost Armenian Bolshevik thinker and activist murdered by British forces in 1918. In 1902 Shahumyan offered the warmest possible praise for Aghayan at a celebration to honour his 40 years of public and literary activity. Even as he was explicit in his Marxist criticism of Aghayan outlook, Shahumyan concluded his speech with a string of `long lives' for the man, `who throughout his life always sought out the truth and desired to be useful to the people', who `in the Armenian marsh - retained moral cleanliness', who `remained a warrior for the Armenian people' `suffering wounds even in old age' and who `despite his errors, despite his failures inspires us of the young generation to life and to work (Shahumyan, SW, Vol. 1, pp25-40).' Changing times however may have tempered Aghayan's political and social sensibilities. In his later years, in the wake of capitalist development that brought into play a selfish individualism that began to dislodge collective effort and community, Hakobjanyan detects the onset of conservatism. Unable to see beyond, Aghayan, in Hakobjanyan's view, begins a process of idealising and romanticising the old village that he had once so passionately severely criticised (278-281). III. Aghayan's literary output was diverse extending across the novel, pedagogic writing, journalism, linguistic theory as well as poetry, children's tales and the reworking of folklore and national epics. Resting in the shadow of his younger friend Toumanian, Aghayan's poetry has been sidelined. But and again without overplay of artistic virtue, Hakobjanyan notes yet another path finding contribution. Aghayan was the first to introduce the ordinary peasant, his/her struggles, woes and dreams into Armenian poetry and so paved the way for his great contemporary and successor. Indeed a comparison of Aghayan and Toumanian shows Toumanian's outstanding `Sigh' and his `Song of the Hoe' to contain distant chords from Aghayan's earlier poetry. Many of Aghayan children's stories, folk tales and fables, again imbued with anti-Tsarist and anti-autocratic sentiment, were also in addition the first of their kind and written further in a refined modern language that retains vibrancy and vitality (p308-363). Aghayan's reworking of popular legends constitutes in the judgement of many his finest work that syntheses his critique of national life and sets out his democratic and national vision. `Anahit' is notable for its encomium to human labour and collective effort and in the evaluation of some contemporaries succeeds in harmoniously combining didacticism and art. Despite its unfinished form `Vigen Sassountzi' is an acute critique of the Church elite that came to terms with foreign oppressors and in exchange for preaching humble submission among the masses obtained for itself the reward of freedom from taxation and of feudal rights and privileges. Against such an order based on the collaboration of native elites with foreign conquerors that wrecked the common peoples' lives Aghayan in `Dork Anghegh', regarded as a masterpiece, expounds an egalitarian vision of a free and self-determining people composed of all nations. It is a vision of freedom and inter-national harmony that is reiterated in Aghayan's Armenia rendition of the internationally popular epic Kyoroghlu, whose protagonist represents the common people of all and any nation battling for social freedom and emancipation. (An English edition of Dork Anghegh is available from the Gomidas Institute). For anyone interested in Armenian history, in the role of Russian imperialism in modern Armenian nation-formation, in the social history of the Armenian peasantry, in the development of modern Armenian thought and in modern Armenian literature and of course in Ghazaros Aghayan's invaluable literary legacy this book is a must. It is in addition a genuine pleasure to read a book published in Gharabagh! -- 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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