Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 01/23/2012


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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