Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 11/19/2012


Why we should read...

	 Rouben Vorperian: journeys without joy
	 (Library of Armenian Classics, 1981, pp31-120)

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 19, 2012

by Eddie Arnavoudian


In Armenian literary life Rouben Vorperian (1870-1931) occupied only a
peripheral post. Figures such as Varoujean, Yessayan, Toumanian,
Derian and others were as if always at the centre of debate on
culture, literature and the nation's future. Vorperian on the other
hand, leaves the impression of residing quietly, on the edge,
unnoticed, remote, and this not just metaphorically. He lived most of
his life in Djibouti and Paris, where he died. Today we have:
    `Placed upon him the stone of oblivion and
    Left silence as guardian to the tomb'  

Revisiting this poet however, repays. It was not flattery that
prompted plaudits from novelist Zabel Yessayan or fine critic Minas
Teoleolian. Never mind that the bulk of his work is pedestrian,
frequently versed in the inauthentic voice of some youthful poetic
idol. Vorperian had a passion for poetry and pressed into his writing
that spark of creativity which is the gift of every human being.
Though a businessman in his own working life, he could with
appropriate adjustment say as English poet John Clare did that `a
peasant in his daily cares' he was however `a poet in his joy'. So,
albeit only rarely Rouben Vorperian has inspiring flares of poetry
that at its best starkly shape the anguish of exile and its particular
Armenian manifestations.

In the cumulative flow of his poetry one can feel the pain of the
poet's own exiled soul as well as the cry of all wounded global
wanderers, who uprooted from their homeland, unable to cast happy
anchor elsewhere are condemned to unending emotional turmoil. On some
of the qualities that describe the essence of yearning for homeland
and also on the attraction of Soviet Armenia for an exiled patriotic
intelligentsia, Vorperian is additionally illuminating and thought
provoking.


I. THE JOYLESS WANDERER

Rouben Vorperian is most evocative when articulating the endurance of
migration.
    `Oh if there was anyone to understand the sorrow of my soul
del last
    To feel it being scorched by longing
    ...
    Oh how I smoulder as I fall towards the damp soil.' (p92)

Vorperian's verse implicitly affirms an exile life that failing to
sink new roots has been cut through with pervasive unhappiness. It has
become `a door before the abyss, a door before a dark road', while
men/women's smiles appear as `froth concealing pain'. In search of
soothing balms, from distant exile the poet turns to recollection and
remembrance, a remembrance that is almost always a counterpoint to a
wounded, impaired present. In the register of this Vorperian is deeply
moving.

`My Village Path' and `My Little Cottage' capture well oppositions
between rootless, isolated alienation in exile and homeland life
defined by a collective solidarity. Revealing autobiographical verse
draws the map travelled by the poet, who when fuelled by youthful
spirits journeyed to see glorious wonders of the world. But nothing
has replaced the community that was enjoyed in his home village and
family cottage. Valued by Zabel Yessayan for its perfection of form
the first poem opens with a confession of the sum of emptiness that
the poet's life has amounted to.
    Life's boat left not a mark behind it
    Forgetfulness took all from me
    Old dreams vanish like clouds
    Memories vanish like a song

As he ambles along `to a seaside' in a foreign land, the poet's
`crushed spirit' recoils against a present devoid of the `youthful
innocence' that had `skipped along the winding village paths' in
tandem with the `clear stream' that often `hidden beneath a bridge or
by a field' moved as if a living `spirit of the emptiness.' Though
rather bland the term `youthful innocence' still speaks of the
experience of disappointment, treachery, lies, deceptions and
corruptions encountered in new worlds despite its more advanced
`straight, stone-hewed road'.

Passing through the enchantingly reconstructed landscape of his youth,
the village path leads to `My Little Cottage':
    A few pillars and black walls
    Bent but holding each other up
    Like the aged of ancient days

This `single cottage' however, lit with `a single lantern' was `for us
enough'. It was home and hearth, fortress and abode against misfortune
and calamity, a foundation of stability, of rooted existence, of
warmth and security. Meagre, ramshackle, almost dilapidated it is. But
it still is the source of dreams, of the flow of happiness and ease of
life amid family and community.
    `Around that candle it was that my first cry was uttered
    There my dreams were born - happy and sad
    There my mother gave me the feather of a crane
    Write she said, let this be your pen. (p36)

Alas the misery of exile and time, have worn away both cottage and the
poet's spirit. Like `my thousand and one dreams' `my family cottage'
too `has become pitiful ruin', `fortune has turned both...to dust'. This
weariness of exile, this yearning for home, the evocation of which is
perhaps the most attractive feature of Vorperian's poetry, was and
remains a reality not just of the historical and contemporary Armenian
experience but that of all oppressed peoples and classes today.
Described by genius poet Daniel Varoujean as `that disease of longing,
the deepest of sorrows felt by Armenian people', it features centrally
in Armenian poetry and prose. In Vorperian's powerful communicating of
this experience we are reminded that it is not a mere sentimental
dreaming for an idyllic past.

For those born into what are collective structures of rural life, the
dream of return to familiar terrains of youth are often expressions of
a desire to recover the individual self that wrenched from this
collective mould is severely seared and fractured. In contrast to the
solitary individualism that has today reached its abyss in modern city
life, in rural society an individual's sense of being was shaped more
decidedly by collective solidarities and support of community and
family relations. To be rent asunder, to be snapped from these was
akin often to tragic personal fragmentation and loss of self, to the
loss of foundation and anchor. In another context the point is put
well by George Monbiot in his fine article on John Clare whose poetry:
`documents both the destruction of place and people and the gradual
collapse of his own state of mind...What Clare suffered was the fate of
indigenous peoples torn from their land and belongings everywhere...
(This) has torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent
us out, each in his different way to seek our own identities.
(Guardian Weekly, 20.07.12)

For Vorperian and for the segment of the western Armenian
intelligentsia that survived, the individual traumas of exile were
compounded by the 1915 Genocide that had uprooted an entire people and
blocked all possibility of collective return to ancestral homes. With
life on the wane, `body immobile', perhaps bedridden, with `no hope
emerging from the chaos of dark clouds' the present offers nothing
more. The poet can now `live only in the bosom of the past' as:
    Grim days follow upon each other
    ...
    Distant dawns blocked
    Suffering the fate of a hunted bird...

Vasken Gabrielian who introduces the 1981 selection from Vorperian
harshly judges his poems of longing to be, at least in part, a failure
of vision, `a retreat to tradition', an `inability to see the way out
of capitalism's alienated human relations (p6). Of course recollection
of a distant or youthful past can functions as metaphors for social
vision, conservative or progressive.

With Hovanness Hovannissian for example it constructs a utopia of
social emancipation (see Groong, The Critical Corner 28/2/2011).
Recollection of youth in old age is also perhaps an existential moment
pitting remembrance of healthy, energetic and carefree existence
against the fact of inevitable later decline. In Vorperian's case it
serves neither one nor the other purpose, underlining rather the
distorted and tragic personal and national experience of forced
exile. Remembrance for him is not backward gazing socio-political
nostalgia. It is regret not for vanished conservative rural relations
but for the absence of private and collective solidarity.


II. A PHOENIX ARISES

It was not only endless wandering that buckled Rouben Vorperian's
being. When young like many of his generation he experienced the 19th
century as an epoch of promise, with welcome `fires of science'
spreading `happiness across the earth.' Science also `opened up the
deep of the abysses' in whose `stormy oceans of doubt' God, a
permanent `boyhood companion' retreated to be replaced by the idea of
human progress. But as the 19th became the 20th century:
    Make-up fell away from its cheeks
    To reveal instead of sweet smiles
    A hyena's gaze and wolves' claws
    Beneath its shiny gloves

Together with an alienated life in exile, the savagery of Genocide and
World War One shattered all confidence in independent human potential
and left the poet bereft, utterly desolate yearning now not just for
homeland but for the return of faith too.
    Oh I am alone and endlessly pleading
    "Return, God, as to my boyhood days"

Whether he ever recovered faith remains unclear. But a few deeply felt
poems clearly not written for the occasion, express the solace that
Soviet Armenia at least offered this tired exile in his frail closing
years. Never mind that it was a mere stump of the historical homeland,
that it did not incorporate his beloved family village and
cottage. Still upon his table a gift of 'Apples from the Homeland'
    Brought to the poet's throbbing heart
    An infinite unending dawn sun

These apples have been `touched by a breeze fragrant with
Etchmiadzin's and Sevan's aroma'. The trees from which they have been
picked have `resonated to the song of the river Arax while `its roots
have been fertilised by the sweat of the Armenian peasant.' The
excitement and the emotion are tremendous.

On the wing of memory the poet still wanders through western Armenia;
through Kharpert, Malatya, Mush and Arapgir. All are now beyond reach.
But Sevan and Etchmiadzin are different. Not in western Armenia, they
are nevertheless central to the space that defines the historical
homeland and form furthermore components of an actually existing
Armenian state and republic. Ambitions for nation building in the
western Armenia may have been shattered. But in its stead Soviet
Armenia emerged Phoenix-like, appearing as a port of call and a
nation-saving lighthouse. It had offered in addition refuge to tens of
thousands of Genocide survivors and stood as bridge of hope, perhaps a
possible stepping stone to lands lost in the wake of the Genocide.
    There is a little cottage on the slope of Mount Aragatz
    There a fireplace, and by its side an empty chair
    There at its door open and its window ajar
    Ancient Mother Armenia awaits the
    Return of her distant migrant children.
   
Soviet Armenia provided the foundation for the flourish of national
culture and literature, language and music, architecture, history and
art that for the intelligentsia were essential coordinates of
nationality and perhaps for them, more immediately significant than
the material and social emancipation of the common people. Even though
obviously moved by the plight of the masses, for the intelligentsia,
the ideal of nation remained constructed by language, literature and
culture and here Soviet Armenia despite its political colour,
fulfilled essential expectations.

Thus for Vorperian and indeed a large number of Armenian
intellectuals, Soviet Armenia despite all its tangled complications,
was in its early days powerfully magnetic. Energetic efforts by
leading Soviet Armenian intellectuals of the time, central but not
sole among them the communist historian and political activist Ashot
Hovannissyan, succeeded in recruiting an entire battalion from all
political persuasions, to return and participate in nation-construction.
Rouben Vorperian was not among those who made it back. In the Soviet
era 1979 5th volume of `The History of Modern Armenian Literature it
is said that his 1920 departure from Djibouti to Paris was indeed the
first leg of a planned return to Armenia. Serious illness however
prevented the journey's completion. But from distant Paris he too was
in some measure consoled by a recovering Armenia.

			      . . . . .

Vorperian has other scattered verse that glows. The almost impeccable
`Wedding Ring' for example is a harsh, telling reminder of the
contradictory form of marriage in conservative Christian society with
the ring at once legitimising potential violence and oppression
against women but also giving free reign to love and lust in the
marriage bed. Another, `The Watch' is a gentle contemplation of the
passing of time and of ageing with intimations of mortality caught
well in an image of the old poet `smiling before infinity' as he gazes
at his now timeless, old, broken watch.

One must therefore reject Hagop Oshagan's crude and vulgar evaluation
that `Armenian poetry can, with great ease of heart, forget Vorperian
the poet.' With a mean spirited edge Oshagan goes on to qualify that
if Vorperian is to be remembered, he should be as a salutary warning,
`an example to all those among us who take to the pen without
appropriate vocation.' Against such ossified and dogmatic criticism
dictated by borrowed templates that block natural appreciation one
prefers the truth of Minas Teoleolian's enthusiasm. Vorperian he
writes is `rare among poets' who `so humanly...so movingly' and `so
forcefully bring to life the ... bitterness of longing for homeland.'

Rouben Vorperian himself, as epitaph perhaps, wrote that even as `time
withers both rose and memory', were some of his `songs to speed from
one heart to another' he would rest easy never mind `beneath a
forgotten tomb'. The finest of his poems do indeed still sweep from
heart to heart and it is a pleasure to note the poet hosted at Lola
Koundakjian's `Armenian Poetry Project
(http://armenian-poetry.blogspot.co.uk).


--
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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