Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 07/29/2013


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
July 29, 2013

by Eddie Arnavoudian


				  I.

`The Arts, Crafts and Everyday Life in Armenian Miniature Painting'
Introduced, prepared and edited by Asdghig Kevorkian
(1973, 150pp, 48pp illustrations)

Without a study of this fine volume our knowledge of Armenian secular
history is poorer by a dozen times at least.

Secular social life and reflections of the common people's daily
affairs is almost non-existent in Armenian classical histories,
disdained, derided and dismissed as they were by those men of the
Church who in large part composed them. Modern historians must
therefore resort to meagre references, indirect suggestions and of
course foreign sources. Magnificent exceptions exist - fine detail on
architectural monuments, vivid depictions of the weapons of war. But
by and large we depend on the use of historical microscopes and
intelligent deduction and speculation. And here, thanks to the
wonderful work of Asdghig Kevorkian we have another significant
addition to our stock of illuminating data.

 From thousands of miniature paintings patterned into Armenian
biblical and religious manuscripts stretching from the 10th to the
18th centuries, Asdghig Kevorkian has isolated and meticulously
reproduced dozens upon dozens of images, packed into 48 large pages,
that offer a remarkable pictorial history - social, economic and
cultural - of agriculture and its tools, of fishing and its equipment,
of ship and boat building, of carpentry and furniture making. Present
too are the crafts of ironmongery, weapons of war, the art of
ceramics, spinning, weaving, embroidery and furniture making and a
great deal more too featuring popular entertainment, theatre, music
and dance, sports, hunting as well as the art of calligraphy that
enabled all this to acquire pictorial representation.

Generally components of wider miniature canvases that retell ancient
biblical, religious stories, Kevorkian argues convincingly that these
images of everyday life reflect not the social realities of Biblical
times but those of the painters' own age. In addition, even as most
are set in a religious pictorial context, many also appear as headings
and decorative borders, independent of direct religious reference and
so reflect more immediately the realities of everyday life. A striking
example is a 12th century image representing an early form of a
fountain pen with a small ink pellet fitted just above the nib of the
writing quill.

Among many beautiful pictures are those of the desks, writing stands,
pen and paint holders used by artists and scribes who laboured to
publish the hundreds of thousands of illuminated manuscripts of which
alas only some 30,000 survive. Also striking are depictions of sports,
circuses, wresting and hunting, of costumes and military apparel,
mostly absent from historical texts but smuggled most colourfully into
religious volumes. It is remembering that while classical Armenian
biblical and Christian texts appeared with illuminated paintings in
their hundreds, historical volumes generally contained none.

As with the study of all ancient Christian literature, an examination
of miniature paintings invites rejection of dismissive appreciations.
Religious pictorial representations are much richer than the Christian
narratives they retell, being always broader and deeper than the
abstract metaphysical faith removed from everyday life to which
Christianity is largely reduced today. For the ancients the Bible and
its pictorial representation were aids and explications in peoples'
terrestrial lives, being invitations to a social morality, to norms of
social relations and to everyday conduct.

At their worst of course much of religious instruction constituted a
system of rules and regulations to secure the common people's
acquiescence to and therefore the perpetuation of feudal relations. To
render such terrestrial instruction simultaneously attractive and
menacing, such instruction was packaged as a divine guide to eternal
bliss, for those who obeyed, or avenues to eternal damnation for those
who defied the moral dictates of the day, these of course being the
dictates of the dominant elite.

Here we have a wonderful, indeed irreplaceable volume, an immense
pleasure to browse and an invaluable aid to any historian, historical
novelist or artist of Armenian life.


				 II.

ANAHIT SAHINIAN'S `AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY'

This `Autobiographical Essay (384pp, 2006) by Anahit Sahinian,
published three years before her death at 93, is a bitter goodbye to
the 20th century Soviet Armenian age and to life itself by one of the
finest Armenian novelists of that era, who having put a foot into the
21st century felt herself `an illegal visitor there'. This is a final
testament, a moving personal remembrance and simultaneously an acute
and illuminating socio-political, cultural and literary evaluation of
an epoch and its end, hugely rewarding irrespective of attitudes to
the author's rejection of the post-Soviet capitalist order.

Sahinian whose life and novels spanned the Soviet decades - she was
born in 1917 - stands out as a striking, forceful and stubborn
personality, clearly possessed of will and strength that enabled her
to survive the bureaucratic grinder of the Soviet era and the market
bludgeon of the post-Soviet decades to produce a substantial body of
impressive literary and critical work. An unbending life would not be
an inappropriate description.

Globally, the 20th century may have been a century of war and
barbarism. But for Sahinian and for Soviet Armenians she insists in
its substantial portion it was an era of stability, cultural flourish
and socio-economic progress against which in fact previous Armenian
centuries and the two decades that followed the Soviet demise stand
out as barbaric.


A.

Anahit Sahinian offers us an impressive account of why, in contrast to
many of her contemporaries, she remained and that to her end, loyal to
egalitarian ideals imbibed in her early village and school life.

Sounding a polemic against those who dismiss socialism as a hostile
imposition, Sahinian notes that in the first instance it was Armenian
social conditions, reflected in modern Armenian literature, that
served to fertilise ideological sympathy for socialist revolutionary
movements sweeping through the Tsarist Empire. That `we were well
prepared to destroy the old' she writes `we owe' among other things
`to our classical literature', (p26) to Hovanness Toumanian, Berj
Broshian and others whose writings exposed the poverty and inequality
of Armenian life. International literary currents - Dickens and Hugo
are mentioned - also helped `prepare the ground for the rooting of
socialist thought.' (p27)

That the Soviet order was to find some of its sturdiest supporters
among women like Sahinian who were born into conservative rural
Armenia appears also unsurprising. The Soviet era released women from
direct material need and from the heavier shackles of male oppression.
It opened for them, for Sahinian, unimaginable avenues for professional
personal advance. Soviet society spared women the tragic fate of young
`Maro' told in Toumanian's poetic epic to which Sahinian refers as an
example of the radical substance of Armenian literature.

To escape brutal pre-arranged child marriage, domestic abuse and rape
Maro is driven to death in bleak and wild mountains. In contrast, for
the young Sahinian `fortune had turned'. She `lived in happy times'
(p26-27), going `to school where in its safety' she `could recite' the
epic of Maro's destiny.' Inspired by unprecedented opportunity for
education, Sahinian also managed to resist `hammer blow' pressures to
early marriage: for many women a pre-mature termination of education
and career. While `many did not want to continue education... I was
not of the many. I still had a road to travel. I still had a mountain
to climb...' The Soviet age evidently afforded her the opportunity to
do so, and so she was able to live life as writer, novelist, editor,
educator and social activist.

Social and political commentary is meshed into the story of Sahinian's
personal life, her sporting prowess, her school and university days,
her marriage and the early death of her husband with whom she shared
the `last happy days of her life'. Revealing a feel for the times she
tells us of friendships and relations with contemporary literary and
political figures, of the older generation of Avetik Issahakian and
the younger of Barouyr Sevak's age. She tells also of unceasing
battles against bureaucratic obstruction of her literary endeavours.

As an adherent of the critical realist tradition in literature
Sahinian had no time for a `socialist realism' that `demanded not art'
but the dishonest `beautification of life with glories offered to the
Communist Party and to Stalin!' For telling social truths crass
censors attempted to block publication deeming her novels
`pornographic' for portraying domestic infidelities! But Anahit
Sahinian prevailed. Her `The Crossroads' and `Longing' in particular
remain unmatched, audacious, against-the-stream critical
reconstructions of the Soviet decades - warts and all, from the
highest echelons of state to private domestic turmoil.

Beyond personal and gender considerations Sahinian underlines the oft
forgotten truth that Soviet era economic transformations generated
unquestionable national and popular support from survivors of the
genocide who had taken refuge in what became Soviet Armenia and from
the people of eastern Armenia devastated by war, famine and disease.
Particularly after the end of the 1937 purges and the World War II
years of `rationed bread', when `even mention of sugar was impossible'
`the good times' arrived. Economic advance, cultural, educational and
public development transformed people's lives:

    `The Armenian mother was proud that her son had become an
    engineer, her orphan child who had experienced the plight of
    refugees was now participant in the reconstruction of the
    homeland.' (p43)

Yet as she travels and journeys through the memories of her life and
times Sahinian also draws an eye opening landscape of the negative
sides of Soviet Armenian life too - the question of Lake Sevan and its
declining waters, the Azeri repopulation of Armenian border villages,
the turmoil of the Gorbachev years and much more.


B.

Despite total disdain for the post-Soviet order Sahinian does not
glorify the Soviet era. Offering her explanation of the collapse of
Soviet socialism she targets its elite's tyrannical corruption that in
her view led to disillusion in the idea of socialism, to Soviet
degeneration and its eventual disintegration. Here the 1937 Purges
were a critical turning point. They `tarnished the grand ideals we
possessed' and drove away `enlightened men of the world' who had
hitherto regarded the USSR as a force of `global salvation'.
Destroying an entire generation of honest and dedicated communist,
socialist and patriotic cadre, 1937 hoisted into leadership a
despicable group of opportunists in whose hands the communist party
became `a mighty tyrannical pyramid' feeding its own privilege and
status.

Though a modicum of material security had been assured for all,
remembrance of the thousands killed during the purges and the
explosion of bureaucratic greed, selfishness and rampant opportunism
that followed haemorrhaged not only social and economic life but faith
in the very idea of socialism. Corruption and nepotism, bribery and
kickbacks spread through every sphere of society so tarnishing the
ideology of socialism that faith in any possible progressive,
egalitarian reform was destroyed! The baby was thrown out with the
dirty water believes Sahinian.

It was not of course an age without hope, hope that we read of in
reminiscences of the national revival during the years following the
50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the latter struggle over
Garabagh during and indeed even before the Gorbachev days. However
with the ground removed for a vision of egalitarian reform and
reconstruction, all this enthusiasm and optimism was exploited by new
elites that secured the triumph of a cannibal capitalism that Sahinian
damns with ruthless reason.

In the post-Soviet regime, a leadership more corrupt and selfish than
any in the Soviet era took the helm destroying the economic
foundations of Armenian national life.

    `...like wolves come upon a defenceless flock of sheep, they fell
    upon the republic's economy, and in the first instance its
    productive capacity....they divided the factories among
    themselves, calling it privatisation and shipped them as scrap
    metal to neighbouring countries.' (p299)

All that `belonged to the nation' was seized by a regime `shaped by
criminals', even pavements and parks were privatised as were the
shores of Lake Sevan. `The people were pushed aside. They were not
needed...', `let them emigrate' for all this new elite cared. The less
people the easier it would be for the band of newly rich `to tailor a
constitution that enabled them to sell and resell national wealth
among themselves'.

Sahinian recalls when she had visited Paris during the Soviet era she
had been stunned by the sight of beggars in the streets of that jewel
western capital city. She recalls the pride she felt in her homeland
back then:

    `...beggars in Paris! In Armenia we had forgotten that they
    existed. This small Armenia that had seen Genocide, the loss of
    its western lands and a people brought to the edge of
    annihilation, today has neither rich nor poor, neither does it
    have beggars, and for this I take the liberty to feel proud as I
    stand in the Paris that amazes the world.'

In the immediate years of post-Soviet Armenia there appeared little
left to be proud of. Produced by economic, social, educational and
cultural collapse, beggars returned once more to Armenian city
streets. The nation was devastated, a bitter truth underlined by the
flight of tens and hundreds of thousands, a frightening emptying of
the homeland, a digging of its grave set in motion by the new selfish
elite.

Frail and ill, unaccustomed to the depredations of new voracious
capitalist elites, unable to accommodate to the social and economic
disintegration, to mass poverty, unemployment and cultural collapse,
it is understandable that Sahinian would have felt an `illegal
immigrant' to the 21st century. Yet this 21st century `Autobiographical
Essay' and with all that she bequeathed, Sahinian keeps a bright
lantern alight for those searching for paths through the dark and
rubble strewn horizons of Armenian national life.


--
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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