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The Critical Corner - 12/16/2013


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Armenian News Network / Groong
December 16, 2013


Stars of the Armenian Enlightenment: Mesrop Taghiatian and Stepannos Nazaryants


Leo's biographies of Mesrop Taghiatian (1803-1858) and Stepannos
Nazaryants (1812-1879), published in 1917 and 1902 respectively,
(Collected Works, Volume 6, 1987, pp727-853 and pp5-204) remain still
timely corrections to a dismal want of knowledge about two important
figures of the 19th century Armenian enlightenment. Leo does more
however! He presents us figures who, however dated their world view
may seem to us, stand still as sterling examples of authentic
intellectuals, intellectuals that are animated, driven and dedicated
to public service, to the people, and the nation.

Meticulous accounts and evaluations, though the latter are sometimes
questionable, vividly illuminate the broader socio-political terrain
upon which they and others fashioned the early secular national
revival. Leo reminds us of the powerful European intellectual currents
that, absorbed into a recovered classical Armenian culture, provided
this secular enlightenment with a formidable armoury with which to
battle for an over-riding ambition: the revolutionising of culture and
education then straitjacketed by a backward, superstition-ridden
clergy.


				  I.


Throughout the 19th century, the eastern Armenian progressive movement
had to do battle against two dominant organising forces in Armenian
life: the Church internally and the Tsarist State externally. As
context Leo sets out the historic, all-embracing, unwavering Russian
hostility to any independent Armenian development.  Even as Taghiatian
and Nazaryants grew into adulthood, Russian power moved to bury the
remnants of autonomous Armenian principalities in Garabagh that
endured as potential political challenges. Simultaneously it curtailed
Armenian Church power while cementing alliances with local Turkish
feudal estates initially judged more reliable agents of Russian rule
in the Caucasus.

Leo notes the utterly misplaced Armenian loyalty to and active support
for Tsarist expansionism. Fervent though it was, it all counted for
nothing. Armenians were first used and then discarded - in the
interests of wider Russian negotiations with Persian and Ottoman
Empires. Tsarist officials did however grasp the benefits of a
controlled Armenian Church. Propped up by Armenian merchant wealth,
the Church, an immense parasitic feudal institution, wielded enormous
influence among the people that it retained as virtual serfs shackled
in ignorance and prejudice. Tactically manipulated the Church could be
put to act as an important supplementary agent of local rule to secure
placidity among a possibly obstreperous people (p746).

The Armenian Church jealously guarded privilege and power from
rational and scientific scrutiny and so padlocked its school gates to
any radical reform or modernisation. Yet ironically the first flames
of a secular challenge to archaic religious hegemony would emerge from
within the bounds of the Church itself. From the late 17th century
more alert segments of the Church hierarchy had endeavoured reform,
albeit limited in scope and content. Impoverished schools, printing
houses and libraries were replenished and improved and a vast range of
ancient Armenian thinkers made available. Stern in criticism of their
adherence to classical Armenian, favouring as he did a literary
language understood by the masses Leo is nevertheless overawed by the
Catholic Mekhitarist Order whose critical role in the process of
Church reform indirectly spurred the official Armenian Church to
change.

Narrowly clerical, devoted primarily to the education of an orthodox
priestly caste, such reform was motivated in important part by the
official Church's fear of the rising Catholic and Protestant threat to
its positions. Though more a religious than a national revival there
is no gainsaying that its educational, cultural, historical and
literary accomplishments laid firm foundations for the subsequent
flourish of the secular enlightenment, foundations further reinforced
by growing contact with European culture and politics in the wake of
the Tsarist annexation of eastern Armenia. It was from within the
institutions of a Church thus altered that men like Taghiatian with
his British tailored intellectual suits and Nazaryants with his
German-Russian ones, were to emerge among the bricklayers of a modern
national consciousness and identity.


				 II.


Mesrop Taghiatian (1803-1858), born in Etchmiadzin, is an impressive
protagonist, artistic, talented (besides Armenian, he had fluent
command of Greek, Latin, English and Persian), impetuous, obstinate,
determined. Throughout his life he was driven by one ambition: to
enlighten the nation through literature, publishing and the provision
of the highest standard of education then globally available. Though
as a boy taught by dedicated priests, the provincial and Church
environment in Etchmiadzin and Yerevan suffocated Taghiatian whose
intellect had been stirred by encounters with men of wealth and with
experience of Europe. An adventurous fellow he upped and went off on
travels through Djugha and India, then back to Etchmiadzin, to
Istanbul, returning to Djugha and again to India in 1839 where he
settled and was to spend most of his life.

India then featured a thriving Armenian community centred around
wealthy merchants who retained a decided Armenian national identity
despite their distance from Armenian homelands. Together with making
money they published Armenian language books on trade, business and
commodities. A portion of their profit flowed to schooling and to the
publication of periodicals and political tracts. If Armenian capital
contributed anything to the national revival, it was its support for
secular enlightenment argues Leo. Against the religious accented
patriotism of the Mekhitarists, Indo-Armenian communities acted as
bearers of secular thought shaped by British liberalism and the
heritage of the European Enlightenment. They played an important part
in introducing thinkers such as John Locke, Diderot, Voltaire and
Montesqieu into the Armenian cultural ambit.

It would profit to consider the grounds for Indo-Armenian capital's
retention of its original Armenian features. Suffice for the moment to
note that it was actually native to Armenia, before being deported by
Shah Abbas to Nor Djugha from whence it set out for more profitable
spheres further east. As it prospered in India, through many of its
personnel, its servants, some of its markets and its goods, its
family, business, religious and cultural contacts, it retained links
to its origins, links that endured even as it set firmer roots in the
Diaspora. In India furthermore Armenian capital occupied a distinct
position often in direct competition to British trading groupings. A
sense of nationality nurtured as a result was further fertilised by
continued contact with surviving Garabagh Armenian principalities,
conceived perhaps as a kernel for independent statehood in the face of
increasing British antagonism to energetic Armenian challenge.

Such was the milieu that was to stamp Taghiatian's world-view. His
primary delight was the founding and running of schools inspired by
ideas acquired whilst studying at India's British `Bishop's College'.
He was the first Armenian to run a mixed school for boys and girls and
established an Ararat Society dedicated to their advancement. A
prolific author, a poet, historian and publisher Taghiatian remained
first and foremost a teacher. His `The Patriot' (1845 -1852) focused
naturally on matters of Armenian education, but covered much more.
Translations from Lord Byron and Firdusi ran alongside criticism of
Church superstition, calls for women's emancipation, as well as
denunciation of soul hunting American missionaries engaged in
reconnaissance for US imperialism. It featured in addition critiques
of British colonialism in India and indeed of French barbarism in
Algeria.

Almost simultaneously with Abovian, Taghiatian wrote one of our first
historical novels `The Story of Vartkes' (1846), also dedicated to the
Armenian national revival, though set in ancient times and alas
written in classical Armenian. Reflecting his stay in India an epic
poem `Unu and Santibi' (1847) tells of the unlikely love of an ancient
Armenian prince and an Indian princess. Taghiatian also authored `A
History of Ancient India' (1841), a first Armenian history on a
non-Armenian subject. A volume on `Travels Among Armenians' (1847) is
rich with socio-historical information on Armenian life in the Ararat
and Syunik provinces and preserve value for modern researchers.

Untiring dedication was rewarded with renown and respect. Taghiatian
was never in want of support whether to cover debts, to acquire
printing presses or for medical help when unwell. That today he has
virtually no intellectual presence, invoked only sometimes in
histories has less to do with talent than with the fact that writing
only in classical Armenian his intellectual and artistic legacy is
beyond the reach of most. Leo unlocks some of it!


				 III.


The paucity of biographical material on Steppanos Nazaryants
(1812-1879) drove Leo to fill gaps and create context from detailed
knowledge of Khatchatour Abovian's youth that in important ways
paralleled Nazaryants' as it took both from the Caucuses to the German
educational centre in Torbat. Elevated from the stagnant waters of
Armenian education Nazaryants flourished, subjected to the influence
of Young German and Young Hegelian assaults on reaction in German
philosophy, law, literature and history. Here it was that he began to
evolve a vision for the rational and scientific education of Armenian
society.

Despite the secular milieu of his student days Nazaryants remained a
deeply religious man. Yet, he had no time for a clergy that opposed
reason and science, for Christian dogma that then prevailing expressed
but the dominance of an ignorant and self-serving clergy. Judged as
the primary culprit for the plight of the Armenian nation, Nazaryants
wrote that:

    `In matters that concern the nation the priest today has no
    role. The people need another kind of teacher one that can give
    more than men locked away in their cloisters, utterly removed from
    society.'

Nazaryants' campaign to place education on a modern footing was just
one element of a fuller assault on the backward institutions that
dominated Armenian intellectual life. In an early issue of his
flagship journal `Northern Lights' he wrote:

    `Henceforth we want no more of devious Egyptian idols claiming to
    be the only founts of knowledge. Hereafter no Chinese wall that
    would bar the flow of enlightened thought into nations. Hereafter
    let there be light, truth and freedom from the tyranny of
    Babylonian darkness.

To secure wider, popular, projection Nazaryants opted for a modern
vernacular language that would be understood by the common people. In
what was a radical step he urged the translation of the Bible into
modern Armenian, a step that would of course make it available for
critical consideration among the people (p97, 103). Denouncing
religious sectarianism that had led to mob violence against Armenian
Protestants he suggested a sense of nationality that would incorporate
all irrespective of faith.

Hostile to bombastic patriotism, Nazaryants rejected the then
widespread nonsense that Armenian was the original language of Adam
and Eve, dismissed myths of the Armenian people's Biblical origins and
challenged literal interpretations of the epic of Hayk and Bell. He
also took Armenians to task for a critical lack of community spirit,
for an extreme individualism that bred indifference to national
concerns. This absence of communal spirit together with an appalling
educational establishment, the oppression of women, a crude
materialism, widespread prejudice and superstition and ignorance of
science were, he was convinced, leading to the disintegration of
Armenian society.

For such views and for propounding comprehensive Church reform,
Nazaryants was excommunicated by the Church that also turned to the
Tsarist State for help to silence him! Yet in this opponent the Church
confronted no radical or revolutionary activist, no Nalpantian or
Raffi. Nazaryants was a thoroughly conservative reformer, a moderate
if ever there was one. He was repulsed by the atheistic trends of the
French Enlightenment, reserving particular hatred for Voltaire and the
principles of the French Revolution of 1789. On the national front his
`Northern Lights' passed in silence over the emergent Armenian
national Liberation Movement devoting not a word to one of its most
significant early moments - the 1862 Armenian Uprising in
Zeitun. Church hostility measures the depth of its own reaction and
backwardness and so also the progressive quality of Nazaryants'
thought.

Nazaryants's `Northern Lights', first published in Moscow in 1858,
despite remoteness from the concrete issues of Armenian life, was the
vigorous and uncompromising mouthpiece for his views on a modern,
scientific and rational education and history. Through commentaries on
and translations of European social science and literature and
encouragement of Armenian letters, he grouped around the journal some
of the most able thinkers of the younger generation such as Mikael
Nalpantian and later Raffi who began to give the journal a more
radical and nationalist dimension.

When financial difficulties forced the journal's closure in 1864 it
had already began to acquire a clearer democratic thrust and began
comment on the Armenian liberation movement against the Ottoman
destruction of Armenian life.  Stepanos Nazaryants never recovered
from the closure and his fading years proved to be deeply tragic.
Moving from Moscow to Tbilisi he hoped to end life as an educator in a
city with a substantial Armenian community. But he met with bitter
disappointment. A brief period as head of the Nersissian College was
marred by conflict with the clerical powers in control. After a
lifetime in Moscow he was alienated by the backwardness of life in the
Caucuses, by the appalling poverty and by the egoism of the rich. What
he believed in most, social solidarity and sense of community, public
spirit - all was lacking.

But Nazaryants had established himself as a figure of substance,
appreciated not just in Eastern Armenia but in faraway Istanbul too
then a hub for Western Armenian intellectual development. His funeral
was a mass, popular honouring. A most appropriate validation comes
from none other than Catholic Mekhitarist priest, literary critic and
historian of literature, Father Mesrop Janashian for whom Nazaryants
was `the personification of the idea of enlightenment in eastern
Armenian life.'

				* * *

The volumes are not flawless. Living in Britain, one cannot pass over
an appalling blindness to the essence of British imperialism and its
role in India. Incapable of distinguishing between the ideological
English liberal tradition and the reality of British plunder and
oppression, Leo speaks of British rule in India `bringing about a
colony of European civilisation where nations can be nourished with a
now new, free, constructive and enhancing spirit.' Despite this and
other stains, Leo's service remains of the first order.

With another three-volume biography of Krikor Ardzrouni, published in
1905, Leo bequeaths us an engrossing intellectual history of 19th
century Armenia. Taghiatyan, Nazaryants, and Ardzrouni, however
circumscribed their worldview, did more than just appropriate and
disseminate some of the best thought of the time. Though not political
revolutionaries, they were bold and courageous public intellectuals,
challenging and defying the permits of hidebound, reactionary
authority whose indifference to the public and national good was then
suffocating the nation. May Leo's revived heroes inspire a comparable
daring and audacity today!


--
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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