Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 07/06/2016


GRIGOR NAREKATSI AND THE ARMENIAN RENAISSANCE

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 6, 2016

By Eddie Arnavoudian


This is the text of a talk I gave on `Grigor Narekatsi and the 10-14th
Century Armenian Renaissance'. It was delivered on Sunday 13 March at
`Centre for Armenian Information & Advice' (CAIA) in London and was one
in a series on `Armenian History, Culture and Heritage' enriched by many
speakers and participants.

I open with thanks to the Centre and to the Centre Director Misak Ohanian
in particular for inviting me to speak. It is an immense pleasure and a
challenge too. I feel here that I may have bitten off more than I can
chew! Let us see!

More than a thousand years ago Grigor of Narek in his `Book of
Lamentations' denounced `the kings of this world', that is the heads of
states of his time, who he said have proved themselves:
    `... to be skilled only in the art of killing and death/Not in
    that of giving life.' (p158)

Narek at once condemns and demands. They kill when they should be
ensuring peace, stability, prosperity and well-being, for what after all
is giving life? Today we too perhaps should charge and demand. One
thousand years on and things are not very different. Our heads of state
wage ruthless war, preside over economic dislocation, environmental
catastrophe, huge social inequality, growing poverty and homelessness.
Simultaneously modern kings legalise massive corporate tax evasion
that depletes national treasuries! Their sin and vice, as Narekatsi
would put it, are countless!

And all this runs together with the elimination from public discourse of
any vision or hope for a future that is secure and better for all.  In
these times can the history of the 10th-14th century Armenian Renaissance,
or the work of a 10th century mystic poet, have any meaning for us?
Can it be of any relevance even to us Diasporan Armenians who are
inevitably in transition to being non-Armenian? I believe it can and
in more ways than one!


I. BACKGROUND TO THE ARMENIAN RENAISSANCE

Across the 10th to the 13th centuries sandwiched between Byzantine,
Seljuk and Mongol invasion, Armenia witnessed moments of remarkable
economic and social development. These were the centuries of the
Bagratouni Monarchy that was to collapse in 1046, it was the era of the
new Armenian Cilician Monarchy that lasted from 1080 to 1375. It was the
time of the stubborn survival of post-Bagratouni Armenian principalities
in north and east Armenia among them the Zakarian, Broshian and Orbellian
principalities.

During the late 9th and 10th centuries, known as the Bagratouni Age,
Armenia became a significant actor in regional and international trade.
With strategically placed highways and transit points it was an important
component of an expanding international trading network. Armenian
traders and merchants developed links across the globe stretching from
Genoa to China. Agriculture, mining, metallurgy and other urban crafts
also grew to meet both domestic and international demand.

Wealth and prosperity even in war torn times generated a flourish of
cultural, intellectual and artistic life that we now call the Armenian
Renaissance.  At its core was the flowering of a new secular humanism. It
was an era of the recovery of principles of rational thought and of
readiness to question and criticise prevailing ideological tradition and
authority. Intellectual and artistic sensibility escaping the grip of
theological dogma, of irrational obscurantism and of accumulated
prejudice began to be used as instruments of criticism and of secular
emancipation.

Time allows only the broadest overview. I shall focus on two dominant
features of the Armenian Renaissance, on its principles of rational
thought and its social criticism, both outstanding by any standards -
national or international. But before these, a suggestion of the wider
cultural context!

Anyone with even marginal familiarity with the legacy of Armenian
monastic institutions from this period will find risible claims that they
were nothing but dens of irrationalism and prejudice! Many were indeed. A
selfish Church hierarchy then ruled Armenian intellectual and cultural
life intent on securing blind obedience and submission to its prejudice
and obscurantism. But beyond the dominant, the best of Armenian monastic
institutions were something different! In Kars, Ani, Sassoon, Van, Datev,
Gladztor and elsewhere at certain moments in history monasteries were
academic centres, universities, libraries and hubs for the sciences and
the arts, centres of manuscript publishing, studios for painting.
Syllabuses besides the obligatory theology included mathematics, music,
geography, biology, astronomy, physics, morality, economics, politics,
aesthetics and rhetoric. Texts included the best available in Armenian,
Greek and Arabic among them works from Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Pilon,
Armenian philosopher Yeznig, scientist Shiragatzi and others.

Monasteries were workshops for architects whose glorious accomplishments
are evident today in the remnants of Ani, the capital of the Bagratouni
dynasty. In the 10th century this `city of a 1001 Churches' had a
population of 100,000. London was then a small town of some 5-10,000.
Another architectural legacy is the marvel of Akhtamar in Lake Van. We
can cite many more that stubbornly survive calculated destruction in
Turkey and wanton neglect in Armenia too!

In literature poet Hovaness Yerzengatzi (died 1294) is a fine example of
a liberated secular and humanist outlook. Of note, unlike Bocaccio and
other contemporary European writers in Yerzengatzi's poetry women appear
not just as objects of men's passion but as individuals in themselves
capable of experiencing love for themselves. Furthermore underlining his
humanism is a poem about a Christian priest's son falling in love with
the daughter of a Muslim Mullah. Here acknowledged is love that
transcends the religious and national divide!

The exaltation of everyday life free of the grip of Church asceticism and
tradition is evident even in miniature painting, decorative sculpture and
ornamentation. Miniature paintings patterned into Armenian biblical and
religious manuscripts reproduce a remarkable pictorial history of secular
life - 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 images of popular entertainment,
theatre, music and dance, sports, hunting. A striking 12th century image
suggesting the status of intellectual work is an early form of a fountain
pen with a small ink pellet fitted just above the nib of the writing
quill.


II. RATIONAL THOUGHT AND CRITICAL THOUGHT

Let us turn now to philosophy and social criticism.

One cannot but be overwhelmed with excitement on being introduced to the
thought of John the Philosopher, Krikor Makistros, Hovhan Orodnetzi,
Grigor of Datev, Vahram Rabbouni and others. Some two centuries in
advance of the English empiricists headed by Francis Bacon they had begun
to challenge irrational and obscurantist limits on human thought. They
began recovering and formulating some of the central principles of
rational, empirical thinking that would not tolerate blind faith or
arbitrary authority that curtailed knowledge to protect narrow, hidebound
and illegitimate interests.

John the Philosopher (died 1129) for example insisted that whatever dogma
might say:

    '...no assertion can be accepted without analysis and
    experimentation... Labour and effort are necessary to establish
    the truth of a belief or a claim. Truth does not produce the
    object but is derived from an examination of the object.'

Like the later European rationalists Hovan Orodnetzi (1315-1386) argued
that 'nature is the first cause' of knowledge and truth. Truth is not
given. It is derived from observation, from rational examination. Krikor
Datevatzi (1346-1409) affirmed:

    '...that nature is prior to knowledge. Knowledge flows from the
    object, not the object from knowledge and that the truth of any
    assertion has to be proved by the study of the thing. '

It was liberating! The word of King, Bishop and priest should not be
taken for granted. Think for yourself, criticise, demand evidence!  Here
Armenian thinkers contributed their bit to safeguarding methodological
principles of rational thinking that today are under wide assault.

The recovery of principles of independent rational thinking served to
fortify the criticism of social life that was a second defining feature
of the Armenian Renaissance. Its best minds were never silent in the face
of corrupt elites and the social decay they presided over. Again I can
give only a few examples.

Explaining the rapid collapse of the Bagratouni state despite all its
accomplishments, 11th century historian Arisdaghes Lasdivertzi (died
c1080) exposes a rotten core, a rotten leadership. With the Bagratounis
he writes a new type of king and elite was emerging, a king and elite
that reminds us of our own!

    `The law of justice has been replaced with injustice. The love of
silver is now more valued that love of God. Money not Christ is the
object of worship. As a result all sense of order is replaced bychaos.
Princes became the accomplices of thieves and the servants to money. They
became vengeful. Judges became venal and in return for bribes abused
justice and did not defend the rights of orphans.

Lasdivertzi continues with an accurate description of social polarities:

    `The rich have accumulated wealth by appropriating the fields and
    lands of their neighbouring poor, merchants grew rich on the back of
    usury and interest.'

Behind Ani's brilliant fade was a society with no common or collective
interest. It was too enfeebled and lacking in cohesion to meet Greek and
Seljuk-Turkish offensives. Lasdivertzi puts it well when explaining the
terrible destiny visited upon Ani:

    `It is the fate of all cities built with the blood of the poor. It is
    the fate of all cities grown sumptuous through the sweat of the poor.
    It is the fate of cities whose noble houses have been fortified with
    usury and injustice and whose owners have no compassion for the poor
    or the homeless and care only for their hedonistic pleasures.'

In similar vein 12th century thinker, Nerses Lambronetzi (1153-1198) from
Cilicia denounced the Church hierarchy - a faction of the elite - and its
privatisation of Church property.

    `Well before their death (he writes) bishops already treat their
    bishoprics as private property and bequeath it to their children...We
    bishops have become thieves and wolves and we do violence against the
    people... The wealthy swallowed up the poor...seizing their homes and
    their fields and making these their own property.'

Vartan Aykegtzi in the 13th century was equally passionate as he cried
out to God:

    `Why have you made men thus...In the same way as in the oceans the
    big fish swallow up the small, in this world the well-to-do swallow
    up the poor... (who have no defence)...as gold sneaks silently into
    the courthouse and seduces the judges.'

Startlingly, on another level, Mekhitar Kosh (1120-1213) the founder of
Armenian jurisprudence reminding us of the later Rousseau traced such
injustices, such inequality and poverty back to an unequal division of
natural resources, to the monopolisation that is of land and water by the
few.

Oh how modern and contemporary such thinkers sound!

Speaking of social criticism, one cannot avoid mention of historian
Tovmas Ourhayetzi's (died 1144) evaluation of the European Crusades. In
his `Chronicle' the appreciation fluctuates but the overall verdict is
unmistakable. Initial illusions of the Crusaders as Christian saviours
are shattered by their violent and conquering against all irrespective of
nationality or religion. The latter part of `The Chronicle' indeed is a
catalogue of Crusader greed, plunder, torture, maiming and slaughter.
Crusaders resorted to `blinding' people `and readily spilt innocent
blood.' They `attempt to gouge out the eyes of the Armenian archbishop'.
'There was not an evil deed' that they `did not commit against the
populace.'

Such thinkers represented a new humanist trend. Concerned with the
afterlife they were also concerned with transforming life on earth These
Renaissance thinkers did not sit in arid academia. They were not
indifferent to the plight and suffering of society! Nerses Shnorhali
(1102-1173) also from Cilicia makes his point well.

    `Faith (in God) unaccompanied by action cannot transform the person
    into a house for God. Faith without action, and action without faith,
    both are death...It is `impossible...to be at peace with God, when
    one is not at peace with men.'

A refreshing contrast to the extending irrational pessimism of today!

In addition to that sense of pride in our humanity that such history
generate, a pride that can engender confidence in the face of
adversity...:

 * Knowledge of this period offers us Armenians a more balanced sense of
   identity, one much richer, broader, more human and complete than the
   vision of the Armenian as eternal victim in their own homeland, as a
   bent and submissive mass driven out of their homeland and destroyed by
   Genocide.
 * Knowledge also serves as a refutation of Turkish state falsification
   of Armenian history, a falsification designed to write Armenians out
   of the history of Asia Minor so that they can better prosecute their
   reactionary nationalist and chauvinist campaign not just against
   Armenians but all national minorities within the borders of Turkey!
 * Knowledge of the Armenian Renaissance also contributes to the
   refutation of Eurocentrism, that though much discredited is still
   alive proclaiming Europe as the fount of all reason!


III. THE HIGHEST PEAK AT THE DAWN

The highest artistic peak of the Armenian Renaissance, its most
magnificent poetic monument, a triumph of rational thought and social
criticism appears at its very beginning. It appears in the form of an
epic poem entitled `The Book of Lamentations', written by Grigory of
Narek. Narek (952-1002c) was a monk, a mystic, a recluse in the
Monastery of Narek, at the time a famous centre of learning above the
shores of Lake Van.

The `Book of Lamentations' consists of 95 prayers or roughly translated
of `Conversations with God from the depths of the heart'. They are
extensive confessions of sin, relentless, unending confessions of guilt,
pain and remorse by a devout Christian. They are pleadings for and for
strength to live a life of virtue. But that only describes one aspect.

Narek lived in an age of transition marked by immense contradictions and
violent oppositions. He witnessed the peak of an Armenian revival in the
Bagratouni era and the beginning of its decline. This was a period of
accumulating fortunes, of conspicuous consumption, of indulgence and
hedonism too. But it was also an age of expropriation, of robbery,
cheating, theft as well as impoverishment. It was an era of social and
religious turmoil and discontent manifest in the Tontrag movement, a
powerful plebeian social movement against the Church hierarchy.

Narek's absorbed all these contradictions into himself. He compressed
them into poetry that I dare not read out for fear of killing its
wonder. It is poetry that is at once a cry of pain and desolation as well
as a surge of hope and confidence.

The `Book of Lamentations', like all great literature, is an immense
grappling with the human condition, a profound effort to engage with both
the social and spiritual suffering and the ambitions of men and women. It
is indeed nothing short of a titanic struggle for a new universal
man/woman.

Conceived of as a ship of salvation for spirits in crisis `The Book of
Lamentations is offered to all and everyone. It is offered as a `cure to
the ills of both the soul and the body'. It is offered with the
conviction that all can live a life `free of corruption' that all `can be
fortified even here upon earth'. It is offered `to the rational ones of
all ages/and of all races upon this earth'. And remarkable for the 10th
century, it is addressed explicitly to woman as well as man. Women too
are created in God's `glorious image' and share his `sublime likeness'.

Narek speaks for all and desires the salvation of all.  Nation, race,
religion, gender do not define his ambition for humanity and society. The
entire epic is animated in addition by a tremendous passion of social
solidarity for all humanity.

`I am everyone and what is in me is in everyone.' He makes no distinction
or qualification. If `my rational offering is to succeed' he says to God
then `others must succeed with me, others must be blessed even before me
(p10).'  He explicitly urges salvation even `for my enemies' that is
enemies of his religious faith - Muslims, Buddhists, pagans! `Do not
annihilate' even those who `claw, sting and bite me'! In a leap of daring
Narek pleads for salvation even for the dead already consigned to eternal
damnation! Have mercy on all souls he cries and more so on those souls
that lost all hope of life, those who were unprepared before they entered
the sleep of eternity (p270).

What is the nature of this salvation? It is spiritual indeed. But it is
also social salvation. In Narek the two are never separated!


IV. NAREK - A CHOMSKY AND DOSTOYEVSKY FOR ALL TIMES

Narek is at once Dostoyevsky and Noam Chomsky, at once a delver into the
depth of the suffering human soul and a critic of men and women in their
social relations. In both he is driven by an ambition for human release
from what has become in fact a hell on earth.

In the endless incantation that lays bare all human sin before his God
sin appears fundamentally as social lapse. Sin and vice appear as
deformed, exploitative, unjust and immoral social behaviour, as failures
of collective and individual social responsibility.  Sin and vice arise
out of concrete, real social relations, all depicted with fierce poetic
precision. And they cause intense emotional, psychological, spiritual
suffering.

Shaping the world in which he begins his mediations is society itself,
`the aristocrats and the peasants', the `lordly and the commoner', `the
eminent and the lowly', the `horsemen and the footman', the `citizens and
the rustics'. At the very bottom are the `poor' and the `slaves', as well
as the universally hated tax collector. It is into this society that
Narek peers. And what does he see in this society?

He sees men and women who have `forgotten the gift of life'. He sees a
wasteland of sinners and their sins, of `arrogant kings', of ` usurer and
their victims', `plunderers with their accomplices', `tyrants with their
bandits', `the arrogant with his armed men' `the chief brigand with his
mob', `the wild beast with its whelps', the `biter with the bitten and `
the corrupter with his like'.

He sees a world inhabited by the inauthentic, by men and women who fail
to act in accord with duty and morality. It is a world of sin and
sinners, among them `reluctant fighters', `treasonous soldiers',
`officious ministers', `haughty clerks', `faithless worshipers',
`deranged teachers'. It is a world of sinning `dishonest secretaries',
`corrupt officials', `stingy bosses', `crooked supervisors', `gluttonous
exploiters', `duplicitous treasurers'.

And at its core, as the fount of all this misery Narek sees the triumph
of selfish egoism over collective human solidarity. This egoism he says
`deserves burning' in the fires of hell for it does `not reach out with
love to another bent with woe and suffering', it does not `extend a
helping hand to the unfortunate who fell to catastrophe' (p56).

This veritable encyclopaedia of social sin is at the same time an
encyclopaedia of self-hatred and self-loathing, of wilful failure, of
weakness, wastefulness and of bombast that conceals only inner emptiness.
In it we can all recognises aspects and moments of ourselves!

In such a world `polluted' and `despoiled' by sin and vice man/woman is
diminished. The `fountain of life runs dry' `the tyrant's rust continues
to corrode my soul!' `A rational being I am infected with leprosy
condemned to forever scratch myself. ' I am `the forsaken tabernacle on
the verge of collapse', `the broken lock of a door', `the useless coin
buried beneath the soil'; I am `olive oil spilt over the dung-covered
square', `milk poured on piles of ash'. `I am a tree rich with leaves but
fruitless' `I am captain of a ship wrecked and annihilated in a sea
storm.

We live alienated from ourselves suffering insecurity, gripped by fear,
hesitation, trepidation, enduring bitter spiritual and bodily pain. `If a
hand is raised I bend/ If I see a small scarecrow I shake/ If I hear a
light noise, I start/If I be summoned for questioning I grow silent/If I
justly be examined, I become numb.' I am `enslaved and enchained'; I am
victim to the `whirlwinds of miserable impoverishment.'

To express adequately the plight of the soul stricken by grief and
remorse Narek returns again and again to images and metaphors from the
suffering of the most oppressed in society. Only the suffering of the
powerless, of slaves, of victims of predators and usurers, victims of
hypocritical judges and officials, only the suffering of the most abused,
seem to measures adequately the misery of his spirit.

Put aside the hell of an afterlife, here we have, as a result of sin and
vice a living hell on earth (p74). Elaborate on Hell and eternal
damnation - see Note 3

The endless confession of sin, the endless cry of guilt and pain that
generates this picture of life as hell on earth is never ascetic
self-flagellation. It is self-examination, yes passionate and ruthlessly
frank but always an exercise of mind `a rational sacrifice'. It is a
prelude and a preparation for action. For confession, remorse, guilt and
repentance are useless without action. God `is not deceived by words' he
is not `bribed by poetry'. He cares only for action' Narek tells us.

To truly repent means to act, to begin living virtuously, to live
well. And from the nature of sin and vice that we have seen, in addition
to all else, to live well, to live without sin means to live free of
social misdeed, social injustice, to live without causing poverty,
oppression, usury, enslavement, debt, physical maiming. It is to live in
accord with principles of reason, morality and social solidarity.
Elaborate on reason and morality, see Note 1

Narek has profound confidence that we can do this.

Narek's elixir for recovery from this social and spiritual catastrophe is
offered of course in a Christian chalice shaped by notions of Divine
creation, human sin, confession, forgiveness and redemption. He was a
devout believer and this we should never forget. The text is etched with
religious passions, sensibilities and allusions. It is structured in many
ways by the Bible, by Biblical reference and quotation. And it is often
even marked by a world hating religious asceticism and by instances of
Christian misogyny. Yet the potion and the prescription offered, and that
in absolutely majestic and breath taking poetry, is mixed from the widest
knowledge of life and society, from the widest, deepest and most intense
feeling and experience for human pain and the human dream.

The vastness, the all-embracing detail of life and of life's essence
gives `The Book of Lamentations' a reach beyond the limits of its obvious
Christian religious inspiration. Like all great poetry, its feeling for
life enables a diversity of readings, a broad, universal appreciation. In
its incessant flow of arresting, eye-opening image and metaphor, rhythm
and linguistic music all distinctions between social and individual,
between spiritual and physical vanish. We see before us men and women as
a single whole, men and women as a totality of intellectual, emotional,
spiritual, individual and social being, of men and women suffering and
distraught in the world in which they live.

But we also see, and here as an opposition to vice and sin that has made
a catastrophe of life, we see a vision of human possibility, of human
grandeur, of human dream and ambition and an assertion that it is worth
striving for this dream.


V. MAN/WOMAN AS RATIONAL BEING WITH DIVINE POTENTIAL

Narek has no truck with notions of human destiny pre-ordained by powers
beyond our control. The invisible hand, whether it be that of the God he
believes in or the God of our day, `the invisible hand of the market' has
no place in his view. Here there is no pre-destined original sin driving
us to destruction.

We are the makers of our own destiny. The Darwinian jungle we live in has
been developed by ourselves alone. `I of my own will have opened the
abyss of perdition'. `You with your own hands built for yourself a
dungeon with no door'. `With my own very hands and from all directions
did I totally obstruct and block every means of living life.' (p17, 24,
86) I `did not build sturdy walls and neither did I build a roof to
protect against the violent storms (p216).'

At root of our failure is our rejection of reason and rational thought
and judgement, of the `defeat of my reason and rationality (p78)'. We
have built our house `upon sands of foolishness'. I have `failed to stand
up as a human being /for I did not use my rational mind'. We have
betrayed our better essence. `I became a traitor to myself, heartless,
thoughtless and stupid, a destroyer of mine own being.'

And what is this being? Against the bleakest of human landscapes he has
shown, Narek nevertheless has a vision of a potentially grand and noble
human being, a vision that he believed could actually be realised!
BB66(1) Feuerbach, a 19th century philosopher, claimed that through
religion an alienated and powerless humanity projects its own immense
unrealised potentials on to an omnipotent deity of its own invention.
Amazingly, eight centuries earlier Narek appears to be a step ahead
suggesting that humanity has the ability to re-appropriate a Divine-like
potential, to become indeed like the God of Narek's conception - decent,
virtuous, good and honourable in our individual and our social
relations, one who treasures solidarity and generosity to humanity! I do
not exaggerate!


Men and women writes Narekatzi are created `adorned with reason',
`radiant with breathing', `enriched in mind', increased in wisdom' and
`fortified in intellect'. In essence the human being is a `glorious
image' of God', a ` likeness of thy majesty', `the gracious flower' of
God's `charm' and the `stately substance of His wealth'. Human beings are
in fact extensions of the Divine. They are emanations of Divine
omnipotence. Pondering human possibility and potential at one point Narek
cries out that `even though it strikes me with terror to say so' `we also
are able to become god/ Possessed with his virtues and abilities fine...'

What are these God-like virtues and these abilities that have in our
essence and that we want for ourselves as living beings? Narekatsi's
presentation of them is truly astounding for its humanism, its
universalism, its passion for human solidarity, its modernity and its
vision.

The Divine that Grigor of Narek aspires all to be is recognisably human
and humane, almost a human dream of utopia, a life without contradiction,
of ease, serenity and peace that we dream of. God is and so we too seek
to be:

    `Unshadowed dawn, dazzling beam, avowed light ... undoubted
    confidence, unwavering repose,

    The taste of charm, the cup of enchantment;

    ...lauded refuge, interminable grace, inexhaustible treasure;
    Unpolluted rain; dew sprinkled at break of day; Ubiquitous remedy;
    gratuitous cure; redoubled health; ...

    king who honourest the slaves protector who lovest the poor.'


The God that Narek urges us to be at one with, to emulate also an
`untouchable refuge', `the cancellation of debt', `the cure of need' and
the `personification of hope'. This God even possesses qualities of
distributive justice of egalitarianism. God is `enriched hugely by
giving, not by taking', not `by accumulating but by sharing', `not by
piling and storing' but `by spreading'. (p98) It is such a humane God
that we seek to be at one with!


Even at the point of catastrophe, a catastrophe that we are perhaps
experiencing today, even though we have fallen `into the bottomless pit
of perdition' we possess `still glimmering relics' of our potential `as a
spark of light preserved in the mind and the soul...'

This spark of life is indestructible for it is part of our very human
essence. Critical, rational self-examination, honest confession without
self-deceit will enable us to grasp not just our tragedy but this
potential too.  Indeed a rational investigation of history reveals this
potential.

    `In times past the wayward
    changed their ways by their own efforts
    turning earthen vessels into gold and
    etching a princely image of our heavenly model
    in majestic, imperishable and irreplaceable relief.'

Then there is no reason to assume that today we cannot do the same.

We need only note the huge technological advance, huge production of
wealth, travel to moon and mars, our ability to glimpse the edge of the
universe to convince ourselves of our human potential

Defying all claims of impotence in the face of disaster through rational
and moral self-knowledge and on the wings of ambition unleashed by
self-examination man/woman can recover and rise, one can escape hell, can
escape life as living death.

Thus throughout his epic besides the listing of sin there is also an
overriding refrain of triumph, of hope despite catastrophe, of a search
to recover our potential: I am human, but have become inhuman; I am
virtuous but have become vice-ridden. I am saintly but have become
satanic. I am rational but have become irrational; I am moral, but have
become immoral. But...Though I have failed I can still succeed. Though I
am degraded I can yet become noble. I have lost myself but I will recover
myself. BB15(1)

Through my rational, honest efforts:

    `I who was ruined, now stand erect
    I was wretched and am victorious
    I had erred and have reverted to life
    I was a lowly-evil doer, and am in hope
    I was betrayed to death, and am living.


VI.

Nothing however is possible without faith. Faith is a cornerstone.

    `Whosoever calls out the Lord's name will live'.  All things are
    possible to him that believeth.

Narek indeed hopes that his `Book of Lamentations' will be an `edifice, a
monument of faith', a compass a map that can help us struggle and strive.

What is this faith? Yes, it is faith and confidence in God.

But in the same measure it is faith and confidence in ourselves as
living human beings. We are made in the image of God and so in our very
essence, indestructibly we possess something of Divine potential!  Faith
furthermore is not blind and passive subjugation to external authority.
It is built upon `clarity of vision and wisdom'. It is born,
consolidated and reinforced by the exercise of reason and conscience
(Elaborate on Reason and Morality - see Note 1). Such clarity of vision
and wisdom born of meditation and confession generates `faith in that
change through which the sinner will be redeemed' (p30).

There is significance too in Narek's repeated insistence that the God in
whom he urges us to have faith is defined primarily by a love of
humanity. The project of human salvation is indeed God's main
business. God is `worthy' `of the greatest praise' when He `privileges
the love of humanity'. If we have faith in such a God, if we appeal for
forgiveness, for hope and for strength to live free of sin, to be
virtuous such, such an appeal cannot be fruitfless. Faith in such a God
must automatically produce the strength confidence necessary to overcome,
to be cleansed, to recover the ability to live virtuously, to become in
fact a new man/woman! For such a god by definition will grant us this
strength. As for it and you have it! Elaborate on Forgiveness - see Note 2

BB61(3), BB62(2) Reading Narek we cannot but involuntarily recall Jean
Jacques Rousseau who 800 years after this Armenian Christian priest
began his own search for the authentic man/woman degraded and buried
among the ruins of destructive civilisation. And dare one say we are
reminded even of Che Guevara who in the 20th century and in the name of
a more humane socialism described his own vision in the slogan of the
`New Man/Woman' freed of egoism and violence borne of unequal society.

This is not a secular imposition on a religious text. Not by any
means. It is grand poetry rich with life and open to reading by all. To
show how I end with three appreciations - from a pantheist, from an
atheist and a Christian Bishop!

BB67(3) `It is not the Armenian tongue that speaks in `The Book of
Lamentation', says pantheist poet Hovanness Toumanian. `It is not the
mouth that narrates. It is the burning heart that flames through the
land. It is the suffering soul that cries out to the heavens. 'Yet', adds
Levon Shant the atheist, these poems are `not laments but protests', not
`self-abasement but revolt'.  They are `not downward collapses into the
abyss but upward flights of powerful human will.'  Grigor of Narek adds
Bishop Garegin, `was a fantastic optimist' a `well-armed warrior' whose
epic `is born not of the spirit of defeat but that of victory.'

`The Book of Lamentations' is truly a revolt against the direness of the
human condition, against a condition of human sinfulness. With all its
prayer and contemplation, with all its meditation and confession, even
with its humble beseeching, it is at the same time a passionate,
turbulent, uncompromising rage against failure, against a sick
society. It is a determined insistence that we can and must act to
change.

In our time when faith in man/woman and their future, let alone the `new
person' has been shredded by endless wars, genocide, social
disintegration, the decay of morality and collective solidarity and the
triumph of an ugly egotistical individualism. To all of this `The Book
of Lamentation is a riposte, a riposte to pessimism, a polemic against
despair and a passion against surrender.  Can it give us strength and
confidence to clear our minds of the cotton wool pumped in by the media,
to give us confidence to challenge, to criticise and to overcome? Read
it! It is available in many languages.

For those who want additional material on Grigor or Narek or the Armenian
Renaissance visit Groong/Armenian News Network's The Critical Corner:
http://www.groong.org/tcc/index.html Notes for discussion

1.  Reason and Morality:

In Narek Reason and rationality is bound up with morality. Reason is
offended by moral lapse for moral lapse, that is sin and vice cause
suffering and pain to the individual and the collective. BB30(10)
Morality furthermore is not external, not instruction from without but is
within. Reason and morality are intertwined. Morality is guide to the
good life without vice and therefore without suffering, a guide drawn out
by reason. Reason includes this morality for reason is the search, the
affirmation of the possibility of life without suffering.

2.  Forgiveness:

It is to be returned to one's essence, to be restored to pristine essence
and thus to begin again, to begin to live well. BB16(3)

3.  Hell:

It is the moment of death, the moment of passing when life rolls out
before one and in the case of the vice-ridden the despair, the futile
despair of a life wasted, of futile life, of a life that failed to fulfil
its potential. It is eternal damnation at the last moment of life, not
the afterlife. It is at this point, at this last moment of life, at the
point of death that nothing can be done anymore. You die with a sense of
waste and despair.

4.  Concept of life and death:

Life is living in virtue, in harmony and serenity. Death is living in
vice and sinfulness. The society Narek describes is a living death and
the individual is a dead person, that is one not living in accord with
her/his potential!

5.  Mysticism:

Christian, Buddhist, Brahman all seek serenity and repose outside
society, they abjure and reject it, considering them impediments to
spiritual fulfilment. This is not so with Narek. He seeks serenity and
fulfilment as a complete human being, in society, in the individual and
the spiritual.


--
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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