Notes for a reading of the ‘Book of Lamentations’ by Narek
Armenian News Network / Groong
November 7, 2016
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Reading Narek: One
As a contribution to an imaginary Book Club devoted to reading Narek’s ‘The Book of Lamentations’ I offer, almost unedited, notes that I made in the course of a second appreciation of this epic. To allow meaning to unfold through each stage of reading I tried to avoid inferences based on an acquaintance with the entire text. But this is not of course altogether possible!
Narek (952-1002c) was a monk who lived and worked in the Monastery of Narek, then a famous centre of learning above the shores of Lake Van. His ‘Book of Lamentations’ (Մատեան Ողբերգութեան) consists of 95 Elegies (Բան) or ‘Conversations with God from the depths of the heart’ (‘Ի խորոց սրտի խոսք Աստծո հետ’). They are turbulent confessions of sin, relentless, unending admittance of guilt, and remorse by a devout Christian. They beseech forgiveness and the strength to live virtuously. But this private spiritual devotion describes only one dimension of the work.
Narek lived in an age of transition marked by immense contradictions and violent oppositions. He witnessed the peak of an Armenian revival in the 9th century 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 establishment.
Narek absorbed all these contradictions into himself. He compressed them into poetry that is at once a cry of pain and desolation as well as a surge of hope and confidence for a more humane future for all. Pre-dating Dante, Narek delves into the individual’s vast inner world of emotional, spiritual and moral anxiety, torture, desire and striving. Through meditation and confession he brings man/woman to consciousness of her/his own independent spirit and will, to a recognition of her/his own ability and power to strive for unimaginable heights.
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A. Elegies 1-5
Narek is a man for all times, a man especially for our deeply troubled times. This is clear from the first five Elegies, in the first 18 pages, that harbour and define the outline of Narek’s entire vision and endeavour. The ‘Book of Lamentations’ is an examination of the human condition. It is a diagnosis and a prescription for a better life for all, for individual and for society. We inhabit a world in dire crisis, degraded and overcome by vice and misdeed. To prevent further catastrophic ruination, to cure untold misery stock must be taken of what we are and what we have made of ourselves. In our essence we are god-like, rational and glorious. But in our action we have defiled ourselves. Now on the brink we must pull back, grasp the character and the enormity of our corruption. Narek’s ‘words unto God from the depths of the heart’, at once prayer, confession and meditation, are the taking of stock, the evaluation. They are the means and the process of acquiring a rational consciousness of what we are and where we stand. They are a first effort to seize control of life!
Though a mystic’s confession to God these lamentations are no uncontrolled or despairing outbursts of passive Christian guilt and remorse. Yes, the ‘Book of Lamentations’ is a cry of pain, the outpouring of a tortured soul. But swept with passion and poetry the entire epic is an exercise of mind and reason. The ‘Book of Lamentations’ is offered as a ‘rational sacrifice’, (‘բանական զոհաբերութիւն’), as ‘the fruit of the ardent desires’ of ‘a troubled mind’ (‘սասանուած մտքի ճենճերող իղձերի պտուղ’ - p1). With dense and flamboyant imagery Narek opening up the devastated emotional, spiritual and psychological landscape of his being, remains in intellectual and rational command.
Fully conscious of how low he has sunk, Narek sets out to recover, sets to battle tides of degeneration and so avoid ‘eternal shame’ (‘ամոթն հավիտենական’ - p2). Clouds of terrible despair and surrender certainly blow. But rational consideration of the human condition and of the essential nature of man/woman fires in Narek an unquenchable confidence.
Hope, confidence and determination flow from the deepest conviction, from the surest sense that man/woman is not irreversibly flawed. In essence we are actually eternally contradictory. Ever present within us ‘tumultuous waves of opposing forces ‘of good and evil gather with their counsel’ (‘տագնապախրով ալեկոծումներ ներհակ ուժերի’ ‘չար ու բարի խորհուրդներն ահա խմբուած բազմութեամբ’ - p2). The challenge, through rational self-enlightenment is to secure an enduring supremacy of the virtuous that is part of our essential being.
Now we are terribly reduced, become a ‘smashed and broken door and lock’ (‘խորտակուած դռնով ու փականքներովփ – p4). ‘Grapes were expected’ of man/woman but s/he ‘produced thorns instead’ (հուսացիր խաղող փոխարենը ընձյուղեցի փուշ’). The collapse appears complete, ‘the assassin’s storehouse is filled, and the guardian’s treasure is plundered (‘Մահ տարածողի մթերանոցը լցուած է բերքով, եւ կողոպտուած է գանձն ստեղծողի’), ‘the fountain of life is sealed and the tyrant’s venom engulfs my pestilent being’ (‘Կենաց աղբյուրս խցվել է անդարձ, գորոզի ժանգն է ժամանել ժանտիս’ - p13, 16-17).
We have squandered, wasted and destroyed. The ‘rational edifice’ of man/woman is as a result ‘infected with leprosy, «բանական շենք...վարակուած ժանտ բորոտութեամբ’ - p4). But that which has been lost can be regained. Of this Narek is certain, for built into the very fibre of our being are qualities that are God-like, that are akin to omnipotence.
As starting point Narek affirms man/woman’s possession of god-like potential! Though ‘earthbound and preoccupied with the cares of everyday existence’ (‘ես մարդ եմ երկրածին, անկայուն կեանքի հոգսերով տարված’ - p14), God, ‘made me in his glorious image’, he ‘favoured …me with his subline likeness’ (‘Դու ստեղծեցիր ինծ քո պանծալի պատկերոով, վեհիդ նմանողութեամբ օժանդակելով…’ - p15). As humans we are ‘enriched with thought’ (‘մտքով ճոխացրիր’), ‘cultivated with wisdom’ (‘աճեցրիր իմաստութեամբ’), ‘established with ingenuity’ (‘հանճարով օժտած’) and ‘endowed with thinking souls’ (‘համադրեցիր բանական ոգով’) We are further ‘embellished with sovereign individuality’ (‘պճնեցիր անձնիշխանական գոյով’ –p15). Through history we have deformed and distorted ourselves, we have buried our gold beneath the muds of vice. But as a function of an aspect of our positive essence we retain the potential and possibility to recover.
There is nothing uniquely Christian in Narek’s attribution of Divine, superhuman qualities to men and women. It is common across history, across all societies, cultures and religions. Every era produces its own vision of supermen and superwomen – look at our modern comic books, at some of our science fiction, at our striving to reach for Mars and beyond! Perhaps the ‘superhuman’ in all of its diverse historic forms is the way we register possibilities and potentials that appear ceaselessly thwarted by the experience of life. The ‘Book of Lamentations’ written by a ‘rational pleader’ (‘բանական աղաչավոր’) is Narek’s manifesto for the recovery and the realisation of some of these best possibilities.
Though immersed in meditation and thought, Grigor of Narek is a man of action. Meditation is but a prelude to action. Mere thought and words, passive remorse and penance are utterly useless. God ‘cares only for deeds and is not taken in by words’ (‘գործով է գրավվում միայն եւ չի կաշառվում բանաստեղծութեամբ’ - p3). Narek is intent on action to transform life and human relations here and now. HHis search is for the strength and will to live a correct life here on earth. ‘Give heart to the abandoned’ (‘Սիրտ տուր զրկուածիս’), ‘strength to the wearied’ (‘ուժ դալկացածիս’) so that s/he can rise again and live as truly human!
Narek’s determination is individual and social, a reformation and transformation of himself and of society. His ambition is for the whole of society whose class structure he grasps comprehensively at the very opening (Elegy 3, b, Բան Գ.բ). ‘This new book of lamentations’ ‘is sung unto the rational ones of all ages and of all races upon this earth’ (‘Նորակերտ մատյանն այս ողբերգության...այս երկրի վրայ հաստատված բոլոր բանականներին’ – p9). It tells of ‘the diverse passions of all (‘ամենատարբեր կրքերն ամէնքի’). Narek insists that if this ‘rational offering’ (‘նվիրաբերումն իմ այս բանական’) is to succeed, then ‘together with me others should be gifted even before me’ (‘թող ինծ հետ նաև, ինծանից առաջ, այլոցն ընծայվի - p10).
Passages of humanist affirmation, of rich social solidarity (p10-11) end with the hope that this ‘Book of Lamentations that I have started to write…be a life-giving salve for the sufferings of body and soul’ (‘կենաց դեղ...մարմնի ու հոգու վիշտն ու ցաւերը բուժելու...’ - p11-12). As ‘medicine for life’, ‘for body and soul’ this ‘Book of Lamentation’ has to be more than supplication. It has to be inspiration to optimistic action. And so it is!
Narek’s conception of Divine omnipotence emerging from images and depictions of God are significant philosophically and culturally. They express and in no uncertain terms a human dream and ambition, a vision and desire that have fired man/woman through time. The Divine is ‘unclouded knowledge’ (‘գիտություն անմեգ’), ‘bold vision’ (‘տեսութիւն անգայթ’), ‘shadow less dawn’ (‘անստվեր ծագում’), ‘unwavering assurance’ (‘աննուազ շնորհ’), ‘universal cure’ (‘ամենազոր գեղ’), ‘free healing’ (‘ազատ բուժում’), ‘love in dark exile’ (‘մթան օտար սեր’), ‘king who lifts up the slave, defender who loves the poor’ (‘դու աղքատասեր, թագավոր ստրկամեծար’ Բան Գ.ա, p7-8).
Do we not see dimensions of our own secular strivings and hopes in such elaboration of beauty, generosity, wisdom, social solidarity and social welfare all attributed here to an omnipotent and divine other! A positive answer is implicit in our own sense of our human self and our potential. It is explicit in Narek’s claim that we are built with divine components! To have faith in such an evidently humanist omnipotence is at one and the same time to have faith in humankind’s potential and possibility, for we are stamped with the same essence as the Omnipotent Divine! Indeed conversation with and confession to this Divine of which we are a particle, an emanation is therefore simultaneously in part also self-interrogation, an examination of life and society and a reaffirmation of our inherent potential and possibility, despite the enormity of any crisis.
-- 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.