Notes for a reading of the ‘Book Lamentations’ by Narek
Armenian News Network / Groong
November 13, 2016
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Reading Narek: Two
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B. Elegies 6-10
In his self-examination Narek intends to be fearless and frank even though he knows that this will expose his life and the entire body of society to be warped and rotten (p25, Elegy 9.a Բան Թ.ա). In command of his reason, conscious of individual and social reality and alert to our immense capacity for self-deception Narek insists that if we do ‘not to deceive our self and do not to pretend’ (‘մեկը չխաբի իրեն, չձեւացնի կերպարանելով’) we will see our ‘offences to be uncountable, impossible for the mind to grasp’ (‘անհամար, մտովին անգամ անընդգրկելի’ - p19). We will understand that human sin is more numerous than the sum of sand grains on a beach. These are finite, ‘deprived of growth by procreation’ (‘տարանջատ են, եւ չունեն բնավ ծնունդ ու աճում’) whereas human sin like a cancerous cell multiplies ceaselessly.
However against the vast army of sin, against these ‘self-generated tyrannical warriors’ (‘ինքնածին բուսած բազմամբոխ ու խոլ մարտիկներ’ – p21), the poet remains confident that he can mobilise ‘powerful all-conquering and invincible champions’ (‘զորաւոր, անպարտ ու ամենահախթ, սեգ ախոյաններ’ (p21). At their head and in command, is ‘faith’ (‘հավատ’), faith that ‘can with precision move vast mountains to the depths of the sea’ (‘հավատն անվրեպ կարող է ծովի խորքը փոխադրել մեծամեծ լեռրներ’ – p29), faith that must become ‘compass and guide in life’ (‘որպես ուղեցույց առաջնորդ կեանքի’ p29), faith that ‘we will find to be ‘greater and higher than all else’ (‘պիտի գտնենք ամենից գերազանց ու բարձր’, - p29) Explaining his conception of faith Narek underlines again the rational and conscious nature of his endeavour.
Faith is not passive subjection to another, it is not willing enslavement to external authority. It is not irrational, thoughtless obedience to power, even to an omnipotent Divinity. Alongside ‘familiarity with God’ (‘մտերմութիւնը երկնավորի հետ’) faith includes ‘clarity of vision’ (‘տեսութիւն հստակ’) and ‘the most perfect wisdom’ (‘իմաստութիւնը կատարելագույն’). Both are ‘constituents of faith’ (‘մասն հաւատքի’ - p29). Such faith, such clarity and wisdom, and the rational, conscious inquiry that it enables, can begin the process of recovering that which is god-like in our essence, that which can lead to positive action.
Recovering and consolidating such active, rationally inspired faith is urgent. Individual and social degeneration has reached depths that drive men/women to despair and hopelessness. Life has become a living death, form only, empty of vitality, of goodness, of decency, filled to the brim with decay and corruption. As one of a string of telling metaphors, Narek describes man/woman as ‘a tree with lofty boughs, of mighty trunk and thick with leaves but devoid of fruit’ (‘մի ծառ շքեղ, բարձրուղեշ, ստուար ճիւղերով ու տերեւալից սակային պտղազուրկ’ p25 and on). We have become barren through our own actions. Our barrenness is of our own doing not the Divine’s!
Narek has no time for Divine predestination. ‘With your own hands you have built a prison that has no exit’, a ‘snare with no escape’ (‘ինքդ քո ձեռքով կարուցեցիր քեզ անել արգելան ու որոգայթներ անճողոպրելի’ - p24)! To this pass we have come for we have ‘deviated from truth and have been exiled from justice (‘խոտորվեցանք ճշմարտութիւնից ու տարագրվեցինք արդարութիւնից’ p24). Only faith can restore human fortunes, not blind faith, but faith as reason and wisdom.
So Narek writes the ‘Book of Lamentations’ to ‘construct an edifice of faith’ (‘Ես հաւատքի շենք պիտի կարուցեմ’ - p28) open to all, available for the present and the future. It will be a harbour, a refuge, a resource in modern parlance, for recovery from catastrophe. The ‘Book of Lamentations’ is written to bolster confidence, to convince reader or listener that with faith we can correct ourselves, even though we have sunk low, even though we have reached the very edge of destruction. So long as we are honest with ourselves, so long as we use our innate reason and wisdom together with life-experience, we will find a way out. We will see beyond vice and sin, however towering. We shall reach to recover that in us which is essential and god-like and so we shall return to the path of truth and justice.
Narek evaluates and judges with concepts such as ‘justice’, ‘truth’, ‘modesty’, ‘cleanliness’. They appear as moral imperatives, as standards or criteria for judgement. But, though it would have been so easy for him to do, Narek does not pad out these concepts with injunctions or prohibitions from Biblical or Church canon and law. He does not call for obedience to authority, to bishop or priest as the way to righteousness. Rather significantly, indeed, when sinner and sin are depicted, directly or as metaphor, they appear in social, secular forms and relations. Thus, for example is ‘the plunderer with his subjects, the tyrant with his bandits, the arrogant with his armed men, the chief brigand with his mob’ (‘կործանիչը իր հպատակներով, բռնակալը իր ելուզակներով, ամբարտավն իր հրոսակներով, աւազակապետն իր ոհմակներով’ – p20).
As he records ‘the most diverse passions of all men and women’ (‘ամենատարբեր կրքերն ամենքի’) Narek assigns these not to abstract, isolated individuals but to people of specific social class, to individuals in their social relations and in their political and secular status. Men and women’s sins and lapses arise out of their misdemeanours within their concrete secular relations and status. Were Narek not concerned with the evaluation and correction of ill and vice in social life he would have no reason to detail class or status as exhaustively and repeatedly as he does.
Narek’s disdain for passive remorse reinforces a reading that suggests an ambition to transform being and relations through action in secular life. As subjective feeling alone guilt serves no purpose. ‘What good to me is it to exhaust myself with woe and sigh if I despair as a result’ (‘Ինչ շահ սրանից, կամ ինծ ինչ օգուտ որ արձակելով այսպէս ողբ ու հեծոիւթիւն՝ ինքս վհատվեմ’ – p18). For repentance to be authentic and effective it requires more than exhausting oneself with woe and sigh! It requires at once acknowledgement of lapse and a will to correct action. Only this will enable one ‘at death’s door to recover a slight return of breathing’ (‘հասել է մինչեւ ափունքը մահու, դարձեալ փոքր ինչ շունչ ու կենդանութեան ոգի արնելով’) and ‘recuperate and regain strength to stand upright’ (‘զորանալ, կազդուրվել նորից ու ելնել ոտքի’ - p28).
Passages of immense beauty take ‘The Book of Lamentations’ beyond any limited historical, religious, theological or canonical significance or meaning. In its stunning poetry we have universal, essential, existential moments of human experience. Biblical allusions and expressions are present in multitude. But, this is hardly surprising. In Narek’s times and thereafter such allusion has been standard fare, even in secular literature with no concern for God or Church. Narek’s depiction of the collapsed and bent individual (p3-4, p25-25 Բան Թ.բ) stands powerful and telling for any age and many a circumstance. So too are those descriptions of the extent of men and women’s lapses and transgressions from the tiniest deception to the greatest of crimes (p19 – Elegy 6.c; Elegy 9.a, Բան Զ.գ, Բան Թ.ա). The same humanist and universal grasp and vision of lived human experience is evident in Narek’s elaborations of altruism and solidarity (p10-11).
-- 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.