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Why we should read... 'The Armenian Renaissance' by Vasken Chaloyan Haybedhrad, 254pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1964 Armenian News Network / Groong February 5, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian It may be unpopular to assert, but it remains an incontrovertible fact that in its 70 odd years of life Soviet Armenian historiography registered some enduring accomplishments. Much was written that brutally bent standards of historical research to prevailing political expediency. But beyond this we also have a substantial body of work that has contributed significantly to our understanding of the development of Armenian history. It is worth remarking that the best of this work was produced not by the predominant opportunist intellectual possessing no convictions but by committed Marxists. Among this latter group was Vasken Chaloyan. Focusing on Armenian intellectual and cultural history from the 9th to the 13th centuries, his 'The Armenian Renaissance' is an immensely thought provoking though frequently contentious account of the emergence of significant elements of a modern, secular and rationalist outlook from the obscurantist milieu of the Armenian Middle Ages. Chaloyan prefaces his account with an argument that extends the Renaissance beyond its familiar European scope and Eurocentric definition. The Renaissance, he claims, does undoubtedly embrace the notion of recovering a 'classical' civilisation in the endeavour to emerge from the ignorance of the long dark ages. Chaloyan however, developing a theme prevalent in Soviet historical studies, argues that this was not its essential feature. Historical epochs traditionally brought under the rubric of the Renaissance had at their core not this return to the past but the flowering of a new secular humanism and the affirmation of the priority of society and the human over mystical or metaphysical religious concerns. The recovery of a 'classical' heritage could aid, but was never a necessary condition of a Renaissance thus comprehended. Observed in this light, history reveals constellations of phenomena in lands far beyond Mediterranean Europe which could legitimately be grasped within the terms of a Renaissance. To emphasise the point Chaloyan notes that some societies possessing no 'classical' history nevertheless also attained levels of development that produced components of a Renaissance culture. 1. Being a Marxist Chaloyan naturally devotes a good deal of space to the economic conditions that framed the flowering of Armenian culture during the 9th to 13th centuries. Armenia, under the Bagratouni Kingdom that was re-established in 886, 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. Armenia also experienced its own independent economic development with a significant expansion of agriculture, mining, metallurgy and other urban crafts produced to meet both domestic and international demand. Town and country as a result begin to separate producing large urban conurbations, the most outstanding being the Bagratouni capital Ani. Persian poet Hakim Nizari travelling through Armenia in the 1280s noted that: 'towns in Armenia will for me remain eternally wonderful. There temples have been built the sight of which alone will cause you amazement.' Economic progress was of course only relative. Wealth accumulated at one pole producing a massive social polarisation with poverty at the other. Alongside a new class of usurers and merchants living in sumptuous palaces and mansions, the Armenian landscape was scarred by miserable shanty-towns inhabited by peasant families forced into towns in search of survival. Indeed these features found expression in the very architecture and design of towns and cities. Chaloyan brings testimony from many such as Lasdivertzi, John the Philosopher, Vartan Aykegtzi, Stephan of Daron and others to confirm the rise of usury, the expropriation of peasant land, the terrible poverty that prevailed and the resulting epidemic of lawlessness and banditry. Vartan Aykegtzi in an appeal to God asks: '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.' Whilst accumulated wealth generated conditions that produced the Armenian Renaissance, Chaloyan suggest that the social tensions and social movements resulting from the intensified poverty also played their role. They brought forth, for example, the Tontragetzi movement, a powerful plebeian revolt against the established Church. According to Chaloyan this movement preached a humanised religion in which the official structures and ornate rituals of the established Church were dismissed as devices to fleece the poor and featherbed the wealthy. Noting similarities with Martin Luther's reformation and the peasant uprising led by Thomas Munzer, Chaloyan contrasts the Tontragetzi movement with the earlier Paulicians noting that for the Tontragetzi theology and religion were but forms to express essentially humanist, secular and egalitarian ambitions. 2. The main body of Chaloyan's book is however devoted to an examination of the literature, philosophy, science, painting, sculpture and architecture of the age. With frequent resort to original sources he records and comments on features he regards central to the experience of a Renaissance. In the body of culture that Chaloyan examines, the natural world and the social world of man begin to be apprehended, as he puts it, 'realistically', in terms of their own internal qualities and character and independent of any a-priori theological assertions or dogmas. Human thought rather than merely reflecting a powerless and passive subordination to an other-worldly omnipotence, begins to acquire independent will and ambition. Human reason develops a knowledge capable of comprehending the natural world. And in turn this knowledge becomes an instrument of human liberation from brutal bondage to natural forces. Human beings reveal a budding individual consciousness, a preoccupation with terrestrial and material concerns and a striving to live a full life on this earth. They thus begin to consciously shape their own destiny in this world. Science and philosophy cease to be handmaidens to theology. Some of the more prominent philosophers, Hovan Orodnetzi (1315-1386), Krikor Datevatzi (1346-1409), Hovanness Imasdaser (died 1129), Krikor Makisdross (11th century) and Vahram Rappouni (13th century) begin to premise their thought, humanity's position in and relation to the natural world. This human-centric thinking both revives tenets of classical philosophy and develops new ideas about the nature of the objective world and about the relation between this objective world and human knowledge. These thinkers also began to examine issues such as time and space, the nature of the abstract and the concrete, the individual and the general. Given the era it is not at all surprising that all accepted the existence of God as the creator of the universe and all its laws. But they set upon a course that would eventually liberate the study of nature from theological dogma. They claimed that human reason had the power to deduce objective laws that explained nature's movements. In the process, and some two centuries in advance of the English empiricists headed by Francis Bacon, Armenian philosophers formulated the outlines of modern empiricism. Hovannes Imasdasser insisted that: 'no assertion can be accepted without analysis and experimentation, (for) labour and effort are necessary to establish the truth of a theory for truth does not produce the object but is derived from an examination of the object.' In the best traditions of subsequent European philosophy, Armenian thinkers also acknowledged the objectivity of the natural world and saw the source of human knowledge in the interaction of this objective world and the human senses. Like the later European rationalists Hovan Orodnetzi argued that 'nature is the first cause' of knowledge while Krikor Datevatzi elaborated affirming: 'that nature is prior to knowledge. Knowledge flows from the object, not the object from knowledge. The truth of an assertion is proved by the thing, not vice versa.' Gostantin Yerzengatzi (c1250-1328) went further in limiting theology's role in explaining the natural world to the act of creation alone. Thereafter human reason and observation were to deduce laws of nature from an examination of the diverse combinations of fire, water, earth, air which together constituted the basis for all matter. Yerzengatzi, clearly familiar with classical Armenian and Greek philosophy, had a conception of natural evolution in which all things undergo development and then degeneration. Despite the threat it posed to a religious world view, he also claimed that matter was indestructible, its form merely being subject to change. Indeed in support of this thesis he even wrote witty verse! Medical science also stressed the methodological importance of empirical observation and experimentation with Mekhitar Heratzi (late 12th century) asserting that only through experimentation, on both humans and animals, could we acquire accurate knowledge about the causes and cures for our ailments. Significantly Mekhitar Heratzi's work, like much of the literature of the time was composed in the spoken language of the day. On another level, Mekhitar Kosh (1120-1213) perhaps the first Armenian social scientist and the founder of Armenian jurisprudence, rejecting blind obedience to religious canon, penned his 'Book of Judgements' only after a most meticulous examination of past and present custom and tradition. He was remarkable for his age not just for supporting the rule of law against arbitrary feudal tyranny. He also was one of the first to trace poverty back to an unequal division of natural resources. Where poverty was generally attributed either to god's will or to ungodly behaviour by kings and princes, Kosh, reminding us of the later Rousseau, attributed it to the monopolisation of land and water by the few. Whilst science sought to understand nature, literary creation apprehended the physical, sensual beauty of the natural world conceiving it as containing its own inherent glory. In literature, as in painting and sculpture, the natural world appears not just as religious symbol or as testimony to god's greatness but as an object for human life and human pleasure. Increasingly too the individual begins to feature striving for personal happiness. Individual ambition for the good life on earth begins to outweigh passive obedience to a pre-determined Christian destiny of self-denial and otherworldliness. Among the artists and poets Narekatsi (10th century) is rightly accorded his customary pride of place. Narekatzi's Lamentations and his poetry goes well beyond its evidently religious form. Pre-dating Dante, he is one of the first great artists who delved into the individual's vast and deep inner world of emotional, spiritual and moral anxiety, pain, desire and striving. In the Lamentations man becomes conscious of his own independent spirit and will, of his own ability and power to strive for perfection. He is not just God's passive creation. He is combative and challenging. He contests ground with God, urgently seeking harmony and unity with the almighty who is also a symbol of possible human perfection. In even his most devout poetry there shines through Narekatzi a vivid appreciation of nature. His poem in honour of the Virgin Mary, for example, is a remarkably sensual depiction of physical human beauty. Notable on another level is the secular and humanistic sensibility of Hovaness Yerzengatzi's (died 1294) poetry which records not just male but female love too. Unlike Bocaccio and other European contemporaries, in Hovanness Yerzengatzi women appear not just as objects of men's passion but as individuals themselves capable of experiencing love. In a poem about a Christian priest's son falling in love with the daughter of a Muslim Mullah, Yerzengatzi also wrote of a love that transcends the religious and national divide! In the sphere of prose it may be a historical tragedy indeed that only three of Shabouh Pakradouni's stories survive. These exalt the material and sensual pleasures of this life, opposing them to the asceticism of Christian religion. The exaltation of temporal life is also evident in the arts, in miniature painting, in decorative sculptures and ornamentation. Even paintings with explicitly religious themes contain images of dances, feasts, wild beasts and hunts, the best being etched in wonderfully sensuous colours. Written records of ornamental sculptures tell of theatres, of hunts, dances and debauchery. Chaloyan notes that paintings of the period reveal a variety of forms marked by realistic detail and by a diversity and individuality of human features, all set in precisely caught natural surroundings. Such artistic representation contrasted sharply with traditional formal or symbolic depiction of human beings or to the tedious accumulation of the repetitive and the uniform. 3. The contentious aspects of Chaloyan's volume do not undermine the intrinsic and enduring value of the cultural and intellectual accomplishments he describes. Yet problems of evidence, periodisation and historical method call into question the validity and utility of a theory of an 'Armenian Renaissance' and more importantly also reveal some of the negative features of Soviet Armenian historiography. Chaloyan seems driven by a dubious urge to establish something historically unique about the Armenian Renaissance. Not only did it precede the Italian by centuries, he argues, it was also marked with an additionally unique feature: Armenian humanism had a broader plebeian character absent in Europe where it was restricted to a narrow courtly/aristocratic circle. As evidence Chaloyan cites among other things the poetry of Frik (c1230-1300) and the epic David of Sassoon. In drawing out an undoubted egalitarian, democratic and popular ethos, the examination of the Armenian national epic is impressive. We note the absence of national or racial bigotry in this tale of war waged against foreign, Arab, occupation. There is no hint of ethnic or religious exclusivism. At one point David, heeding the appeals of an elderly advisor to spare ordinary Arab people, concentrates his attack on the hated princes and tax collectors. As if to underline the fact that the conflict between David and his enemies is not based on nationality or religion the main antagonists are even blood relatives. But to claim David of Sassoon or Frik's poetry as evidence of a unique plebeian humanism is a foolhardy exercise. A glance at any collection of medieval European popular ballads or folk poetry will reveal similar expressions of egalitarian and democratic thinking, much of it indeed predating the 'high' Renaissance of the 15th century. In the British context for example, A.L. Morton's 'The Utopia in English History' is packed with evidence of widespread humanistic sentiments among the peasant and artisan classes. In his eagerness to construct an argument for a unique form of an Armenian Renaissance Chaloyan adopts a questionable attitude to the issue of evidence and periodisation. David of Sassoon is a case in point. The epic certainly has its origins in the 9th and 10th century struggle against Arab domination. But it underwent centuries of oral evolution and embellishment before attaining a final written, quotable form in the 19th and 20th centuries. Chaloyan seems to take no account of the possibility that aspects of the epic's 'ideological' content could have accrued in the centuries well beyond those in which he places the 'Armenian Renaissance'. Further, Chaloyan locates the Armenian Renaissance as opening with the glory days of Ani in the 9th century and ending in the 13th . Yet a great deal of important evidence he advances either post-dates these glory days or is drawn from the latter part of the 13th century and even beyond. The use of such evidence is not entirely illegitimate as knowledge, modes of thought and influences could well have survived the collapse of the Bagratouni dynasty in 1046 and the repeated devastation of Ani. Yet if this is the case, a historian must show it to be so. Seeking to establish a sense of national identity and pride after centuries of oppression is a legitimate enterprise. In this respect Soviet Armenian historiography did play its role. But the problems evident in 'The Armenian Renaissance' reveal some of the accompanying and unresolved dangers. Forced interpretations of events that are less rigorous with theory and evidence than is intellectually acceptable contributed to generating a false and exclusivist sense of national uniqueness and a supremacist national consciousness that would only add fuel to the fires of a legacy of unresolved national conflicts. Chaloyan's presentation, in seeking to establish the legitimacy of the concept of an Armenian Renaissance, indirectly highlights other issues that merit debate. The European Renaissance describes a historical epoch that laid the foundations for Europe's intellectual, social, political and economic development. It was, as it were, a historical building block that was recognised as such only with the hindsight of centuries. The same cannot be said about the 9th-13th centuries in Armenia. Here definite features of a Renaissance are detectable. But they were, as Chaloyan notes himself, cut short by foreign invasion and destruction and never reached the standards attained later in Europe nor did they play the same role in future Armenian national development. The truncated form of the Armenian experience does not allow an easy equation with the European Renaissance. Unlike in Europe, a budding development in Armenia gave rise to nothing. Its socio-economic foundation was destroyed before it was able to fully flower and set the basis for a new society. It did leave behind a set of brilliant and enduring accomplishments. But for understandable reasons these had little influence on the Armenian national revival of the 18-20th centuries. Then Armenian intellectuals, artists and thinkers were securing their main nourishment not from their own historical roots but from European intellectual traditions. One cannot question the flowering of culture, philosophy, architecture, painting, poetry and science in 9th to 13th century Armenia. But these need not necessarily be placed beneath the rubric of a Renaissance to assure them of enduring value and legitimacy. These classical Armenian thinkers and artists that Chaloyan so imaginatively presents for us cannot but impress anyone tired of post-modernist philosophy and its irrationalist pessimism. With a positive faith in humanity's ability to understand and control the world in which they live, they are a refreshing contrast to the thinking of the past decades which negates all hope for the future. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.