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Why we should read... 'My Exiled Soul' and 'The Last Chalice' by Zabel Yessaian Selected Works Volume One, Antelias, Lebanon, 1987 Armenian News Network / Groong November 6, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian Zabel Yessaian's (1878-1943) 'My Exiled Soul' and 'The Last Chalice' are not just two tremendously powerful and evocative love stories. They are also masterly philosophic considerations on aspects of the individual's subjective, 'spiritual' world. In an age where the unending accumulation of material possessions is often regarded as the only criterion of a rich and valuable life, Yessaian forcefully reminds us of an increasingly sidelined truth: life cannot be lived to the fullest unless society affords men and women the opportunity to develop their individual creative, imaginative, emotional and intellectual potential. Adrine, in 'The Last Chalice', and Emma, in 'My Exiled Soul' are acutely conscious of the diverse restraints upon what they feel as their almost infinite emotional and creative potential. In charting their efforts to surmount these restrictions Yessaian offers a telling account of the crisis of the alienated individual in our own times. It is a testimony to the enduring quality of her art that these works bring into sharp relief the fraud of contemporary market-generated individualism where mass consumption of useless objects is applauded as the peak of personal realization, and where even one's most intimate emotions are put to the service of the marketplace. As Descartes' 'I think therefore I am' steadily gives way to the dull uniformity of the global corporations' 'I shop therefore I am,' Yessaian's evocation of the richness of the unique individual is inspiring. A. Both 'The Last Chalice' and 'My Exiled Soul' are set in pre-1915 Armenian Constantinople/Istanbul (Bolis). Adrine's life is blighted by a loveless marriage. She is not however prepared to abandon her search for 'those jewels which would decorate life with beauty, light and glory.' She does not accept that her spirit should be forever 'forced to retreat to some dark corner of her being'. She feels passionately that deep within her there is a sphere of 'experience that can generate a miraculous dream, a brightly burning flame or a brilliant rainbow' and is determined to bring these to the fore 'in all their glory, with smile and with song...' Emma, a painter with a promising future, has just returned from Europe to Bolis and is preparing a first exhibition. She confesses to the stirring of 'fantastic expectations'. Her 'exiled soul' she feels 'awaits its imminent liberation' through strength drawn from 'the depths' of her being, 'as if from an unexpected and unknown treasure chest.' Whatever the difficulties, she will therefore 'pursue my dreams, along as many highways as necessary, until my soul attains its full freedom.' Authors of lesser talent frequently reduce such considerations of the individual's emotional or creative life to abstract metaphysics, irrational mysticism or plain sentimental romanticism. Yessaian is of a different order. The cogency and authenticity of her portrayal of the individual's subjective/spiritual world emerges through the organic development of acutely and vividly fashionded characters set in a realistically conceived network of human relations. None of her observations are asserted as dry and lifeless dogmas. It is through Emma's and Adrine's unfolding experience that we obtain a vision of the individual's actually existing potential, the social conditions that preclude its development and the pre-conditions for its realisation. Furthermore Yessaian grasps human individuality and the subjective 'spirit' as it really is - an inextricably intertwined totality of often conflicting but always co-existing individual and social impulses. Through a fine presentation of the tensions, conflicts and clashes that these produce in Emma and Adrine, Yessaian brings to the surface some of the nobler, but frequently suppressed sensibilities of the very contradictory human personality. In the process with some remarkable and sustained fictional prose Yessaian elaborates on the conception of the captured so exquisitely in Matteos Zarifian's verse: 'Hokis hrteh m'e shkegh Asdgheren i ver potzardardz Ourge trchogh men mi gaydz Gu zka anhounn isg shad negh...' (Thanks to Rouben Rostamian for the following English rendering: My soul is a magnificent fire more luminous than the stars Even the infinite universe feels confining to its rays ) In 'My Exiled Soul' and 'The Last Chalice' the protagonists' subjective world flourishes through the experience of individual love. What raises Yessaian's work to the level of serious art is a conception of love that is broader, and therefore more authentic, than its commonly depicted romantic and isolated form. Love is indeed romantic and sexual love, But it is at the same time more. Love is a form of human of relations when freed of mercenary motives, freed from the soul-destroying drudgery of everyday life. In this respect love here expresses those forms of human relations that are the necessary preconditions for individual self-realisation. It is as a result of such direct, unalienated human relations that Adrine and Emma experience more than just individual romantic and sexual love. Love enables Adrine to experience 'the budding of many an extraordinary and beautiful flower in any one of the numerous temples of my soul'. For Emma, love 'removes' from her spirit 'all limits of time and space' and enables her to 'commune with the infinite, with the unknown'. Their entire subjective being, their creative, intellectual and emotional life flourishes as if to confirm Goethe's remark that in love 'I seemed to be more than I was because I was everything I possibly could be'. Needless to say the complete individual in 'The Last Chalice' and in 'My Exiled Soul' has nothing in common with the elitist, egotistical and anti-social individualism one encounters in Nietzsche, Schopenhauer or any number of other irrationalist thinkers, past and present. Throughout, Yessaian affirms a profound humanist sensibility as an integral element of the fullfilled individual. In a striking passage recalling the great Armenian poet Medzarentz, Adrine remarks that in love she 'strove to go beyond' her 'own world'. She sought 'to share' her 'bliss with others, to sow it everywhere and to leave a flame, a spark, a glow with hearts that are lonely and sad.' If 'bliss' can be 'sown everywhere' clearly the potential to live a full inner life is not the privilege of unique or especially gifted individuals. Indeed 'everyone...brings with them into this world' the emotional, psychological and intellectual means with which to realize their human potential. That the overwhelming majority do not do so is a function not of their individual inadequacy but of a social order that 'corrupts and tortures our spirit from our earliest days.' Furthermore the individuals in both works remain conscious of their social being and the responsibility that flows from this. Adrine sacrifices her own happiness recognizing that it must not be 'secured at the expense of others' misfortune.' The 'others' in this case are her two children. Explaining why she refuses to elope with her lover Arshak, she says: 'When I speak out against the idea of a woman leaving her home and children to be with her lover...I do not do so for Michael's (Adrine's husband) sake, nor for the comfort of the neighbours, nor to pay lip service to the laws that govern our lives. I do so because I see my children's smiling eyes. I do not want them tarnished with tears on account of my personal happiness. I do not want to be the mother of their misery.' The profoundly authentic, human character of Adrine's decision is manifested in her confession to the accompanying bitter and painful clash between individual and social desire: 'It was necessary to separate. But you cannot grasp, my love, that at the moment when resigned to my decision I planted my last kiss on your lips my entire being collapsed. If at that moment you were to have snatched me up and taken me away, I would have followed you willingly, helplessly, blindly, everywhere and forever.' B. As remarkable as Yessaian is in conveying the full richness of the individual spirit, she is equally expert in grasping the social relations that circumscribe it. It is evident, albeit indirectly, that a level of material prosperity, a level of release from want, poverty and the grim grind of daily life is a necessary precondition for the flourishing individual. Emma is only able to 'soar to the highest sphere' of her dreams because she has 'been brought up like a princess and defended against all the harshness of life.' Adrine, belonging to a well-to-do family, is equally fortunate in having the opportunity to cultivate her subjective sensibilities. But for the vast majority these material preconditions are absent. However material well-being alone is not an adequate foundation. Individual potential cannot flourish when the individual is subordinated to social relations dominated by egotistical or predatory ambitions. In such circumstances individuals cease to be ends in themselves and are transformed into objects to be exploited and used for another's mercenary gain. Adrine even in early youth realised that male suitors were not actually concerned with her as a unique individual. When asking for her hand they had in mind not her, but her father's social standing: 'I knew that when looking at me, they frequently saw only this or that man's daughter... and... only wanted me in order to be able to use my father's influence for the purpose of their own advancement.' Such social relations allow the individual, in this case Adrine, no 'opportunity to exercise her enormous spiritual energy' and leaves little room for the budding of her 'passionate desires' which are 'left high and dry'. Alas modern society reproduces a whole network of such relations that condemn men and women to estrangement from their real selves. In summarizing the consequences, Yessaian presents an indictment perhaps even more compelling today than when first written in the early 20th century. Men and women have 'generally ceased to be what they are in their essence'. They survive on a diet of 'second hand emotions and second hand principles... and nothing but nothing flows from their own inner being, from their individual selves...' Living with 'false identities' they 'are strangers to themselves' having lost the boldness 'to welcome the infinite possibilities of their spirit.' With a wit as sharp and penetrating as a Balzac or Oscar Wilde she describes men and women who have become 'completely alien to their real nature.' They are 'but ghosts of human beings' who though 'capable of standing upright and moving' are in reality no more than 'corpses with but the semblance of life'. Nevertheless, as corrupt and soul destroying as society may be, it cannot annihilate the human spirit which though 'having lost the boldness to surface' endures albeit 'in our darkest corners'. And, as Emma's and Adrine's experience testifies, so long as the spirit endures so does the hope and the struggle that it will return from its 'exile' to the centre of one's being. C. It is impossible to read 'My Exiled Soul' without remarking on its observations on the relation between art and life and the social role of art. With Emma we witness the anxiety of the individual artist striving to render her inner world visible and comprehensible. While she does not 'succeed in adequately focusing on the canvas my inner music, my inner peace and inner storm' she does remain convinced that art and culture play a decisive role in both private and social life. Reiterating the humanist themes evident in Adrine's story, Emma hopes her artistic endeavours will 'inspire in everyone some hope and faith' and 'give to everyone generously.' She hopes to 'discover the path to the souls of all men and women, to commune with them, to give them of the fibre of my dreams and emotions...to unite and orchestrate their disparate and solitary song.' Art clearly does not have an exclusively private, individual function. It is by its very nature social. Indeed a friend of Emma's underlines the point insisting that 'men and women who are themselves unable to perceive the wonder of the world and of life can cry and laugh through you. This after all is what art is.' The work of art thus becomes an eye, an ear or a sixth sense gifted to all humanity by those who possess particular artistic talent, drive and ambition. Genuine art furthermore is not the product of isolated individual effort, however talented. In elaborating this point Yessaian offers a brief but remarkably convincing explanation for the crisis of modern Armenian, and indeed even contemporary international, culture. The genuine artist must draw inspiration from 'the storms of collective social life.' However in Bolis the Armenian artists are 'exiles in their place of their birth'. Removed from 'the world that our people's collective life generated' they cannot not produce an art capable of authentically reflecting human experience. In this connection it is worth remarking that the Bolis Armenian artists' divorce from 'the collective sea' was enforced by the Ottoman conquest and was indeed to have a damaging effect on 19th and early 20th century Armenian literature (See Worth a Read October 2000). In sharp contrast, the contemporary 'post-modern' 'artistic' and 'intellectual' elite voluntarily divorces itself from the 'collective sea' and treats art as a matter of no more than individual concern. The results are evident in the marsh of modern culture where talent is wasted without producing anything that enlightens or endures. Hegel placed art and literature on the same level as philosophy - they are part of the human endeavour towards knowledge, self-consciousness and self-realization. Indeed 'the higher an artist ranks, the more profoundly ought he (and of course she, we may add, especially as we are discussing Yessaian) to represent the depths of heart and mind.' Yessaian is one of those authors whose works bear the stamp of such high level artistry. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.