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Why we should read... 'Krikor of Narek' by Vatche Nalpantian Khorhrtayin Grogh, 304pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1990 Armenian News Network / Groong July 5, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian The 10th century poet and thinker Krikor of Narek (Narekatzi) once enjoyed a pre-eminent position in Armenian cultural and intellectual life. His work influenced the language, substance and contours of the nation's literature for at least some 8 centuries. Before he became the unread icon of modern days, Narekatzi and his monumental 'Book of Lamentations' (Narek) were regarded with enormous reverence by the common people too. Invested with miraculous powers the poet and his book were held in awe, considered as balm for human woes and tribulations, as guardians of the poor, the homeless, the sick and the suffering. Today, in a tragic waste of cultural inheritance, Narekatzi is referred to hardly at all and read even less. Vatche Nalpantian's excellent introduction to Narekatzi contributes to recovering his work for the modern man and woman. Despite some stretches of weak, unsubstantiated and questionable argument, Nalpantian successfully draws Narekatzi's dream of human grandeur out of its religious shell. Full of well chosen quotation, it opens up a world rich in reflection on the drama of human existence. This small volume fulsomely substantiates Nalpantian's claim that in Narekatzi we have no less than a giant of international literature who speaks directly to the troubled soul of the individual in the modern age. This book is additionally a superb example of how to read that superior portion of religious/theological literature which, despite its religious forms and conceptions, touches on essential human concerns. Preludes to the 'Book of Lamentations' Time has left us only 20 odd samples of Narekatzi's shorter poems. Yet these already contain some of the features of his vision as they appear later, in perfected form, in the 'Book of Lamentations'. In them, suggests Nalpantian, religious form becomes a vessel for a secular appreciation of the natural world and human life. Against the grain of Christian thought and tradition, nature and the human body are not regarded simply or exclusively as sources of sin, corruption and evil. They are also treated as objects having their own unique, inherent beauty, worthy of their own praise and glory. Cited as evidence is a poem in which the Virgin Mary appears as a woman of flesh and blood, possessing a human beauty far removed from prevalent lifeless Christian images. Nalpantian endorses Levon Shant's view that Narekatzi's vivid, lush and sensual descriptions of nature, of human beings and of human labour that appear in the shorter poems often serve no religious purpose at all. In many of the poems there is only the most formal obeisance to religious concerns, sometimes expressed only in a title or tucked away in end lines. In effect human beings and nature are presented as ends in themselves. The shorter poems also hint at the function of the natural world in Narekatzi's later poetry. Nature makes superfluous any resort to metaphysical mysticism. Nature can supply the images and the metaphors with which Narekatzi renders comprehensible the deepest and most passionate of human experiences and emotions. With Narekatzi the elements of the natural world prove adequate to the task of portraying the finest, profoundest and most spiritual of human experiences. In this connection Nalpantian, along with others, argues that Narekatzi draws on those traditions of pagan Armenian culture that in folklore survived the Christian destruction. The Book of Lamentations The scope of the 'Book of Lamentations' is vast, stretching over a thousand lines and consisting of 95 elegies or prayers, headed 'Words Unto God From the Depths of My Heart'. Some claim it lacks genuine inner unity. False, retorts Nalpantian. Narekatzi conceived of his epic as a unity and it should be our business to grasp this unity. Indeed only in doing so will we appreciate its true grandeur, its humanistic logic and its modernity. The virtue of Nalpantian's commentary is that he unveils the human core of Narekatzi's vision, without any distortion or evasion of the powerful Christian, mystical, ascetic features of the book. But he does show how sometimes through them, sometimes beyond and sometimes in opposition to them Narekatzi grapples with the spiritual and material troubles and turmoil of human life here on earth. Often referred to as a prayer book, Narek is, notwithstanding its religious form, a stunning poetic encyclopaedia of the symptoms that together constitute humanity's existential condition. The book's central object is the rational, thinking, feeling and suffering human being. 'I am everyone' says Narekatzi, and 'what is in everyone, is in me also.' So each elegy portrays aspects of human experience - emotional, physical, spiritual - which are dissected, reconstructed and laid bare in their essential, universal and enduring manifestations. In Narek we see men and women alienated from their own potential, suffering insecurity, gripped by fear, hesitation, trepidation and loss of confidence in life, 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..' Worse still, 'foreshadowing the destructive peril of my death' many of the 'most miserable and pitiful doubts/ have accumulated above one another/in the deep, sensitive substance of my heart' which is 'pierced with incurable pain'. In each elegy Narekatzi, as spokesman for all human beings, strives for release from the pain of life. Not however in the afterlife, but in the here and now. Unlike the traditional Christian worshiper he is not frozen in passive, powerless, beseeching genuflection before an Omnipotent God. The human being in Narek has independent consciousness and ambition and does not plead, but seeks to recruit the Almighty as an ally to render life endurable and fulfilled. Narekatzi is no beggar or supplicant but one who protests, argues and negotiates. At different points he even takes it upon himself to 'explain' and to 'teach' God that the best way to express His greatness is through 'audacious philantrophy'. Indeed God is 'worthy of the greatest praise' when He 'privileges the love of humanity'. Narekatzi simultaneously humanizes god, making him more accessible and familiar, less remote. In many a passage god is 'invited' to 'enter the worshipers home' there to 'discuss' and 'honour' human concerns and needs. The Book of Lamentations can be read as a record of humanity's negotiations and debates with the deity aimed at cancelling out the traumas of human life and raising the human being to God's grand level. This debate and negotiation eventually appears essentially as man/woman struggling with him/herself to overcome his/her own limits and weaknesses and realise the potential that rests concealed or suppressed within the human being. The perfectability of the human Feuerbach, a 19th century philosopher, claimed that through religion an alienated and powerless humanity projects its own potential perfection on to an ideal, omnipotent deity of its own invention. Amazingly, eight centuries earlier Narekatzi appears to be a step ahead in suggesting that humanity has the ability to reappropriate and realise this potential. According to Nalpantian, this - the human capacity for transformation, to make a transition from an imperfect to a perfect state, - is one of the dominant themes of Narek. For Narektazi, a Christian person is inevitably tainted by a thousand and one sins, is flawed and prone to evil. This is the very nature of being human. Yet just as saints have the capacity to overcome, so does a man or a woman generally. Narekatzi is relentless in cataloguing every human weakness and failure. Yet he simultaneously reveals human consciousness of their opposites. In counterposing human misery, weakness, failure and sin to the glory, power, virtue and justice that God retains for himself, Narekatzi defines a terrain for a contest with God in which the human being presses all the time to acquire those perfect qualities of a God. In Narek, the common Christian assertion that man has been created in the image of god acquires an entirely radical dimension. Man/woman becomes more than mere image or form, becomes also content and essence where God's omnipotence, wisdom, justice and perfection cease to be beyond human reach. The human being is marked by unique qualities. God has 'adorned me with reason;/ Made me radiant with breathing;/ Enriched my mind;/ Increased my wisdom;/Fortified mine intellect;/ ..selected me out of animate beings; /mingled into me an intelligible soul;' and 'Bedecked me with a princely existence' The immense scope and capability of human reason, intellect and wisdom unfolds through floods of remarkable metaphor, adjective and synonym sometimes culminating in suggestions of the possible deification of the human. So Narekatzi writes, 'even though to say so strikes me with terror' that 'We also are able to become god;/ With virtues and abilities fine' Thus does he dissolve the traditional Christian breach between God and man into a single, whole, human experience. The aim is man - body and soul Completing the picture of the human being's emotional and psychological experience, Narek contains startling images of social reality and the ills of the time. This, Nalpantian argues, is indication, if any is needed, of the poet's concern for the well being of the living, earthly human being, in his or her bodily and spiritual unity. Knitting together diverse passages from the 'Book of Lamentations' Nalpantian shows Narekatzi denouncing the terrible conditions people had to endure - the usury, plunder, war, plague, devastation and banditry among them. It is as if the entire social and political structure has become a corruption, inflicting itself on the population: 'If I see a soldier, I await death;/If it be a messenger, severity;/If it be a clerk, a bond of ruination;/If it be a legal man, malediction:/ If it be a religious man, reprimand'. So the poet, becoming a spokesman for humanity, urges God 'to bless those suffering more than I;/ To release the incarcerated;/ To emancipate the condemned;/ To do goodness to the cursed;/To bring joy to the humiliated;/ To be balm to the heartbroken.' Narekatzi's temporal concerns are evident not just in the social content of the poetry but in its philosophic and artistic technique as well. It would be inconceivable, Nalpantian asserts, for a thinker preoccupied by mystical concerns to exhaustively, passionately and so vividly describe the human body. Yet this is exactly what Narekatzi does often in some inspiring poetry. And he does not do so in the traditional Christian manner, to underline God's genius. In affirming the marvel of the human body he lays the ground for appeals to God to cure people of bodily ills, to restore them to their own inherent splendour. Underlining this concern for life on earth is a rejection of traditional Christian notions of death as relief and redemption from an unworthy bodily existence. With awesome poetic force Narekatzi shows that death is no blissful transition to a better, everlasting world. It is 'annihilation', it is 'the transition to nothingness', it is 'loss' and 'emptiness'. Death is like 'a lantern extinguished', a 'dried up stream', 'an uprooted tree', 'a burnt bit of dead wood', a 'pitiful sight', a 'miserable form', a 'tragic thing'. It is no accident therefore that pleas to stay the hand of death, to cure the body, to give it strength to resist and live appear throughout the poem. Pressing home his point Nalpantian argues that when Narekatzi does pay homage to the Christian concept of death the passages lack poetic fire and passion. Equally significant is the fact that in the 'Book of Lamentations' one only rarely comes across significant references or expressions of desire for the afterlife. Those passages that do express such a desire also lack poetic power. Many scholars, Christians among them, even claim these passages may be additions by other pens. Krikor of Narek wrote the 'Book of Lamentations' as a 'monument of hope'. In a series of wonderfully uplifting passages we see at the core of a truly monumental work a profound love of humanity and a passionate desire to see all obstacles to human happiness - psychological, emotional and material - removed. Reading these passages we can see why the book had such an amazing hold over the population. With a mesmerising poetry unrivalled in Armenian literature, it inspired in men and women the hope of a fulfilled life, and it sustained this hope during long centuries of darkness and oppression. Vatche Nalpantian's 'Krikor of Narek' is a marvellous introduction to a body of work that belongs not to Christians, but to humanity as a whole. Despite the aspersions cast upon it, Narek is not a sermon in humility and resignation in the face of oppression and misery, even though it does not, and could not, preach revolt as some have idly desired. Despite its complexity and age the 'Book of Lamentations' can still speak vibrantly to an era where hope has diminished and where gloom and darkness need vanquishing. Note: There is no adequate English language translation of Narek. Extracts are rough and ready, remote approximations, with the help of Misha Kudian and Gevork Emin ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.