Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 10/29/2018

A BRIDGE TO THE RADICAL DEMOCRATS:
Two Armenian Enlightenment stars: Mesrop Taghiatian and Stepannos Nazaryants

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 29, 2018

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Leo's biographies of Mesrop Taghiatian (1803-1858) and Stepannos Nazaryants
(1812-1879), published in 1917 and 1902 respectively, (Collected Works,
Volume 6, 1987, pp727-853 and pp5-204) remain still timely corrections to
a dismal want of knowledge about two important figures of the 19th century
Armenian enlightenment. Leo does more however!  He presents us figures
who, however dated their world view may seem to us, stand as sterling
examples of authentic intellectuals, deeply democratic intellectuals
animated by and dedicated to public service, to the people and the nation.

Meticulous accounts and evaluations, though the latter are sometimes
questionable, vividly illuminate the broader socio-political terrain upon
which they and others fashioned the early secular enlightenment and
national revival. Leo reminds us of the powerful European intellectual
currents that being absorbed into a recovered classical Armenian culture,
provided this secular enlightenment with a formidable armory with which
to battle for an over-riding ambition: the revolutionizing of culture and
education then straitjacketed by a backward, superstition-ridden clergy.


                                    I.

Throughout the 19th century, the eastern Armenian progressive movement had
to do battle against two dominant organizing forces in Armenian life: the
Church internally and the Tsarist State externally. As context Leo sets
out the historic, all-embracing, unwavering Russian hostility to any
independent Armenian development.  Even as Taghiatian and Nazaryants grew
into adulthood, Russian power moved to bury the remnants of autonomous
Armenian principalities in Garabagh that endured as potential political
challenges. Simultaneously it curtailed Armenian Church power while
cementing alliances with local Turkish feudal estates initially judged
more reliable agents of Russian rule in the Caucuses.

Leo notes the utterly misplaced Armenian loyalty to and active support for
Tsarist expansionism. Fervent though it was, it all counted for nothing.
Armenians were first used and then discarded - in the interests of wider
Russian negotiations with the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Tsarist officials
did however grasp the benefits of a controlled Armenian Church. Propped up
by Armenian merchant wealth, the Church, an immense parasitic feudal
institution, wielded enormous influence among the people that it retained
as virtual serfs shackled in ignorance and prejudice. Tactically
manipulated the Church could be put to act as an important supplementary
agent of local rule to secure placidity among a possibly obstreperous
people (p746).

The Armenian Church jealously guarded privilege and power from rational
and scientific scrutiny and so padlocked its school gates to any radical
reform or modernization. Yet ironically the first flames of a secular
challenge to archaic religious hegemony would emerge from within the
bounds of the Church itself. From the late 17th century more alert
segments of the Church hierarchy had endeavored reform, albeit limited in
scope and content. Impoverished schools, printing houses and libraries
were replenished and improved and a vast range of ancient Armenian
thinkers made available. Stern in his criticism of their adherence to
classical Armenian, favoring as he did a literary language understood by
the masses Leo is nevertheless overawed by the Catholic Mekhitarist Order
whose critical role in the process of Church reform indirectly spurred the
official Armenian Church to change.

Narrowly clerical, devoted primarily to the education of an orthodox
priestly caste, such reform was motivated in important part by the
official Church's fear of the rising Catholic and Protestant threat to its
positions. Though more a religious than a national revival there is no
gainsaying that its educational, cultural, historical and literary
accomplishments laid firm foundations for the subsequent flourish of the
secular enlightenment, foundations further reinforced by growing contact
with European culture and politics in the wake of the Tsarist annexation
of eastern Armenia. It was from within the institutions of a Church thus
altered that men like Taghiatian with his British tailored intellectual
suits and Nazaryants with his German-Russian ones, were to emerge among
the bricklayers of a modern national consciousness and identity.


                                   II.

Mesrop Taghiatian (1803-1858), born in Etchmiadzin, is an impressive
protagonist, artistic, talented (besides Armenian, he had fluent command
of Greek, Latin, English and Persian), impetuous, obstinate, determined.
Throughout his life he was driven by one ambition: to enlighten the nation
through literature, publishing and the provision of the highest standard
of education then globally available. Though as a boy taught by dedicated
priests, the provincial and Church environment in Etchmiadzin and Yerevan
suffocated Taghiatian whose intellect had been stirred by encounters with
men of wealth and with experience of Europe. An adventurous fellow he
upped and went off on travels through Djugha and India, then back to
Etchmiadzin, to Istanbul, returning to Djugha and again to India in 1839
where he settled and was to spend most of his life.

India then featured a thriving Armenian community centered round wealthy
merchants who retained a decided Armenian national identity despite their
distance from Armenian homelands. Together with making money they
published Armenian language books on trade, business and commodities. A
portion of their profit flowed to schooling and to the publication of
periodicals and political tracts. If Armenian capital contributed anything
to the national revival, it was its support for secular enlightenment
argues Leo. Against the religious accented patriotism of the Mekhitarists,
Indo-Armenian communities acted as bearers of secular thought shaped by
British liberalism and the heritage of the European Enlightenment. They
played an important part in introducing thinkers such as John Locke,
Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu into the Armenian cultural ambit.

It would profit to consider the grounds for Indo-Armenian capital's
retention of its original Armenian features. Suffice for the moment to
note that it was actually native to Armenia, before being deported by Shah
Abbas to Nor Djugha from whence it set out for more profitable spheres
further east. As it prospered in India, through many of its personnel, its
servants, some of its markets and its goods, its family, business,
religious and cultural contacts, it retained links to its origins, links
that endured even as it set firmer roots in the Diaspora. In India
furthermore Armenian capital occupied a distinct position often in direct
competition to British trading groupings. A sense of nationality nurtured
as a result was further fertilised by continued contact with surviving
Garabagh Armenian principalities, conceived perhaps as a kernel for
independent statehood in the face of increasing British antagonism to
energetic Armenian challenge.

Such was the milieu that was to stamp Taghiatian's world-view. His primary
delight was the founding and running of schools inspired by ideas acquired
whilst studying at India's British `Bishop's College'. He was the first
Armenian to run a mixed school for boys and girls and established an
Ararat Society dedicated to their advancement. A prolific author, a poet,
historian and publisher Taghiatian remained first and foremost a teacher.
This `The Patriot' (1845 -1852) focused naturally on matters of Armenian
education, but covered much more. Translations from Shelly, Shakespeare,
Longfellow, Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Firdusi (HT - See Note 1) ran
alongside criticism of Church superstition, calls for women's emancipation,
as well as denunciation of soul hunting American missionaries engaged in
reconnaissance for US imperialism.

A most remarkable feature of this veritable polymath - prolific poet,
historian, novelist, folklorist, journalist and educator - was a laudable
democratic opposition to colonialism, imperialism and oppression.
Taghiatian and his `The Patriot' denounced the British protection of
illegal slave traders in Egypt. He opposed the impoverishing colonial tax
system Britain imposed on India. And North Africa `The Patriot' lashed out
against French colonialism's slaughter of Algerians (HT).

Almost simultaneously with Abovian, Taghiatian wrote one of our first
historical novels `The Story of Vartkes' (1846), also dedicated to the
Armenian national revival, though set in ancient times and alas written in
classical Armenian. In his labour for Armenian national development
Taghiatian prioritised recovering classical Armenian culture and utilising
poetry and literature developed by the common people as a foundation for
then appropriating best of global culture (HT). Reflecting his stay in
India an epic poem `Unu and Santibi' (1847) tells of the unlikely love of
an ancient Armenian prince and an Indian princess. Taghiatian also
authored `A History of Ancient India' (1841), a first Armenian history on
a non-Armenian subject. A volume on `Travels Among Armenians' (1847) is
rich with socio-historical information on Armenian life in the Ararat and
Syunik provinces and preserve value for modern researchers.

Untiring dedication was rewarded with renown and respect. Taghiatian was
never in want of support whether to cover debts, to acquire printing
presses or for medical help when unwell. That today he has virtually no
intellectual presence, invoked only sometimes in histories has less to do
with talent than with the fact that writing only in classical Armenian his
intellectual and artistic legacy is beyond the reach of most. Leo unlocks
some of it!


                                   III.

The paucity of biographical material on Steppanos Nazaryants (1812-1879)
drove Leo to fill gaps and create context from detailed knowledge of
Khatchatour Abovian's youth that in important ways paralleled Nazaryants'
as it took both from the Caucuses to the German educational center in
Torbat. Elevated from the stagnant waters of Armenian education Nazaryants
flourished, subjected to the influence of Young German and Young Hegelian
assaults on reaction in German philosophy, law, literature and history.
Here it was that he began to evolve a vision for the rational and
scientific education of Armenian society.

Despite the secular milieu of his student days Nazaryants remained a
deeply religious man. Yet, he had no time for a clergy that opposed reason
and science, for Christian dogma that then prevailing expressed but the
dominance of an ignorant and self-serving clergy. Judged as the primary
culprit for the plight of the Armenian nation, Nazaryants wrote that:

    `In matters that concern the nation the priest today has no role. The
    people need another kind of teacher one that can give more than men
    locked away in their cloisters, utterly removed from society.'

Nazaryants' campaign to place education on a modern footing was just one
element of a fuller assault on the backward institutions that dominated
Armenian intellectual life. In an early issue of his flagship journal
`Northern Lights' he wrote:

    `Henceforth we want no more of devious Egyptian idols claiming to be
    the only founts of knowledge. Hereafter no Chinese wall that would bar
    the flow of enlightened thought into nations. Hereafter let there be
    light, truth and freedom from the tyranny of Babylonian darkness.

To secure wider, popular, projection Nazaryants opted for a modern
vernacular language that would be understood by the common people. In what
was a radical step he urged the translation of the Bible into modern
Armenian, a step that would of course make it available for critical
consideration among the people (p97, 103). Denouncing religious sectarianism
that had led to mob violence against Armenian Protestants he suggested a
sense of nationality that would incorporate all irrespective of faith.

Hostile to bombastic patriotism, Nazaryants rejected the then widespread
nonsense that Armenian was the original language of Adam and Eve,
dismissed myths of the Armenian people's Biblical origins and challenged
literal interpretations of the epic of Hayk and Bel. He also took Armenians
to task for a critical lack of community spirit, for an extreme
individualism that bred indifference to national concerns. This absence of
communal spirit together with an appalling educational establishment, the
oppression of women, a crude materialism, widespread prejudice and
superstition and ignorance of science were, he was convinced leading to
the disintegration of Armenian society.

For such views and for propounding comprehensive Church reform, Nazaryants
was excommunicated by the Church that also turned to the Tsarist State for
help to silence him! Yet in this opponent the Church confronted no radical
or revolutionary activist, no Nalpantian or Raffi. Nazaryants was a
thoroughly conservative reformer, a moderate if ever there was one. He was
repulsed by the atheistic trends of the French Enlightenment, reserving
particular hatred for Voltaire and the principles of the French Revolution
of 1789. On the national front his `Northern Lights' passed in silence
over the emergent Armenian national Liberation Movement devoting not a
word to one of its most significant early moments - the 1862 Armenian
Uprising in Zeitun. Church hostility to Nazaryants measures the depth of
its own reaction and backwardness but so also the progressive quality of
Nazaryants' thought despite his moderate liberal democratic convictions.

Nazaryants's `Northern Lights', first published in Moscow in 1858, despite
remoteness from the concrete issues of Armenian life, was the vigorous and
uncompromising mouthpiece for his views on a modern, scientific and
rational education and history. Through commentaries on and translations
of European social science and literature and encouragement of Armenian
letters, he grouped around the journal some of the most able thinkers of
the younger generation such as Mikael Nalpantian and later Raffi who began
to give the journal a more radical and nationalist dimension.

When financial difficulties forced the journal's closure in 1864 it had
already began to acquire a clearer democratic thrust and began comment on
the Armenian liberation movement against the Ottoman destruction of
Armenian life.  Stepanos Nazaryants never recovered from the closure and
his fading years proved to be deeply tragic. Moving from Moscow to Tbilisi
he hoped to end life as an educator in a city with a substantial Armenian
community. But he met with bitter disappointment. A brief period as head
of the Nersissian College was marred by conflict with the clerical powers
in control. After a lifetime in Moscow he was alienated by the backwardness
of life in the Caucasus, by the appalling poverty and by the egoism of the
rich. What he believed in most, social solidarity and sense of community,
public spirit - all was lacking.

But Nazaryants had established himself as a figure of substance, appreciated
not just in Eastern Armenia but in faraway Istanbul too then a hub for
Western Armenian intellectual development. His funeral was a mass, popular
honouring.

A most appropriate validation of Stepanos Nazaryants's historical
contribution to Armenian thought and culture comes from none other than
Father Mesrop Janashian, Catholic Mekhitarist priest, literary critic and
historian of literature, who wrote that Nazaryants was `the personification
of the idea of enlightenment in eastern Armenian life.'


* * *

The volumes are not flawless. Living in Britain, one cannot pass over an
appalling blindness that Leo displays on the essence of British imperialism
and its role in India. Incapable of distinguishing between the ideological
English liberal tradition and the reality of British plunder and oppression,
Leo speaks of British rule in India `bringing about a colony of European
civilization where nations can be nourished with a now new, free,
constructive and enhancing spirit.' Despite this and other stains, Leo's
service remains of the first order.

With another three-volume biography of Krikor Ardzrouni, published in
1905, Leo bequeaths us an engrossing intellectual history of 19th century
Armenia. Taghiatyan, Nazaryants, and Ardzrouni, however circumscribed
their worldview, did more than just appropriate and disseminate some of
the best thought of the time. Though not political revolutionaries, they
were bold and courageous public intellectuals, challenging and defying the
permits of hidebound, reactionary authority whose indifference to the
public and national good was then suffocating the nation. May Leo's
revived heroes inspire a comparable daring and audacity today!


* * *

NOTE 1: I have supplemented this comment on Leo's biographies with a
couple of additional points from Hrant Tamrazian's "History of Armenian
Literary Criticism, Volume Three, 688pp, 1992, Yerevan. I indicate this
with a bracketed (HT).
 

-
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.

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