Notes for a reading of the ‘Book Lamentations’ by Narek
Armenian News Network / Groong
November 28, 2016
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Reading Narek: Four
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Though discussing units of 5 elegies at a time is somewhat arbitrary, in this set there appears to be discrete and organic unity. Here Narek ‘appeals for the strength’ (‘ուժ տուր’) to correct his ‘deviating course’ (‘մոլոր ընթաձքը’ - p52). He seeks ‘the restoration anew of his shattered and destroyed earthen vessel’ (‘ջարդված, խորտակված, լուծված անոթս նորեն, վերստեղծելով հրաշակերտիր’ - p54). His desire is to return to his ‘healthy former days where as in the garden of Eden I was wont to gather the fruit of life’ (‘առողջ դարձրու ինծ առաջվա պես երբ երանավեր դախտի այգում ըմբոշխում էի պտուղը կյանքի’ - p51). The suggestion of a paradise lost and the hope of its recovery is not of course uniquely Christian. The notion is at the heart of every utopia in every age of man/woman, present here in a Christian, Biblical formulation.
In the struggle to reform and renew his life Narek keeps the established Church, its hierarchies and authorities at arms’ length. The Church in fact does not feature as a necessary agent. To no priest, to no canon or ritual does Narek turn for guidance, instruction or confirmation (p48, 51). It is not with ‘anointed oils’ (‘օծման յուղով չէ’) but with ‘unblemished faith’ and ‘arms raised’ in prayer (‘հավատն անբիծ, իմ բազուկների վերամբարձումով’ – p51) that he strives to garner strength and will to refresh his life. He is confident that through direct, unmediated communication with God, despite ‘the large distance, your word can yet cure me’ (‘մեծ տարածությամբ, խոսքդ ինծ կարող է բուժել’ - p48).
Achievement here rests on individual effort, individual consciousness, conscience and acknowledgement of vice and virtue, all acquired through the exercise of our human reason and human will and faith acquired directly through contemplation and prayer with god.
Narek’s powerful preoccupation with the fate of men and women not just as spiritual beings but as secular social beings in their concrete human relations is signaled forcefully by his highlighting of the collapse of social solidarity as a most damning sin. He reproaches himself that ‘I did not with a warm love approach unto the needs of my fellow-creatures’ (‘Բնավ ընկերոջ հոգս ու վշտերին ջերմագին սիրով չկարեկցեցի’ - p56). He suffers spiritual distress for ‘I did not extend my hand unto him who was in danger’ (‘աղետի մեջ ընկած թշվառին օգնելու համար ձեռք չմեկնեցի - p56).
In his concern for men and women Narek never separates the soul from the body, the spiritual from the secular. Body and soul are part of a single whole that suffer simultaneously. Narek is concerned at once both with the spiritual and social fate of man/woman. Images of the soul in crisis are most telling when described with metaphors drawn from social and physical life in crisis. These metaphors stand independently as profound depictions of troubled social, political, economic and secular life in which social solidarity is absent. The wrack and ruin, the decay and decomposition of man and woman as a unity of the spirit and body are highlighted in hideous pictures of impoverishment, of enslavement, of incarceration and the blows of injustice (p53 and on). Indeed the crisis of man/woman at his/her most tragic is depicted repeatedly in metaphors and images of social being at its very most oppressed and downtrodden.
Narek in fact would not have separated the private, spiritual life of men and women from their social existence. He would not have abjured the secular for an exclusively spiritual concern. His was a time when religion and faith was directly and centrally a guide and instruction for everyday social and individual life, a moral compass, a codification of correct and virtuous behavior with Christ as role model against which men and women’s actions were to be measured. It would be an ignorant historical lapse to limit his ambition to that of an individual’s inner spiritual being alone with no purchase on their secular existence. One can conceive of religious faith as such today, but not at all in Narek’s times.
With startlingly creative imagery Narek continues to ceaselessly elaborate and continues to glorify Divine omnipotence. Repeatedly the Divine is portrayed as essentially humanist. The Divine is a ‘merciful, compassionate lover of men’ (ողորմած, գթած, մարդասեր, կարող’) ‘the compassion of whose good works is unflagging’ (‘անտկարելի բարերարութիւն անբավ գթություն’ – p45). God is ‘the longed for message, delectable taste, sweet perception, professed reality, glorious essence’ (բարբառ կենդանի, փափագելի լուր, ըղձալի ճաշակ, պաշտելի կոչում, բարություն անբավ’ – p54). God is ‘unfailing munificence, limitless generosity’ (‘անտկարելի բարերարություն, անբավ գթություն’ – p45). ‘Thine, the healing, the abundance and the gifts and the free favours’ (‘քոնն են բժշկություն եւ առատություն եվ պարգեվ ձիր’ - p45) Narek proclaims.
All this cements a conviction that a God that moves with the primary purpose of caring for man/woman such omnipotence will ‘restore…my collapsing broken earthen vessel (‘լուծված հողանյութ անոթս նորեն վերաստեղծելով հրաշակերտել’ – p54).
Here in Christian form is yet another _expression_ of a historically universal consciousness of human potential and possibility, of dream and desire, again alienated and transferred to another. It is a form registered through all art and literature and is closely connected to the ambitions of a paradise lost to be recovered!
There are passages that reek of a world-hating asceticism as when Narek condemns himself for ‘daring to utter worldly words’ «բառբարել անվերջ երկրասեր խոսքեր’ -p59), for ‘fanatically persisting in shameful activities’ (խենդի մոլությամբ սիրահարվեցի ամոթալի ու զազիր գործերին – p59) and for failing ‘even when in prayer to cut myself off from worldly life’ (‘աղոթքիս պահին նույնիսկ այս կեանքից չկտրվեցի’ - p59). ‘I embraced the love of pleasure’ and ‘indulging my body I wore out my soul.’ (‘Գիրկս բաց արի այս կեանքի սիրուն…անարատ հոգիս մարմնիս փափկութեամբ հաւետ վատնեցի’ – p59) It would again be odd were such sentiments to be absent from a 10th text written by a monastic mystic, a profound believer in a Christian God. But such passages do not steer the ‘Book of Lamentations’.
-- 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.