Monday, 6 April 2009

James Russell’s commentary on Charents homoerotic poetry and more

There were stormy discussions in Armenian literary circles following a publication by Inknagir magazine of never before published homoerotic poetry by Armenia’s cultural icon Yeghishe Charents (168 Zham, Azg, Aravot, Zhamanak, What can I say... We are lucky that unpublished poetry by Charents did not reach Soviet style 'Charents specialists', and thanks to James Russell and some others we now have Charents unzipped. (For more background info, read Yeghishe Charents unzipped – nation’s favourite gay poet)

In response to this ‘controversy’, below is a copy of James Russell’s letter to the readers of Inknagir magazine, published here with the kind permission of the author. James Russell is a professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of number of Armenia related works, covering history, religion and literature. He has a special interest in the great Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents.

Dear Friends,

A few years ago a number of scholars of Armenian studies including myself were attacked in the media for our studies of Armenian history. In my own work I have focussed on Armenian pre-Christian religion, mythology, and epic literature over a number of years, studying in particular the Iranian and Zoroastrian components. I undertook this work because it fascinated me, as a rich and ancient facet of Armenian culture. Obviously one's writings in this area are based on primary sources, textual, ethnographic, and archaeological; and to the degree that one has advanced new insights, they are based upon this evidence.

There are scholars with ideological agendas, and every human being ipso facto approaches whatever he perceives with a personal point of view; but the better a scholar is, the more he tries to be objective, or at least to be aware of his own biases and to admit them. In recent weeks I have been attacked by some shadowy organization of Armenian students for calling the proto-Armenians "colonists". But in fact the latter term belongs to the ancient Greek sources, not to me: 'The Armenians are Phrygian colonists who in their language are very like Phrygians". These data are useful in establishing the kinship of Armenian to Thraco-Phrygian and proto-Greek. It is obvious, from my own writings citing later Latin sources, that the carriers of proto-Armenian were migratory settlers, not conquering colonialists in any modern sense. They intermarried with Urarteans and others and Armenian over time became the dominant language of the plateau and remained so for many centuries.

Disagree with my arguments if you wish. Document your discussion as I have done for mine. But as for facts, take your objections to Herodotus, not to me. And do not impute to me an anti-Armenian agenda according to which one is seeking to undermine the immemorial claim of the Armenian nation to its own country. That is just defamatory nonsense. Over a lifetime I have defended the Armenian cause, supported Genocide recognition, and served the Armenian community in myriad ways. I was not obliged to do any of this and indeed many scholars in the field do not contribute this way to the people whose culture is the object of their scholarly endeavors. I do not expect thanks; but I will not tolerate abuse.

Another area of my interest is Armenian literature. I've published a book on Hovhannes Tlkurantsi and numerous articles on St. Grigor Narekatsi, St. Nerses Shnorhali, and other medieval writers. In the modern field I've published books on Bedros Tourian and Derenik Demirjian, and have written many articles and published translations of Siamanto, Daniel Varuzhan, Avetik Isahakyan, Gurgen Mahari, Paruyr Sevak, Zahrad, Mkrtich Hajian, and many others. I think all this is very fine work and of service to the field. Again, I've never sought thanks or recognition for any of it.

At the age of nineteen at Columbia College I began to read Charents. His "Vision of Death" and "The Cats and I" remain amongst the most powerful poems I've ever read, in any language. The translations and discussions of Charents by my friends Raffi Setian and Garig Basmadjian haunt me to this day. As I continued my work on Charents, gradually becoming acquainted with the texts saved from destruction at the time of his arrest, he became a greater and more complex figure than one could ever have imagined. He was both a revolutionary and a Christian mystic, a loving husband and father and a bisexual, a brilliant and responsible editor and a user of narcotics. He was at home in Moscow and Leningrad as in Erevan and Tiflis. A man as large and brilliant, as tragic and grief-stricken as his verses.

Though I have not followed in detail the stormy controversy that has arisen in Armenia following the translation of two of my major articles on Charents into Armenian and their publication in Inknagir, I should think it likely that much as the stress on Iran ignited outrage in connection with my work on Armenian antiquity, in the case of Charents it is the emphasis on his sexuality and his homoerotic verses in particular that displeases critics. To those who think one is distorting the picture or promoting a hidden agenda, I must again insist only that they consider the evidence: Charents' own manuscripts. I have published a number of other manuscript poems of Charents that are not in these two articles, but support the judgements made in them, in a long article intended for the Weitenberg Festschrift and printed also in my volume of opera minora, "Armenian and Iranian Studies" (Cambridge, MA, 2004). The book can be read in Erevan libraries and it is easily obtainable from Harvard University Press. In the bundle of papers hidden from the Soviet secret police during the Great Terror, Charents included a note begging the finder of his poems to publish them all, despite their content-- in this he was presumably alluding to the taboo topic of homosexuality. So I have not only followed the texts but fulfilled the dying request of their author. If you have a problem with the topic, take it up with the poet's ghost, not with me.

Some years ago I visited the Prado museum in Madrid, and ended up spending all three days of my stay in that city in the Goya rooms. One of his more haunting works illustrates the adage, "The sleep of reason creates monsters." It is a tantalizingly ambiguous warning, since it can mean either that when reason is absent the monsters rush in, or else that reason itself dreams them up. Double-edged swords cut with both edges: in the case of Armenian civil life today, Goya's adage is true either way. Communism was nothing if not coldly rational, yet its insistence upon its own logical inevitability and veracity created the monsters of ideologically-based scholarship and the violent suppression of contrary evidence and unorthodox ideas. Totalitarianism shaped the intellectual habits of the Armenian SSR and that doctrinaire approach is still present. And the other way, too: as the materialistic, reason-based, atheistic Communist system receded from the Soviet Union, in rushed religious bigotry, chauvinistic nationalism, and the other monsters, not of rationality, but of irrationality. So that if once Charents was promoted, mendaciously, as a Communist true believer and nothing else, now he has to be a heterosexual, nationalist Christian and nothing else. No man, certainly not a creative one, is one thing and nothing else, if only because we are never things to start with. We change, we argue with ourselves, we contradict, we live. As a creative artist as well as a scholar, I'm very, very observant of life as indefinable, and various, and larger than me. I have given most of my life to Armenian studies, and have been blessed with extraordinary teachers-- Nina Garsoian, Mary Boyce. But I am more than the writer of a page or the holder of a Harvard professorial chair. I'm a man with feelings and passions and sorrows, and a free citizen of the United States. If a kind of civil discourse does not enter Armenian life and that life shake itself free of the hatred and violence that have come to disfigure it, then I will walk away from it, and from you. But with volumes of Charents and Narek in my backpack.

Be well, and blessings from the holy city of Jerusalem to you all.

James Russell

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