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Politics, Aesthetics and the Missing Witness: Armenian Literature in the Aftermath of 1915

Date: Monday 19 October
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr Talar Chahinian (California State University, Long Beach)
Chair: Mr Raphael Gregorian (Programme of Armenian Studies)

Dr Talar Chahinian

Dr Chahinian provided an overview of the literary responses to the Genocide within the Armenian Diaspora and she focused her attentions on exactly how the memories of such a catastrophic event were represented. A particular focus was put on the insufficiency of language to express the experience of the Genocide. Such a catastrophic event begs for endless testimony; yet there lies an inherent paradox in this will to represent this catastrophe in literature due to the senseless nature of such an event. Dr Chahinian sought to highlight the difference between the historical narrative, constructed in communities of the Armenian Diaspora to produce a chronological historical account of the Genocide, and the subjective narrative that can be found in literary works. The historical narrative account is regarded to be a more politicised version of events during the Genocide and its aftermath, whereas literary works would reveal lived stories and memories of individuals. The historical narrative is what seems to command representational authority in diasporan communities.

In terms of literary production post-1915, Dr Chahinian points to an often-overlooked group forged in Paris who launched a diasporan literary movement called Menk (Armenian for ‘we’).  Paris was already home to a small intellectual community who had arrived in privileged circumstances before the Genocide, but intellectual activity grew once Menk was established by these orphans who had survived the Genocide.

The prominent aim of Menk was to call for a ‘new literature’ to reflect the new situation and condition of dispersed Armenians around the world. They attempted to initiate a transnational literary tradition. This gave birth to the first wave of Armenian diasporan literature. Novels produced by this movement were almost autobiographical in nature. Writers grappled predominantly with the theme of ‘belonging’ and the difficulties that arise from the reality of being uprooted from one’s homeland and finding oneself in a foreign land. Typical traits of characters from these novels included illness, impotency and unemployment. Since all of these writers were men, these traits may be explained by the loss of their patriarchal authority and the incongruent demand to reinstate it away from home. Since the movement was established by orphans, they not only felt the loss of patriarchy but also the destruction of former family structures.

Raphael Gregorian, Chair

Raphael Gregorian, Chair

Following World War Two, intellectual activity in the Armenian Diaspora moved to the Middle East, where intellectuals attempted to produce a general narrative of the Genocide, and of experiences thereafter, in order to ascribe an overarching story that may be referenced by survivors and their children. Political activity with regards to the Genocide also began to develop in America on the 50th anniversary, in 1965. The production of Armenian literature in English then became popular in the States, not necessarily because of its literary merit, but due to its political content. This led to the impotency of the Western Armenian language and the degradation of its use in Armenian literature in general. Dr Chahinian notes that the works written by authors of Menk have not been republished by Diaspora institutions thus far, and that they present us with an alternative archive to understanding the complexities of aesthetic representation in the aftermath of Genocide. Their representations can be regarded as more horrific and traumatic than the historical representation of the event.

Dr Chahinian moved the discussion towards the survivors of the Genocide themselves as witnesses who experienced trauma. She refers to literary critic and philosopher, Marc Nichanian, who states ‘witnesses wished for their testimonies to be archived so that the word “fact” could preserve some sense for civilized humanity’. He says that, in fact, these witnesses were powerless since their intention to archive their testimonies led to the ‘disowning of their memory’. This led to survivors having to ‘prove their own death’. Dr Chahinian distinguished between the missing witness and the ‘incomplete’ witness. The ‘incomplete’ witness is the survivor who is unable to give a comprehensive account of the past, whose language fails them to express memories fully, and whose guilt of surviving acts as an impediment to providing a full witness account of the horrors of the Genocide. The missing witness, on the other hand, is the ‘complete’ witness. This is the witness who is on the receiving end of the genocidal will, i.e. the dead witness.

Dr Chahinian concludes with a quote from the book, The Name at the Tip of my Tongue, by the Western Armenian writer, Krikor Beledian, in which the failure of language is performed, as different dialects of Armenian are used, and various ambiguous points of view are presented. His work demonstrated the futile attempt at meaning-making with regards the Genocide. The quote is as follows: ‘Language had to remember that which had turned it into a desert’.

1 Comment

  1. Antranik Dakessian, Ph.D., Armenian Diaspora Research Center, Haigazian University says:

    The late Bebo Simonian has an interesting research article on Menk in the 17th volume of the Haigazian Armenological Review, pages 439-463.

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