By Khachig Tololyan
(Source: Ararat Magazine (Autumn, 198 8):8O)
As feminist literary criticism has developed over the past two decades, it has made readers aware of the extent to which the forms of woman’s desire are not natural and unchanging givens, but rather are constructed differently in every society. This shaping of desire is achieved by the combined force of social relations (for example the institutions of courtship and marriage) and verbal representations (for example, fictions which depict and evaluate various manifestations of desire).
Much of Armenian fiction and criticism, like Armenian society itself, remains slow to acknowledge and explore feminine desire. Indeed, even male desire, a less taboo topic, is actually rarely rendered directly; its occasional representations remain highly conventionalization have affected two dominant misconception which persist in all but a fraction of the considerable output of critical essays and commentary which Soviet Armenia and the Diaspora produce. The first is the conclusion that the massive problems created by the trauma of genocide and the urgencies of maintaining collective identity rightly overshadow the problems of sexuality and the construction of gendered subjectivity, both in the real world and in narrative. This view follows in part from an Armenian conception of narrative art, which demands that it contribute to the fulfillment of the social agenda. The second misconception is expressed by the degree to which the problematic status of desire, when recognized, is framed by the concept of intermarriage, by the act that brings the odar, the stranger, the seductive other into the bosom of the Armenian family. In other words, when it is acknowledged to exist, desire is conceptualized as one of those problems threatening the nation; it is displaced and misrecognized as an aspect of the problem of assimilation.
What is astonishing about the avoidance of the issue of desire is that it persists despite the existence of several eloquent novels and stories, which, since the 1920’s, have addressed the problem openly and in a complex fashion. In France and to a very small extent in Lebanon, critics writing in Armenian but familiar with Western critical terms and traditions (Marc Nichanian, Krikor Beledian, Harout Kurkjian, Jeanine Altounian) have called attention to the representation of desire in the work of Zareh Vorpouni, Shahan Shahnour, Vazken Shoushanian and a few others. In virtually all these cases, the writers are men, characters and subjectivities which are depicted and explored are men’s, and the critics are men familiar with Continental criticism and psychoanalysis but not with feminist literary criticism. My own effort here is directed towards the work of a woman, Zabel Yesayan, and one of the female protagonists she created, and seeks to put into practice some of the insights of American feminist criticism.
Zabel Yesayan was born in 1878, in a prosperous family living in Istanbul, and died of starvation and exhaustion in 1943, somewhere in Stalin’s gulag. She published her first work when she was seventeen, and from 1895 until the early purges of 1935, for exactly forty years, she wrote in a variety of forms and genres; her nonfictional prose is as interesting and almost as influential as her fiction, as is the case with prominent Western women writers like Virginia Woolf. Living in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, in France and the Soviet Union, Yesayan experimented with many ideologies, commitments and what we can call life-styles; she was a nationalist first, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and finally a Marxist. She was entrusted with challenging tasks that required both diplomacy and fortitude. Her commissioned report on the massacre of Armenians in Adana in 1909 is still read and cited today, and its effect is due not only to its documentary acumen but also to its stylistic power. By 1907, when she was less than thirty years old, Yesayan was already recognized as an exceptional writer and as an exceptional woman writer by both the male and female factions of the literary elite of Istanbul. Mrs Hyganoush Mark, the feminist reformer who wrote countless essays and reviews, referred to her as the “black diamond” among the writers of her time, and even Ardashess Haroutunian, the most consistent and demanding of male critics of the era, saw in her an originality which, he announced, all other contemporary women writers lacked (1).
This critical reputation has remained high. Hagop Oshagan wrote in 1942 that “Yesayan is one of the greatest figures of Armenian narrative, if not the greatest,” and if on occasion this accolade has been slightly qualified, it has never been rejected. Yesayan’s autobiographical, somewhat fictionalized memoir, The Gardens of Silihdar, is nowadays among the most frequently reread of Armenian classics, and critics educated in Europe, like Seta Kapoyan and Shoushig Dasnabedian, have published half a dozen skilled readings of her oeuvre in recent years. Even in these cases, however, the absence of a feminist perspective in Armenian criticism makes the repetition of the clumsiest clichés inevitable. Male admirers of Yesayan’s work, like her Soviet Armenin biographer, Sevag Arzoomanyan, have written that “her voice rang masculine and impressive” and even a woman like Dasnabedian can still write of Yesayan’s “masculine power and feminine warmth”, in 1987(2). In other words, the recognition of Yesayan’s talent, of the formal, structural and rhetorical properties of her work has been achieved (as used to be the case with Western writiers like Jane Austen) at the cost of a persistent oversight where the feminist qualities of her work are concerned. Critics have failed to recognize that her best work, and especially the novella Verchin Pazhag’eh, challenges the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” in general, and the conventional Armenian conceptions of masculine and feminine desire, in particular. The purpose of my essay is not to attempt a full reading of the novella but to test a modest hypothesis, namely that a major concern of her work is to represent, to question, and finally to subvert, the prevailing Armenian representation of woman’s desire.
Verchin Pazhag’eh is an 87-page novella published in 1924(3). Its title can be rendered literally as “The Last Cup”; its connotations are complex. In English, the words “glass” and “cup” can refer to similar objects, but “cup” is the more resonant word, hinting at phrases like “my cup runneth over”, at the discourse of religion and celebration. The semantic domain shared by these two words in English exists also in the Western Armenian dialect in which Yesayan writes, where the words kavat and pazhag divide the field more radically than in English. The heightened diction of the title signals the intense literariness of the work, which is maintained throughout, as the first-person narrator, an Armenian wife and mother named Adrine, tells a story of desire without fulfilment in tones of alternating detachment and intensity, but always with a complex, one is tempted to say theoretical, self-awareness.
Adrine is attractive, from a prosperous family, and is therefore accustomed to courting by men. When she decides to overlook other suitors and marry the “ugly, dour” Michael, she stresses that her decision has less to do with desire or love for him than with respect for the unadorned, vulnerable but unslavish devotion with which he courts her, and for the equally direct way in which he faces a world preoccupied with bourgeois hypocrisy, material comforts and social niceties. “He was a real man, and only women know what a rare thing a true man is” writes Adrine. The mention of women’s knowledge justifies the assumption that we are correct in interpreting her use of the word “men” to specify males. But on the very page where this statement is made, Yesayan’s vocabulary begins to create a calculated blurring of the categories of male and female. The Armenian word I have translated as “man” in the sentence above is mart in the original. In ordinary Western Armenian, it means “man/male”, but in fact it can also mean “human”, and Yesayan quickly signals that she wants us to keep both possibilities in mind by explicitly saying that the word mart can mean “both man and woman”. She underscores this by adding that “people [martik] rarely present themselves for what they are,” as Michael does. The sentence, and the passage in which it occurs, performs a double function. It establishes the character of the unloved, undesired but nevertheless respected husband who is the appropriate spouse for a woman who has seen precious little evidence of either desire or respect in the marriages of the upper bourgeoisie of Istanbul in the immediate pre-War period, when the story takes place. But it also marks a tendency that will continue throughout, a movement from the gender-marked word or comment to the generalizing phrase that extends the judgement to all people, males and females both. Furthermore, it hints at the possibility that gender, which presents itself as the key to what people really are, may distort and conceal as much as it reveals.
It is necessary to contextualize this tendency of her work, which it shares with much of Western feminism. It has probably always been the case that women have silently flinched at the easy separation of the sexes by the attribution of different qualities to each, but discontent about the untruth and unfairness of such stereotyping has been most forcefully articulated fairly recently, in the literature and theory of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s worth noting that Yesayan, a contemporary of both Colette and Virgina Woolf, wrote the above-quoted lines four years before Woolf discussed a related matter in her long essay, A Room Of One’s Own (1929)(4). There, Woolf argued against the notion that maleness and femaleness are radically opposed categories, each untinged by the features of the other. She wrote, for example, that “perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.” Yesayan’s argument is not specifically about creativity or androgyny, which are Woolf’s specific concerns in this passage; it is more general and “existential”, part of sweeping claim that men and women must always appear in masks and “false clothing” which simplifies their complexity, hiding it even from themselves. The claim can appear banal, but not when Yesayan applies it to matters of gender, when she is concerned to show that gender is a category used in Armenian society and fiction to hide the coexistence in men and women of aspects of desire attributed only to one sex.
This questioning of the categories of gender is, as I have claimed, a feature of feminism early and late. In The Color Purple(5), Alice Walker provides examples of the same approach when she has a man say of a woman: “Shug act more manly than most men…[She] is not like men…but…not like women, either.” Later, the same man confesses: “I use to try to sew along with mama cause that’s what she was always doing. But everybody laughed at me.” Walker, like Woolf and Yesayan, articulates doubt about gender stereotyping, and gives voice to the unease which the characters feel when they repress an interest in sewing, for example, because of the demands imposed by the patriarchal organization of sexual difference into the rigid opposition of the masculine and the feminine.
However, if Yesayan’s fiction worked at this level only, it would not deserve all the claims I am making for it, though the date and the Middle Eastern social context in which she worked is one index of what remarkable writer she was. At another level of complexity, Yesayan questions certain assumptions about the subjectivity assigned to Armenian women by traditional representations. Adrine blames herself, calling herself “a bad woman”. This puzzles us, because at this point in the narrative, which has the shape of a memoir, we know only that she did not marry for love. We find that she is guilt-ridden because she is unhappy despite the fact that Michael provides her with all the trappings of the good life. She describes herself “in despair, weeping for hours, sorry for myself”, unable or unwilling to identify the cause and do what is necessary to “free [herself] from the bonds that constrained” her. She rightly refuses to identify her husband as responsible for her malaise; he loves her and is devoted to her and to their children, who are like “lion cubs”, handsome and happy. She loves them, and has nannies who care for them, easing the burden of child-rearing. It may be that Yesayan made a wise tactical decision here, creating a woman who does “have everything”. As such, the combination of security and continuing unhappiness in her life allows her to question the causes of the latter in a way that women in less secure conditions might not, because they might have more mundane reasons to be unhappy.
Eventually, Adrine wonders whether her unhappiness is not due to lies she has told herself all along, lies which her social situation make easy, perhaps equating them with common sense. “Is it possible to lie”, she asks herself, “to lie to oneself, to say that temptation, love and even other desires have never disturbed me?” As a respectable Armenian wife and mother, she is not expected to have, or at least to articulate such desires. Soon after admitting that her situation is one of not just generalized hypocrisy but of lying even to herself, she admits that there was someone she had found very attractive, someone whose existence the memoir has repressed until this point. “He was brave, fearless; the beauty of a knight stamped his face…HE rode his black horse on the hills of Skudar, sitting at ease on that steed whose mouth was flecked with foam, from whose hoofs sparks flashed.” The description is consciously literary and erotic guises. But this knight, the memoir tells us, was a Turkish military officer, who desired Adrine and was desired by her. She admits that she resisted desire and temptation, but tells us, specifically, that her reason was not that she was a woman, a wife and mother who accepted culture’s refusal to admit the legitimacy of such desire; rather, she refuses him because they meet so soon after the massacres of Cilicia in 1909, the very massacres about which Yesayan wrote a documentary account. It is not as woman, wife and mother that Adrine refuses, but as an Armenian: “Pitiless events divided us, there were pools and floods and seas of blood dilling the space between us,” she writes.
Adrine then goes on to admit that her desire was never unproblematic for her. She felt guilt, she says, during and after a tense, erotically charged encounter on the fabled hills above the Bosphorus, during which the Turkish officer was always a gentleman and nothing improper actually happened. Nevertheless, she adds, two further events or stages were necessary before she could confront the full extent of her illegitimate desire. First, the Turkish officer is killed in the Balkan Wars of 1912, and second, she begins to write. It is this act, she emphasizes repeatedly, that enables her to face her culturaly illegitimate desire. And like many Western feminists, such as Peggy Kamuf(6), she raises the question of the extent to which writing creates desire, instead of merely recording the ghost of a past desire. I will not focus on this aspect of Yesayan’s work here, except to say that it indicates a surprising degree of theoretical sophistication concerning the extent to which the act of representation helps construct rather than passively reflecting reality. Such sophistication, in a milieu where realism was still the dominant mode of narrative, is yet another indication of Yesayan’s insight.
Later in the narrative, Adrine is present at a conversation to which people respond variously, and which affects her a great deal. The guests at her house discuss the scandal of the moment, the story of an Armenian wife and mother who has left both husband and children to go away with her lover. The man who first brings up the story praises the woman, but he does so because, unusually, he attributes to her gender characteristics not commonly associated with women. Using the word jeshmarid, the same Armenian word with which Adrine earlier describes her husband Michael as a real and true man, he says: “She is a real woman, faithful to her vocation. Instead of lying and disguising [her feelings], she trampled over assumptions and prejudices and went to live according to the dictates of her heart” (my emphasis). The diction of the passage is such that one can interpret it as expressing a sneaking admiration for “real” women, who unlike most women and all men, live according to the dictates of the heart. Michael, Adrine’s husband, angrily rejects this, invoking other “virtues specific to women” (g’noch hadoug arakinootyounner). Adrine recalls that she disagreed with her husband, but said nothing at the time.
This story prefigures the predicament which eventually confronts Adrine as hse begins to admit desire, and falls in love with an Armenian man who reciprocates her feelings, so that leaving her husband becomes a distinct possibility. In the society of Ottoman Turkey, such an act would inevitably mean that she would lose custody of her children. Adrine contemplates the problem, but not in conventional terms and ways. She decides against leaving, but not in the name of marriage, motherhood or Armenian family values. “Armenian” identity, so powerful as a barrier to the fulfillment of her desire for the Turk, is irrelevant to her behaviour as a mother. More surprisingly, Adrine argues that even maternal attachment to and love of her children is not her decisive motive. Instead, she argues that his motive, so routinely invoked in both Armenian and Western fiction, and previously eloquently acknowledged by her as an emotion she feels intensely, operates only in conjunction with another factor, a moral principle, in determining her decision to remain with her husband. In providing an additional motive, Yesayan once again shifts the ground from a gender-marked characteristic (mother-love) to one which is potentially characteristic of both sexes.
The core of Adrine’s argument is that “it is impossible to buy [one’s] happiness by inflicting unhappiness on others” for whom one cares. Remarkably, her children become exemplars of “others”, and she acts as she does not because she thinks “I could never be happy without my children” but rather because she believes they could never be happy without her. Thinking back to the anonymous woman who did leave her children to live with her lover, Adrine is in a position to blame her, not as a woman and mother but as a person who obtains her happiness at the cost of others”. Yet Adrine is hesitant to go even this far. “One must not blame her,” she muses, “but one must feel sorry for her inability” to act according to the highest standards of morality proper to both sexes, as far as Adrine is concerned.
Interestingly, at the end of the novella Adrine returns to this issue and to this moment, revising her own estimation of what the properly moral act is, and of what she should have done. Having narrated the feverish, painful scene of her final separation from her beloved, during which both he and she assert the moral principles already discussed, Adrine’s prose breaks, on the penultimate page, into a renewed celebration of the claims of love and desire, and into an assertion that perhaps the unfulfilled, specifically erotic love should have triumphed, and indeed would have triumphed if her lover had acted otherwise, giving her the courage to do so. “At that moment”, she writes of the final farewell, “something plunged and shattered in me, and if you had taken me with you just then, I would have followed you, blindly and heedlessly”.
There are no apologies or retractions in Yesayan’s text. Even today, in an Armenian and Western climate in which stereotyping is more often questioned than it was in 1924 and the claims of love and erotic desire are more frequently weighed along with others, her novella is astonishing in its steady refusal to defer to the usual categories and in its equally relentless, conscious interrogation of them. It is an index of the strength of Armenian resistance to such claims, and to the feminism which makes them, that Yesayan continues to be read without the acknowledgement of this aspect of her work.
1- Both comments were originally made in Puzantyon (Byzantium), a periodical published in Constantinople, in 1907. Both are quoted from Sevag Arzoomanyan, Zabel Yesayan: Gyankeh Yev Kordzeh [Her life and Work], Yerevan, Armenian SSR: Academy of Sciences Press, 1965, p.82
2- Verloodzagan Echer [Analytical Pages], a collection of critical essays, Beirut: Erebuni Press, 1987, p.36
3- The edition available to me provides no place of publication, but its physical similarity to certain other books makes it quite likely that it was published in Istanbul. Further references to this work will be given in parentheses in the text.
4- New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, rpt. 1979
5- New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982
6- Fictions of Feminine desire, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1982
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