Questioning the Unquestionable: Marc Nichanian’s ‘Mourning Philology’

Author Marc Nichanian


BY KAREN JALLATYAN

Have you ever felt that contemporary philosophy is useless? That you do not have the time to think about the intangible and unimportant questions that it asks? This is how I used to feel when I was an undergraduate at UCLA some years ago, studying chemistry and biology, and striving to attend medical school after graduation. But everything changed when I started reading Marc Nichanian. His books and essays did not just restore my faith in the need for philosophy; they made me think about the ways in which I could negotiate between my diasporic life and Armenian heritage, creatively and philosophically.

So why are Nichanian’s ideas so forcefully transformative? The answer is complex. For at least three decades, this French-born Armenian thinker, who philosophizes in French, Armenian, and English, has kept pace with the most nuanced and influential philosophical currents of the world. He has done so in two ways. On the one hand, he has taken concerns from contemporary philosophical debates and has raised them in Armenian literary and critical platforms, in relation to Armenian cultural and political life and production. For instance, Nichanian has written studies about the works of Zabel Esayan, Yeghishé Charents, Gurgen Mahari, Daniel Varuzhan, Constant Zarian, and many others by upholding them to the latest critical standards respected worldwide. Furthermore, he has taught and given public lectures on matters concerning the Armenian Genocide – the way we use, appropriate, and feel responsible for it, pressing questions that most Armenian intellectuals do not press. On the other hand, Nichanian has kept raising specific issues stemming from the Armenian experience in publications and conferences around the world. This way, the concerns that the Armenian Genocide exposes in our ideas of history, memory, and time are mentioned in Anglophone and Francophone debates in relation with other cultures and historical phenomena.

Although the Genocide is the focal point of many of his texts, it is unfair to characterize Nichanian as a thinker of the Armenian Genocide. On the contrary, by focusing on the literary, artistic and political aspects of the Genocide, Nichanian has shown how being concerned only with its political recognition as a genocide, we lose track of the crucial dimensions of the Armenian experience. Accordingly, in his 2009 book “The Historiographic Perversion,” Nichanian exposes the dangerous assumptions of deniers of the Armenian Genocide and warns the rest of us about the endless traps that responding to the deniers presents for the memory of the victims.

In this respect, Nichanian argues that there is also a need to critically interpret the imaginations of Armenian writers and intellectuals who lived through these catastrophic events. The imaginations of these thinkers still have a strong influence on the way we think about Armenian nationhood and history. This is why, according to Nichanian, it is necessary to carry out a deeper work of desedimentation (another name for interpretation) to loosen the hold that habits of thinking and ideals inherited from our brilliant writers from roughly a century ago still have on our minds. Desedimentation means exposing the underlying assumptions of these major cultural agents and their works. At stake for Nichanian is the productive potential of Armenian language and culture writ large, and hence the political future of the Armenian people as well.

In his other texts, Nichanian carries out the urgent work of desedimenting the modern Armenian sense of nationhood by crucially focusing on the 19th century, which had a colossal influence on the imagination of Armenian intellectuals. The book that I want to discuss in greater detail here does precisely the latter. The occasion is the recent English publication, translated by G.M. Goshgarian and Jeff Fort, of “Mourning Philology: Art and Religion at the Margins of the Ottoman Empire” (2014). The original French text was published in 2007 and was the second of the three-volume series appearing under the general heading “Entre l’art et le témoignage. Littératures arméniennes au XXe siècle” (Between Art and Testimony: 20th-Century Armenian Literatures).

In this volume, Nichanian attempts a critical exposition of the deep-rooted assumptions of the pivotal 19th- and early 20th-century major Armenian writers – Daniel Varuzhan, Hagop Oshagan, Constant Zarian, but also Khachatur Abovean, for a particular reason. Nichanian’s specific focus is on the assumptions informing the relation between art and religion. This assumption is a crucial moment in desedimenting our inherited sense of (Armenian) nationhood since for these intellectuals nationhood is achieved through art, or, in other words, art is the origin of nationhood.

Nichanian demonstrates that in their distinct attempts to bring to life a sense of Armenian nationhood these writers relied, without the ability to question, on a specific philosophical formulation of the relationship between art and religion invented in early 19th-century Europe. Accordingly, this relationship consists in simultaneously assuming that religion originates from art and that art mourns the loss of religion.

In their attempts to bring to life an Armenian nationhood, how could Varuzhan and his generation of Armenian writers repeat, almost verbatim, the early 19th-century European assumption of a circular relation between art and religion?

Nichanian’s answer is two-fold. First, he argues that Armenian writers, because of their historical period, understood art and religion in terms of the discipline of philology. Philology is the study of languages in and of themselves and in relation to other languages. Philological studies take into consideration not only textual, but also cultural, social, religious, and political contexts. They try to provide a comprehensive account of the historical development of a language and culture. Second, Nichanian argues that the idea that art is the origin of religion reached the Armenian writers largely through the writings of the prominent philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

The discipline of philology reached its peak in the 19th century, and, as demonstrated in Edward Saïd’s now-classic “Orientalism” (1978), spread alongside Western European imperialist projects. Generations of philologists, historians, writers, travelers, politicians, economists, and entrepreneurs operated under the unquestioned assumptions of philology. They constructed the cultures and histories of other peoples outside Western Europe as exotic, inferior, and as having lost touch with their own past. European philologists then tried “to educate” them about their past, making them want to resemble Europeans, while casting them as inferior “natives.”

But what are philology’s unquestioned assumptions? According to Nichanian, philology merely assumes the loss of gods without knowing anything about such a loss. More radically, philology “invents” religion and the myths preceding its development as always already lost. This is because philology is not a religion – it does not believe in the myths and gods that it attempts to describe comprehensively. A philological study, by default, positions itself as coming after the demise of such belief systems. Lastly, philology assumes itself to be capable of successfully uncovering such lost phenomena; this is its partial and blinding work of mourning.

Nichanian then hastens to add that philology thinks and knows very little about mourning as such, whatever that might mean. In particular, it does not know anything about catastrophic mourning – mourning for an event for which there is no witness, as is the case of an event like the 1915 Genocide. In this book and elsewhere, Nichanian tirelessly reminds his readers that some events can be survived only at the cost of a complete transformation. So much so that nobody, including the survivor, can adequately witness the experience. We tend to refer to such events as traumatic; Nichanian prefers to describe them as catastrophic. Any kind of testimony is a mere substitute for the events which are too traumatic to be communicated through testimony. Moreover, when we use such testimony solely for the sake of making historical and political arguments – thus falling into the trap prepared by genocide deniers – we make it impossible for us to adequately mourn the catastrophic loss since our testimony subjects the latter to proof and calculation. Aside from dubiously assuming that art is the origin of religion, philology does not show any awareness of the problem of catastrophic mourning when it conceives myths and religion as lost. Nor does philology explain how art is supposed to be a way of mourning and the loss of exactly what it is supposed to mourn.

This makes the projects of nationalization contemporary to and determined by the reign of philology also incapable of mourning. Nichanian argues that among Armenians, before Varuzhan, only Abovean in the preface to his “Wounds of Armenia” (1841) intimates this incapacity to mourn in relation to philology and the rise of the nation. This is why Nichanian devotes an early chapter to Abovean.

By way of questioning the assumptions of 19th-century philology, Nichanian criticizes mainstream theories of nationalism as failing to consider the rise of national movements “as an effect of philological nationalism” (9). The influence of philological nationalism on the historical development of the national projects in general, and in the Armenian case in particular, can hardly be exaggerated for Nichanian. He writes:

[W]e are entirely dependent on this event [the advent of philological nationalism], artistic or not, that is now, like modern philology, two centuries old. It has made us what we are and we have no means of escaping it. We do not live in a vacuum in which we might simply have an opinion (good or bad) of nationalism that we could back up with theories. We have therefore to return to the appropriating event, the one that has made us what we are, “properly” are, and has, additionally (but is it merely an addition?), given us our literary language. We must explore the reasons for it and the forms of its historical advent. We must prove capable of changing direction and working our way back through all the historically sedimented layers between us and the initial event, if it is possible to envisage such a thing. In sum, we have to prove capable of “replaying” the event of the nationalization. (9-10)

What theories of nationalization tragically ignore is the appropriating nature of this event that conventional history has a difficult time classifying. It is an appropriating event because whenever a cultural ”us” is being distinguished, a political “us” is being created with it. As we can see in the passage above, for Nichanian the proper way of engaging with the legacy of nationalist projects is by open-minded questioning. Instead of fully endorsing or absolutely rejecting the historical legacy of nationalist projects, we should try to desediment their assumptions.

By freely questioning this nationalist heritage, we attempt to become a more thoughtful, nuanced, and questioning community. Nichanian’s passage above and his books in general constantly practice and ask for such a committed attitude of questioning. This is what faith in the need for philosophy looks like, the idea with which I began my article. I hope that by reading this latest publication by Nichanian, “Mourning Philology: Art and Religion at the Margins of the Ottoman Empire,” no matter how we relate to Armenian identity claims, we will be more aware of its historical layers and of the responsibilities implied therein.

Karen Jallatyan is a Ph.D. student of Comparative Literature in UC Irvine and plans to write an interdisciplinary dissertation on the contemporary visual and digital culture of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at criticisforum.com. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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