“In the Language of Catastrophe”
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How prosaic an event, that is to say, the annihilation of a community, of a people. How domestic, how familial an affair. Some have reached me only by name, I know little or nothing about these people and remain suspended from these unknown faces of mine. Since childhood, I have heard about their disappearance, at times gruesome stories transmitted from familiar and unfamiliar mouths, repeated and scattered, fairy tales parents tell to put their children to sleep. Collective extermination has its private side. From the outset, I burn in its narrative. It is for this reason that I often prefer to remain silent. Not because there is nothing to say or that I shudder before what happened, in its magnitude or its impossibility, which are both partly true; but rather because how can you speak of your planned and consummated annihilation? What circumstances have contrived as such that your father, at age seven, is orphaned, but saved; your mother, at age three, is orphaned and saved, then they meet and bear you? Your story begins in such circumstances. Through which your origin becomes a catastrophe and an escape from it. That we lived is a miracle, they would say. Not that god intervened, for there was no god, neither before it, neither during those scorching years, nor afterward; instead the orphans simply endured the crime, the starvation, the heat and the cold, the beatings, the malaria, the famine, and the madness. Those who pass through fire become like hammered metal, a survivor once said. But it comes at a price. They lost everything; they had no identity, they forgot their language, but they did not forget that they came from a certain place, that they were exiled, and that there, where we used to live, here dispersed, was not our place. What were our predecessors to give us if not that which they themselves did not have or the only thing they did have, the traces of catastrophe. Themselves.
Themselves: inheritance and legacy.
The scholar escapes from it. He refuses to inherit the impossibility to live, that free, arguable, irresponsible, idle existence. He refuses mourning and lament. He is accustomed to that through the centuries. Same old story. The storyteller said long ago, they distanced us from our occupation. And they would not accept seeing so much as our shadows. We . . . shadowy beings or non-beings. But the scholar writes. Writing is a connection to life, a form of communication that eludes the dead. Then again, what is language? Communication. Only in poetry is it otherwise. It is only itself, that is to say uniform, unprotected, powerful and weak at the same time. What is the use of poetry if placed against and within this nullity?
As is often the case, that which you would forget, that which you would escape, follows you. It confronts you in the most unexpected place. As though it would not have you abandon it and speak. For the scholar, language is that place where he works, upon which he toils, and through which he becomes himself. There, he feels safe. Or he thinks himself protected. You can spread doubt about the capabilities of language, but then you think, language belongs to you. And therein occurs the event, simultaneously old and new, the imperishable. That which you sought to forget appears- nightmare, dream, delirium. The catastrophe is in the language. I do not wish to say that the genocide is a linguistic phenomenon, that it does not exist, that it is not an historical event. A metaphysical fiction. Until now, I have spoken of physics, or one might say of testimony. Only from experience. I said the catastrophe is in the language, it is there. The scholar did not know it. He learned it.
The gruesome stories have come from the mouths of survivors; they came to me when I knew nothing of the world. During long winter nights, the elders would gather around the fire, while the children slept a bit farther away in the same room. Some of the elders would begin to tell their stories, while others would form an audience. The children would either sleep or feign sleep. In anticipation of horror and wonderous warmth. We knew everything and we had to repeat everything again. The mark of memory remains ineffaceable like a brand. And one day, when the storytellers spoke at length and a hush fell over the audience, when a certain general meditation was established, at that very moment, around the faint fire, the Erzrumtsi, who played the gray-haired grandmother to us, interrupted the speech:
What you chitter-chattering on about? Them there took away our tongue, what more could’a we give up?
It is always hard to believe that we spoke, more or less, that language. That presumably unbroken language. Our ears were filled with the dialects of the provinces. And at school they taught us the clean, beautiful literary Armenian. Because we had to grow up and be men. As if unshattered, unbroken. We had to arrive at language, as though one way or another we were going to deny what happened. No, we had not died, we had not been resurrected. No matter what, we existed, and not only that, but we multiplied. Ankara radio had been locked and sealed shut. But the listener would always hear that ineffaceable, deafening sound of the victor.
The writer wants to become a scholar.
Of course he studies his language, as though it were completely alive. He also learns a few dialects. He can name the world. He realizes, he realizes slowly with disdain that he speaks, hears, and writes a language that has passed through fire, that has been saved from the desert’s burn, but that is a remnant, a residue, a part of a corpse. Beautiful, sublime, amazing, but… a scrap from a rag, a bead, a hairpin, like those one might find in the sand, after a storm. An archeological find.
I know, the talkers will object; while chewing gum, they will announce that it is not right. What of the glorious language as a native land, language as home? I said early on that I will speak of an intimate matter, a matter for scholars. This is not a national issue, nor is it a familial affair. It is my experience with language or my burn from our language. Mine is a language that has eluded catastrophe and not a language of those who survived from it. A shadowy thing, like when the truth explodes. The catastrophe, which I used to think of as an event, as a distant story, has reached our mouths; it has cut our tongue. They pulled out our tongue, said the last khanum of the Erzrum clan. It turns out she was more knowledgeable, wiser than I thought. More sound than the archive and the witness, seeking truth and rejoicing in disaster. Evidence for the catastrophe as a linguistic phenomenon abounds, beginning with the fetishization of language, the demand or command to speak in a purified tongue, the sanctification of the alphabet, the acclaim, all of which we needed in order to preserve a portion of the language. Is language not a relic? To either place in your mouth or put in a cabinet like consecrated, sacramental bread. You dare not throw it away.
The German poet has said,
We are a sign, without meaning,
And we nearly lost our language in alienation.
It is understandable that we lose the language when its place disappears, when its country essentially vanishes from sight, unguarded and forbidden. Language becomes abandoned, a dialect stripped of land, something I have called “un-peopled language.” Almost, meaning not entirely, which at the same time is already the whole.
When I said language, I did not have only a means of communication in mind, rather a means of reflection as well. An intellectual price was assigned to the catastrophe, said a surviving writer. I am not thinking only about the intellectuals who were killed or vanished in 1915. I am also thinking about the ability to form thoughts, to ponder, to visualize the occurrence, to bring it to meaning or to significance. Reflection was deferred. The victims had no need for it, they needed to survive. With an invalid and elemental fervor. Now, years later, in a time when all sorts of denial and refutation are freely at work, we remember our own extermination sometimes in horror, sometimes in awe, and sometimes in envy. We realize that we are not yet able to speak it. While understanding it, we have not yet been able to comprehend it. We have not yet reached its level or its abyss or its base. It has not had time to ripen.
The scholar hears only the shadowy language, what can he do? Destroy his pen and remain silent? Move to another language, to give testimony in that language? A second language? Is it not key to establish to the world that once we were not and now we are? This is a question of choice. A scholar can write in whichever language he chooses, as long as he truly has options. I choose to write in the language that genocidal will sought to erase. In other words, the language of the victim. Neither elegant nor majestic. This is not an attempt to attest to the past existence of the language. In that case, writing would become a folkloric act. A retrograde carnival. The scholar does not choose such solutions. They are simple. To revive? He is not Christ to resurrect Lazarus. Christ, too, is devoid of the body necessary for miracles. Christ is empty. Writing is not an informal form of worship, and certainly not a consecration. All the words are there, indiscriminately. Crime, genocide, catastrophe, disaster, and others. But the scholar knows that the names mask the only unnamed, the only name not found in words. The missing. The internal shape of the mind. The scholar does not refute, he does not judge or condemn, nor does he forgive. He does not concern himself with amends and consolation, souls at peace or with wounds. He searches for the supreme sentence.
When the critic imagines, he remembers. When he remembers, he presides, without chrism or mass, over not so much tradition, cultural riches and other crucial areas, as language. The dead body needs someone to watch over it, they say; a killer in other words, so that it can disconnect entirely and become itself. There are those who fall silent, while others lament. Between these two creeps the desire to write, crude and unrelenting, and it mourns. The desire is infinite, like the catastrophe, it has no end. But writing is not a writable catastrophe.
Krikor Beledian published “In the Language of Catastrophe” on the occasion of the Armenian genocide’s centennial in April 2015. The short think-piece reflects on the impact of catastrophe on language. More specifically, it focuses on the impossible task of reinstituting the Western Armenian linguistic form in exile. His rendering of catastrophe as the death of language, or of dialects, represents the culmination of the author’s decades-long meditation on catastrophe, developed through his multiple volumes of poetry, prose, and criticism.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Krikor Beledian moved to Paris in the late 1960s in pursuit of higher education and stayed there to develop his literary career. Though detached from the Armenian enclave of Beirut that has sustained an exclusively Armenian-speaking population, Beledian has become a leading figure in contemporary Armenian literature. Aside from his critical writings, some of which are published in French, Beledian writes his poetry and prose in Western Armenian and publishes them through small printing presses in Los Angeles and Yerevan. Deliberately sidestepping the mandate for international marketability, his novels push language to new heights, to a form of aestheticization, uncompromised by demands for universal readership.
His fiction demonstrates a style that falls somewhere between those of the nouveau roman and the postmodern novel. He often shuns punctuation rules, sequential plot lines, and reliable narrators. Although his novelistic forms are overwhelmingly inspired by French post-structuralist thought, their linguistic acrobatics and content are strikingly representative of the post-1915 Armenian diaspora, marked like it by a sense of chronological interruption and geographic dispersion. His novels highlight language’s performative capability, often oscillating between the dominant Western Armenian literary form and passages in Classical Armenian, Eastern Armenian, the Mush dialect, and colloquial Turkish-Armenian. In doing so, they raise two questions regarding aesthetics and representation: first, how does a catastrophe, an event that by its very nature defies meaning, find representation in language, a system of meaning-making; and second, what does it mean to represent a diasporic cultural experience in an infinitely exilic linguistic form?
In reflecting on these questions, Beledian proposes a theory of language and catastrophe that complicates the translation of his oeuvre. Even before translation, he sees a disjunction between language and content in contemporary Western Armenian literature, for the language of writing is no longer suited to a way of living. In other words, Western Armenian, which has survived only in diaspora settings since the 1915 genocide, has ceased to be the organizing logic of its inheritors’ everyday encounters and interactions; it no longer dictates their mode of thought. Beledian’s writings portray language as a performance of culture and depict its divorce from—its emptying of—people. Seen in this light, Western Armenian, as a literary language and not a living one, can no longer produce content. Its performance can only be self-referential, and therefore untranslatable.
“In the Language of Catastrophe” is the chilling and poetic account of the Armenian catastrophe as the un-peopling of a language.