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Religion and Society

When Armenia met European "modernity"

Last update: 2018-06-11 15:46:52

I shall try a preliminary reflection on one peculiar aspect of the ramification processes of current global trends: dynamics that are normally at work in those cases of cross-cultural communication in which features of a typically Western origin are emulated and assimilated by cultures of a different origin. While developing my reflections from a general viewpoint, I shall have in mind as a particular historic reference the meeting of the Armenians with European modernity. I want to make two preliminary remarks. In the first place, whatever our opinion of the debate on "post-modernity" may be, no one can ignore the fact that the question we are dealing with arises in the modern era and regards essentially modes and ways of how single and different national cultures have met modernity. There is an almost common conviction, in spite of differences of emphasis, to place the origins of modern era in those profound transformations in human life and thought that took place in Europe in the XV through to theXVI century. In the second place,,, the Renaissance-Reformation era, however, was only the starting-point of a long and polyvalent evolution that went on for many centuries. No wonder that all those subsequent developments - such as Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the social question, Fascist and Nazi experiences - have marked the idea of modernity with specific problems. Two emblematic cases Let us now put the basic question: how "modernity" and its multifarious implications, essentially of Western origin, can be harmonized with alien cultures and national identities? The problem has been real within Europe itself between its Eastern and Western components, and even within the nations of strictly West European lineage for such trends as had their roots in the cultural context of another nation. We can formulate the core of the question as consisting essentially in the dialectics between identity and alterity, change and continuity, tradition and evolution. To mention only two emblematic cases, Turkey and Japan offered in the course of the XX century two very different patterns of the so-called "westernizing" or "modernizing" process. As to the Armenians, they were among the first in a Middle Eastern context to face modernity. This happened in the very early stages of its rise when the Armenians had already lost their statehood, and were scattered throughout a large diaspora. Models of synthesis First we should make the point that, as far as the Armenian experience is concerned, such an up to date sensitivity in accepting "alien" and, especially, Western models, did not mean a slavish imitation of the same. We are often witness to a marriage between Western forms, patterns, technique, poetics, theories, and an exquisitely Armenian sensitivity. They could, for instance, secularize without rejecting religion in their social identity, they could pursue women's emancipation without rejecting, on a theoretical basis, femininity and motherhood. Such a critical openness allowed them to be, at the turn of the XIX century, even ahead, in some respect, of some European countries as to the contact with leading realities in Europe. For instance, the echoes of French symbolism were perceived in Armenian circles earlier than in some corners of Europe, or Marinetti's futurist Manifesto was published in Armenian only some months after its apparition in Paris. There is a second relevant point. The problems put to the Armenian self-consciousness by its close contact with the Western culture often implied, apart from the more general question of the dialectics between change and continuity, also a more peculiar question linked directly with a special feature of Armenian history: their emigration throughout the world. This feature has today become a worldwide phenomenon of topical interest. Armenian culture, art, and forms of life have developed along centuries not only in the Armenian homeland, but also, and sometimes prevailingly, on foreign soils. Armenians were able to do this in virtue of a singular understanding of their national identity and of its relationship with the surrounding and dominating cultures. We can define this self-consciousness, from an anthropological-philosophical viewpoint, as a "multidimensional identity", and its relationship to the environment as a "differentiated integration". The king of the Armenian troubadour tradition Sayath-Nova, and one of the latter's most talented admirers in our times, Sergueï Parajanov, the famous film-director, can be regarded among the chief models of this multidimensional, "cosmopolitan" trend of the Armenian culture in a happy synthesis of both native traditional, and assimilated traits. Notwithstanding these achievements, Armenians did not at one point understand the West at all. Even if they shared this misunderstanding with other Oriental Christians lacking a state structure, and even with some Eastern powers, they paid for it dearly. I mean the strong hope Armenians nourished that the so-called "Christian" Europe would save them, or would, at least, not allow them to perish. The first ideological Genocide of the XX century, of which the Armenians became victims in the Ottoman Empire, was on both sides, of both the perpetrators and the victims, one of the most awful results of espoused or dreamed modernity. Such misunderstandings are also nowadays a much more common feature in cross-cultural meeting than we normally think. In particular peoples fighting for freedom and self-determination, and looking to the West as a model, are often victims of utopian and tragic hopes. The conditions of exchange I tried to propose some preliminary remarks related to some basic problems of cross-cultural communication, or of the ramification processes of global trends. The subject is extremely wide and complicated. The main point, however, I would like to make as a conclusion is the following: such trends may be enriching when cross-cultural meeting enables groups, nations, religions, cultures to be engaged in an open dialogue and constructive exchange. This is a basic condition to avoid the real risks of losing one's own identity, even if we understand this not as a static, but as a vital and dynamic issue. To reach this aim, instruction and awareness are utmost important factors: instruction on how to approach the partner, how to perceive its own perception of values and its own sensitiveness for those values; awareness of ambiguities and misunderstandings that can lead towards new forms of subjection and slavery under the auspices and a deceiving appearance of dialogue and democracy.

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