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My Memories of Armenia

by Yves Bonnefoy

translated from the French by John Naughton


Not all of our memories give us the feeling that they have to do with our past. Some seem to come up from a chasm that is deeper and vaster than our past; they seem to come from before we were born. But this isn’t so strange. These memories that seem so difficult to locate come from that period of our early childhood when ideas and concepts haven’t as yet achieved the scope and coherence they one day will have, when they will give us at once a world and an idea of ourselves. During the period I’m thinking of, we are as yet outside of what one day we will be able to recognize and identify as our individual lives. We perceive things, people, events; we are struck by them, but without being able to analyze them with the tools of the adult; they are simply there before us, silent, without a before or after and without any relation to the reality around us: they are pure presences, though each is closed upon itself and full of enigma. And this is why today if we remember them, it is as though they are both outside the past and a part of our beginnings.

I’m thinking of an image that sometimes suddenly surges up in me from that kind of memory that dwells beneath the more usual one: between two windowless walls of naked stone, and covered with tall wild grass, there is a deep and narrow courtyard beneath what seems to be a summer sky. The place is empty, abandoned. It is like a memory, and perhaps it has some connection to my real life at some fleeting moment of years long past, but I know that I will never recover its path. It is as though it existed outside the world.

 

II

But we also have memories that we can place with precision as well as with certainty, except that, strangely enough, they too have no possible place in our past and are therefore related to that kind of absolute elsewhere I am talking about.

It was just this kind of memory that suddenly took hold of me when I first discovered the churches of Armenia in photographs taken at the end of the 1940s, but with the conviction that I had long before seen their facades, their apses, and their huge, uneven, sometimes sculpted stones, and the horizon beyond, not just in these images, but in my real life, at a moment I had completely forgotten until that very instant.

I saw these photographs in historical treatises on the first centuries of Eastern Christian architecture, books that had appeared in English, German, and French at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it’s easy to know why I was so captivated by these evocations. In the first place, these are extremely beautiful buildings that bring real satisfaction to the mind. Their proportions are so simple and harmonious that one cannot but be aware of the asceticism of the masters who conceived them, an asceticism that governed both their thinking and their lives. The lesson of stone, the eternity scattered on the mountain slopes or bathed in the fresh water of the ravines, this lesson has been heard and transmuted into form.

But it wasn’t this beauty that struck me most at the moment of discovery; it was rather the feeling of déjà vu, of something I had known before. And since some of my books are now appearing in Armenian translation, it seems appropriate to reflect upon this kind of illusory reminiscence that for a very long while troubled my relation to so many things and may still affect me.

 

III

The most general reason for this pseudo-memory, for that hand I suddenly felt on my shoulder, I think I now understand as well. Those illustrations in the books from the beginning of the twentieth century weren’t in color, as would be the case a few decades later when there would also be a great deal of commentary on the various aspects of the places and things in question, so that viewers can enter into the images without needing to dissociate themselves from their own lives, or from the ways of thinking and feeling that their lives inspire.

No, the reproductions in my books were in black and white, with very few details, and even, given the mediocrity and age of the paper, something grayish in the light. You can enter these images only by breaking with the place you are living in and the person you are on a daily basis. And so you are at a level where, in the suspension of ordinary preoccupations, it is easier and perhaps even necessary to ask questions that are fundamental, the ones that have to do with our being in the world. The black and white makes us think about the meaning one should assign to life, and wonder if one is simple nothingness or if one can pretend to being. Black and white creates a cosa mentale, an experience in which aspirations of a metaphysical nature begin to take shape.

This characteristic of the illustrations in these old books means that one can see them in a way that connects them to the “absolute” memories I mentioned a moment ago, the ones that come from before our conceptual networks gave us a world and allowed us to construct a past. But it also explains why they can create the illusion of a previous life. Because, to say it briefly, the status of the object in these black and white photographs is about being and not about things; we are called upon to see in what is evoked in these pictures not things to make use of, as we would in our normal adult life, but being, the presence of being, as during those moments of childhood that have remained in our minds. We are drawn to the same sort of experience as the one that haunts those memories of pseudo-childhood, and we find ourselves in the same kind of “background of memory” that gives us the sense of something lived outside our lives and yet within them as well.

In short, I had the feeling that I had already been to those churches in the mountains, because the black and white created a continuity with the unlocatable place of certain memories that come from les années profondes, the deep years: with that “before us” that such a feeling causes us to recognize in ourselves. And why did the images of Armenia, and not so many others I saw at around the same time, give me this impression? Because the beauty of the architecture was already a visible manifestation of that unity, of that absolute I had felt in the epiphanies from before.

 

IV

Now, I don’t pretend to have correctly or adequately analyzed this experience of déjà vu, of something already lived. But precisely because the analysis that might dissipate the illusion is difficult, the illusion maintains its force, and I have to admit that for many years I have lived under its spell. After seeing the photographs, did I really think that I had lived “over there” at some different time? Of course not. But I did begin to wonder if our perception of the world, which is limited today by so much abstraction in the way we look at things, isn’t perhaps, for this very reason, false and blind to certain obvious things that could be beneficial to us. Perhaps another way of looking at the world has created a truer experience somewhere other than here where we are. This is the dream of a kind of hidden world that once existed and may have continued to exist on the margins of our present societies, and where what is most human in us once lived in its original lucidity, which today is obscured and even forgotten, except at those moments of sudden recovery when one rediscovers it in the depths of our perceptions, when by chance some aspect of this “absolute elsewhere,” this “back country,” is placed before our eyes. I described this phenomenon a long time ago in a little book of mine called L’Arrière-pays (The Hinterland). I won’t go back into it here. But it allows me to return to what I would like to better understand, that is, my relation to Armenia, and the feeling I always have when I think of this land so far from France.

I have to say that this sort of dreaming is dangerous. It does have a kind of essential truth in that it preserves the memory of a reality that is one, indivisible, and that exists beyond the grasp of conceptual thought—an immediacy I need to know how to recognize, since it is what we meet with, in this case almost directly, in those feelings of affection we experience most strongly and that motivate the important choices that determine our lives. When we truly love, our attachment goes toward beings that are rich in their own being, not toward the representations that analytical thinking substitutes for them. The memories we cannot situate are thus an allusive designation of what we still are today without fully realizing it: beings who live in a specific place, and for only a moment.

In order to lead our adult lives in a serious way, we have to recognize these “illusions” for what they are and turn their nebulous “elsewhere” into the key to a return to here, even if they are made up of dreams about some other place or time outside our own existence. It is easy, as I’ve just shown by example, to live them through what is distant and mysterious about them, and to create from them the kind of dreams that allow us to escape, if only for a moment, from the task of incarnation. To dream that one lived as a child on Armenian soil is perhaps first of all to dream of becoming a child once more, before the task of incarnation becomes an obligation.

 

V

And it’s here that I come back to my “memories” of Armenia, and to the photographs in general, the old photographs. How easy it is to dream through images of this kind, to imagine civilizations we know almost nothing about to be places where the mind and spirit are not subject, as we are here, to irremediable constraints! And to get the better of these delusions, how important it is to undertake a critical examination of the lure that is inherent in every image, and to commit oneself in particular to the work that needs to be done on every specific image that has had power over us, by finding beneath what it offers in a speciously schematic way the more complete and ordinary reality of that thing it is supposed to show us, as for instance in photography!

I have often been under the spell of images. But I have resisted this spell by acquiring, as much as I have been able, the kind of knowledge that art history or the history of civilizations and religions and myths allow us to deepen—in other words, that ensemble of precise knowledge that relocates the distant object in its continuity with every other object in a world without dual dimensions, and that has its center right where we are. I am not a historian, but rather someone concerned with poetry, which denounces dreams and, in the labyrinth into which metaphysical imagination can lead, seeks help from historical research.

It was with this objective in mind that I began the study of Italian art. The idea of a society with a clarity of mind we are incapable of also came to me through my rather imperfect knowledge of the villages and little cities of certain regions in Umbria or Tuscany that, in the middle of the last century when I was exploring them, were still rather difficult to get to. With the resources of an amateur, I set about to learn more about this art, one of the fundamental characteristics of which is that it was the first to yield, sometimes consciously, to snares of the same sort. By studying this art, one discovers artists who, however inflamed with dreams they are, teach us how to live where we are by bringing us into their experience, which is sometimes a deliverance, and an example of successful incarnation. I spent a great deal of time in the company of Piero della Francesca, Bellini, and Bernini. And in Poussin, who came to Italy with ideas, it seems to me, not unlike my own, I recognized a guide along the path toward an acceptance of finitude.

But Armenia! The Armenia of my memories of another life! On the edges of that call from the depths of Italy, and even a bit before, this more ancient Christian civilization was the origin of my idea of the “back country.” It was pictures of churches like those in T’alin, Achtarak, and Odzun, perched in their solitude, that riveted me to this dream, and it was thanks to them that this dream spread out to other regions of this part of the world. And so it was Armenian architecture more than any other art that I should have sought to integrate into ordinary reality, by studying it more seriously and by deepening and diversifying my knowledge of a culture and its artists.

But I never made this effort, and there are good reasons why not. Italian art was easy for me to study, because the books that dealt with it were for the most part in English, French, or Italian, and the Italian had the added advantage of giving me access to its poets, who helped me to enrich my understanding of the works of art in Tuscany, or the Marches, or Rome. From Italy, little by little the field of my interests was only to grow larger and extend to other parts of Europe, which made for more objects of study than I could handle. Armenia, on the other hand, didn’t come to me as Italy did, with words one knows the meanings of, and even their etymologies, which allows one to have some sense of the foundations of thoughts as well as works, and to gauge whether the motivations and intuitions at work in them are still the same for us. My approach to the kingdoms of Armenia was blocked by my ignorance of the language, which I knew I couldn’t even think of learning.

And yet I also know that an unknown language—one draped furthermore in an impenetrable alphabet—can easily rekindle the dream of a transcendental elsewhere, the place, far off, where signs and the absolute fuse. I’m even ready to believe that if I never really tried to study Armenian civilization seriously, it is because some part of me refuses to let go of a kind of dreaming that I have known ever since I began my wanderings in writing, and that may even perhaps be necessary. Poetry, to which I try to remain faithful, means surpassing, deconstructing, the always more or less illusory representations that burden poems but remain a necessary first step in poetic ambition, which can attach itself, as is only natural, to what it will eventually have to combat.

 

VI

Armenia still troubles me. I realize that she is simply—if I can put it this way—one of the great civilizations of the real world, a place I could go to and meet real people and discuss with them the same problems that exist everywhere else in the world. But I cannot prevent myself from keeping a halo around what I know of her, as if she were the figure of a saint in an icon.

And now I’m being translated into Armenian! My writing, some of the aspects of which Armenia played a role in determining, will be tested by a language that cannot make my dreams its own, unless it can find in them connections to other dreams of a similar sort. A good reason to imagine, therefore, that I cannot be well translated except by someone who is capable, intuitively, of this kind of imagining that is encouraged, then restrained, along the paths of poetry, which can never be followed to their ends. But this intuitive quality is just what makes for the richness of Chouchanik Thamrazian. I will never be able to read in Armenian the translation she has so generously and courageously done of one of my books, but I have confidence in it because I know from firsthand experience that this young writer is a true poet. I found proof through our meetings and letters that her attention is focused on what is—on what is written, and on what is searching within her. That fundamental impatience that sets poetry against so many counterfeit forms of feeling and sensibility is central to her way of looking at things and is at the heart of her magnificent rigor. Her affection both for her own country and for France is obviously operative in all those places between illusion and reality that poetry has an obligation to explore. I thank my translator! Thanks for allowing me to establish with Armenia, which is dear to me, as she is to so many others in France, a relationship that this time is fully real.

I have never been a child on the banks of Lake Van, as someone in me has never stopped telling me I was. I will never be able to visit those churches I saw and continue to see in photographs, though I am convinced they belong at the highest point of artistic possibility. And yet thanks to this translation I can be with you at least a little bit, friends of poetry on Armenian soil.

 

Yves Bonnefoy, often acclaimed as France’s greatest living poet, has published seven major collections of verse, several books of tales, and numerous studies of literature and art. He succeeded Roland Barthes in the Chair of Comparative Poetics at the Collège de France. His work has been translated into scores of languages, and he is a celebrated translator of Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, and Leopardi. Most recently, he has added to his long list of honors the European Prize for Poetry (2006) and the Kafka Prize (2007). He lives in Paris.

John Naughton, author or editor of six books on contemporary French Poetry and Poetics, is Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Colgate University. He has translated Yves Bonnefoy on many occasions. His translations have been recognized by the Poetry Book Society in London and by the Modern Language Association. He has received the medal of the Collège de France in Paris for “distinguished contributions to the study of French literature.” (4/2012)


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