A picture in words   1 comment

While studying Armenian last night I came across a sentence that so picturesquely describes a scene from its narrative that I think it worthwhile to share here. The sentence is from The History of Armenia (Armenian title Buzandaran Patmut’iwnk’)[1] by P’awstos (Faustos) Buzand (Bk 4, ch. 5), and I met it among the reading passages from the Classical Armenian lessons that are part of the excellent Early Indo-European Online project at the University of Texas at Austin (also linked to on the left). The lines read:

Եւ իբրեւ լուաւ թագաւորն զայս ամենայն, զի մինչ դեռ խօսէրն արաջի նորա ՝ նա լուռ եւեթ կայր, ոտն զոտամբ արկեալ, արմուկն ի ծունգ եւ ձեռն ի ծնոտի ՝ նստաւ այնպէս, մինչեւ կատարեաց խօսեցաւ զամենայն զբանս իւր։

Internet typography of Armenian, like that of Arabic, being what it is — i.e. much too small in scale! — here’s a transliteration: ew ibrew luaw t’agaworn zays amenayn, zi minč’ deṙ xōsērn araǰi nora, na luṙ ewet’ kayr otn zotamb arkeal, armukn i cung ew jeṙn i cnōti, nstaw aynpēs, minč’ew katareac’ xōsec’aw zamenayn zbans iwr. In this passage, the Armenian king (Aršak II) has sent Nersēs, “the great catholicos of the Armenians” (mec kat’ołikos(n) Hayoc’; he is also called “archbishop of the Armenians” in this passage), to the emperor Valens (r. 364-378) — actually Constantius[2] — who sided in doctrine with Arians and was thus an almost natural enemy of Nersēs; the story goes that the son of Valens was ill, and Nersēs, having explained the accepted non-Arian doctrinal position, indicated that the emperor’s son would not be healed without his father’s acceptance of that position.[3] At this point comes the sentence given above in Armenian and English’d as follows:

And when the emperor heard all this — for while [Nersēs] was still speaking before him, [the emperor] remained silent, having put one foot around the other, his elbow on his knee, and his hand on his chin; he sat thus until [Nersēs] finished his whole speech — …

What a clear painting of the emperor’s posture! Nersēs’ words fall into the background, as the pace slows and the focus turns to the emperor and how he is taking in the full setting around him, both the condition of his son and the words and attitude of the august cleric before him. There is no description of his countenance, but there doesn’t need to be, for we can infer it with little trouble based on the close description of what he is doing with his body. Then suddenly, at the end of Nersēs’ words, following this careful and intent imperial pose, the solidity and stillness are shaken. The emperor “fell greatly into a rage” (mecapēs i c’asumn brdeal linēr t’agaworn), and, as in countless saints’ lives across traditions, theological dispute backed with state authority ends with someone in iron fetters: Nersēs, bound, is thrown into prison (tayr hraman, erkat’i kapanōk’ mecapēs — note this adverb again — kapel zsurb episkoposapetn Hayoc’ zNersēs, ew arkanel i p’iwłakē).

Promotion of a particular brand of theology is part and parcel of religious literature, as is, unfortunately, mistreatment in word and deed towards those of other factions, but this line highlighted here offers something encountered less frequently, something that qualifies as a small gem of literary description.

Notes

[1] Of the many studies (mostly in Armenian) and translations of the Buzandaran Patmut’iwnk’ (see R. Thomson, A Bibliography of Classical Armenian Literature to 1500 AD [Turnhout, 1995], 185-187), I only cite the following:

  • N.G. Garsoïan, The Epic Histories Attributed to P’awstos Buzand (Buzandaran Patmut’iwnk’) (Cambridge, MA, 1989).
  • Agop J. Hacikyan, et al., The Heritage of Armenian Literature, vol. 1 (Detroit, 2000), 183-212.
  • P. Peeters, “Le début de la persécution de Sapor d’après Fauste de Byzance,” Révue des études arméniennes 1 (1920): 15-33. Reprinted in his Recherches d’histoire et de philologie orientales, vol. 1 (Brussels, 1951), 59-77.
  • L. von Patrubany, “Die Geschichte Armeniens des Faustos Buzandaci,” Sprachwissenschaftliche Abhandlungen 2 (1900) 1-5, 17-23.

On this particular passage of P’awstos Buzand’s work, especially its historical difficulties, see especially N.G. Garsoïan, “‘Quidam Narseus’ — A Note on the Mission of St. Nersēs the Great,” in Armeniaca. Mélanges d’études arméniennes (Venice, 1969), 148-164. Reprinted at ch. V of her Armenia between Byzantium and the Sasanians (London, 1985).

[2] See Garsoïan, “A Note,” p. 151 with n. 12.

[3] This episode of a sick son of an emperor and a saint’s refusal to heal him is taken from the life of Basil: see Garsoïan, p. 152 with n. 13.

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Posted February 2, 2012 by adamcmccollum in Armenian, Hagiography, History, Literature

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One response to “A picture in words

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  1. I love those mimetic moments in ancient literatures. It reminds me that I am reading literature and not just texts!

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