The idea for this article came about when two individuals, one in Armenia, the other in the United States, asked what had led me to write a book on Komitas (Gomidas, in Western Armenian) and his psychological state. Below, I share my story with readers of the Armenian Weekly.
In 1994, an article appeared in the Armenian Reporter titled, “Story of Gomidas’ illness emerges in psychiatrist’s study.” The topic intrigued me, and so I kept a clipping. Until then, I knew Komitas as the great Armenian composer whose music I had heard and whose songs I had sung in choruses. I also knew Komitas as my husband’s grandmother’s—Marig’s—cousin, who was breastfed by Marig’s mother after his mother passed away in 1870. Many years later, in 2001, I read a book on a similar topic; Dr. Rita S. Kuyumjian in Archeology of Madness posited that Komitas as a young boy was a wandering lad. My husband’s cousin, Sebouh Tashjian, remembered his mother’s—Marig’s daughter’s—statement that Komitas was not homeless (Tashjian, 1995/2005), that he had a loving family. I thought there must have been a reason for Komitas to wander, even when he had an extended family that loved him. The contradiction between Dr. Kuyumjian’s statement and Tashjian’s intrigued me even more. Later in 2001, I heard a presentation with piano music by Dr. Richard Kogan, a psychiatrist in New York, on Shumann’s mental state and creativity.
I then decided to do my own research and determine whether Komitas had “gone mad” or not. Since the archives and references on Komitas are found in Armenia, Europe, and the United States, the research became both time-consuming and tedious. In addition, reading the details about the tragic events of 1915—called the Great Crime, and later, the Armenian Genocide—was very emotional for me, as a child of survivors of the genocide and of the Great Fire of Smyrna, and I often had to take breaks during my research. As a result, the study took years.
I first wrote the book in Western Armenian (published by the Catholicosate Press in Antelias, through the Richard and Tina Carolan Fund, and edited by Rev. K. Chiftjian, issue no. 11) in December 2011. While I continued my research, I had the book translated into Eastern Armenian, and translated it into English myself. Both of these versions are now ready for publication and will hopefully be available to the reader soon, if I can secure funding.
What I discovered during the research process was as interesting as the book itself—it indicated a shared psychology among Armenians that has not yet been addressed nor studied in reference to the genocide. Komitas, the genius, was not only an icon for the Armenian people, but a symbol of the genocide. I discovered that the symbolism of Komitas’s plight was carved out in the creative literature of the Soviet Armenian republic. In time, the information spread as truth: He had gone mad after witnessing the horrors of the Great Crime.
In the Armenian Diaspora, too, this symbolism also took shape, but for a different reason: Armenians were unable to verbally express their deep-seated emotions. They did not have the words to tell about their sadness and the losses they endured—the violent loss of loved ones, the loss of family assets and belongings, the forced deportations, the deaths of loved ones, and the elimination of a centuries-old culture, traditions, schools, and churches. It was easy for some to express anger, though not so easy for others, who swallowed their pride and pain.
During the research for my first book, titled The Genocide Trauma and Armenian Identity, titled The Genocide Trauma and Armenian Identity, I found only one writer who had expressed the Armenian psyche so poignantly. Arlene Oski Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy (the title refers to her grandmother) writes that as a young child she noticed the difference in her family’s and her American neighbors’ ability to express feelings. In her family, feelings were expressed by offering food; they were not verbalized. Even the men in her family kept their self-control at all times, and suppressed feelings of anger. In a later article, she writes about family narratives in reference to the genocide, and states that what was not talked about was more important than what was.
It is interesting that this phenomenon has already been studied and demonstrated by Yael Danieli, Ph.D., a psychologist. Danieli terms it a “conspiracy of silence,” when not only the victim survivors but also their caretakers refrain from talking about tragic experiences. The idea fascinated me.
In my own family, I had only heard my grandmother refer to the Great Crime (or “sefer berlik”) in her conversations with visiting compatriot women friends when I was very young. As middle-aged women, they all wore black; I did not realize then that they had lost their husbands and children in 1915. I never heard any conversation about the genocide in my family when I was growing up. My other grandmother always said, “Let us not talk about the past, but look at the future.” I never imagined that talking about their losses could be so difficult for them. I finally understood when, years later, an American asked me why the word “genocide” was so important for me. I came to understand my grandmothers when I answered, “It is not the word genocide per se—which is a legal term, essential for recognition of genocidal actions and reparations—but finding a word that describes the enormity of what the Armenian people endured. What my father described in his memoir (My Legacy, 2004) was so difficult, while one word—genocide—collapses all of the atrocities in itself. I, too, did not have the language to express the disturbing memories that had been transmitted to me through my grandmothers and father. One must think it silly that I went all the way to Gurun, Turkey—my father’s birthplace—to find the descendants of the neighbor to whom my grandmother had entrusted her dear cow! Yet these are emotions that we, Armenians, must cope with during our lifetime. (The Turks in Gurun, meanwhile, wondered what unearthed gold must have been left behind.) In a separate article, I will write about the concept of the conspiracy of silence. For now, let us focus on Komitas.
I observed that in the diaspora, a public opinion had taken shape that used Komitas’s persona as a symbol of the genocide, much like in Armenia. Throughout my research for the book, I wondered whether Komitas had truly gone mad, what he had witnessed, and whether there was a different explanation of the events we had come to know. In my book, I’ve attempted to unearth and present the events, and allow the reader to come to his own conclusions. I am hoping that in the next volume, I will more specifically write about my psychological analysis. For the sake of this article, what follows is a summary.
Komitas was born as Soghomon Soghomonian in 1869 in a Turkish-speaking town, Kutahya, to a young couple that composed and sang folk music in Turkish. He lost his mother during the first year of his life, was nursed by his uncle’s wife, and was cared for by his grandmother and aunt. In 1873-75, Turkey faced a devastating famine. His family had been wealthy, but became poor. His father, a shoemaker, grieved the loss of his beloved wife. When Soghomon completed the four-year primary Armenian school in town, his father sent him to Broussa to continue his schooling; however, when his father died a few months later, Soghomon had to return to Kutahya. He was sad and felt homeless, in spite of the reports that his uncle’s family loved him. He played in the streets and some days “forgot” to go home. In 1881, he was chosen to go to Etchmiadzin to study at the seminary. When Catholicos Kevork IV asked why he had come to Etchmiadzin if he did not know Armenian, young Soghomon replied, “but I can sing in Armenian!” And he sang “Looys Zevart,” moving the Catholicos so greatly, and assuring his admission into the seminary. Soghomon had served on the altar in Kutahya with his father and uncle. In Etchmiadzin, he soon learned Armenian. As a young student and as the guest of a friend in a nearby village, he was fascinated by the women singing folk songs and took down notes. He later composed the music. Over the years, his passion grew to collect and arrange Armenian folk songs (nearly 4,000 pieces in all). As a serious researcher, he also studied old Armenian writings and attempted to decode the Armenian khazes (music symbols). His scientific approach was unparalleled. After graduation, Khrimian Hairig facilitated his musical education in Germany. There, Komitas completed courses in the philosophy of music, piano playing, and music in three years, impressing his teachers and audiences with his exceptionally beautiful voice and talents. For the first time, Europeans heard Armenian folk music, and were amazed by its beauty. Komitas was named a founding member of the Berlin branch of the International Music Society. Upon returning to Etchmiadzin, he aimed to update his musical education by bringing with him new instruments, and by forming multi-voice choruses. His musical programs included folk and sacred music; in fact, he believed that they were one and the same. His actions and ideas, however, upset a conservative faction in Etchmiadzin. Komitas ignored them and continued modernizing Armenian musical delivery. After Khrimian Hairig passed away in 1907, Komitas’s stay in Etchmiadzin became more problematic. He wrote that he could not breathe, that he was suffocating in Etchmiadzin. His formal request to become a hermit and continue his work was denied. He finally decided to move to Constantinople, a cultural hub at the time, and in 1910 left Etchmiadzin. In Constantinople, he rented an apartment with renowned painter Panos Terlemezian, held concerts, taught music and singing, prepared presentations that he had given in Europe, and supported himself.
In April 1915, a few weeks after Turkish officials praised his fine performance on stage and pointed out that a child of Anatolia had gained prominence while Turkish clergy stayed idle, Komitas was imprisoned with more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders and was exiled—with no warning, no accusation, no due process—to Chankiri. At Senjan Koey train station, the prisoners were abruptly separated; some were sent to Ayash, some to Chankiri. His good friend, Siamanto, who he had hoped to protect, was sent to Ayash. Komitas’s behavior changed along the exile route. A few weeks later, while still in exile and officiating a church service, word came that he would be sent back to Constantinople with a few other notables. He returned and met a slew of women—wives, mothers, sisters of prisoners—who asked about their loved ones.
The return was very difficult for Komitas. He started showing clear signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD), and his personality changed such that his contemporaries, even physicians, could not diagnose his condition properly. Since being scared of (vs. brave) or angry at Turks—police were harassing Armenian citizens at time—were unpopular feelings among Armenian citizens of Constantinople, his friends, not understanding his PTSD reactions, considered him mad and committed him to the Turkish Military Psychiatric Hospital. Immediately after, they emptied his house and dispersed his belongings, including his compositions and notes. Komitas expressed his anger, but only served to confirm his so-called madness: At the psychiatric hospital, he believed that the food given to him was inferior to that given to Turkish patients. He refused to see some visitors, accepted others. He continued to show signs of PTSD, which was not understood nor diagnosed at the time. (Since accessing the records of this psychiatric hospital is not possible, we do not know what diagnosis he was given and if any treatment was offered or received.)
Three years later, his friends, seeing no change in Komitas, sent him to Paris; a caretaking committee had been formed there that followed his condition and admitted him in a private psychiatric hospital. The treating psychiatrist, who later was transferred to the Villejuif asylum and who had known Komitas for 13 years, wrote, “I do not remember what diagnosis they gave him,” that all Komitas needed is a room and the attention of a psychiatrist with a light load—namely, psychotherapy. The suggestion was made to send him to Vienna, where he could be evaluated by Dr. Bleuler, but finances precluded this luxury. Komitas stayed taciturn throughout these years, refusing to accept old friends and seeing only new acquaintances. His conversations, as reported by these visitors, indicated mental abilities not seen in seriously ill psychiatric patients.
Now, does this mean that Komitas was not traumatized by the Great Crimes of 1915? No, he was indeed traumatized. He knew full well what was happening in the Ottoman Empire, perhaps better than the majority of terrorized Armenians in Constantinople. When he stated that the Turks should not be trusted, he was considered inappropriate. Even in Paris, Armenians did not talk about the Great Crime, making only passing reference to it. Why? Was it only fear of the Turks and Turkish government, or were they in a conspiracy of silence?
As Armenians, we need to understand this and talk about our feelings in reference to the genocide. A traumatic event and, especially, a series of events block the proper expression of emotions. When such trauma as the Armenian Genocide occurs, both young and old are unable to find the words, the language, to express their feelings. The expression of anger comes more easily than the expression of sadness and pain.
I hope I’ve clarified my reasons for writing this book on Komitas. Copies of the Western Armenian version (and soon, the English version) can be obtained by visiting www.amazon.com or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.