Revisiting Komitas: A More Optimistic, Psychological Reading

On the occasion of the composer’s 150th birthday

For over half a century, the story of Komitas, who ended his life in a psychiatric institution after a prolific career as a composer, became a symbol of trauma of the Armenian Genocide. The very fact that he was hospitalized was proof to some, like Halidé Edibe Adivar (2006), that he was indeed a “mental patient.”  

But my research, Komitas: Victim of the Great Crime (2014), Komitas: Hokepanagan Verloodzoom meh (2011), and Komitas: Medz Yegherni Zoheh, (2018) suggest an alternative interpretation; that the composer, contrary to such opinions, was not “mad,” was never “mad,” and that he was in full control of his faculties. At the time of his death, in 1935, any deviation from the norm was treated in psychiatric institutions, unlike nowadays, where such deviations are treated as outpatients and medication is available. Even penicillin was not in use at the institution where he died in October 1935.

A deeper study of Komitas sheds light on his long-standing psychological condition resulting from genocide. In fact, far from helplessly relenting to the trauma, Komitas demanded his human rights and when his well-meaning friends did not understand him, only then did he give up the struggle and fall into deep depression, turning his anger and fury inward, withdrawing from his friends.

Perhaps we can even go so far as to say the composer offered a point of comparison for Armenians in understanding feelings of anger and sadness in themselves, feelings of attachment and separation anxieties that are so frequent among Armenian families. Unlike the Jewish people, who more readily sought psychological help in dealing with their catastrophic traumas, Armenians have had difficulty acknowledging psychological consequences as a group and show strong resistance to exploration.  

It is easier for Armenians to cope with the Genocide trauma by collective grieving as a culture. It is surprising that during the past 104 years, only a handful of psychological studies were conducted on Komitas’ self and Genocide trauma. This is a very sensitive subject, one that stirs deep feelings in people. Thus, rather than confronting those feelings, it is often easier to place blame on a group of Armenians as the reason for Genocide, while Turkey continues to deny. As I have stated in the past, the rich Armenian culture has allowed Armenians to process the Genocide trauma without psychological help.

Komitas’ decision to withdraw and be silent is symbolic of Armenians whose pain is not recognized, acknowledged, nor heard, but denied.

In my book, I describe Komitas’ psychological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), namely avoiding people (such as policemen) who reminded him of the trauma; re-experiencing, through intrusive ideation; and physiological reactions, like nightmares and startle responses. These symptoms are but the immediate effects of the traumas that were based on his experiences and his expectations of himself as a clergy. The long-term-psychological effects and trans-generational transmission among generations of Armenians have yet to be studied.

Over the centuries, Armenians, as survivors of wars and massacres, have developed tendencies toward depressive personalities. Some generations of Armenians, who enjoy singing melancholy songs and reading sad poetry, have accepted depression as ego-syntonic manifestations of the traumas.

The 1915 Genocide trauma is characterized by loss of family members, home (symbolized in Komitas’ Andouni), the Armenian culture and centuries-old homeland; the disturbing deportation experiences and hardships may be easy to accept as reasons for depression.

Komitas exhibited signs of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, formerly called “shell shock.” He had good reality testing and judgement most of the time; yet high anxiety characteristic of PTSD which is normal under the circumstances, yet, so different from the Komitas that people knew.

Writer, editor and good friend, Arshag Chobanian wrote that Komitas had extreme behaviors, but overall, he was a pleasant man. Dr. Louise Fauve-Hovannisian, the French psychiatrist who chose Komitas’ mental condition as the subject of her PhD research, characterized Komitas’ behavior as hypomanic and denied claims of craziness. I could not confirm the one report that Komitas’ father was a drunkard that led some to conclude that Komitas had a manic-depressive personality.  

Komitas’ decision to withdraw and be silent is symbolic of Armenians whose pain is not recognized, acknowledged, nor heard, but denied. Yet, Armenians have managed to turn their defeat of 1915 into a reaction formation of strength, namely by the victories of 1918. A good portion of Armenians struggle with the acceptance of the 1918 Republic of Armenia as victory and vindication for the traumas. Even the Karabakh victory of 1994 is played down. It is interesting that depression comes more naturally than victories.

Komitas: Victim of the Great Crime (2014) paperback is available on Amazon.com; translations into Russian and Eastern Armenian are available for $9.00 by writing to the author hokepan@yahoo.com). Kindle version of the book in English is also available on Amazon.

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Meliné Karakashian

Meliné Karakashian was born in Beirut, Lebanon. After graduating from high school, she immigrated to the U.S., established residence in New Jersey, and continued her education, obtaining an Ed.S. in school and community psychology, a Ph.D. in child clinical psychology, and a practicing psychology license. She has volunteered to help victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake, the Karabagh War, and September 11. Her work has been recognized by the presidents of Armenia, the American Psychological Association, and the New Jersey Mental Health Association, among others. She is the recipient of two lecturing Fulbrights to Yerevan State University. She has authored numerous articles, book chapters, and two books. Komitas: A Psychological Study is her most recent work.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent piece and valuable insights. Hard to tell exactly what was wrong with Komitas, but some of these ideas certainly ring true. One piece of information that always stuck with me is how Komitas at some point would only talk to a Greek doctor, perhaps because he felt some kinship in the suffering at the hands of the Ottomans.

  2. Please see Kuyumjian, R.S., “Archeology of Madness: Komitas, Portrait of an Armenian Icon,” published by Gomidas Institute on February 15, 2001, which is widely recognized as the original seminal work on the diagnosis of Komitas’ psychiatric illness.

  3. Sorry, but for me, the entire content of the last paragraph reveals that only current agendas and pre-decided opinions lie behind this investigation into Komitas’ condition.

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