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Did Gomidas ‘Go Mad’? Writing a Book on Vartabed’s Trauma

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.

Komitas (1909 photo)

Komitas (1909 photo)

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.

Komitas to sister Marig

Komitas to sister Marig

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 hokepan@yahoo.com.

17 Comments on Did Gomidas ‘Go Mad’? Writing a Book on Vartabed’s Trauma

  1. Very well written. Please clarify: was it Komitas’ friends that cleared his apt or the Turkish authorities? Why was it cleared out and what happened to those items?

  2. Thank you for this excellent article.
    I grew up in my mother’s Armenian family and I remember two things very clearly: My grandfather, Levon Karakashian, never, ever mentioning the Genocide. But thanks to my aunt, his eldest daughter, I knew the name Komidas and what it meant.
    It was only in adulthood that I asked questions as to my family history, and learned that my grandfather had suffered immeasurably even though he escaped with his life (though not the horrors and the loss of his family, which must have traumatized him irreparably), and I’m convinced he died of it; so much unexpressed pain has to affect the body.

  3. avatar Maro Shirvanian-Badiguian // July 24, 2013 at 9:18 pm // Reply

    I would like to state an event during Gomidas Vartabed’s assylum time in Paris. One day his uncle’s wife knowing that Gomidas Vartabed liked cheese beoreg (cheese turnover), baked and brought to him to the psychiatric hospital where Gomidas Vartabed was hospitalized, offered them to him by saying in Turkish “Gomidas Vartabed bakh sana neh getirdim?” (“Gomidas Vartabed look what I have brought to you?”). He took over the tray with beoregs, and threw them one by one to his aunt’s face saying “do you still speak in that useless(anbidan)Turk’s language?”. This story had been told to me by one of Gomidas Vartabed’s choir members’ sister, Mrs. Anoushian, in Pasadena, Calif.

  4. Great article, informative and thorough. Haigoush Kohler

  5. Back home in Lebanon,we had a lady called oryort Verkin from Izmir who claimed to be Gomidas’s pupil.She used to play the piano & was our daily visitor for years.As far as I remember she had never been to Istanbul.Could it be that in between 1910-15,father Domidas had taught in Izmir as well?

  6. TKU for this great article and shedding light on the conspiracy of silence. Although ‘conspiracy’ might be the wrong word. The enormity of the tragedy/crime was such that our ancestors and the next generation (most of them god-fearing and law abiding citizens) simply didn’t have the sophisticated tools to document their emotions and express their feelings. This is an excellent article to reflect for the third generation and how we can take the narrative forward.

  7. Thank you for this article that I read with great interest. Though I was quite young when my paternal grandfather died, my father informed me of the events that surrounded my grandfather’s imprisonment and exile with Komitas in April – May, 1915. They were together and shared a room or cell until they were sent back to Constantinople. They were released for different reasons. Komitas’ release was at the request of a Turkish notable who liked Komitas’ voice and wanted him to give voice lessons, whereas the eight other Armenian notables were released at the request of Morganthau’s first secretary who had been finally convinced after multiple attempts by my uncle, who worked at the embassy, that they were all to be executed (the eight were Armenians with US connections or employment). The US embassy could not intervene for the other Armenians. Both, Komitas and my grandfather, had suffered more mental torture than physical with the imprisonment and and both suffered PTSD, but Komitas’ condition was more severe. As for singing, Komitas would only sing Der Voghormia repeatedly without end.

  8. Fascinating article. Looking forward to reading your book in English. I had read in another book (can’t remember which one), that most of his transcripts (collection of 4000 songs), were destroyed (burnt to be precise) by Turks in front of his very eyes; which contributed to severely deteriorating his mental condition following this event. Could this be validated ?

  9. avatar Vicki Krikorian // July 25, 2013 at 10:12 am // Reply

    What a great article. My Mother’s family escaped from Constantinoble to Thessaloniki, Greece in 1915-1916. My Uncle used to tell me stories of his family. The sadness ran deep in their family, but rarely did they give details as to what happened to my great-great grandparents in Constantinoble. So I understand the fear and pain, Gomidas was a musical genius, Der Voghormia is one of his pieces that brings tears to my eyes. It appears to reflect his inner pain. Thanks you for this, I am looking forward to your reading your book.

  10. Besides the loss of life, I don’t know what, if any cultural losses other races experienced in their genocides, but I will cite one example for the Armenian case. Before the Genocide, Komitas had collected several thousands of songs (as I recall three or four) from nearly all historic Armenian villages and documented them meticulously. After his arrest and imprisonment, the Turkish criminals destroyed his papers and as a result most of those songs have been lost forever… cultural songs which had come to exist amongst the Armenians from the dawn of time. A large number of his songs survive today, but no where near the original figures. Yet in the Genocide, this is but one aspect of the loss in our culture. One cannot even begin to put into words the devastation that was brought on our nation. And here 100 years later, we are still struggling to get the Genocide recognized and have to deal with a bunch of crazed ignorant lunatics and their hired political prostitutes who turn the tables on us without shame and with a particularly crass attitude. I would ask the fair minded Turks that are Genocide recognizers, what is the remedy of this loss? You can take lives, but through those that survived, the race lives. You can take lands, and give them back. You can take possessions and give them back, but what can you do about destroying entire Armenian villages and then destroying their cultural records? And we as Armenians what are we willing to settle for as restitution for such an unrecoverable loss?

  11. avatar sylva-MD-poetry // July 25, 2013 at 2:16 pm // Reply

    Thank you dear Meline for your very beautiful informative article about our Saint Gomidas as many poets and painters defined before me.
    I am collecting more information about Gomidas from many sites…to complete my poetry collection…and name the heading of the book “Gomidas my secret God”…As I lost my faith in all gods
    I hate to use the word madness…
    We all carry few madness genes…hidden somewhere
    Appears on and off when someone gets unfairly traumatize…
    No-one is purely sane as everyone thinks…
    Why Gomidas was note called insane
    when he created all beautiful poems…hymns…music
    Why he was called mad…after he was tortured…
    castrated by the butchers … the well known criminals…
    What should we expect from him…what he observed with his genius
    astrocytes with passionate cardiocytes and musical ear drums…
    After he heard the lies the cries…the rages of the innocent dedicated literate friends
    poets…mothers lost their homes…their beloveds…
    Do you want him to laugh…to sing…as he lost 300 members of his chorus…!
    Who can answer ‘yes….let thee tell us…
    Awake my friends and analyse
    Don’t ever use the word madness…
    We are all mad as we get older and hear more stories of genocide…
    We will die mad and our brain cells will stay
    carrying the pains of genocide…
    till we reach graves and beyond…
    Sylva-MD-Poetry

  12. Dr. Meline Karakashian has brought to our attention a much larger problem through her discussion of Gomidas Vartabed’s life and subsequent psychological drama. This is the effect of the Genocide trauma that has affected directly the survivors and to a great extent the generations that followed. Unfortunately, our scholars have focused so far only on the historical aspects of the events associated with the Genocide while there are innumerable related fields that need study and documentation.Our inability to get Armenian scientists to cover and analyze the multifaceted aspects of what happened in 1915 has narrowed down the field of the genocide narrative.If at age of 70 I am still haunted by the story of the genocide like innumerable others who belong to the post genocide generations, one would wonder what type of treatment or solution would bring relief to the rage and anger I feel. This is why I get mad whenever I see free lance “problem solvers” engaging in solo discussions with Turkish authorities believing that so called “goodwill” gestures could bring reconciliation and closure to a harrowing story.

  13. Also see Archaeology of Madness: Komitas, a Portrait of an Armenian Icon, which was the first work analyzing and diagnosing Komitas’s mental illness as PTSD and its impact on his creativity and life based on original research of Komitas’s actual hospital files: http://www.gomidas.org/books/show/58

  14. So, his friends contributed to his madness due to their ignorance. Positively tragic. Sometimes Armenians can hurt each other more than the Turks (which is true for any other group).

    By the way, you guys know that Arlene Oski Avakian, an author heavily relied upon by the article, is a lesbian and an activist for LGTB and feminist causes, right? One of the central themes of her book (“Lion Woman’s Legacy”) is about growing up a lesbian in the Armenian culture. An interesting character indeed. And an interesting fact omitted by the author of this article.

    • avatar Serop Mardirossian // July 27, 2013 at 10:26 am //

      And how does this make a difference in the issues discussed and/or the value of the book?

  15. I just purchased the book in Western Armenian. Would love to talk to you about (one day soon) converting it to an AUDIO CD or MP3 for purchase…that people could listen to in their cars…in Western Armenian!

    vanarmenya@yahoo.com

  16. I hope your book will one day be translated into Turkish too.
    I am a turkish citizen and like many others grew up believing the official history taught us by the government: that such a genocide never happened that we never hurt anyone. however in this information we are living in it is impossible to keep things secret anymore. and like many others i too am trying to read and learn more about our “unofficial” history, including the genocide of the armenians. things i read are shocking and what i find even more horrible is that i as one individual cannot do much to change my governments attitude towards this problem. however i hope the younger generations will one day manage this, manage to confront this issue and apologize in a proper way for the atrocities comitted against armenians and other ethnic groups as well.
    that is why i hope your book will be translated into turkish as well. so that the younger generation can read it. i find Komitas’s story to be very moving and it touched me from the deep down. i know it can reach others as well and make them question things they believed to be true.
    thank you!

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