ILLNESS: MYTHS AND REALITY
Although nearly 70 years have passed since the
great Komitas’ tragic death, his illness and the true cause
of his death remain a mystery. So far, Vardapet’s illness
has sparked numerous scientific and historical researches, discussions,
etc. It seems strange that Komitas, a simple and clear person, who
was close to people, left so many puzzles and unsolved mysteries
after his death. To date there are several versions of the musician’s
illness in the worldwide studies on Komitas. We represent only a
few of them. It is up to the reader to decide which of them is true
and which one is just a myth.
In November 1991, in Paris Medical University
at the French Academy of Sciences, a leading specialist of two Paris
psychiatric clinics Louise Fauve-Hovhannessian completed her PhD
with a study on the true cause of Komitas Vardapet’s illness
and death. In her research Dr. Fauve-Hovhannesian proves that Komitas
was not mentally ill and did not suffer from schizophrenia, based
on the following facts.
When together with eight other prominent figures
of art and science Komitas was returned from the exile in the south
of Turkey, Changr region, he was depressed psychologically; however,
he did not show any pathological signs. On the contrary, there is
an extremely significant testimony of Buzand Kochian, editor of
the “Buzand” newspaper, who was with Komitas in exile.
According to him, it was Vardapet who had encouraged the exiled
to struggle and live. They were astonished at Vardapet’s physical
fitness and mental health, and at night, he slept peacefully like
Nevertheless, soon after his return, Komitas developed
some depressive conditions. In the spring of 1916, there was some
improvement. His close friend, Arents, invited him to his place,
and Komitas spent some time there, on an island. At that time he
was feeling so well that he was able to compose two piano pieces
– “Armenian Dances” and “Dances of Mush”.
By the autumn the depression started again, and he was taken to
a Turkish military hospital in Constantinople. In 1919, he was moved
into the mental clinic Vil Evrar in Paris. In August 1922, he was
relocated to Vile Jouife where the conditions were much poorer and
the payment was lower. It was the place where Komitas died in October
1935 after he had spent 19 years in different mental clinics as
a mental patient. His doctor in charge was a French physician Maurice
Louise Fauve-Hovhannesian believes Komitas was
not insane, and his diagnosis “schizophrenia” was not
correct. Twice he was taken to hospitals in Paris and in Constantinople
by deception. After the horrors of the slaughter, he happened to
be a patient of a Turkish military doctor, and this must have made
his condition worse. Was he supposed to speak to the Turks of the
When the so-called Komitas Assistance Committee
deceived him into believing that the International Music Association
had invited him to make a report at the congress in Paris and wanted
him to be a full member of the Association, Vardapet made a voyage
to France. There a complete stranger, a student, traveling on the
same ship, on the instructions of the Committee took Komitas to
a mental hospital by deception. It was his surname, Gevorg Kamlamayan
that was written as the great musician’s warrantor, not somebody
else’s from the Committee or from the Armenian Church.
Komitas was taken to a Paris hospital “for
examination of his state of heightened nervous excitability”.
Vardapet had never been insane; he did not ask or demand anything,
though he did get into financial difficulties and might have been
influenced by those who were eager to “help” him. There
is an inaccurate record in Komitas’ case history. It reads
Komitas was repeatedly treated in hospitals in Turkey and Russia,
and that he was first taken to mental clinic as far back as in 1898.
That cannot be true, as it is well known that at that time Komitas
was studying in Germany; his letters from Berlin are still preserved.
When he was first taken to hospital, he was already 48 years old;
meanwhile schizophrenia practically never develops at such an old
age. It is obvious the facts were juggled to justify the false diagnosis.
One of the most essential troubles in Komitas’
behavior was his silence. Dr Maurice Ducostet wrote Vardapet’s
silence was not a symptom of any illness. According to his observation,
In fact, Komitas did not want to speak, as opposed to keeping silence.
He himself decided whether to interact with the visitor or not.
Secondly, Komitas spoke French with difficulty, and in psychiatry
the interaction between the patient and the doctor is essential.
This can be an excuse for Komitas’ unwillingness to interact
with the personnel and the patients.
Besides, as is generally known, the so-called
Assistance Committee signed an order forbidding visiting Komitas
without its permission. Hence Dr. Fauve-Hovhannisian wonders who
authorized the representatives of the Committee to issue such an
order. What were they afraid of if they were sure Komitas was insane?
To the end, Komitas never wore other clothes than those of a churchman.
Being isolated for years, he never read any newspapers, nor did
he use a watch or a calendar. However, he managed to guess the exact
beginning of the fast and kept it.
Louise Fauve-Hovhannisian also refutes the rumors
of Komitas’ venereal disease, which in its latest stage supposedly
resulted in his insanity. There are no records in Komitas’
case history, which allow supposing syphilis. Furthermore, the blood
analysis, practiced since 1906, denies such a diagnosis.
After having thoroughly examined these and some other facts, Louise
Fauve-Hovhannissian deduces Komitas’ diagnosis, viz. post-traumatic
stress disorder. That illness could have been cured by returning
him to his usual surrounding, to his habitual daily rhythm, to art,
to creative life, and to people.
The researcher assumes that the cause of Komitas’
death in 1935 was osteit. In the clinic, the patients were given
rough shoes, so, having a sore place on his foot, Vardapet caught
an infection, and soon it spread in the bone. As antibiotics only
appeared in 1948-50’s, Komitas had no chance to survive.
In 1999, Khachik Safarian’s book titled
“Komitas, a Miracle Man” was published. In the chapter
called “The Mystery of the Illness”, which covers the
different versions of Vardapet’s illness, the author documents
specific facts of his life and the opinions of his contemporaries
directly interacting with him during the period of his illness.
Particularly, there is a testimony of Vardan Agkul,
one of his students, “On his return, his health was mainly
ruined, namely, his nerves were shattered. Vardapet was only interested
in the Gospel and started to interpret it his way. At the same time
he announced a sort of hunger strike and only drank tea. Vardapet
gave importance to his dreams. Once when we gathered at his place,
he began interpreting the Gospel. We were having a discussion, when
he cried out, his temper rising, ‘I am Jesus, you are my disciples,
and I tell you: Vardan, you are the Doubting Thomas!’ These
words designated the tragic finale.”
According to some testimonies, Komitas had a sort
of persecution complex. “When the sick Buzand Kechian sent
his son Ashot for Vardapet, they only came some hours later. His
son complained that Komitas displayed groundless fears: it seemed
to him he was followed by Turk khafies and policemen. That’s
why he made Ashot take convoluted paths, and a ten-minute walk took
them several hours.”
The words of Levon Mesrop, a friend of Komitas
in Constantinople, testify to the same. “Vardapet just returned
from the death way. Dr. Torgomian came to me and told me about Komitas’
poor condition. He suggested inviting Komitas to our place in order
to distract his mind from his sorrows. We agreed gladly, and Vardapet
stayed with us, surrounded with love and care, for a whole month.”
“Unfortunately, some disturbing signs of
the disease appeared. Once he took our little ones to the top of
a hill and then quickly ran down it. Naturally, the children could
not catch up with him, and Komitas dragged them home along the ground.
We were horrified though did not show any sign and went on taking
care of him. Two weeks later he disappeared from his room. After
having searched in the neighborhood with no success, our maid entered
his dark room with a candle in her hand. Vardapet, who turned out
to be lying on his bed, quickly got up and blew out the candle,
scaring the maid. Another day he hid under the table. When my mother
came into the room, he jumped from underneath the table with a wild
At last, here is Astvatsatur Arents’ testimony
on the last days of Komitas prior to going to the Hospital de la
Pays in Shishley. “In October, he was getting worse week by
week, and his liveliness was dying out. He could not stand any sunlight,
though before that he had always looked forward to seeing sunrise.
That last Friday we were waiting for him to come down to have dinner.
He suddenly cantered downstairs and rushed outside to the embankment.
Naturally, I followed him. When we got to the church, he came in,
asked me to lock the door and kneeling down began to pray tearfully
“Charging the priest with looking after
him, I went back home to calm my family, then I went down to the
church again. Someone told me Vardapet and the priest had walked
to the embankment. Much later Vardapet and Father Vardan emerged
in the dark of the night. Seeing me, the priest told me Vardapet
wanted to return home. I took him home and then in the morning,
after a sleepless night, accompanied him to his house in Beru. Later
he was taken to Hospital de la Pays in Shishey after Drs Torgomian
and Gonos had had an immediate discussion.”
In the hospital Vardapet was paid a visit by the
son of Smbat, his friend who had been killed by the Turks. He recounts,
“When I entered his room, Komitas turned to me indifferently
and immediately forgot about my presence, though he had been at
our place and knew me well. Then I came up nearer and asked kindly,
“Don’t you recognize me, padre? I am Vaghinak, Smbat’s
son.” Having heard my father’s name, he straightened
himself and looked at me. At first I saw fear in his weary eyes,
“Smbat’s son? Yes, I do.” Then he drew something
in the air, rolled his eyes, his temper rose, and he shouted, “I
won’t let them kill Smbat! No, I won’t, murderers!”
And again his look turned to the window. He did not answer my questions
and did not react to the reminders; then making some strange gestures,
he cried out without looking at me, “I don’t know you!
Go away! I must write my songs!”
The father of Aghavny Mesrobian, one of Vardapet’s
best students, said, “For 15 minutes, in the presence of the
psychiatrist, the poor Komitas answered all my questions in Turkish,
“I’ve never known you and I do not want to speak to
you.” Being unable to restore Komitas’ health, the doctors
made their minds to relocate him to Hospital Vile Evrare by the
Romanian ship “Tachio”. In Paris, his close friend Arshak
Chopanian took him to hospital instead of accompanying Vardapet
to music halls as he used to. The fact Komitas was not able to travel
by himself any longer and agreed to spend 2 years in Shishley and
in Vile Evrare, and, in the end, that he showed indifference to
his own destiny – testified to his mental disorder.
In 1921, artist Panos Terlemezian paid a visit
to Komitas in Vile Evrare. “…I entered the room with
the nurse. He was in bed and on seeing me he rose. I hugged and
kissed him. He grasped my face and began patting me on the face
in jest, repeating, “Let me beat you, let me beat you…”
I said, “Komitas, I know you took offence at people, so did
I, but you can’t resent them forever. We look forward to your
return.” But he went on philosophizing and caviling at every
word. Step by step he got more serious. He said of art, “One
does not need it. Only light and nature, that’s what we need.”
I suggested going to Lake Sevan. “What will I do there?”
asked Vardapet. He was not interested in visiting Etchmiadzin either.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I offered. “It is
nice in here,” he replied. Speaking of life and death, he
said there was no death at all and quickly closing the door asked,
“If this is not a grave, then what is it?” Calling on
Komitas for the second time, Terlemezian saw him completely gray-headed,
and did not hear a single word from him.
The first symptom of the beginning illness was
the case, which happened in exile in Changr. The deported representatives
of Armenian intellectuals, having a presentiment of the end, asked
Komitas to sing his best-known work "Have mercy upon me, O
God!" Accompanied with mournful cries and hopeless moans of
his dying friends, Komitas completed his song, and seeing the condition
of his friends and colleagues, the brightest and most talented figures
of Armenian art, he burst out laughing madly, horrifying his friends.
Realizing Vardapet's state, they tried to comfort him, but in vain
- he went on laughing madly. Perhaps, it was the moment Vardapet’s
consciousness dimmed forever.
This version of Komitas’ illness has
only one point in common with that of Louise Fauve-Hovhannisian,
viz, Komitas Vardapet died of osteit, suppurative inflammation of
a foot bone, which was caused by the unsanitary conditions.