YEREVAN/LONDON — Vaughan (Vahan) Pilikian was born in London to an American mother and Armenian father. After studies in classical languages, fine art and filmmaking at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, he has produced work in several different fields. His career to date has seen him chasing burning barrels in a village in Devon, filming the lives of shipbreakers in northern India, translating the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata and broadcasting recordings from ancient Babylon on Resonance FM. In 2012 his play “Leper Colony” ran for three weeks at the Yard Theatre in London to controversy and acclaim. In 2016, he was the first and, it turned out, the last British Council Resident Artist in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, where he made a performance about werewolves. Last year he published his third book of poems and he is presently completing work on a feature film about migrants in peril and adrift in the hinterlands of Europe.
Dear Vaughan, I want to start our conversation remembering your father, Hovhanness Pilikian, who died last December. In 1980s he was quite known in the art circles of Soviet Armenia, particularly due to his extraordinary interpretations of Shakespeare. He was a polymath, and I see that you took after him.
My father was a difficult man, as anyone who spent any time with him will attest. But he was a true individual. Nothing held him back. He was a force of nature, a person in whom the destructive and creative impulses were closely imbricated. I certainly inherited a great number of his interests and passions. One thing he did instill in me is a sense that conventions and boundaries are not really a concern. I don’t have a plan or a career: like him, I have only my obsessions and my interests. These things lead me: I do not decide them. The notion of a polymath only makes sense in a divided and damaged society in which the Geist, to use of necessity a German word for a concept we do not have in English, has become fissured and broken. Surely we must aspire to cut across the domains that are mostly very recent creations. If we cannot aspire to hold different kinds of knowledge and technique simultaneously within ourselves then as a society I feel we are doomed to servitude and ignorance.
You translate ancient Indian poetry from Sanskrit into English. One can think that all Sanskrit literature has been already translated into English. Do you make first-time translations or new translations of works that have been previously done and now are outdated?
Unfortunately only a tiny fraction of Sanskrit literature has been translated into English. The only text with any real currency in the West is the Bhagavad Gita, but that is often taken out of context and is misinterpreted. This isn’t just a popular matter: Western scholarship is mostly and proudly ignorant of Indian civilization. Perhaps there is a kind of neurotic repression at work. Ancient India strongly influenced pre-Socratic Greek philosophy and its early metaphysics far surpass in subtlety parallel developments in the West. The vast and multifarious religious systems of Hinduism and of Buddhism can all be traced back to ancient Sanskrit sources. The Mahabharata, for instance, a text I have worked on extensively, is one of the most extraordinary and dazzling creations in world literature. The Vedas too are an entire cosmological imaginary, spellbinding in their beauty and power. Why are these not better known in the West? Sadly the ambitious translation project of which I was a part collapsed ignominiously some years ago. I am working independently at the moment on some translations from Prakrit, which is a vernacular language related to Sanskrit and which contains I think some of the most astonishingly lovely miniatures in any poetic tradition. Who knows if anyone will want to publish them? Probably not!
What are the best influences and inspirations of your life and your oeuvre?
I suppose I would say my ongoing astonishment merely at being alive. This seems unsurprising and unworthy of comment to many, but it strikes me as an unfathomable mystery. That is perhaps the existential question. It sits somewhat absurdly within the ruination of everyday life. I was born near the time Margaret Thatcher came to power: it has been downhill ever since, an unbroken sequence of hideous stupidity and almost incomprehensible cruelty and vandalism. People complain about Trump but he is a boy scout compared to Blair and Bush and what they did to the world. Our culture and cities are in decline: they have become tourist-trap money-mills, playgrounds for plutocrats and oligarchs where poor people get corralled into towering infernos. I would describe England today as Germany during the Weimar years, except without any sense of fun: A joyless cartoon-fascist interregnum in which the people kicked in the teeth for decades have decided to ally themselves with a decayed aristocracy while the people in-between gloat in disbelief. It is a mess. You have to travel far down forgotten roads to find anything of value now. I love the anarchists and the misfits who abhor everything, who fit in nowhere. It is the broken, the singular, the howlingly desperate whom I seek out. They inspire me. They interest me. Shared culture, global culture: it is all a kind of death, a kind of unbearable banality and pointlessness fashioned in the image of neoliberal economics.
In 2006 you came to Armenia with your films, a documentary and one animation. Your short documentary, “Hammer and Flame,” won an award at the second Golden Apricot International Film Festival. Are you a part of the British filmmaking community or you work independently?
No one in Britain is even vaguely interested in my work. If I make films, which only happens rarely, I do so totally outside of any community or industry. This is not by choice. It’s just necessity. I suppose it’s fair enough, because I am not really interested in contemporary British cinema. The number of films being made about royalty, about queens and princes, is ridiculous – there seems to be one new film on this topic every week. Who cares about this material? It’s actually obscene given what is going on in the world. And aesthetically it is just embarrassing. I suppose all of this junk sells well to Americans. The only real filmmaker of genius from these islands is Peter Greenaway, and he was essentially driven out like a heretic, forced to go and live in Holland. That tells you all you need to know about the British film industry. Does anyone even go to the cinema anymore? What is this obsession anyway with looking in one direction, like prisoners in Plato’s cave? I think people have understood how fascistic the medium has become. It’s a shame, because it can also be and at times has been such a deep and beautiful and powerful medium. Perhaps it was too powerful. Lenin understood what it might achieve, but Hollywood won its Pyrrhic victory over his vision. The problem with film today is that it gets smeared everywhere. I cannot bear mechanical reproduction — it is so obviously the death of art, as Warhol realized decades ago! What filmmaker, after slaving for years on a project, wants to see their film streamed across the internet alongside all the rest of the nonsense that swills around the planet? I am in fact spending less time making films. I am working more in the visual arts and performance, which seem to me much more exciting and much livelier in terms of the kind of work being made.
The second time you came to Armenia in 2014 it was to take part in the symposium of writers of Armenian origin writing in various languages. You are an author of three poetry volumes. What concerns Vaughan Pilikian as a poet?
For me poetry is the possibility of another kind of speech. What is most important in poetry is its secrecy and its mystery. The fact that it is not prose. Poetry is as mysterious as life itself and as simple, to paraphrase Celan, as a handshake. I don’t understand poetry and I hope I never will.
Are there any Armenian touches in your poetry?
Given my poor grasp of the Armenian language I am not qualified to judge this but I might quietly hope that it would somehow be the case. The Armenian language is embedded in my earliest memories. It forms a kind of penumbra around them. I suppose in some sense Armenian must be called my “father” tongue. For example, there was the way in which my father would sink into conversations of a totally different order whenever he saw my uncle, conversations that would send them striding obliviously into oncoming traffic, such was the intensity of their dialogue. Then there was the way my grandfather would sing to us when we sat down to eat. The songs he sung were terrifying and immense, like stones hung in the air. Though I understood almost none of it, Armenian was part of the echolalia of my childhood. It is inscribed on my nervous system in a way that English is not. More recently I have made fragmentary efforts to get a hold on the language. The feeling is strange, not unlike sensing some inner pulse or heartbeat that must always have been there but to which you had never previously given attention. I feel like I am unearthing myself the more I learn. Armenian has an ancient force in its diction quite unlike most European languages. I was interested to discover that, like Sanskrit in fact, it still has an instrumental case – in most modern European languages this case has disappeared or been absorbed into the ablative. At my father’s funeral I read a section in grabar from St. Gregory of Narek which fastened upon me with irresistible force. His prayer poems are extraordinary creations, spectacular journeys above impossible depths. I feel I could somehow spend the rest of my life diving into them and never find their limits.
What does the Armenian heritage mean to you?
Things are written deep into our being, cyphers that can take a lifetime even to discern, let alone begin to interpret or understand. You don’t choose what you inherit, and there is no question that being Armenian carries a special and peculiar force with it. I feel I am Armenian: I also feel I am American, the nationality of my mother. Am I British? I was born here and I have lived my whole life here. Now that both my parents are gone, I feel more keenly than ever how history turns through us all, how immense forces that far outreach any one of us move through us all and drive our individual destinies. There is a curious sense in being Armenian that something very precious and very fragile is at any moment about to be lost forever. I am only speaking in part here of the genocide and its reverberations. Look into Armenian history, and you see how from the earliest times the culture was under threat. Certainly I cannot really conceive of what my grandparents went through, its biblical scale. But I see now with increasing clarity how all that has come before has set me on certain irrefutable assignations and sent me down paths from which I will not return. There is a feeling of enormous and irrevocable dispossession which feels cosmological, but which of course has very particular and explicable roots. I yearn for a land, like we all do. Yet I suppose I can be certain that in this case, it really did exist, and it really was lost.