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«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»

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It is the conclusion of a long reasoning, inherent in much medieval theology and philosophy, wherein one moves from Creation, to the recognition of Creation and a Creator, to the adherence to this Creator, to a life lived in conformity with Him, to ultimate everlasting participation in Creation itself. It is this very process of subjectivizing which is at the heart of the "Chanson de Roland". This ability to participate in and continue to exist in truth is the fundamental difference between the Christian Franks and the “pagan” Saracens. To participate in the continued elaboration of a truth, such as that of God’s existence, makes possible the transformation of an immanent participation into something eternal. It is this suspension of the immanent, this potential leap into the transcendent which, ultimately, both defines and distinguishes modes of conduct, ways of life, and elects or damns the theologies which are at the root of such modes of living.

Such modes of living and adhering to a Truth constitute the cultural mechanism whereby a religion can propagate and maintain itself. In the case of the “Chanson de Roland”, the specific subjectivizing process put forth by the Christian vision is designed to propagate ideas, to resist other ideas, to capture and/or enthrall members (conversions that are forced, or willed), as well as resources. By adopting the Truth of God’s Creation, and of man’s subjection to that Creator, as a Credo, members of the Christian community accept certain texts, rules, and manners of being as sacred, and thereby, members of this community have a specific duty and obligation to support the “infrastructure” surrounding/expressing that Truth. This requires the adoption of certain specific ways of acting which are justified by the ideology stemming from the Truth.

One of the more useful distinctions that will arise from the recognition, and adherence to a Truth, will be the conscious competition between competing visions, wherein members will intentionally harness evolutionary and expansionist goals. Within the framework of Western Christianity, as well as within the framework of the “Chanson de Roland’s” narrative 107, the propagation, the continuity of a subjectivizing model implicitly related to the divine, is not so much an ancillary request, as an ethical demand. It is incumbent upon the Frankish king (Charlemagne) to set out to guarantee the continuity of his own culture (and his subjectivity) by destroying competing cultures. Turpin, Roland, as well as Charlemagne, all represent instances of subjects, faithful to, and representative of a culture, who voluntarily or involuntarily (inasmuch as Charlemagne is directed to further conquests by angelic/divine advice and/or command) charge themselves with reproducing the elemental Truth that is foundational to that culture, and to their understanding of subjectivization. Hence the curious mix of military strength, and missionary zeal (Turpin), as two instances where the culturally aggressive and the moral principle are bound together. The unavoidable result of such a logic will be that, when two cultures, two competing subjectivizing processes come into contact, one will prosper in the competition for members, subject-adherents, and space for social expansion, while another will not.

As evidenced in the very first and last lays of the poem where the conquering motif of Frankish Christianity are expressed, and receive an ideological/soteriological tenor.


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Chivalry is combat personified. In martial societies, fighting is paramount, but more

importantly, fighting well is honoured because it allows a hero to achieve and attain immortality:

that of union with God, but also the immortality of having a glorious name that is remembered by posterity. I would suggest that for a Christian knight, these two elements are connected. One fights for God, by dying nobly, bravely, on the battlefield, yet at the same time, this death, since it has been faithful to a Truth which is seen as foundational (belief in the True God, as we have seen, is the essence of one’s being and that towards which you must turn), is inscribed in the continuity of that Truth (its immortality in the hereafter), as well as the continued striving (the memory) of the rest of the members of the religious community in their continued faithfulness to the Truth. By dying once, a Christian knight can expect two forms of immortality. When Roland is encouraging the men under his command to fight bravely, lest they be shamed by the ill-repute of songs that transmit their misdeeds to future generations, he is evoking this notion of a subject’s participation in some mode of temporal continuity. To be remembered shamefully is Verses 1013-1015.

to attain infamy, and its perverse continuity wherein the hero as a subject is continuously associated with evil, betrayal, cowardice, and other elements of social disrepute, such that this infamy becomes a type of archival hell, where deeds are reckoned, and the abjection that weighs on those who are so remembered is the community’s mode of punishing subjects for what they have done in their lives. Such situatedness in the collective memory is a form of second death, of temporal punishment as continuity, since it serves as a vehicle whereby subjects suffer endless suffering –the suffering of ill-repute or infamy- as the community proceeds to perpetuate a punishment against one of its own. It is far different in kind from the type of immortality wished for by Roland, and the benefits it can bestow on the hero. Both of these dimensions are present to Roland, and Roland is very aware of the fact that when he is spurring his men to “beglorious”, this call is intensely connected to the local faithfulness in the service of arms (fighting for God, against the enemies of God), that it is historical (as a present situation, and as a possibility for cultural continuity), grounded in a time and a place, yet it is by its very nature associated to an interpretation/truth that is not of this world.

Furthermore, Roland’s appeal to glory implies that the question of his “being-glorious” is a question and a concern for him. Roland’s statement clearly indicates that his is a world where there is, to some extent, concern for subjectivity109. Roland is a subject who is concerned with the manner in which he will be faithful to a Truth, the manner in which he will face his enemies, and lastly, the manner in which he will be remembered by posterity. If Roland did not have a sense of his own subjectivity, with distinct attributes and capabilities, with unique possibilities and a singular destiny, there would simply be no need for him to worry or to press for the Or, as Hegel would have it: “The subject is thus so far a person. It is implied in personality that I, as a distinct being, am on all sides completely bounded and limited, on the side of inner caprice, impulse and appetite, as well as in my direct and visible outer life”. Hegel, Philosophy of Right. Translated by S.W. Dyde, Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001, p. 52.

attainment of momentous glory. To strive for personal glory, battling against the enemies of God, in the face of certain death is to recognize that, the care and the questioning he exhibits as a subject (and the way in which such caring and questioning shall appear to his family and all of posterity), is characteristic of the subjectivizing process wherein, as a faithful Christian, he is turned towards the metaphysical (Roland knows that his death will grant him access to Paradise), and such a turn is complicit with the drive of the community that will remember him. To insist, as he does, on the necessity of “being-glorious” in the face of death can only mean that Roland is cognizant of the fact that he is responsible for the cohesion between himself and the process of subjectivization. That he alone at this moment of his life must be faithful to his turn towards the Truth by choosing to live or die in only one way.

Given that this awareness of his subjectivity appears as a response to death, it makes the

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possibility from which none can escape, then Roland’s reference to chansons de geste signals a move around such an inescapable possibility. If death and negation are constitutive elements of “desubjects110”, immortality, whether transcendent or communal, serves as both a goal for

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immortality, and the care or concern for such a question, indicates that you have a subject who is cognizant of the saving grace of a Truth (if Christians are different from Saracens, in Roland’s mind, it is certainly because they are dreit), who knows that he is to become a subject by being faithful to that Truth, and lastly, who expects his faithfulness to that Truth to guarantee the continuity of his subjectivization through a Transcendent and a communal process. I would argue that Roland’s concern for glory allows him to layer his subjectivity over and above death As we shall see in chapter 11, Saracens are defined by their fear of death, their dying (collectively or otherwise), and their negation: after dying physically, they suffer a second death, that of their soul.

itself. If we focus our attention on the communal immortality granted by songs of repute, we can see that the chanson de geste, as an end-product, continues subjectivity in such a way that through repeated references, singing, and reading, the text becomes the apparatus (the process) for the permanent referral of the subject who both precedes and actualizes it. In this manner, chansons de geste, are consolatory and hopeful. Any book about Roland (including the one we are reading) is to be read in a dramatic way, wherein the reader temporarily focuses attention on some of the catastrophic episodes (the death and suffering of the heroes), yet, in the end, the struggle will come to an end, the forces of opposition will be vanquished, the hero will come to unending joy, and the community, both as memory and body, will have traversed the period of trial and have obtained happiness and a strengthening of itself in that which has just ended. The poetic discourse sets itself up as the performance of subjectivity.

If Roland puts such an emphasis on the importance of these songs of glory and ill-repute, it is because he is aware of the fact that these poems do not merely transcribe the acts of great heroes. A chanson de geste is not merely a set of inscriptions on a piece of paper. Such texts become the principal means by which subjectivity is staged, and then restaged. To refer, as he does, to the continuity of subjectivity through songs requires a heightened awareness of subjectivity. For it suggests that there is at least one subject (Roland) who is projecting his meaning (the meaning of himself as a faithful Christian knight) into/beyond the world.

Regardless of what might be happening in the situation that is presented to him (the massed Saracen army, certain death etc…), it is Roland who chooses how his subjectivity will signify his encounter, and his Transcendence, of that situation. As a subject conscious of his duty and faithfulness, he transforms this situation by his choice of possibilities and meanings.

Furthermore, this constructed/staged meaning is meant to interact continuously with both the immediate environment that Roland lives in (it is destined to act as a testimony for those in France who will not have been witnesses to his glory), and the future environment of France (future generations will know of his deeds). Roland’s insistence on glory, his referencing of chansons de geste to come, betrays the degree to which such elements are vital to the needs and interest of subjectivity as he understands them. Roland is neither a determined brute, nor a mere instantiation of physical brutality.

The kind of subjectivity that Roland secretes when he evokes such meanings and values, suggests the presence of something unique that is both practical and perceptual, expressing itself in emotional sensitivity and thought. In choosing to die one way, in honor and in homage to one thing (Lord-God, and lord-king) as opposed to reacting differently (a possibility evidenced by Ganelon’s treacherous behaviour111) with respect to other possibilities, Roland’s choice manifests the degree in which his subjectivity is equated with freedom, inasmuch as his expression of his subjectivity demonstrates the he is free in giving it meaning in a particular situation. A situation which he is constructing.

After all, a subject unaware of himself, would not really care whether he lives on gloriously or not in the hearts and minds of other men. To care about such matters, is to indicate, however faintly or incompletely, that you are a unique subject, distinct from others, free, and possessing, to which ever degree, some elements of rights or privileges, namely, those of And does Ganelon not himself best incarnate the kind of betrayal of subjectivizing evidenced in the thought of Badiou:” To keep going, then, presumes the ability to identify and resist the various forms of corruption or exhaustion that can beset a fidelity to truth. This corruption defines what Badiou calls “Evil”. Evil can take one of three main forms, each one a perversion of truth: a) betrayal, the renunciation of a difficult fidelity … is a fairly straightforward matter of temptation and fatigue”. Peter Hallward ‘Translator’s Introduction’, in Badiou, Ethics.

An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Translated by Peter Hallward, Verso’ New York, 2001, p. xi-xii.

continuity of process through faithfulness. For these myriad elements are the aspects of subjectivity that will be celebrated in the “songs of the bards”.

Consequently, I believe that Roland’s repeated utterances about the need to avoid the illrepute that would befall him and his men were they to fight ingloriously, suggests that the world of the “Chanson de Roland” is thoroughly imbued with notions of subjectivity, and furthermore, that this subjectivity is related, or distinguished, from alterity. There is one, correct way, of becoming a subject, and there are “other” incorrect ways. The possibility of being heroic, of dying nobly for God, is a possibility that emanates from the subject’s living in a given world 112.

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