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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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exaggeration to say that the entire first part of the poem, leading up to the fateful first battle between Roland’s forces and those of the Saracen king, is driven by subjects who are motivated by this “vengeance” motif. Ganelon, before leaving for the enemy’s camp, warns his fellow Franks that the insult that has been made against him will be paid in full. He, as a subject, vows to return, and he, as a subject, vows to exact revenge against Roland. Ganelon has every intention of seeking vengeance, and getting vengeance. This emphasis on “vengeance” in the “Chanson de Roland” allows us to further highlight the existence of this sense of subjectivity in the characters. For subjects’ sense that something is menacing, that something or someone is threatening their subjectivizing process, that is to say, their way of life and their very life itself.

This subjective need for vengeance is expressed in the following verses:

Robert A. Hall Jr., ‘Ganelon and Roland’ in Modern Language Quarterly. Vol 6., No. 3, Sept. 1945, p. 264.

Verses 277-279; 292-295.

This type of logic, or need for “reparations” contributed to the extreme violence of the medieval period, and effectively countered the ideal of tolerance and forgiveness promulgated by the Church. As Huizinga has noted: “In the blind passion with which people followed their lord or their party, the unshakeable sentiment of right, characteristic of the Middle Ages, is trying to find expression. Man at that time is convinced that right is absolutely fixed and certain. Justice should prosecute the unjust everywhere and to the end. Reparation and retribution have to be extreme, and assume the character of revenge.” Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, p. 22.

“Se Deus ço dunet que jo de la repaire, Jo t’en muvrai137 une si grant contraire

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Que jo n’esclair ceste meie grant ire’ 139.

As this passage demonstrates, there is a degree of vengeful antagonism between Ganelon and Roland. These two different subjects, with different ways of viewing how best to continue being subjects, with all that this involves, are at loggerheads. Ganelon feels that he has been injured by Roland, and, furthermore, he, Ganelon, desires to seek vengeance against another man, Roland. The presence of this dynamic in the poem should lead us to believe that the characters have at least a modicum of interiority and subjectivity. Clearly, they care and question their own existence as subjects. This is the case because the characters live, and respond, in a world where relationships, although clannish and ritualized, are nonetheless experienced on a subjective plane that serves to motivate their actions and responses to one another.

The subjectivity of these responses and actions is further enhanced if we remember that vengeance is not simply an instinctive response, nor is it simply an animalistic reflex. Might it be said that vengeance is irrational or blind? One could argue that it is morally unworthy of being enacted, or consequentially pointless since it does not bring about the desired results, given that, in this society, it merely fuels a greater blood fuel (after all, Ganelon does get his “just The emphasis is mine. Clearly, we see how Ganelon, the person, needs to secure punishment or vengeance on the person of Roland.

Verses 289-291.

Verses 300-301. Once again, we find here an expression of the need to vent and satisfy one’s sense of injury against another.

dessert” in the end). But I think it would be inappropriate to categorize vengeance as innately

irrational. As Jacques Poulain has asserted:

Or cette image d’un homme luttant contre ses désirs et leur irrationalité est la plus grande des injustices. Car l’homme pense nécessairement vraies les propositions par lesquelles il fait apparaître à ses yeux et aux yeux d’autrui ses perceptions, actions, désirs et paroles. En ce sens, le rapport au désir est, en son fond, rationnel et non

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This rationalizing process is precisely what we find in the “Chanson de Roland”, where Ganelon’s vengeance is a drawn out affair, a carefully prepared staging wherein a complicated plot is hatched between differing parties, requiring duplicity, negotiation, and the highest degree of mise en scène. We see this when we understand that Ganelon’s vengeance requires i- A series of “discovering” discussions with Blancandrin.

ii- A risqué presentation of Charlemagne’s offer to Marsile.

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All of this plotting, deceiving, rationalizing suggests a complicated (de)subjectivizing process. The desire for vengeance, the staging put into place by Ganelon, shows that there is a subject, aware of himself and of others, who is striving towards something which it intends. In Ganelon’s case, what is intended is the death of Roland. Ganelon, in his dealing with the Poulain, ‘Horizons-débats’, in Le monde, dimanche 26-lundi 27 mars, 1995, p. 12.

Saracens, asserts that Roland’s presence is a threat for the Franks since he is likely to lead them into foolhardy endeavours141. Yet, aside from Ganelon, none of the other Franks see Roland’s death as a necessary means for obtaining peace. There is only one subject who plots to have Roland done away with: Ganelon. There is only one subject for whom Roland’s presence is perceived as a threat against the collective subjectivizing process of the Franks: Ganelon.





Ganelon’s reaction to Roland must therefore be understood as unique, as subjectivizing the character Ganelon in a way that distinguishes him from all the other Franks. Certainly others imagine other means for establishing peace between the two sides142. Yet, it is his desire for vengeance which distinguishes Ganelon from the other Frankish subjects, and this desire for vengeance demonstrates a unique way of striving towards some intended goal, which, in turn, signifies the extent to which his subjectivity is contrasted to the greater world by this very degree of intentionality. These are not poetic characters which are merely driven by cosmological or cultural forces. These are characters which act, react, plot, and are willing to die as subjects, conscious of themselves and their relationship to Truths and manner of beings to which, alone, they can remain faithful or betray.

Consequently, we can describe vengeance as a subjective response provoked by a sense that one has been slighted, and that the slight, since it has not been corrected (or is not being corrected) by any collective body (government or kingship), must be made right through the exercise of a particular will. Such an understanding of how “vengeance” calls into being a sense of subjectivity, allows us to state that there is just such a dynamic in the “Chanson de Roland”, where several subjects are playing themselves out. The subject that pines for glory and worries about his temporal immortality, is also the subject that frets over having been wronged while See verses 544-549; 557-562; 580-600.

Most notably, the duke of Naimes. See verses 230-243.

plotting a way to even things out. In both cases, you have a worry, a very real concern for the subject.

I would argue that what is being evidenced in the “Chanson de Roland” is a case in which the importance of one’s “facticity", as a means of understanding the socio-culturally contingent circumstances or facts of an individual life143, is being taken up by characters such as Roland and Ganelon, who choose just how such elements will be correlated, as well as the meaning these circumstances will have for them. In consequence, I think that it would be mistaken to assume that the characters (Roland especially) in the “Chanson de Roland” are merely instantiations of character “types”144, or passively reflect and repeat the patterns of signification or importance that are relevant to their epoch and place. Unlike the Saracens, the poem goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the Christian heroes choose and manoeuver. They do not act en masse145, thereby suggesting that they are not simply instantiations of a collective “group-think”. Saracen culture, in its opposition to Christian culture, represents a world in which it is true that within the social framework, there is the potential for a mode of patterned behaviour, wherein, the existence of a specific individual as an ensemble of means and actions is nothing more than the inauthentic mimesis of the essence of the community or epoch. A character, a “subject” acts like everyone else, repeats the same patterns of speech (or, as is the case in the “Chanson de Roland’s” portrayal of the Saracens, they all talk as one at the same time), of thought, and desires. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why the poem refuses to acknowledge any kind of Saracen authenticity or subjectivity. Within this patterned subjectivity, roles and attitudes bear no mark In other words, whether Roland is born in the “now” of the text as opposed to a previous generation or a future, whether or not he is the nephew of Charles or not, the friend of Olivier or not, the fiancé or Aude or not, all of these textually important elements are nonetheless historically and narratively contingent, the whims of either history, or the author’s passing fancy.

Sarah Kay, among others, neatly divides the poem in terms of thinking character types (Ganelon, Olivier), and physical types (Roland). See, Kay, ‘Ethics and Heroics in the Song of Roland’, Neophilologus. 62:4, October 1978.

As we shall see in chapters 11-14.

of their own intentional or purposive activity, but are the impositions of their class and other material conditions.

If we take the poem’s ideology seriously, we must admit that the Saracen social context is apt to create a situation wherein facticity becomes binding, and any hope for the appearance of subjectivity is laid waste since the “one” comes to be interchangeable with any and all others.

This means that the subject, speaking in unison with all-others, acting in unison with all-others, becomes a “they-self”146. The poem certainly tries to demonize and dehumanize the Saracens in just such a manner. However, I believe that such an accusation cannot be leveled against the “Chanson de Roland’s” portrayal of its Christian protagonists. The poem never suggests that social constraints and concepts (such as the notion of glory) are a type of habitus to any of the central characters. In fact, I would propose that the text motivates an understanding in which glory (or treason) is freely chosen, and motivated by personal, subjective concerns and interests.

The poem promulgates the idea of free choice, and of actions that are freely chosen.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the poem’s stated theological colouring.

The Christian underpinning of the poem should certainly lead us to consider such an emphasis.

Likewise, to suggest that such considerations are present in a poem that is so decidedly pro

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Augustine’s theology was one of the predominant schools of thought during the early middle ages. The Augustinian view stresses the centrality of a subjectivizing process, articulated This is one of the dangers that Heidegger is pointing to when he articulates the potential inauthenticity of a Dasein that conforms itself to modes of universality: “Thus the particular Dasein in its everydayness is disburdened by the “they”. Not only that; by thus disburdening it of its Being, the “they” accommodates Dasein if Dasein has any tendency to take things easily and make them easy. And because the “they” constantly accommodates the particular Dasein by disburdening it of its Being, the “they” retains and enhances its stubborn dominion. Everyone is the other, and no one is himself. The “they”, which supplies the answer to the question of the “who” of everyday Dasein, is the “nobody” to whom every Dasein has already surrendered itself in Being-among-one-other”.

Heidegger, Being and Time. p. 165-166.

around the notion of responsibility, since it highlights the practical relationship that any given man had to both himself, and towards any actions that he might commit 147. As Linwood Urban

has stated:

When St. Augustine was first converted to Christianity, he believed that human beings had free will and thus were responsible for their deeds. He also believed in God’s foreknowledge of every future event, including all human actions; but he saw no conflict between human freedom and God’s precognition148.

Human beings are clearly free to choose. By choosing, they also choose the type of subject they are to become. In the Augustinian model, the recognition of a Truth (God’s existence, and God’s existence as an omniscient being), serves as a kind of template with which to measure and respond to the potential choices. Yet such a Truth does not bind or impede action. A subject can choose to turn towards righteous action, or to turn away from righteous action. In other words, a subject chooses his manner of subjectivizing by choosing the manner in

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world that the Church helped to shape, was profoundly influenced by this Augustinian model.

The manner in which the different Christian protagonists act is the trace of this conception in the “Chanson de Roland”.

That Christians are dreit is to be understood both as a modal statement, and a comment on the just how the Christian protagonists view the subjectivizing process. Over and over again,

–  –  –

character moulds his own character by his choice of friends, allegiances, actions, occupations, or “When I chose to do something or not to do it, I was quite certain that it was my own self, and not some other person, who made this act of will, so that I was on the point of understanding that herein lay the cause of my sin”.

Augustine, Confessions. 1961, p. 136.

Linwood Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought. Revised and expanded edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, p. 181.



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