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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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We will also argue that the Saracens are fully aware of this difference, and that this awareness of a fundamental difference is emphasized in the very first laisse of the “Chanson de Roland”. In other words, it is my contention that the poem stresses difference by “desubjectivizing214” it. The “Chanson de Roland” initially sets up a portrayal of subjectivity, as it is expressed and lived by the Christian heroes, and then, against this portrayal, it characterizes the Saracens as “desubjects”, as beings living and expressing themselves in a manner that puts I will use the term “desubject” throughout, despite it being grammatically unaesthetic. The Saracens are “desubjects” in the same manner that one might be said to be déraisonnable, a term denoting not a lack of subjectivity or rationality (they, of course have their own manner of being, acting, and expressing themselves), but the act of having, against a “greater rationality and anthropology” (the turning away from God), chosen to instantiate a mode of subjectivity that is opposite to the only cherished paradigm.

them in opposition to the positive Christian model. This process of desubjectivization is evidenced especially by Saracen beliefs, mores and modes of being. The poem goes to great lengths in order to emphasize the fact the even the Saracens continually recognize, and express, their own negative difference with respect to the Christians. In fact, if there is any play on similarity between the two sides, it does not tend to blur the distinction between Saracens and Christians, rather, the mimicry to be found in the text is best understood as some type of falsifying repetition of that which looks the same, but is not quite215, as is evidenced in the

following passage:

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Fust chrestïens, asez oüst barnét.216 What we have in the above quoted passage is a case of something being almost similar, but not quite. This not quite suggests that the two sides are somehow divided. This division is of course made apparent to the reader, but its importance lays elsewhere. In order for the argument of Christian superiority to be made, it is a difference of which the Saracens must be cognizant. The Saracens must know that they are inferior, that they are not the same subjects as the Christian Franks. They must realize that they are either not the same in martial terms, in cultural terms, or in existential/subjective terms (their being or manner of being). This assertion “Mimicry repeats rather than re-presents”. I think that one can significantly use the work of Bhabha in thinking about the “Chanson de Roland”, while recognizing that some of his philosophical consequences are best discarded, or turned on their head in order to make sense of the goings-on in the text. Bhabha, The Location of Culture.

Routledge Classics, New York, 1994, p. 125.

Verses 894-899. We shall explore this dimension of semblance in greater detail further in this chapter 12.

of a difference in how members of different groups become is important, for the poem articulates one of its crucial arguments around it: namely, its claim that it is a difference of which the Saracens seem to be fully cognizant. In a certain sense, one could argue that the entire poetic edifice of the “Chanson de Roland” would be diminished if the Saracens did not recognize their fundamental difference. In order to have a divided world, in order to have a world-at-war, and to have this war be motivated by different theologies and modes of subjectivizing, it is necessary for there to be a difference. In order for there to be hate, distrust, and disdain from one side to the other, there must be, reciprocally, notions of difference from one side to the next. One side must see its own manner of being, its subjectivity, as differing from that of the other as “desubject”. This oppositional view, extending as it does to the very negation of the different subject itself, is expressed by the political and cultural leaders on both sides.

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These passages indicate that both sides are aware of a difference running from one to the other. Furthermore, both sides are aware that between the two of them there is an open hostility that culminates in wholesale slaughter. This hatred towards the enemy, this will to kill and destroy him, dispels the notion that the Saracens are the “indistinguishable other”. If the Saracens thought that they were, in fact, the “indistinguishable other” of the Christians, they would certainly see no objection to Christian rule over their lands.

In fact, the awareness that they are dealing with subjects different from themselves serves as an instigating factor in the story that will unfold. The very first laisse of the poem opposes Christian and Saracen, Charlemagne and Marsile. The Saracens plot against Charlemagne and the Franks because they see them as an enemy and a threat, that is to say, an “other”. Their plotting is a way of undermining the Christian other, of defeating him or negating him. When Marsile, in bad faith, proposes to accept Christian rule and conversion, he is playing on and exploiting the very elements of difference (and the mechanism allowing for the elimination of that difference) between Christian subjectivity and Saracen “desubjectivity”. He will pretend to become a Christian subject, and subject to Charlemagne, in order to better avoid doing so. That is to say, he will play the part in order to better stay a “desubject”. That Marsile would even The “li” in question is Baligant, the leader of the Saracens.





Verses 3165-3171.

hatch such a plot can be explained by the very nature of the differential logic existing between the Christians and the Saracens. When we are first introduced into the Saracen camp, we are made aware of their anguished recognition of their difference with respect to the Franks. The Saracens are massed around their king Marsile, who, ignominiously, is lying prostrate on the ground in a position that already suggests his already/inevitable defeat. To the ignominy of his

physical/spatial positioning, the king adds these words of despair:

–  –  –

I would suggest that these opening words are meant to symbolize an entire worldview, and a conception of the Saracen subject that distinguishes him from the Frank. Clearly, these are not the words of a happy or contented man. These are not the words of a man who thinks himself as the indistinguishable other of the Frankish king. These are not the words of a man fulfilling his teleological drive, happy and contented in his subjectivity. Marsile senses and fears that something is amiss, that something is not quite right with him and his fellow subjects. In this passage, we find a Marsile who fears for his future. He fears the loss of his empire. He fears the loss of his life. Now this, as we have already seen, is an important distinction. The Christian knights do not, on their part, fear the loss of life, since their actions are embedded within the Verses, 14-21.

continuity of a Truth that transcends the immanent. Marsile, on the other hand, does fear for his life. Fear is always a fear of something that is definite, something “other”, in Marsile’s case, fear of a definite object/subject: Charlemagne and his formidable army. In the case of Marsile, his fear is clearly defined, and helps to reveal his own state of mind and being.

In fact, Marsile’s opening salvo allows us to access a literary typology that reveals how the Saracens go from an awareness of spatial separation to an awareness of a difference in subjectivity. It is noteworthy that the Franks remain oblivious, in their part of the world, to the kind of physical/spatial ignominy and despair expressed by Marsile. As Molly Robinson Kelly has demonstrated in her study of the spatiality of the “Chanson de Roland”, its poetic world is divided, with divisions inscribed with absolute oppositions and fundamental differences. The world of the Chanson de Roland is torn asunder with differences that are cultual, cultural, and subjective-existential in nature. These differences further reinforce and augment the hostility between the differing views, uses, and orientations of subjects and “desubjects” in space. The poem presents us with a world marked by heterogeneity. A heterogeneity that is destined to disappear. What is beyond one subject’s/”desubject’s” space does not resemble him. Hence it is that the appearance of this “other” is seen as a threat to a way of life, and to that way of life’s presence in space221.

Marsile’s anguished pleas for help are to be understood in just these terms.

Charlemagne’s army is a threat. It is an army of difference wanting to impose its own brand of subjectivity on those it has (or those who will be) conquered. Surely Marsile, as the last holdout against the Frankish tide, would have been aware of Charlemagne's simplistic, yet effective “The worldview sketched through the spatiality of the Song of Roland is hardly one of a homogeneous, dominant, and secure Christian empire. On the contrary, constant vigilance seems necessary, a fact that accentuates once more the wisdom inherent in Roland’s heroism as well as the foolhardiness inherent in the Franks’ sense of security at the beginning of the poem”. Molly Robinson Kelly, The Hero’s Place. Medieval Literary Traditions of Space and Belonging. 2009, p. 131.

foreign policy: convert or die222. In other words, become the same, or be reduced to nothingness.

His pleas allow us to see that he is cognizant of a menacing difference, looming just over the horizon. A difference fully capable of negating his being and way of life.

A brief examination of the way in which the characters of the opposite religious groups are treated fictionally, makes us even more aware that the relationship between Frank and Saracen is that of dominator/dominated. The social geography implied by the division of the world into Saracen and Christian empires (the first imploding, the second expanding) tells us that the topography –mountains, rivers, valleys- which might possibly allow passage from one place to the next, holding out the hope for a fusion of horizons or wholeness, actually isolates and separates the inhabitants into two divergent groups. We discover that there are cultural and existential implications to this state when we look at the differing analysis that can be made of

–  –  –

characterized by advancing motion223 and telos. Anachronisms aside, the Franks share in the same manifest destiny that was evidenced in Virgil's Aeneid, or the American conquest of the West. Theirs is a movement forward. The very first laisse of the poem makes it evident that Charlemagne, the Frankish king, has already successfully conquered Spain, with the exception of Saragossa224. In fact the first 8 laisses of the poem serve to structure the spatial and ontological differences for the rest of the work. The first laisse indicates the past conquest and eventual This mode of “either\or” thinking is a common leitmotif in chanson de geste literature. See Isabelle Ladonet, ‘Conversion de Païens et refus d’apostasie de Chrétiens dans le Premier Cycle de la Croisade : mourir en croisade’, Mourir pour des idées, textes réunis et présentés par Caroline Cazanave et France Marchal-Ninosque, Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, Besançon, 2008, pp. 325-340.

William Ray has noted the extent to which the characters in the Chanson de Roland are almost tragically thrown forward into the future, thereby depriving them (in his view) of any meaningful past: “Not only do none of the characters have any real past (even Charles is sketched in very vague terms), but their actions throughout the poem indicate a total preoccupation with the imminent: they are dominated by anticipation, as is the narration”. William E. Ray, ‘Pairing and Temporal Perspective in the Chanson de Roland’, The French Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, December 1976, p. 248.

"Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes/ Set anz tuz pleins ad estét en Espaigne/ Tresqu’en la mer cunquist latere alteigne/ N’i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne/ Mur ne citét n’i est remés a fraindre/ Fors Sarraguce, k’est en une muntaigne". Verses, 1-6.

success of the Frankish king. The second laisse presents us with Saracen despair and ignominy.

Laisses 3 through 7 represent the extreme ends (a false pact of peace, the willingness to sacrifice their sons in order to retain their power) to which the Saracens are willing to go in order to avoid a complete loss of life and territory. Laisse 8 presents us with the Frankish victory over the city of Cordres, which is meant to indicate both the fruitlessness of the Saracen plot, as well as their eventual conquest. All of which is meant to suggest that the resistance at Saragossa is eventually to be overcome.

That this point of resistance is temporary and destined to be overcome is made obvious by the fact that its leader (Marsile) is himself destined to be overcome and doomed/damned. The forward progress of the Franks cannot be stopped, or at least, it is not to be stopped by Marsile.

The poem makes this clear right from the start. Likewise, the ending of the poem also indicates that the territorial, cultural and subjectivizing expansion of the Frankish way of life is to be continued and to move on. Christendom has new enemies, elsewhere, implying the same mechanics of conquest and conversion of Christian subjectivizing into this always elsewhere. If we bother to analyze the very last verse of the first laisse, which foretells of the misfortunes that will befall the Saracen king Marsile, we can see that this omniscient assertion, on the part of the narrator, implies that this state of exception, this Saracen resistance to Frankish/Christian culture and subjectivity will not last or endure225. This reference to destiny, this cosmological conception of Marsile’s eventual downfall conceives of Charlemagne’s spatial motion and conquest as being internally directed to some end, which we can also assume to be cosmological.

In contradistinction, the Saracens seem to be bereft of motion. When we first meet them, they are at a standstill, holed up in their last remaining strong place, awaiting the arrival of Charlemagne's army. The Saracens are motionless, as opposed to the Franks who are in motion.

"Ne s’poet guarder que mals ne l’i ateignet", verse 9.



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