«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»
This materiality, this focus on possessions is also present in Saracen religiosity. Muslims, as we know, do not worship idols. The "Chanson de Roland", however, insists on portraying the Saracens as wicked idolaters. Unlike the Christians who, regardless of their fetish for relics, nonetheless worship a transcendent God divorced from base materiality, the Saracens pray to and invoke their material idols when preparing, or repairing from battle. These invocations, meant to demonize practises that are wholly "other", that is to say unchristian, inevitably fall on deaf ears, and Saracen religiosity is, in the eyes of the reader, revealed for the empty practise that it is.
Since Saracen prayers go unanswered, Saracen religiosity regresses from its material phase into a form of despondent despair. Unlike traditional narratives in which things evolve from a bad situation to a bettered state, the "Chanson de Roland" insists on portraying Saracen religiosity as moving from the accursed or damned (idol worship having been forbidden by ecclesiastical authorities), to a worsened situation (theological despair is antithetical to a doctrine insisting on hope and salvation) that can only be corrected, not by itself, but through the muscular intervention of a foreign host that imposes its will on the collective Saracen body. Christianity offers its foes a simple choice: death or conversion through force. It is only then that one could say that the state of Saracen religiosity improves. But before the Saracens can be saved from themselves by the Christians, they have to lose everything. This involves recognition of the fruitlessness of their former religious practises. Consequently, it is also through the consciousness of this difference, of their differing worship and practise with regard to the Christians, that Saracen culture is inevitably undone “from within”.
The "Chanson de Roland" strives to impart upon the reader the idea that, ultimately, it is the consciousness of the inferiority of their religious beliefs that will lead the Saracens to their ultimate despair. A despair that will reveal the materiality, and thereby, the emptiness of their religious beliefs. Idols, fashioned in the image of fallen men, made by men, cannot oppose the striving of a true faith. Idols, when confronted by an authentic religious belief or practise, inevitably reveal their "theophanic" emptiness, their soteriological worthlessness. Idols, when confronted by the authentic religious presence, exercised and lived by another faith community (a community that actualizes that belief by bearing it upon itself, that is to say, by subjectivizing that belief) suffer what we might call a "fall from grace", a shattering that precipitates them to shards as they fall to the ground. Michael Camille has given a thorough history of the use of idols during the medieval period. He has also enumerated the numerous ways in which pagan idols are destroyed or “fallen”. It is often the case that idols fall because their fall implicitly recognizes the grandeur of the religious presence that has confronted it. An idol, when "faced" with a relic, or a Christian statue, will drop from its stand, moving downward, shatter into many pieces, leaving only the authentic religious presence to reign in its elevated place. The importance of such encounters resides in the manner in which one religious instrument (the Saracen idol) falters, or bows in acquiescence before another. Its shattering, caused by its "fall from grace", reinforces its lack of Transecndence: it falls downward, rather than move upwards, and its brokenness better demonstrates that it was drawn from the material world, and returns, part and parcel, back to that world, in a manner echoing the Biblical from dust to dust. No spirit, or soul, escapes from it. As an instrument, this idol clearly shows that it was human all too human all along. That such a reversal of fortunes can occur through direct confrontation with a “holy idol”, establishes a theomachic paradigm (not unlike that found in the "Chanson de Roland's" war of Christian versus Saracen) in which the power present in the true religious instrument causes the other, false idol, to fall to the ground, to ritualistically bow and mutilate or destroy itself, by divesting itself of its elevated place. The fall of the idols in the “Chanson de Roland” can be interpreted according to this theological framework, wherein the medieval period persistently expressed a Christian abhorrence for the falsehood of pagan idols. The falsity of the idols is always revealed by the presence of an article of the true faith. Truth, by its very presence, can cause falsity to wither away. For instance, Camille begins the Gothic Idol with an elaborate analysis of a leaf from 13th century psalter, and in many ways this “incipit” can be
portrays the Holy Family crossing in front of a pagan idol that promptly bows, or is driven down before the new God Christ. This confrontation has obvious theological consequences, and it proposes a philosophical understanding of the apocalypse awaiting all pagan idols. Two worlds, one of positive being, one of negation, cannot both “stand” in the presence of one another, such that “the destruction of the old gods in their plurality by the new in His singularity has been simplified into a clash of two images, that of God in the image of man –the Christ Child held in his mother’s arms- and the image of the idol” 246. It is this opposition between the false idol and the True Christ that represents the dichotomous worldview that is evidenced by the “Chanson de Camille, The Gothic Idol. Ideology and Image-making in Medieval Art. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, p. 1. It should be noted that there did exist a tradition of Christian abuse towards idols. See Akbari, Idols in the East. European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2009, p. 207.
Roland”. The pagan idols are ultimately useless, whereas Christianity (in all its guises) offers succor and salvation.
Christianity has had a long standing, and paradoxical, injunction against idols. Idols have traditionally been understood to be vacuous representations of non-existent deities, or have been considered as images of demons and devils. Much of the theological disputations on the subject have argued that idols are to be rejected since idols represent nothing247. Consequently, a religion, a culture built around the worship of idols, is also a representational worshipping of this very nothingness. There is a passage in the “Chanson de Roland” which is meant to demonstrate the extent to which Saracen culture and religiosity are built on just such a shaky ground. We are once again in a situation of distress and fear. The Saracens, harassed by their Christian foes, turn to their triumvirate of gods. These pleas for help, paralleling those of Marsile to his counsellors, are fruitless. After having invoked their gods, to no avail, and having been defeated in battle248, the Saracens retreat to Saragossa. Once again, we are dealing with a retreat, a backward move.
Safe, for the time being, behind the walls of Saragossa, the Saracens begin to bemoan their fate, and turn on their gods.249 Worse still, the former idols are allowed to be defiled by an unclean animal, pigs, while also sullied by dogs. I would contend that these passages are meant to convey both the fickleness of the Saracens, as well as the fictitiousness of their gods. It also Let us remember that the “Chanson de Roland” sets up a very fundamental dichotomy between good, on the one hand (chrestïens unt dreit), and evil (paien unt tort) on the other. Consequently, perfidious idols, idols of false gods and demons, as well any other agents or instruments of falsehood and evil have traditionally, and paradoxically, been conceived of as incarnations of nothingness. “(E)vil is nothing, then, since they are only capable of evil, they are capable of nothing”. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1902, p. 57.
We can summarize much of the action in the “Chanson de Roland” by stating that it contains two battles. The first involving the assault on the rear guard, the second the revenge battle between Charlemagne and Baligant. The first battle is a technical defeat for the Christians inasmuch as the rear guard is killed to the last man, yet in this defeat the Saracen army has been bled dry, its king has been amputated, and his forces have been thrown into chaos.
I do not think there is any reason to doubt the fact that its representation was meant to convey that this had somehow been a “victorious defeat”. The second battle is unequivocally a Christian victory: Charlemagne slaughters the whole of the Saracen army, forces those remaining in the city of Saragossa to convert or be killed.
See verses 2576-2591; 2600-2604.
serves to prepare for the eventual "healing" of Saracen irrationality and perversion that will be effected, in part by the Christian conquest, and in part, by way of the main female protagonist, Bramimonde, the crown in the Frankish/Christian conquest, since it is she who will eventually “par amur cunvertisset”250. Regardless of the poem’s narrative strategy, I would tend to view her conversion, not as a great theological victory, but in terms of the continuity of the domination of sameness. Some of the literature that has focused on Bramimonde’s conversion has viewed her destruction of the idols as a necessary textual step on the way to her conversion. In other words, it is a form of étapisme whereby you first divest yourself of the material measures of your religion, and finally get rid of the spiritual measures of your religion by adopting a new faith.
Sharon Kinoshita, among others subscribes, at least partially, to this textual étapiste vision of Bramimonde. Apart from its textual setting, I would tend to view the two passages as being radically different. The destruction of the idols would symbolize a phenomenological break from ANY religion when Bramimonde comes to understand that the idols are no more than manmade objects. I would view her later conversion as being itself a fall of idols, in the sense that the free woman that she was, is now once again enslaved to a phenomenology of Transecndence.
I believe that a philosophical analysis of these passages might more fully convey the extent to which the poem strives to portray the negativity of the Saracens as a religious community. By throwing the idols to the ground and allowing them to be spat upon, to be ritualistically defiled by pigs and dogs, the Bramimonde led Saracens are indicating that these idols no longer serve. Any pretense of their former glory has been abandoned. They are now fallen idols. That is to say, their magic or metaphysical power has been shown to be nothing. It was never the case that a theophanic presencing occurred in and through them. They were always already physical objects made of wood and metal. Consequently, they will no longer be Verse 3674.
serviced religiously or adored. In other words, whereas idols are usually the physical instances of the subjective communal experience of Transcendence, fallen idols are experienced as being nothing more than the moving process of cognition faced with a physical instance. Created by the hand of man, idols are nothing more than instances of matter artistically and humanly transformed. Given that these particular objects have been fashioned by perverted humans merely adds to their condemnation. Their fall to the ground repeats and reflects the ground, the mere earth from which they came251. This is another form of inscription. For the actual shape of religiosity is marked, inscribed by human violence, by human action (the throwing down, the allowed defilement by pigs and dogs). In a certain sense, the vacuousness of Saracen religion is revealed when the Saracens themselves are reduced to sadness, despair and unhappiness 252. The idols have been stripped of their mask of divinity, they have fallen to the ground, and thereby reveal the nothingness of Saracen culture/belief, and such a fall anticipates that these defiled
gods will be replaced with the True God and the man capable of mastering them all:
Charlemagne. In many ways these passages are a type prolepsis.
Once again, if we believe the narrative thrust of the "Chanson de Roland", the materiality of Saracen religion and culture condemns it to its own demise. For all of this falling to the ground implies a very real phenomenological death of the gods insofar as the idols no longer have a spiritual presence (the pretence of which has been destroyed), because, unlike Christian
See sections 748-784 in Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit..
As Meredith Jones has stated, the gamut of Saracen emotions is but another indication of their instability. See Jones, “The Conventional Saracen of the Songs of Geste”, p. 213.
Unlike Christian relics which spiritualize the profane through holiness.