«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»
Vostre emperere si bones n’en out unches’ 266 Such passages lend themselves rather easily to an interpretation that is reminiscent of Thorstein Veblen's economic model, which is to say as manifestations of largesse qua conspicuous waste267. But I do not believe that such an interpretation is the only one intended by the "Chanson de Roland". I think these passages are meant to bring the reader into considering the sway and fascination that the material world (in contradistinction to the Christian fascination for the transcendental) holds on the Saracens. Such passages are meant to suggest that wealth, and not warlike virtues as religious devotion, material concerns, and not spiritual warfare, are at the heart of the Saracen Empire. Saracens fear war for its material consequences (death and financial loss), and attempt to circumvent war, to avoid having to confront a powerful enemy by
of these passages indicates that Saracen acting and thinking are materially inspired and driven.
Such materiality, and the “pacts” it leads to, indicate that the Saracens suffer from a form of cowardice best described as a dialectical refusal to participate in the conditions grounding the continuity of subjectivity (both the immanent conditions allowing subjectivity to exercise itself in the world, as well as the soteriological conditions wherein subjectivity attains paradisiacal immortality). They neither believe, nor act upon that belief, nor do they engage in the kind of
“Apart from their serviceability in other respects, these objects are beautiful and have a utility as such; they are valuable on this account if they can be appropriated or monopolized; they are, therefore, coveted as valuable possessions, and their exclusive enjoyment gratifies the possessor’s sense of pecuniary superiority at the same time that their contemplation gratifies his sense of beauty”. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Introduction by Robert Lekachman, Penguin Books, New York, 1967, p.129.
exemplars (as we shall see in a later section) are always of an inferior kind when compared to their Christian counterparts, always lacking some "existential stuff" that would make them not only appear to be great warriors and knights, but to actually be such. This "lack", this falsity of appearances, is evidenced throughout the “Chanson de Roland”, since the Saracens are always represented as trying to find a “way out”, a means of not having to risk their lives. In other words, they are always sidestepping the means contributing to the formation and continuity of subjectivity. The Saracens continually choose the "desubjectivizing" over, and against, the subjectivizing model championed by Christian theology and culture.
One of the narrative plots of the poem involves this very process of "desubjectivization".
The successful seduction of Ganelon by the Saracens requires a twofold process of desubjectivization. On the one hand, Ganelon must himself cease to be a Christian subject (loyal to God and king in combat) when he participates in the plot to have the rearguard massacred.
The plot to betray his fellow Franks does not seek to continue the hostilities with the Saracens until they have been corrected, converted, or killed. For the battle that will ensue is a momentary battle, one that attempts to put an end to the hostilities, to exhaust Christian morale, to incite despair for the losses at Roncevaux, and thereby, to end the hostilities by allowing the Saracens to persist in their difference. Ganelon's efforts, were they to be successful, would allow for the continuity and persistence of Saracen practise and belief, that is to say, those very practises and beliefs that are symptomatic of a mode of "desubjectivization". We must surmise that if Ganelon's efforts are welcomed, and encouraged by a Saracen assembly, it is precisely because such a body is seeking precisely to persist in its own process of "desubjectivization". The pact puts forth a dual subjectivizing process, where one partner (Ganelon) is corrupted and converted, while the other stays the same by bringing the other into the fold of the same. Through this pact they would continue to exist, and to falsely believe their theological constructs.
Like the tempting serpent, the Saracens sense the possibility for such a conversion to unmartial conduct, to irrational desubjectivizing when they assume that they can “pay” for peace through gifts and treason268. The possibility for such an interpretation has been argued by Brewster Fitz, who states that with the exception of Roland, it is the Christians who are “converted” through their false belief in the possibility of a peaceful pact with the Saracens.
That the gifts offered by the Saracens are accepted might suggest that, to some degree, the Christian camp has been tempted or seduced by the very mode of being which characterizes the Saracens. The Christian camp has been deluded into believing a false offer of peace from the
masters of cupiditas:
After seven years of war the Saracens know they are defeated. Blancandrin proposes to pretend to request mercy, caritas, while sending to Charlemagne treasures that use cupiditas to turn the Christian army around. In other words, Blancandrin proposes a gift whereby the Christian army will be unwittingly “converted” by the pagans’ alleged
In such a situation, not only would the bribe pervert the “other”, it might keep any confrontation at arm's length. Most importantly, it would eliminate the need to engage in that
treachery, perhaps this aversion to conflict can be understood as one of its great manifestations.
This dialectical refusal to construct a martial subject occurs when the Saracens recognize that they stand no chance of winning a direct war, face to face against their enemy, and thereby See verses 27-34.
Fitz, ‘Cain as Convict and Convert? Cross-Cultural Logic in the Song of Roland’, p. 813-814.
choose a backwards stab at Charlemagne’s army. Hitting at the rear guard might be considered the equivalent of a stab in the back.
At other times, their unwillingness to fight is made manifest in their very manner and mode of fighting. Saracens go about the martial-subjectivizing process in a manner that is all wrong. Not only are they theoretically off the mark (having turned away from God and its subjectivizing consequences), they also screw up the praxis of the process itself. They do not rush in or fight face to face, rather, they elude, they evade, and they fight from afar, or worse still, they simply run away. This cowardly behaviour, this fighting without fighting, is highlighted by many passages in the “Chanson de Roland”, of which the following is perhaps the most highly indicative.
Clearly, there is fear and cowardice in this instance of military hesitancy. Rather than attack the Christians directly, the Saracens use a coward’s stratagem: they attack from afar with spears and lances. These have traditionally been the weapons of lesser warriors. The remaining Christian knights are indirectly assaulted: attacked, not in singular combat, subject against subject, but by means of treacherous long distance arms. The Saracens bombard them with spears and javelins and arrows. The reasoning given by the Saracens is that they fear further loss of men, further risk of losing one’s life271. Anyone familiar with the implicitly valour promulgated by epic literature, chanson de geste, or medieval romances will immediately Verses 2071-2074.
See verse 2073.
respond negatively to such a passage. The poem carefully exploits this medieval prejudice against forms of martial cowardice. For it evokes the very opposite of the kind of bravery and prowess upheld in the poetic tradition. No longer is it the case that men confront one another directly, lances held high, followed by swords wielded with honour. Traditionally, javelins, lances and arrows have been the weapons of cowards and lesser warriors.
But this passage is significant not only in its immediate presentation of Saracen difference as a mode of cowardice, but also in its relationship to the narrative systematicity of the “Chanson de Roland”. For in itself, this passage repeats a pattern meant to signify that the enemy always "desubjectivizes" in this way: the Saracens are always unwilling to fight, they are always fearful; they always try to minimize the risk of fighting and/or dying. This might seem natural to us readers who are culturally removed from the immediate concerns motivating the poem. It is not, however, poetically heroic, and it does indicate that the two sides are diametrically opposed in terms of secular and religious values. Perhaps this difference between the Christians and the Saracens is best exemplified by a rather curious passage in the “Chanson de Roland” when one of the Saracen warriors chooses to evade combat by “playing dead”.
What we have here is a moral mise en abyme, highlighting all of the themes of courage and cowardice, life and death, materiality and Transcendence that underscore the narrative framework of the poem. This Saracen warrior thinks that he shall win glory and repute by pretending to be dead, and then robbing a dead man.
I don’t believe that the text could be any more ironic than it is here. For the extreme act of cowardice is paired, undoubtedly in jest, to Bels fut e forz e de grant vasselage. What would appear to be noble is in fact, not the case. In this passage, we reach the zenith of cowardice.
Martial becoming and the valorization of prowess have been thoroughly abandoned. A warrior abandons the subjectivizing process and its spatial extending by immobilizing himself in a feigned rigor mortis, by pretending to be dead, that is to say, by pretending to be a negated subject. The "Chanson de Roland" could not more strongly characterize Saracen difference than it does in this passage. The poem can construct such a perverse model, a man is playing at death, given that, ethically, it has already been determined that, as a Saracen, an unbeliever and a coward, he is already dead. Instead of the virtues of severity, violence, danger, and the lust/need for war, this man evokes different qualities fit for different functions. He has adopted the mask of defeat, caked himself in the semblance of death, bathed in the blood of others in order to best avoid any further confrontation. Clearly, masked in blood, having chosen, undoubtedly driven by fear, to lie among the slaughtered dead, this man does not believe that the best thing in a man is his strength, his will, his power, and the permanent passion for war/prowess that allow for the continuity of subjectivity in the immanent and the transcendent.
Philosophically, this passage implies a denial of dialectical mastery and selfconsciousness273. In phenomenological terms, to play dead in order to avoid a life-or-death See sections 178-197 in Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit.
struggle is to desubjectivize, to decide to become nobody, a nothing 274. The “deathly coward” is not truly a subject, he is not truly an existent being, in a way any of the Christian knights fighting at Ronceveaux might be said to be, because this “deathly coward” does not have the same subjectivizing values. He does not confront other men or warriors, he is content to rob and despoil the dead (or, in the case of Roland, a warrior whose state of unconsciousness resembles death). This “playing at death” is a complete perversion of the notion of prowess. For the particular idealism held in esteem by the Franks can only discover itself through bravery as an act, as an objective goal to be accomplished through a struggle with an “other”. Consequently, the kind of martial difference evidenced by the Saracen who feigns death, does not serve to constitute a subject, and does not put that subject at risk and in a state of potential reward. It matches itself, not against another living being, but what it supposes to be the actuality of its own play, that is to say death itself as a fallen warrior (Roland) lying on the field of battle.
Consequently, the Saracen move towards Roland, as a movement towards what is thought of as a dead agent, is in fact a movement towards the very impossibility of one’s own development as a subject exhibiting martial valour, since the act of going towards the other which one believes to be dead, as that which is outside of oneself, can only be understood as a vehement refusal to participate in the martial/epic logic of subject-becoming275. This process of desubjectivization, as a mode of action with/against a dead other, is non-action. It marks subjectivity's very impossibility, since it stands as an engagement with what I already assume to be a permanent nothing.
This “nothingness” has two sources: a) the worldhood of the world in which the warrior is situated, developing the consequent possibilities that are those of his society. In the case of the Saracens, this possibility is an impossibility, so the entire culture is condemned to nothingness b) the martial disengagement of the warrior who does not risk his life, and thereby does not become a self through combat.
If all epic poetry focuses on the accomplishment of deeds, it is because these are worlds in which actions, exteriority, and empirical verification are of singular value. To be a great hero, to be a man, is of course to be inscribed through actions.
Nothing could be more different from the Frankish mad dash into action. Wanting to despoil Roland, whom he thinks to be dead, the Saracen intends to act towards a nothing that can give him no real chance or event through which an incarnation of subjectivity could occur.
Perhaps this does not stand as a problem for him, the particular Saracen, since it might well be the case that what really interests him is not any martial becoming, that is to say a sense of subjectivity attained through feat of arms, but rather the spoils and riches of a dead man.