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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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Borrowing Plato’s dualism as a template to the worldview presented in the "Chanson de Roland" would also suggest that, in the medieval context of combat against a theological other, this other being bereft of any reference to the One True God, and consequently, to any relationship with Transcendence, the world of the Saracen is one where subjects are in bondage to materiality, superficialities, rather than liberated towards Transcendence. The Saracens are bound by their senses, which is why they live in fear and fetishize material possessions. Given their ignorance and their willful rejection of Transcendence, the Saracens are bound to live in a Plato, Selections. Edited by R. Demos, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1955, p. 445.

world of illusions, superficial knowledge, artificial deities/idols, and vacuous ideals. Therefore, no matter how great a Saracen count might seem, he is still, and always, "not" living, believing, and acting in accordance within a rational paradigm that strictly and faithfully adheres to the Truth. He is still a "not", a desubject. He is not of the light, but of the shadows. This emphasis on the phenomenal, the untruthful is undoubtedly why the poem emphasizes the fact that Saracen lives are dominated by the shadows, by valleys, and by darkness. All of these characteristics are present in the poem and characterize the manner in which Saracens occupy space. Marsile is seated in the shade of a tree, the religious idols are kept in a darkened crypt, and the Saracen army moves, not out in the open, but through shadowy valleys. Saracen warriors are born in, and lord over, lands of eternal darkness, and some of them bear physical witness to this propensity for darkness, being black of skin. All of these narrative elements are meant to convey that the Saracens inhabit the spatial, cultural, subjective, and moral domains characterized by darkness and shadows. They move, physically and morally, through valleys. They wait, hidden deep in the forests.

But a further point must be made about this Saracen propensity for darkness as opposed to light. The most important passage in Plato, or at least, that passage which has come to be the best known passage in all of the Platonic dialogues, is of course, the “Allegory of the Cave” 282.

This passage can be useful in our study of the “Chanson de Roland”. I would suggest that the Platonic cave’s modal passage from darkness to light can serve as a useful template to help us understand the “Chanson de Roland’s” association between elements of darkness and the Saracens that typify such darkness, but more importantly the Saracen’s theological affiliations.

The Saracens, living their lives in a world of shadows, are bound to their prejudices and passions. The Saracens, having chosen to reject the True God, and having therefore bowed See book 7 of Plato’s Republic.

before the false idols (who, significantly, are kept and worshipped in a darkened crypt) have thereby chosen the darkness. They have chosen to remain in the cave. They have chosen to persist in their moral, cultural, and subjective darkness. Simply put, Bramimonde aside, Saracens are simply incapable of leaving the cave. They persist in dwelling there.

The (im)moral gravity of such a choice is made even graver if we analyze it using Augustine's theology. The Augustinian view assumes that moral choice cannot be wholly individual, given the fallen nature of man. In consequence, moral choice either moves towards Transcendence, or turns away from it in a movement that is facilitated and made possible by divine election. More precisely, the bestowing of God’s grace is that which makes it possible to make moral choices and live a just and righteous life after the Fall. Since the primordial event that was the Fall, evil is rooted in us, and the actions that we undertake are strongly colored by this evil. Only Grace can correct this falsity. And grace is not determined, nor can it be willed, since it is a divine gift.

Unless, therefore, the will itself is set free by the grace of God from that slavery by which it has been made a servant of sin, and unless it is given help to overcome its vices, mortal men cannot live upright and devout lives. If this gift of God, by which the will is set free, did not precede the act of the will, it would be given in accordance with the will’s merits, and would not be grace which is certainly given as a free gift 283.

The ultimate consequence of this view as to the possibility of a moral (in)existence is that of predestination. Applied to the reading of the "Chanson de Roland" we can surmise that the Saracens are incapable of leaving the cave because God does not desire for them to do so. God wants or wills their damnation. If the Franks are capable of living morally, of having a moral Augustine ‘Retractions’ in Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1973, p. 66.

existence (and the consequent subjectivizing continuity in the hereafter) made manifest by their ability to communicate with the Heavens or having their souls carried off to Paradise284, the Saracens, on the other hand, are condemnable because they communicate with the forces of

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temporal action, conceived as an eternal judgement of election or damnation, would suggest that the “Chanson de Roland” certainly shares this Augustinian view that God saves some people, while letting others be abandoned to evil and eternal punishment. The dichotomous world of the “Chanson de Roland”, where some are righteous while others are not, is divided in a manner that fits rather squarely with an Augustinian worldview. For, in both cases, the world is divided into two differing sides. There are those, such as the Saracens, who, living enslaved by their fears and desires (materiality, possessions), live in the ephemeral world of appearances, only seemingly sharing in the world of reality with their Christian foes. Yet this semblance, this en guize de betrays the fact that, eventually, their true nature as agents of evil, and therefore as agents of nothingness287 having rejected Transcendence, shall be revealed, and they will rejoin the kingdom of perdition of which they are the faithful adherents, and to which God has damned them.





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L’une meitiét li turnet cuntreval;

See verses 2373-2374; 2393-2397.

See verses 1390-1392.

See verses 1505-1510.

“For you evil does not exist, and not only for you but for the whole of your creation as well, because there is nothing outside it which could invade it and break down the order which you have imposed on it. Yet in the separate parts of your creation there are some things which we think of as evil because they are at variance with other things”. Augustine, Confessions. 1961, p. 148.

L’osberc li rumpt entresquë a la charn,

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Furthermore, the comparative nature of the passages of Saracen warriors in the "Chanson de Roland" indicates that this world of appearances is never signified in and of itself. This is an important philosophical point that much of the criticism has failed to consider. Being negative, being “other”, Saracen existence can only be without value. The “nothingness” of the Saracens, as they are presented in the poem, should lead us to consider that the passages which appear to strike a positive tone are written in such a way that the appearance of Saracen worth is always being deferred elsewhere: to the world of Christian Transcendence and subjectivity. Saracen existence is subject to an almost perverse form of one-sided différance. The primary values that are held to be present in a Saracen warrior, notably his being a great warrior, are shifted away to another who becomes its present priority. I would suggest that such a move is not indicative of any kind of charity or narrative temperance. Rather, such a move empties Saracen subjectivity of any substance. What occurs when a Saracen warrior is ultimately judged in terms of his lacking a Christian standard is that he is not seen to be the subject of a determinate judgement, since the judgement arises analogously from another subject’s experience. In other words, what could be said about him, as a subject, is not said, it is left unsaid, since what is being said is that his subject is lacking because it is experienced, expressed, or analysed by way of an “other”.

The Saracen is not the subject of a determinate judgement because, in each and every case, he is either demonized, killed, insulted, or in those rare instances when it looks like there might be a favorable Christian outlook, he is judged and demeaned by means of the determinate subjectivity Verses 1261-1268. The emphasis is mine.

of another. The true meaning of what would be a great Saracen warrior is to be found in another term: the Christian knight.

Consequently, given that Saracens are devoid of authentic subjectivity, as agents of nothingness bereft of any hope for salvation 289, these comparisons, situated within the context of the “Chanson de Roland’s” larger philosophical/theological meta-narrative, clearly imply that to move from Saracen to Christian subjectivizing, is to move from desubjectivity, or lack, to a subject capable of salvation. These modes of comparison do not imply a favorable judgement.

They present a perverted chain of being, moving from a lack, to a potentially faulty subject (who is nonetheless susceptible of salvation), to the ultimate Being itself (God). It is precisely this “lack”, this absence that is suggested and expressed in the poem’s use of words such as resemblet, fust chrestïen, s’oust chrestïentét, or en guize de. All of these terms imply that something is wrong, that something is not quite right, that something which seems to be, is, in fact, not at all. Where there would appear to be a valiant subject, there is in fact the absence of a valiant subject. What such passages indicate is that Saracens are secondary characters in the poem. Secondary in the sense of serving as the foil for Christian adventures. It is also secondary in the sense that it is the evil counterpart to goodness. It is philosophically or theologically secondary inasmuch as the poem is clearly highlighting the differences and distinctions between two modes of existence. The elements of Saracen subjectivity are treated as being merely secondary, and any real value they might have, as opposed to its semblance of value, could only be derived by an external mediation. In consequence, any potentially noble Saracen, is not noble in and of himself, but would become noble if he were Christian. As we have seen previously, this would necessitate a destruction of one order in order to assimilate into another.

See verses 1601-1609, especially verse 1607.

In other words, the Saracen’s potential signification is removed from him and spirited away to some other term that is more foundational. This deferral of Saracen subjectivity is effected through a process of removal, and an emptying out whereby the Saracen, who would be noble, could achieve just such a status if he stopped being a Saracen, negated himself as such, and became something else, namely a Christian. The Saracen would be noble if his Saracen subjectivity was negated at once, in this moment, and another subjectivizing process were adopted in its stead, namely the process of becoming a Christian 290. This movement institutes the real difference between appearance and reality, while at the same time holding it in reserve, deferring its presentation. The “apparent world” of Saracen arms, culture, and prowess looks like the real world, but is bereft of any grounding in reality. And it is precisely in its appearance that Saracen culture and subjectivity are so dangerous.

I believe that through the use of such passages, the “Chanson de Roland” is suggesting, once again, that Saracen valour actually amounts to nothing. The ultimate justification for such a judgement is to be found in the telos of the poem itself: the Saracens lose, and in ideological

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appears great, but he is actually lacking greatness. This is proven in that he is defeated. The Saracen warrior seems noble, but he would only truly be noble if he were grounded in Christian

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facilitating, the continuity of the subjectivizing process that is faithfulness to a Truth. Compared to this, what shows forth in the Saracen’s countenance, his appearance of grandeur, is mere artifice. It is nothing more than an illusion. I am of the opinion that this emphasis on the appearance of the Saracens might correspond to a deeper fear running through the medieval This is precisely the type of negative hermeneutics that one finds in the “Chanson de Roland”, but in the “Jeu de Saint Nicolas” as well.

era291: the Saracens successes might bring some uninformed Christians to believe that what appears to be the same, actually is the same. The true trap posed by appearance is that one can potentially be seduced by the appearance, and thereby will oneself into becoming an appearance in turn. The danger posed by such seductive appearances is that one is likely to abandon an authentic mode of subjectivizing, with the promised continuity that ensues when one is faithful to the Truth, for a mode of subjectivizing that leads to perdition and deformity. It is the possible seduction leading us astray, away from solid ground into the world of appearances. Appearances stand, and appearances fall, but a subjectivity that adhere and subjects itself to the Truth stands in relation to that which is without beginning, is now, and ever shall be, because it is without end.

Whereas Saracen “valour” is a deceptive appearance given by the senses, the subjectivizing process inferred by the Christian knight is guaranteed by thought and logic. When the poem seems to validate a Saracen warrior, it is actually appealing to some greater principle, invoking something other than what is perceived by the senses, since it ultimately evaluates him in the light of the laws of God and the rightful faithfulness that the recognition of God implies.

Appearances are treacherous, and what appears to be the same cannot necessarily be trusted, and it is this awareness of the falsity of appearances that motivates Roland’s intransigence towards the Saracen envoys when they propose a peace offering292.



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