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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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Alain Demurger suggests that the Christian world was taken aback by the impressive nature of Muslim society and culture, and further threatened, in its very being, by the military successes of Islam. Consequently, there arose a very real risk of “ideological defeat”, i.e. of Christians abnegating their faith after being seduced by the grandeur of Islamic society. After all, Islam might be said to be quite similar to Christianity, venerating the same God as do the Christians. Consequently, it was necessary to develop a sophisticated network of arguments to counter and explain the successes of the Islamic world while continuously emphasizing the differences between the two groups. I think that this strategy is probably at work in the “Chanson de Roland” as well. The Saracens are shown as having similar social networks and structures as the Christians. Muslim wealth is amply described, whereas Christian possessions are not. This might reflect a Christian emphasis on the need for poverty and the necessity for spiritual rather than material elevation, but it might also be an indication of impoverished resentment. See Demurger, chapter VI, section 3 ‘Que faire des infidèles? Croisade et mission’ in, Croisades et croisés au moyen âge., collections “champs”, Flammarion, Paris, 2006, pp. 247-259.

Roland makes Charlemagne aware of the fact that the Saracens have already on one occasion appeared to want peace, but finally revealed their treachery by killing two Christian emissaries. See verses 201-213.


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The “Chanson de Roland” goes to great lengths in presenting to the reader the idea that the Saracen camp is characterized by its “massiveness”. Moreover, as we will see in this section, this massiveness, this emphasis on size and "collectivism" also suggests a form of "groupthought".

We must ask ourselves why the narrator has Olivier, wise in matters of military exercise, and also a man not given to any kind of excitement or overreaction, marvel at the sheer number of soldiers assaulting the Franks. The answer, I would contend, lies in the fact that the narrative is pointing to some cultural "fact" about the Saracens that is more than just medieval hyperbole.

Granted, it is a common leitmotif of epic literature to exaggerate the number of warriors in an army294. And certainly, this narrative “over-representation” of Saracen arms serves the purpose of demonstrating the martial valour of the Franks. As Ganelon suggests in his treacherous pact with the Saracen leaders, the Christians, in its righteous might, are so vastly superior to the Saracen army, that any attempt on their part to massacre the rearguard will require an overwhelming display of force and arms. Under such a scenario, the numerical abundance of the Saracens highlights their physical, moral, cultural, and intellectual defectiveness. They need Verses 1034-1035.

Homer and Virgil, as well as the authors of the Bible are guilty of this same exaggeration.

400 000 soldiers to dispatch a mere 20 000 Franks. Ganelon, traitor though he may be, nonetheless retains some of his military acumen, and he still recognizes that, regardless of his pact and alliance with the Saracens, these people remain inferior to the Christians that he is betraying. This is why he counsels them to attack with overwhelming numbers, because their military and cultural inferiority will mean that countless numbers of them will be needed to slaughter the Franks, and countless numbers of them will be slaughtered by the Franks 295. What we have here is a situation in which the narrative element, the numerical superiority of the Saracens, reveals the text's underlying assumption, namely that the Saracens are characterized by physical (psychological, intellectual etc...) inferiority.

Yet I would suggest that the emphasis on the size of the pagan army in the above quotation also has another philosophical dimension. Not only is the Saracen army a large one, thereby representing a formidable military force that must be reckoned with, it seems to exist as a mass. In other words, its "being" is lived and expressed, not as particular subjectivities, but collectively. For the “Chanson de Roland" presents the Saracens as acting as a mass, and responding as a mass296, and it is precisely from the perspective of their being en masse that they are viewed297, defeated298, and killed by the Christians.

–  –  –

See verses 582-595.

The Saracens rarely respond as individuals (unlike the Christians), but always in a collective mode, as evidenced in verses 61; 77; 450; 467.

See verse 1034-1035.

See verses 101-102; 3664-3672.

Verses 1416-1419.

The Christian world, with its assorted lot of characters, and its varied subjects, is here placed in opposition to the Saracen world, where there is no focus on, say, a subjective experience of death and dying (as is the case with Roland and Turpin). Roland and Turpin, at diverse moments in the battle, both reflect on the meaning of their life, on its purpose, and how this purposed life will continue given its faithfulness to God. Both characters are conscious of the ramifications of the subjectivizing process in which they are engaged, and of how death factors into the paradoxical process of that process' immanent end and transcendent continuity.

Both characters, when faced with death, are aware that God exists, that they have recognized his sovereignty, that their own subjective becoming and martial expertise have been put in subjecthood to this Truth, and furthermore, that this service has fashioned them as subjects, and ultimately allows them to gain immortality. There is no Saracen equivalent of a character experiencing death, and reflecting on the relationship between his life, his subjectivizing, and the consequences of such a life in terms of subjectivizing continuity (attaining immortality). The subjective confrontation with death and dying, and therefore, the subjectivizing experience of having a life that is harmonized with a universal process of truth, is something that the "Chanson de Roland", by its very silence on the matter, suggests as being absent from the Saracen world.

Saracen warriors are killed. Their death is not undertaken in the name of a singular, or subjectivizing truth (the experience of living a life turned towards God), and the death that is brought about does not compel recognition, or faithfulness of the warrior with respect to that truth. Someone like Marsile may experience angst or anguish, but this experience, as we have seen, is related to the loss of some "thing", be it cultural (honor), or material (land and possessions). It is not, however, an experience of the same kind as that of Roland's. It is not a subjective experience of death, and a reflection on the passing and persisting of the subject in and through death.

This is the case because the "Chanson de Roland's" impetus revolves around presenting the pagans as a mass. This explains the poem's "collectivized" vision (as opposed to a subjectivized vision) of the other as acting, responding, dying en masse, converted or killed en masse because they, unlike their Christian enemies, have not partaken of that process suggestive of a subjective experience of life or death. Whereas the Christian knight is a subject, and not just one entity among a multitude or crowd of others, existing as a being that participates in a relation to Transcendence, the Saracen, on the other hand, stands in relation to the universal as a collective or absolute opposite. He is not a subject, but a group or mass. Since he has no subjective qualities, since he has no real value in and of himself (let us remember that he would have value if he were something else), it is not all-together surprising to see the “Chanson de Roland” categorize and present Saracen death (either as conversion or negation) as a phenomenal antithesis to a subjective experience of death as that which is crucial to its existence.

This collectivized experience is not unique, as the poem stresses its predominance in the Saracen world. Unlike the Christians, the Saracens do not engage in subjective reflections of military matters, nor do they express varying, differing, and therefore subjective visions on the course that a military campaign is to take. Their response to a dilemma, or to a decision taken in response to a dilemma is collective, that of a great anonymous mass agreeing in kind (see verses 61, 77). This "harmonious response" (one need only think of just how such harmony is articulated in certain modern political regimes) creates a situation in which a decision, or a course of action, subordinates and articulates all discourses with uniformity. It is not a deliberative counsel (the likes of which are presented by the court of Charlemagne as evidenced in verses 180-318), where differences and subjectivities may lead to antagonisms. In the collective "dient paien", all semblance of diversity or subjective differences are resolved and subsumed under a collective stake (the mass of wealth and possessions to be lost by the mass itself), as a kind of law where antagonisms are not so much resolved, as dissolved. Any subject, gifted with speech and judgment, is thereby subordinated in his relationship to others and the world, as well as the exercise of his own faculties of judgment, by dissolving such elements into the collective "speech act". This "dient paien" takes on the form of an abstract or generalized will maintaining social cohesion and order, while abolishing any subjective presence. Perhaps this participation in the collective constraint also explains the reason why Saracen warriors are always compared unfavorably to their Christian, subjective, counterparts. For this process does not create subjects that are faithful to a truth, but rather, if we take into consideration just how the "Chanson de Roland" presents this "dient paien" (as a formal, almost ritualized response to a speech or decision), it manifests itself as blind obedience to some contingent, and situated revelation. The massed "dient paien" enunciates what appears, to itself, as the truth of a situation, but, given its collective forgetfulness of subjectivity, it ignores the process whereby a judgment is anchored in a subjective enunciation of a truth. There is no rancorous/tempestuous Roland in the Saracen camp. There is no moderate Olivier. There is no charitable duke of Naimes. There is only a materially inspired and anguished concern for the loss of possessions expressed by characters who, given the very logic of the poetic narrative, are already desubjectivized. Hence the collective voice and the collective response, the "dient paien".

This is the reason why the Saracen, who acts en masse, who speaks and responds en masse, cannot stand alone, cannot disagree or personalize his existence because he is never in distinction from the anonymous collective represented by his culture or group. The "Chanson de Roland" goes to some lengths in suggesting that what the different Christian characters are facing is a mass, a force, in other words a collective onslaught of “otherness”. This view is supported, in my view, by the sheer number of Saracens hurled into combat. The emphasis placed on the sheer size of the Saracen army that is being cut down, the overwhelming number of men slaughtered and sacrificed contributes to create, in the reader’s mind, a desubjectivizing effect. We are not dealing with one death, the death of "so-and-so", rather, we are confronted with a "numerical death" wherein the "one subject" is merely a statistical subset of a much larger set. These are not men who are dying, but numbers, masses, thousands against which Christian

honor, prowess and subjectivity are to be measured:

–  –  –

I believe that the “Chanson de Roland” is attempting to convey a philosophical idea in such passages. Namely, that the relationships inherent in the Saracen world stand in opposition and distinction to those expressed in the Christian world. Furthermore, that the relationships of the culture of these “others” become barriers to subjectivization. The possibility for any subjectivity is always already subsumed by the group. It is in this world of the mass that there is generalization. And this mass, this emphasis on numbers and the chaos implied by numbers, contributes to the demonization of the Saracens as a form of desubjectivizing. Likewise, it is in Verses 1438-1444.

the mass that there is absence: an absence or lack of value, as we have seen, and an absence or lack of differentiation between elements. A potential consequence of such a view, one that is certainly implied by the “Chanson de Roland”, is that there is consequently no subjective responsibility for action. Any assignment of guilt or responsibility, any sanction against an agency of action, can only be attributed to the collective whole, to the public image of “otherness”. That is why I would argue that the Saracens in the "Chanson de Roland" are judged by the Christians as a whole, and it is once again as a collective unit that they are punished, converted, or killed en masse. That this logic is predominant in the “Chanson de Roland” is suggested, not only by Roland’s warmongering, but also by Charlemagne’s “foreign policy”. In fact, this representation of Saracen collectivism and desubjectivization is so dominant in the text, that the only instance of its transgression (the conversion of Bramimonde), stands out as a unique and mysterious (i.e. a religiously inspired) occurrence.

–  –  –

Bramimonde’s conversion par amur would imply that, of all of the members of the Saracen culture, this one occurrence of a Saracen transmuting into a subject is truly unique.

Bramimonde, alone, foregoes the gods, the customs, the collective speech of her people, and therefore, she alone by responding herself to the teachings of the subjectivizing truth, leaving Verses 3669-3674.

behind the Saracen culture from which she heralds, joins the subjectivizing culture of the Christians.

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