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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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Consequently, if we begin to assemble the varied arguments/elements put forth by the poem, it presents us with an “other” who is not only conscious of his cultural and martial inferiority, but his inferiority is incarnated in a form of generalization. The Saracens are placed in numbers, because, existentially speaking, they exist as a number. In other words, these passages describing the Saracen army serve to indicate the collectivist logic of Saracen modes of existing. Whereas Christian becoming might be said to actualize subjectivity through a logic of subjective sacrifice/salvation in relation to a transcendent truth, the Saracens exist not as a subject, or a community of subjects, but as an “il y a” 302, in anonymity or inhuman monstrosity.

This narrative anonymity allows the narrator to desubjectivize, to dehumanize the presented subject to the greatest degree. For such a presentation philosophically implies that any character is collectivized into the mass, into an existence whereby any and all existent disappears. Modes of being, in this organized mode, serve to further the disappearance of subjectivity. Consequently, this effacement creates a condition in which negation and affirmation, creation and destruction, plenty and emptiness are all treated the same. If such is truly the case, then the presentation of the Saracens as a mass in the “Chanson de Roland” runs counter to some recent critical argumentation that would have us believe that, with the exception "C’est de sa subjectivité, de son pouvoir d’existence privée que le sujet est dépouillé dans l’horreur. Il est dépersonnalisé... L’horreur met à l’envers la subjectivité du sujet, sa particularité d’étant. Elle est la participation de l’il y a". Lévinas, De l’existence à l’existant. Collection " Bibliothèque d’histoire de la philosophie", Vrin, Paris, p. 100. Also see Lévinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité.

of religion, as a cultural/cultual fetish, the two sides are mostly the same, and that the real problem in the text is that of the danger of nondifferentiation 303.

See Sharon Kinoshita’s ‘Pagans are wrong and Christians are right : Alterity, Gender, and Nation in the Chanson de Roland’, in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 31:1, Winter 2001; Sharon Kinoshita. Medieval Boundaries. Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature., University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2006.


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The first thing that might strike a modern reader when coming across such a passage is the fact that there is a parallel between these descriptions of Saracen wastelands, and medieval descriptions of Hell305. Both are devastated and hostile landscapes completely unforgiving towards “normal life”. Obviously, this hostile world is opposed to the world that is inhabited by the Christians, and this fact serves to normalize both the landscape and those who dwell in it.

This is the “normal” world. Any template deviating from this “normalized” picture is considered extreme, bizarre, monstrous, or exotic. We should perhaps remember that the exotic is itself, in Verses 975-984.

See Alice Turner, The History of Hell. Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1993.

the medieval mind, laden with theological/moral implications. As John Block Friedman has


The medieval taste for the exotic was in some ways comparable to our National

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concept of a “primitive” society as one at an earlier stage of cultural evolution was not part of the medieval world view. On the contrary, exotic peoples were often seen as degenerate or fallen from an earlier state of grace in the Judeo-Christian tradition; even their humanity was questioned. Curious customs and appearances suggested to the medieval mind an equally curious spiritual condition306.

Consequently, these are extreme worlds, with extreme living conditions hospitable only to the most deformed creatures. Creatures bearing only a semblance to the human, since they tend more towards the monstrous and the bestial, and it is these creatures, as in the case of Chernuble of Muneigre, who bear deformity in their essential and accidental features. Features which are essential, inasmuch as the grotesque or the extreme is embedded in their physical framework307 and the landscape that gives birth to them. Features which are accidental inasmuch as these primary qualities lead to others instances of wonder, such as extraordinary, oxen-like strength.

The emphasis on the physicality of these deformities or extremes aside, I believe that the

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demonstrated that the “Chanson de Roland” emphasizes the fact that important cultural distinctions distinguish Christian from Saracen. What the quotation given above shows is that John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2000, p. 1-2.

Some Saracen warriors, as we shall see in this section, could be described as hybridizations between the human and the bestial in that animal-like features (broad faces, porcine hair) make up the very fabric of their being and appearance.

the “Chanson de Roland” also goes to great lengths in giving a “visual” representation of Saracen difference. In the case of Chernuble of Muneigre, this visual picturing puts great focus on his dwelling in a wasteland, a terre gaste, a nightmarish landscape wherein all natural forms of life, all of the normal dimensions of existence and environment are laid waste and put aside.

This is certainly not a land of biblical “milk and honey”, nor is it likely to be a land where civilization (as understood by the Frankish Christians) is likely to prosper. This terre gaste is unlikely to produce a society of prosperous cities, centralizing the land. We have a hard time imagining a land bereft of sun or wheat giving rise to cities wherein the arts and letters flourish.

This is the case because a terre gaste is not only devoid of natural wealth, but in turn, this sterility will not serve as the site for cultural expansion, given that it is unlikely to give rise to the laws, customs, and beliefs, that is to say the elements that cultivate man and demonstrate his possessing a culture (inasmuch as he can be said to organize material life into some higher meaning). The wastedness of the land, the poverty derived from its harshness, suggests that men who come from just such a place cannot be considered the equals of those (Christians) who do, since they are not civilized or apt to be civilized. There is undoubtedly here a correspondence between the manner in which the Greeks viewed rural life and the medieval conception of the terre gaste. John Block Friedman has argued that is not hard to conjecture that life in a

wasteland would be considered life outside of the confines of a city, in which case, as with nonurban Greeks, the Saracens living in the wastelands could be considered inhuman barbarians:

Another mark of the alien was his existence outside the cultural setting of a city. … For the Greeks, it was difficult to imagine a man independent of his city; slaves and aliens who had no city had no independent existence. The city conferred humanity, for it gave its citizens a shared setting in which to exercise their human faculties in the practice of law, social intercourse, worship, philosophy, and art. … Men who lived outside cities,

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As is the case in the quotation from the “Chanson de Roland” that we have just encountered, the visual representation of a land bereft of sun, wheat, and rain, signifies that its very inhumanity (it produces monsters and not men), its lack of any capacity to sustain human survival or development, serves as the perfect backdrop for the inhuman, or monstrous desubjectivized figures that evolve and evoke this landscape of misery. That such lands are inhabited by Godless creatures (those having turned away from the True God) further suggests that these are lands that have been abandoned by God. This abandonment also entails an abandonment of the humanity and subjectivizing possibility shared among the other “civilized men”.

Men who lived in different climates would perforce be different from one another because of unequal climatic influence; indeed, there would be some areas in which conditions would be so extreme that men like those of the center could not exist at all. Such places received the label “uninhabitable”, but were not necessarily considered empty of life.

They contained no people like those of the center, but were considered to be likely and

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I would argue that the poem is attempting to stress a certain philosophical point: it “logically” concludes that there is a degree of causality inherent in what might be called the condition of production of negative, or deformed, beings. Now we must understand this negativity in the following way. The land itself is negatively presented, inasmuch as the land, in opposition to “natural” worlds, does not beget that which is naturally of the world. This world, John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. p. 30.

John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. p. 36.

we can imagine, is unlike the Christian world, since it is a world that is inhabited by devils, devoid of sun and rain, a space where wheat fails to grow. Since it is inhabited by non-believers, or worse, devils, the very spirit of Creation, nature as a force begetting and becoming, is demonstrably absent. Similarly, that which originates or comes to be in the terre gaste, the material content of such a world, its external form, is also devoid of the kind of existence that is capable of being redeemed. Its inhabitants are destined to end their days in Hell, they are destined to be negated, and if we are to trust the words of Turpin, this mortal death, is in fact a second death310, their birth having been a birthing of nothingness, and they have lived in a space devoid of any naturalizing or transcending force.

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demonize the “other”, a task they perform quite admirably. It is also the case that they betray a certain medieval ignorance about the world at large. That is to say, the world of the other, and the world just beyond our own restrictive boundaries. As Claude Lecouteux has demonstrated, much that was "demonic" in medieval literature was bound up with the “exotic”, with the

foreigness of other lands:

Offrant une grande diversité dans la monstruosité, les peuples exotiques du bout du monde ont pour caractéristique essentielle de ne jouer que des rôles mineurs dans l’économie des textes : ils relèvent avant tout de la couleur locale. Ils vivent aux confins de la terre, ce qui est, somme toute, bien rassurant, et ne font que de brèves incursions en Occident. Ils relèvent d’abord de la littérature savante et ne la quitte que pour prendre "Voz cumpaignuns feruns trestuz restifs; / Nuvele mort vos estruvrat susfrir". Verses 1256-1257. There is, of course, an apocalyptic tone to all of this, since it echoes not only the Pauline doctrine of perdition, but also the predictions of the Book of Revelations.

place dans les récits de voyage ou dans les épopées exaltant l’idée de croisade : là ils incarnent le paganisme311.

Medieval literature is rife with accounts of monstrous creatures inhabiting foreign lands.

These creatures often resembled humans, but were possessed of some feature that rendered them monstrous or freakish. I would suggest that this emphasis on the freakish has a definite philosophical role. Although the Saracen monsters might seem human in all but one aspect (having black skin, a large forehead, pig’s hair etc…), this partial difference or abnormality actually underscores the inherent difference between them and the Christians. It serves as a physical indicator, a tangible mark of difference. Furthermore, this difference, in its very monstrosity, is not a difference that is to be respected or admired, since it is the difference of that which is perverse or inhuman. It is the mark of a subject gone wrong or awry. It is not a difference that tends towards equilibrium or proportionality, but rather, towards disequilibrium and disproportionality. In other words, as a difference in-itself, it is vicious and monstrous, and this defect in the flesh equally contains the seeds of future actions/deeds, of modes of subjectivizing, that will likely also be monstrous or defective. That this turns out to be case in the poetic narrative might be begging the question, but it also reinforces the poem’s main contention about the relationship between place and existence. This difference, physically manifested, in-itself, is, for the reader who is sensitive to the poem’s argumentative framework, to be understood as the difference of “otherness”, and not to be confused with any semblance of similarity, even if it were but one aspect.

However, I would suggest that these monstrous differences also have another function within the “Chanson de Roland”. They serve as philosophical and theological representations of Lecouteux, Les monstres dans la pensée médiévale européenne. Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, Paris, 1993, p. 62.

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