«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»
an evil that must be conquered312, of nothingness and the diabolical. More specifically, the absence of a “natural” world in the terre gaste serves to naturalize the perverse or mutilated representations of desubjectivity that are begotten there. The Saracens are naturally monstrous because they originate from an unnatural place. This “unnature” serves as the space opening up diabolically perverse desubjectivizing possibilities. For the medieval reader, one must not be surprised to find a destroyed, mutilated, or monstrous character if he originates from a nightmarish place313. In other words, inasmuch as the monstrous Saracens are concerned, the Christian preoccupation with free will and the responsibility of action seems to be reversed, and what is put in its stead is a type of naturalistic or mechanistic determinism. From a perverted origin-as-cause, the place that is the terre gaste, the consciousness, the modes of being of those creatures originating there are merely passive reflections or effects of this original cause. I would suggest that we should think of this relationship between cause and effect as one of mirroring between that place which is “there” and the manner of “existing there”.
I believe that the “Chanson de Roland” is stressing a metaphysical point by highlighting
philosophical impetus behind the “Chanson de Roland’s” “placing” of Saracen characters suggests that the action, and the very character of the Saracens is related to the enormity, as well
terre gaste as a wasteland, as the milieu or landscape, in many ways, is essential inasmuch as, in Of the monstrous, dog-headed Moslem, John Block Friedman states: “Just as the Jew who refused salvation was seen as a savage animal, so is the Saracen who here does the same thing. To refuse the Word is to deny logic and so to lose humanity. The Dog-Head in these scenes, then, represents at once the Moslem heretic who will, in the propagandist painter’s view of things, yield to the Word through Western military might, and the savage races of men at the edges of the world, whom the Word will convert by softening their hearts”. John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. p. 69.
“ “Place”, said Roger Bacon, “is the beginning of our existence, just as a father” ”. John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. p. 37.
Roger Bacon’s emphasis on the relationship between place and existence is echoed by Heidegger, who would say all Dasein is of course being (sein) there (da). See the Introduction to Heidegger, Being and Time..
the case of many of the Saracen warriors, the darkness of the lands, its dryness, its hellish aspects, all evoke the very profanity of that which stands in opposition to a sacred space 315.
These hellish aspects, the absence of life giving sunshine, the absence of wheat and rain, represent the corruptibility and demonic eternity of a world bereft of the divine, and inhabited by demonic beings: Dïent alquanz que dïables i meignent.
It is therefore of no surprise when the “Chanson de Roland” amalgamates these two aspects. The barrenness of the land is mirrored in the moral, spiritual and subjective barrenness316 of the people inhabiting these lands. Consequently, the terre gaste serves as an easy foil to the known Christian universe, and furthers validates any colonial or theological imperialism that might need “empirical” support in order to justify its cause. One need only look over “there”, towards the wastelands to see a difference that needs to be negated.
As Claude Lecouteux has remarked, the savagery, the monstrosity of the “pagans”
became one the leitmotivs of the medieval chanson de geste:
Dans les récits français qui narrent la lutte des chrétiens contre les infidèles –Chanson de Roland, geste de Guillaume d’Orange-, les monstres forment certains corps de bataille des armées païennes. Il est clair que ces individus insolites et repoussants représentent ici les suppôts de Satan, et plus d’une fois les portes de l’enfer semblent s’être ouvertes pour livrer passage aux démons 317.
As Lecouteux suggests, this amalgamation between place and being was a common trope at the time the poem was written. For the medieval world, it was not uncommon to find a As Mircea Eliade has made manifest in his many studies of religious phenomenology, the world is often thought to be divided between a sacred space, on the one hand, typified by being and becoming, and a profane space on the other, represented by death, decay and monstrosity as that which is opposite the hierophanic world of being. See Eliade, Le sacré et le profane. Collection "idées", Gallimard, Paris, 1965.
They will, after all, be sent to Hell.
Lecouteux, Les monstres dans la pensée médiévale européenne. p. 65.
correspondence between a manner of being or behaving, and a “geographical mode” 318. A person of mystery or wonder, for instance, would invariably inhabit a place or space of wonder319. A “good” person or a person susceptible of attaining the “good” would live in a land of plenty. Likewise, someone who can only be characterized as a “negative subject” will inhabit a terre gaste. It comes as no surprise therefore, that some of the Saracen enemies, who are the very embodiment of “negative subjectivity” are represented as inhabiting places that are a terre gaste.
Perhaps more importantly, I believe that the correspondence that the medieval mind sought to establish between a cause-origin in the landscape, and the effect-in-subjectivity on the characters which populate such nightmarish worlds, seeks to establish that both man and landscape are immediate certainties, sensible certainties inasmuch as their physical embodiment is semiologically significant. These monstrous desubjects, these wastelands do not need further analysis, since the values, the ethics, and the beliefs they signify can immediately be seized upon and comprehended in their essence as evil embodiments, or as nightmarish worlds. They are, in other words, a “paysages/paysans moralisés”. Both man and nature are presented in terms of their essential inhumanity, their visceral hostility, that is to say, both desubject and landscape are fully-formed with a built-in (a)morality. The (a)moral character of these “desubjects”, which the poem describes as felun, traitor suduiant, or mult de males arz, reflects and reinforces the Suzanne Conklin Akbari has sketched out the “geographical” relationship between perversity and facticity in chapter 4 of her book Idols in the East. European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450.. Essentially, medieval thought naturalized the degree of perversity in a human being, to the degree of extreme heat in a homeland.
The romances of Chrétien de Troyes are the best example of this correspondence. In his romances, the purity of religious life (exemplified by the solitary monk) is often found in the wilds of the forest; the abundance of material wealth and courtoisie are to be found in those kingdoms populated by generous and wise kings (Arthur being the ultimate incarnation of this theme); castles as wonders of creation (and as potential sources for Masonic wisdom – see P. Naudon Les Loges de saint Jean et la philosophie ésotérique de la connaissance. Dervy, Paris, 1954) are often the scene of mythical/magical interventions of fairies, grails and bleeding lances, of fisher kings.
negative aspects of the landscape from which they originate. They, monstrous subjects/desubjects, are the measure of the inhumanity, or profanity of that landscape. A land devoid of those basic elements considered essential to life (such as water, wheat or sun) necessarily destroys, and mutilates subjectivizing to an extent where, the stunted subjective process ends up serving as the perverse measure of the landscape itself. Instead of generating crops, the land breeds weakness, evil, and monstrosities.
Within the logical framework of the “Chanson de Roland”, that this terre gaste is called a desert, and that it breeds monsters is rather obvious. We are not in a situation where subjects impose a kind of cultural imperialism or colonialism on the land. Such a motive could only be found in the Christian subjective process, wherein land and “other” are subjected to the will of the Franks. That is the Christian ethos, as it is lived and expressed in the conquest of Spain. In the case of the nightmarish lands, it is rather the case that monsters go along with the land, conform to its principles and character, and, mirroring the place and “there” from which their existence has sprung, prove that they are worthy of such a place by echoing its nightmarish aspects and (a)morality321. Consequently, these monsters emerge from their world, and move out across other lands in pursuit of death and riotous living.
"C’est une gent ki unches ben ne volt". Verse 3231 (They are a people that have always eschewed the good).
The representation of Saracen space also serves to further underscore the important difference between the Christian world and its “other”. In contradistinction to the Christian dulce France, and the imagined riches and comforts such a name suggest (a world of provisions, with housing, heating, food, laws, customs, beliefs, civilization, and natural “presences” to spare), the Saracen world is marked as a void. Whereas the Christian heroes, all to a man, long to return home and express their longing for this return to the soil322, there is no such counterbalancing note among the Saracens. As we have previously seen, their longing is material, and not spatial in nature. These dueling oppositions suggest that, in the poem’s logical framework, the landscape not only produces the particular beauty or monstrosity of certain given elements, but more importantly (at least inasmuch as the Christians are concerned), it serves as a bonding principle, as that which unites all participants together under the banner of Providence or Nothingness. That the Franks would keep dulce France in mind323 allows us to understand that in spite of all of the military, political, or social catastrophes that may befall them, the Franks are nonetheless bounded in their sense of a shared “space”.
I believe that we can conclude by stating that the impetus of these geographical descriptions is to give philosophical credence to the idea that the “other” is inhuman, a desubject, and his inhumanity/desubjectivity stems from his inhabiting a world devoid of nature. In the end, the confrontation between the Christians and the Saracens is also a confrontation between two worlds, two landscapes and worldviews. It is only after the final conflict has been brought about, that the true nature of the characters and of the landscapes can be revealed: the evil and cowardly have been exposed and/or killed, and the good have survived and learned valuable The desire, or the longing, to return home seems to be suggested in lay 54, verses 700-702.
When Roland warns his fellow soldiers that they must avoid being mentioned in future song of ill-repute, is this not a subtle reference to dulce France? Likewise, when the cosmological incidents surrounding Roland’s death occur in France in lay 110, does it not signal the presencing of a union between the particular hero (Roland) and the universal “there” from where he sprang?
insights. This conflict between two cultures is also a conflict between a sacred space and a profane one, wherein good and evil are matched against the enormity, the beauty or ugliness, the superiority or physical defectiveness of subjects and lands. The wastelands are places where nature ceases to naturalize, where nature is stunted and negated. In other words, it is a place of nothingness where there is nothing through which subjects can come to be.
In these last few pages I should like to sketch out a very brief critique of the philosophical thinking made manifest by the poem. Much has been made of the fact that the heroes of the poem inhabit a space, and their inhabiting that space is made all the more possible by their willful disregard of the presence of others. Yet, before any character can become a dominant subject, a conqueror who asserts himself in the world, he must firstly dwell within that world.
This, in turn, implies that he does not nor cannot exist as an isolated individual (or an isolated, culturally chauvinistic culture). He must be seen to belong to a society and a culture, which, in turn, also belongs to an epoch and an assembly of cultures that mutually buttress and define each other. In belonging to a culture, the poetic hero interiorizes the norms of the world in which he finds himself. As such, and regardless of the apparent one-sidedness of the values and beliefs that are cherished, the presence of the other, as that against which one must strive, is nonetheless foundational and determinate. It is not simply a negative exteriority, but a pivotal marker within the thinking of the community and the hero. The manner in which the "Chanson de Roland" presents the pernicious Saracens as hapless-hopeless-witless outsiders always looming at the borders of the empire, rather than having them be present within the empire's thinking, logically organizing categories of thought in simultaneity with "Christian" concepts, is itself a fiction. The fiction of a detached subject, or subject-culture, to be taken as a natural, existential, theological fact, the starting point for a poetic narrative that continually strives to reinforce the point by narratively pushing the borders of the self-sustained empire ever outwards, thereby always negating non-essential others who are never more than outsiders to be annexed or destroyed.