Living death in medieval French and English literature - Jane Gilbert 2011
Roland and the second death
Reading medieval French writing, one is struck by how widely known and how influential was the story of Roncevaux. Other chansons de geste return tirelessly to the subject; Roland's death is the foundational event of the cycle du roi, the group of around twenty chansons centred on Charlemagne's foreign campaigns. The conventional dating of the Oxford text to the end of the eleventh century makes it one of the earliest surviving works of French literature, while the rhymed tradition was still being recopied in the fifteenth century. Roland himself epitomizes a powerful and disturbing conception of heroism: that of a violence mesmerizing in its ferocity, its energy and its intimate connection to death. We might have little difficulty in accepting such destructiveness in a villain (such as Ganelon), but in a hero it requires more ethical exploration. Most discussions of the Chanson de Roland which recognize the hero's extreme violence have taken one of two paths. Many place it within cultural contexts — Christian, warrior (Germanic, feudal), or legal — said to consider such violence familiar and justifiable though lost to us today. Numerous others show the failings of Roland's moral or strategic judgement, considering the text either critical or tragic.1 Valuable though such readings are, I wish to concentrate on the heroic desires expressed in and by Roland. For his combination of high energy and activity with a magnetic pull towards death and general catastrophe is hardly unique, but typifies culturally significant notions of heroism and of the hero. ’Death is the lifestyle to which epic warriors are dedicated.’2 I shall focus on Roland as a figure ’between two deaths’, with particular emphasis on the destructive violence which he incarnates. Working with Lacan's distinction between two versions of the death drive, I argue for a revolutionary impulse at the heart of the Chanson de Roland and of the chanson de geste genre more widely, against the influential representation of chansons de geste as bastions of social and aesthetic conservatism.3 I shall further investigate how this revolutionary position is put to various ideological uses within surviving Roland texts, and how they handle differently the forces of destruction, revolution and containment.4 In his death-directed insistence Roland bears comparison with Lacan's Antigone; and in consecrating a substantial proportion of its text to the aftermath of its protagonist's death, the Chanson de Roland resembles Sophocles’ Antigone.
The first section of this chapter focuses on Lacan's discussion of the death drive in Seminar VII, establishing a framework that brings to bear Sade and Freud. After this my analysis will bear on the assonanced Roland tradition up to and including the episode of Roland's death. This tradition, dated to the late eleventh or early to mid twelfth century, is represented by what is today much the most famous version, the so-called Oxford Roland preserved in the Bodleian Library's manuscript Digby 23 (hereafter O), and by the first part of Venice 4 (V4). The remaining five substantial surviving texts (six if we include V4, which begins in assonance but ends in rhyme) preserve a version in rhyme, dated after 1180 and thought to represent a remaniement in which the earlier, assonanced tradition was adapted to late twelfth-century tastes, interests and political imperatives. The assonanced and rhymed traditions display substantial narrative differences, in particular in the aftermath of Roland's death. Each surviving individual version also constitutes a distinct text by virtue not only of its particular wording but also of its date, provenance, dialect and the selection of other works with which it was copied or bound.5 The third section of this chapter compares some of these different versions within the framework of a contrast between assonanced and rhymed traditions, concentrating on their distinctive uses of repetition as reflecting their dissimilar thematic concerns and relating these to the two varieties of death drive. I draw again on Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a work linking violence and repetition, the characteristic content and form of chansons de geste. The final section returns to O to focus on the narrative following Roland's death, in which various meanings are ascribed to that death. Overall, I argue that the assonanced Roland up to and including Roland's death (I shall refer to this as the ’first part’ of the text) enshrines an open-ended destructiveness which releases energies that the latter parts of the assonanced text press into the ideological service of particular political orders representing themselves as at once innovative and traditionalist. The rhymed tradition attempts, and fails, to revise this destructiveness out of existence. When using the term ’Chanson de Roland’, I therefore envisage a work comprising both the revolutionary impetus and the response that contains and exploits that impetus. The elements of this composite are concretely realized in different ways by the various surviving texts. I therefore disagree with those critics who explain the Roland's discontinuities by positing a process of textual accretion or the gradual accumulation of further episodes, as well as with those who treat the Oxford text as a seamless whole working consistently towards a single ideological end.
The core narrative of what I am calling the ’first part’ of the Chanson de Roland goes as follows: in Charlemagne's long war against the Saracens of Spain, King Marsile of Saragossa, the last unconquered Muslim city, offers to capitulate, secretly intending to renege once the invaders have returned home. The Frankish barons wonder whom to send on the risky mission to negotiate. Roland, Charlemagne's heroic nephew, nominates his stepfather Ganelon, who promptly swears vengeance on his stepson. Ganelon plots with the Saracens to ensure that when the Franks withdraw, Roland, his friend Oliver and the twelve peers (Charlemagne's major barons) will lead the rearguard, which the Saracens will then ambush at Roncevaux. During the first assault, Oliver asks Roland to blow his horn, the oliphant, to recall the emperor and the main body; Roland refuses. The Franks repel the first Saracen wave but gradually succumb before the second. Oliver now rejects Roland's proposal that the oliphant be sounded, but Archbishop Turpin (one of the twelve peers) insists and Charlemagne returns. The Saracens are put to flight but all the Franks are dead, including Roland and Oliver.
The second part shows much greater variation in the different texts. In O, Charlemagne mourns and takes revenge on the fleeing Saracens and on the African emir Baligant, Marsile's overlord, who arrives with a large army. On his return to Aix-la-Chapelle, Charlemagne informs Aude, Roland's betrothed and Oliver's sister, of Roland's death; she laments and dies. At trial, Ganelon's plea that he is innocent of treachery is accepted by Charlemagne's council. He is nevertheless convicted and sentenced to death after a judicial combat between his kinsman Pinabel and Charlemagne's champion Thierry d’Anjou, who wins with divine assistance. The rhymed tradition will be discussed further below.
Death drive and life cycle
Lacan returns on many occasions to claims advanced by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: that ’the aim of all life is death’ and that organisms consequently seek to die.6 His engagement with the ensuing hypothesis of a ’death drive’ or ’death instinct’ runs over many years, and he continues throughout his career to redefine both terms. In Seminar VII, his discussion centres on a lengthy quotation from Pope Pius VI's harangue to the heroine in Sade's Juliette, in which the pontiff expounds the necessity of vice in the universe.7 Sade's speaker distinguishes three possible ratios of vice to virtue, and explains their cosmic consequences. He firstly contemplates the common ideal in which war, conflict and crime are abolished. This state he dismisses as ’une trop parfaite harmonie’ (’a too perfect harmony’) bringing about a loss of cosmic vitality — ’repos absolu’, in Lacan's phrase (’absolute rest’). A better alternative is the ’parfait équilibre’ (’perfect balance’) of Horace's rerum concordia discors, where crime and disorder provide a necessary counterweight to peace and harmony, troubling the universe sufficiently to maintain dynamism and hence life. This second notion is linked to the life cycle; personal death and such destructive phenomena as war and famine allow room for and give rise to new life, and are therefore conceived as normal and useful parts of that cycle. Building on the relation between conflict and vitality, however, Sade's text poses a third possibility, namely a destructiveness represented by the notion of an ideal murder that would obliterate even the victim's ’seconde [vie]’ (’second life’), beyond the possibility of regeneration. This destructiveness, Sade's pontiff asserts, represents the true will of Nature; serving that will requires ’des destructions bien plus entières…bien plus complètes que celles que nous pouvons opérer’ (’far more total destructions…destructions much more complete than those we are able to accomplish’). The everyday life cycle is thus encapsulated conceptually within another, apocalyptic and ideal, by definition outside human ken since it would involve the destruction of mankind. This super-cycle Sade hopes to conjure up by committing what the dominant order deems ’unnatural’ acts, their sterility blocking the normal cycle's self-reproduction. In fact, however, it is the super-cycle that represents Nature's essential will which is (according to Sade) to exercise her highest faculty, that of creation; a faculty which human virtue and social management, by preserving rerum concordia discors, impede. In this context ’death’ is reconceived as a qualitative concept referring to the stagnation of Nature's creative faculty. For organic growth and development to move only within known patterns equates to mortal stasis; this must be opposed by the vivifying desire to torch the earth in order that in this newly made-virgin territory an entirely novel form of life may take root.
Lacan uses the Sade passage to illustrate how Freud's work on the death drive contains two distinct modes.8 Thus, of the three conditions differentiated in Sade's text, Lacan distinguishes only two, conflating Sade's ’trop parfaite harmonie’, in which cosmic dynamism is lost, with the rerum concordia discors, the dynamic interaction of forces in equilibrium (this conflation is entirely in spirit with Sade's polemical thrust). Both are aligned with the pacifying ’principe de Nirvâna, ou d'anéantissement’ (’Nirvana or annihilation principle’), a reference to a theory advanced by Freud, who puts it thus: ’The dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli (the “Nirvana principle”, to borrow a term from Barbara Low) — a tendency which finds expression in the pleasure principle.’9 According to Lacan's analysis, Sade's ’repos absolu’ and ’équilibre universel’ can be equated in their opposition to Freud's ’pulsion de destruction’ (’destruction drive’), which ’doit être au-delà de la tendance au retour à l'inanimé’ (’must be beyond the instinct to return to the state of equilibrium of the inanimate sphere’). This is a truly active principle, crackling with energy. Sade's imagined heroic vice finds echoes in Lacan's terminology, as he refers to ’une volonté de destruction directe’ which ’met en cause tout ce qui existe’ (’a direct will to destruction’ which ’challenges everything that exists’). It is simultaneously a ’volonté de recommencer à nouveaux frais’ and a ’volonté d’Autre-chose’ (’will to make a fresh start’ and a ’will for an Other-thing’), for something outside the known world. I shall return below to Lacan's interpretation of the destruction drive's regenerative urge and to the notion of a super-cycle. For the moment I observe only that Sade's characteristic climactic rhetoric and sexual themes highlight the element in the destruction drive of what Lacan calls jouissance: understood in this case to indicate an enjoyable pain or unbearably painful satisfaction, a paradox incompatible with the pleasure principle, which works to keep our stimulations and frustrations at a manageable level, and us at a distance from our desires and hence from death. Leading the subject it inhabits towards jouissance, towards an inhuman Autre-chose beyond the paths of liveable life, the destruction drive introduces that subject into the entre-deux-morts. But not into death or Nirvana; as that which impels one who is dead nevertheless to go on, the destruction drive is, according to Žižek, ’the Freudian term for immortality’, ’that which prevents you from dying’.10
Roland between two deaths: the assonanced Chanson de Roland
Roland in the assonanced texts can be considered to be ’between two deaths’ in the sense of passing beyond the bounds of normal life and committing himself to death, although it is disputable at what point passage occurs.11 From one perspective he has always been there, for his brand of heroism commits him to risking and defying death. As Ganelon tells Blancandrin, ’chascun jur de mort si s'abandunet’ (O, 390; ’every day he gives himself up to death’).12 Daily provocation of the grim reaper is bound to meet a response sooner or later, thus all Ganelon has to do to make Roland die is to let the hero have his head.13 He goes further by providing his nephew with what appears (and, in a double irony, in the second part of the work ultimately turns out) to be a gratifying scenario inviting him to fulfil fantasies of his grandeur, a stage on which to perform and enhance the los (’reputation’) he has constructed through his previous activities and declarations. On the other hand, dying does not seem to feature on Roland's horizon early in the poem. Death's role in the scenarios he imagines occurring is rather to demonstrate his immunity from dying than finally to crown his career. If Roland fails to understand that he may actually die, then it is debatable whether his heroism per se places him ’between two deaths’. For Lacan, however, Antigone's éclat is determined by her refusal or inability to let death divert her from her goal, combined with the audience's knowledge that she is fated to die. In these respects Roland too is condemned from his first appearance in the poem.
Or perhaps it is in the first horn scene, when Roland refuses Oliver's request to call Charlemagne back to rescue the rearguard, that he crosses ’la limite que la vie humaine ne saurait pas trop longtemps franchir’, beyond Ate (’the limit that human life can only briefly cross’).14 Oliver appears to think that this was their last chance of escaping death, commenting immediately afterwards that ’Ki ceste fait, jamais n'en ferat altre’ (O, 1105; ’whoever serves in this rearguard will never take part in another’). Oliver's words focus on the warriors’ inability to live to fight another day, referring to a cycle associated with the return of Charlemagne. He envisages the preferable outcome of the present conflict not as the final annihilation of the enemy but as an ongoing pattern of skirmishes where the priority is to husband one's resources for the next encounter. Time stretches forward in endless variations on the present situation; a pattern broken by Roland's disastrous resolve. Oliver's challenge to Roland represents the hero's behaviour as unorthodox and transgressive, underlining the problems it poses to the established political order inasmuch as that depends on repeat performances. Roland has gone too far.
Roland's own interest in the first horn scene is couched in quite other terms. Each speech in which he rejects Oliver's proposal begins by referring to an impossible dishonour expressed in negative conditionals and subjunctives, before moving on to contemplate violence in the indicative with a variation between future and present tenses which suggests both immediacy and resolve. Against these Oliver's future-tense assurances of Charles's return seem weakly hypothetical. Roland's concern during the first horn scene is not with corporeal or cyclic survival but with his los, a concept in which the prestige and potency of such collectives as his kin group and country, France dulce, are harnessed to his grandiose self-construction. This extended los is embodied in an apparently indestructible sword as well as in a physical body which seems impervious to outside forces, as witness his repeated miraculous feats in the text's back story. He views the Saracen attack as an undeclinable invitation to re-perform this los. Roland both invests fully in the present situation and moment (’Nus remeindrum en estal en la place’, O, 1108; ’We shall stand firm in the field’) and (relatedly) inhabits some ethically if not metaphysically other place, neither of which fits with Oliver's vision. Thus Roland's very rejection of the possibility of dying where dying is taken to mean defeat, as it does for Oliver, places him entre-deux-morts.
Roland's desire correlates with various collective reference points. Reputation and word, and the ability to sustain those in action, are central cultural values in a range of medieval texts. Roland does not distinguish between his personal fame and the prestige of his kin, country, emperor or religion. (I leave aside for the moment the fact that Roland's deeds will finally be recuperated in the public interest thanks to those to which they inspire Charlemagne.) From another perspective, however, Roland's desire denies the collective. He recognizes only his personal los as the master-signifier for the various values he claims to represent. Oliver's intervention makes clear that Roland's pursuit of this los exceeds the broad cultural value system and baronial norms, whether through the absolute priority he accords los or because of the strategies by which he pursues it. Roland's los is, in Lacan's terms, the singular desire through which the destruction drive operates in Roland. We would therefore expect the dominant culture to view it as an ethical anomaly: ’C’est parce que l'homme prend le mal pour le bien, parce que quelque chose d'au-delà des limites de l’Atè est devenu pour Antigone son bien à elle, un bien qui n'est pas celui de tous les autres, qu'elle se dirige (’It is because man mistakes evil for the good, because something beyond the limits of Ate has become Antigone's good, namely, a good that is different from everyone else's, that she goes toward, ).15 Correspondingly, Roland's concern with los exceeds the cultural systems that give los meaning. His desire is therefore given no coherent rationale within the text. We can understand Oliver, Turpin and Charles, but concerning Roland we must ask, with generations of critics, ’What does he really want?’ According to Žižek, we pose this question only when what the subject claims to want is fundamentally unintelligible within established norms, so that the question already precludes the asker's identification with the subject about whom the question is posed.16 Roland cannot, surely, want only the escalating destruction, the intensified conflict and violence which his every decision calls forth? Critical debates over the ethical and strategic value of Roland's actions often refer decisively to the fact that both Roland himself and his collective ultimately benefit from his decisions; but I wish here to emphasize actions and moments as they occur, without the valuation accorded by retrospection. The point in a Lacanian framework is the rich destructiveness which affects both the hero and his environment. Self-destruction is the final logic of the death drive, the sapping of established norms its ethical effect.17
Hence in the second horn scene Roland chooses, as he always does, the option which offers the maximum potential for continuing violence and conflict. The specificity of his position emerges when we compare it to Oliver's and Turpin's. Oliver interprets the situation facing the rearguard as not only personal death and the ruin of Charles's army, but the end of an epoch:
Vostre proëcce, Rollant, mar la veïmes!
Karles li magnes de nos n'avrat aïe.
N’ert mais tel home desqu'a Deu juïse.
Vos i murrez e France en ert hunie.
Oi nus defalt la leial cumpaignie:
Einz la vespree ert gref la departie.
(Your prowess, Roland, in an evil hour we saw it! Charlemagne will never have aid from us. There will be no such man till Judgement Day. You will die here and France will be dishonoured for it. Now our loyal comradeship is failing us: before evening the parting will be grievous.)
Oliver claims that an entire order has been destroyed by Roland's insistence on performing his ’proëcce’. There will be no further fighting, no re-cycling, for the soldiers who die at Roncevaux. This is the end of an era not to be renewed, since the man at its centre is unique (O, 1733). This devastation has been wrought by Roland's ’folie’ or ’estultie’, which, whatever their more positive senses, are contrasted by Oliver to the ’vasselage par sens’ (O, 1724; ’wise baronage’) which would have enabled the warriors to continue their established pattern of serving Charlemagne.18 Oliver's criticism is clarified by a notion that Freud floats in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a text rooted in the psychic and social aftermath of extreme military violence: that of an improper ’short circuit’ in the organism's natural and necessary path towards death (see p. 224 below, n. 37). Roland, by short-circuiting the Christian soldiers’ natural trajectory, has broken the cycle which (according to Oliver) would otherwise have led to their renewal in a future guard. Roland's actions, in his companion's perspective, have precluded not only personal survival and biological progeny, but also the more significant possibility of a future generation of symbolic sons, since Oliver implies that no adequate substitutes will step forward to take the place of the deceased. By refusing to allow Roland to conclude the contracted marriage with his sister Aude (O, 1719—21), Oliver expresses his sense of Roland's sterility, his opposition to (re)generation and reproduction: he has achieved the destruction to which Sade aspired, destroying ’la régénération résultant du cadavre’ (’the regeneration resulting from the corpse’), its second earthly life.19 Roland has broken the bond between them, fatally. ’Quant je'l vos dis, n'en feïstes nïent’ (O, 1708; ’When I told you to do it, you did nothing at all’). Oliver's famous pragmatism therefore articulates a sense that the special kind of death to which Roland has brought the Franks represents final collective ending and defeat — a form of apocalypse. This sense of life's trajectory short-circuited, with consequent denial of renewal, is an important aspect of the entre-deux-morts. Compare Butler's discussion of Antigone, the anti-generation, condemned to sterility no less by Creon than by Lacan, for whom her demand to restructure kinship will have no progeny, and who denies her heroism and her tragedy.20 This enforced sterility at once fuels, contrasts with and gives the lie to the political and ethical fertility that Antigone's reception history demonstrates. The same is true of Roland: Oliver's challenge is an essential element in his legend.
Archbishop Turpin like Oliver focuses on maintaining a cycle and like Roland imagines continuing violence:
Li arcevesques les ot cuntrarïer,
Le cheval brochet des esperuns d'or mer,
Vint tresqu'a els, sis prist a castïer:
’Sire Rollant, e vos, sire Oliver,
Pur Deu vos pri, ne vos cuntralïez!
Ja li corners ne nos avreit mester,
Mais nepurquant si est il asez melz
Venget li reis, si nus purrat venger:
Ja cil d’Espaigne n'en deivent turner liez!
Nostre Franceis i descendrunt a piéd,
Truverunt nos e morz e detrenchez;
Leverunt nos en bieres sur sumers,
Si nus plurrunt de doel e de pitét,
Enfüerunt en aitres de musters;
N’en mangerunt ne lu ne porc ne chen.’
Respunt Rollant: ’Sire, mult dites bien.’
(The archbishop hears them arguing. He urges on his horse with his pure gold spurs, came up to them and began to rebuke them: ’Lord Roland, and you, Lord Oliver, for God's sake I beg you, do not quarrel! Blowing the horn will be of no help to us, nevertheless it is much better that the king come, and he can avenge us: the men of Spain must not turn away from this spot in gladness! Our Franks will dismount here and find us dead and cut to pieces; they will lift us on biers onto packhorses, and will weep for us in sorrow and pity. They will bury us in churches’ hallowed ground; no wolf, pig or dog will eat of us.’ Roland replied, ’Lord, you speak very well.’)
Turpin, unlike either hero, is concerned for the warriors’ souls, whose passage into the afterlife seemingly requires proper ritual burial and military revenge. The further fighting he advocates is required to bring about closure, a settling of debts with the enemy. While Oliver looks back to a lost life, Turpin looks forward to a death which is certain in all senses. Though one character is concerned with bodily and the other with spiritual ’second life’, both refer to established ideological orders whose goal is self-renewal: military in Oliver's version, religious in Turpin's.
During the second horn scene, the heroes reverse their positions, Roland arguing for Charlemagne's recall while Oliver opposes him in terms that satirize Roland's former insouciance and indict his reckless sacrifice of himself and others by mimicking the arguments, tenses and moods that the latter used in the first horn scene:
Dist Oliver, ’Vergoigne sereit grant
E reprover a trestuz voz parenz;
Iceste hunte dureit al lur vivant.’
(Said Oliver, ’It would be great dishonour and reproach to all your kin, this shame would last their whole lives.’)
This rhetorical change serves to highlight ironically the continuity in each character's position. While Oliver continues to mourn a lost cause, Roland consistently envisages and works towards the renewal of violence and destruction. He observes the dead, expresses sympathy for France which now stands bereft of barons of quality, and regrets that the king is not there:
E! reis, amis, que vos ici nen estes!
Oliver, frere, cum le purrum nus faire?
Cum faitement li manderum nuveles?
(Oh king, friend, that you are not here! Oliver, brother, how can we do it, how shall we send him word?)
His expression of regret — in the indicative and accompanied immediately by the question of how his new desire may be realized — is entirely different from Oliver's subjunctive lament, ’S’i fust li reis, n'i oüsum damage’ (O, 1717; ’Had the king been here we should have suffered no harm’ / ’Were the king here we would suffer no harm’). Nor, when faced with Turpin's reasoned justification, does Roland do more than agree with this proposal which suits the desire inhabiting him. His speech may be compared to Antigone's famous lament on her way to the tomb. In Lacan's reading, the conscious human mind speaks here to regret the predictable life and intelligible desires that it might otherwise have had, and that its own unconscious has stolen from it by setting it irretrievably on the path to death. Lacan argues that Antigone at this stage is released from the drive (the plot, once set in motion, carries the death drive for her) to become a figure of sublime pathos: ’pour Antigone, la vie n'est abordable, ne peut être vécue et réflechie, que de cette limite où déjà elle a perdu la vie’ (’from Antigone's point of view life can only be approached, can only be lived or thought about, from the place of that limit where her life is already lost’).21 In his ethics of tragedy, the moment that presents audiences with a figure become suddenly, belatedly and movingly human offers them an aesthetic jouissance in place of the Real thing, and thus reconciles themselves to their ordinary lives. Roland's moment of reflection is comparable, though unlike Antigone's, his lament precedes an intensifying of the drive to destruction working on and through him.
Whatever his earlier relation to death, Roland definitively commits himself to dying when he cracks his brainpan while blowing the oliphant to recall Charlemagne; he cannot physically recover from this self-inflicted wound. No longer one of the living, he awaits the physical event that will translate him into death proper (’Sans être encore morte, [Antigone] est déjà rayée du monde des vivants’; ’Without yet being dead, [Antigone] is already eliminated from the world of the living’).22 This event, when it occurs, will be exemplary in baronial-Christian terms: self-administering field communion and confessing his sins, Roland is received as God's heavenly vassal by the archangel Michael. Roland's assimilation into an established ideological framework may be considered to close his period between two deaths, a possibility that will be discussed in the final section of this chapter. However, in many other medieval literary works, divine intervention not only fails to resolve but actually gives impetus to questions posed in the course of the text; similarly God's endorsement here crowns the questionable hero's ambiguity and thus perpetuates his entre-deux-morts status. Hence the fresh destructive energy released into the poem.23 Roland's summons will lead to renewed slaughter in the later parts of the narrative and instil new passion into Charlemagne's sluggish person and army (’Par grant irur chevalchet Charlemagnes’, O, 1842; ’Charlemagne rides in high fury’). Roland himself is invigorated by his injury. His next assault calls forth Turpin's approval:
Si cum li cerfs s'en vait devant les chiens,
Devant Rollant si s'en fuient paiens.
Dist l'arcevesque: ’Asez le faites ben!
Itel valor deit aveir chevaler
Ki armes portet e en bon cheval set.’
(Just as the stag runs before the hounds, so the pagans flee before Roland. The archbishop says, ’You do very well! A knight who bears arms and sits astride a good horse ought to have such valour.’)
The transgressive excess of Roland's prowess sustains the idealized norm of knighthood, with the epic simile at once crowning his achievement and dehumanizing him. The ideal itself lies outside accepted human bounds, in a quasi-animal ferocity. This is the space that Lacan calls the sublime, at once greater and lesser than the ordinary human world. It is in this sense, rather than in one which assimilates him into Christianity or into some acknowledged good, that I would argue for Roland's sublimity.
Roland's insistence carries the entire Frankish army with him:
Home ki ço set que ja n'avrat prisun
En tel bataille fait grant defension:
Pur ço sunt Francs si fiers cume leüns.
(A man who knows that no prisoners will be taken puts up a stout defence in battle: for this reason the Franks are as fierce as lions.)
Oliver and Turpin both enjoy their own moment between two deaths:
Oliver sent qu'il est a mort nasfrét,
De lui venger ja mais ne li ert sez.
En la grant presse or i fiert cume ber.
(Oliver feels that he is mortally wounded, he will never be sated on vengeance. Now he strikes like a baron in the great fray.)
Turpins de Reins, quant se sent abatut,
De .IIII. espiez par mi le cors ferut,
Isnelement li ber resailit sus.
(When Turpin of Rheims feels himself struck down, pierced through the body with four spears — instantly the baron springs back up.)
For each subject a mortal wound produces a new lease of ultra-violence. Neither seems to be thinking in terms of cycles or second life here; unlimited destruction occupies the whole horizon of their desire. These morts vivants, suspended in their moment of short circuit and wreaking appalling havoc, are Roland's achievement.
The above analysis of the assonanced Roland before the hero's death demonstrates that in the Sadean-Lacanian choice between ways in which to die — gently, or otherwise — Nirvana principle and destruction drive are not paths to the same ethical and ideological ends. Sade's discourse has implications beyond the individual or the biological. His life cycles relate also to human societies. The ’normal’ cycle, with its emphasis on organic growth, on balance and the avoidance of extremes, implies that human change will occur only slowly through minor variations on established forms: evolution. Sade presents this condition, or ideal, as the projection of the dominant ideology, which proposes it to be necessary if the world is to go on reproducing itself from generation to generation. The hegemonic political order has an interest in identifying itself with the conditions under which it is possible to live at all. Similarly, the ultimate object of his ideal destructiveness is the order regulating social, cultural, moral and spiritual expectations and presenting itself as at once normal and natural. Sade's radical destruction aims to bring down that order in an act of violent revolution. For Sade, therefore, whereas the path of radical destruction leads to the birth of a new order of being, that of the status quo condemns the organism to a lifeless half-existence incapable of true regeneration. In this living death, the ’second death’ — the goal at which Sade's ferocities and multiple rejections of reproductive sexuality aim — represents a utopian ideal. ’L’impossible mort’ stands for life's lost meaningfulness:24 death as Real in its regenerative aspect. In this way of thinking, the ethical category of spiritual and moral ’death’ is associated with the peaceable rituals of the quotidian, rituals which, by helping to make life liveable, ensure the preservation and reproduction of the dominant order.
Lacan only partly espouses this view and its implications. He exploits Sade for the ideological identification linking the ’natural’ human life cycle to the hegemonic order as jointly deathly, and connects both to a redefined version of Freud's Nirvana principle. If he represents equilibrium as stagnation and encourages the connection between destruction, intellectual challenge and psychic perturbation, nevertheless he dismisses faith in the regenerative teleology of the destruction drive. For Lacan, such faith is a ’sublimation créationniste’ (’creationist sublimation’) by means of which Sade, Freud and indeed all human subjects evade the truth that they themselves have glimpsed.25 Lacan distinguishes two movements here. On the one hand, Freud's hypothesis of the death drive has an important heuristic function. As the ultimate exception to human order, the death drive can be articulated only by positing a position outside that order. It therefore forces us to reconceive human reality not as the totality of being but as only one among its larger possibilities. We glimpse a beyond to the human world:
La pulsion de mort est à situer dans le domaine historique, pour autant qu'elle s'articule à un niveau qui n'est définissable qu'en fonction de la chaîne signifiante, c'est-à-dire en tant qu'un repère, qui est un repère d'ordre, peut être situé par rapport au fonctionnement de la nature. Il faut quelque chose d'au-delà, d'où elle-même puisse être saisie dans une mémorisation fondamentale, de telle sorte que tout puisse être repris, non pas simplement dans le mouvement des métamorphoses, mais à partir d'une intention initiale.26
(The death drive is to be situated in the historical domain; it is articulated at a level that can only be defined as a function to the signifying chain, that is to say, insofar as a reference point, that is a reference point of order, can be situated relative to the functioning of nature. It requires something from beyond whence it may itself be grasped in a fundamental act of memorization, as a result of which everything may be recaptured, not simply in the movement of the metamorphoses but from an initial intention.)
True revolutionary potential, therefore, requires creationist sublimation; it alone is capable of radically eliminating God from the universe, for the Creator paradigm encourages homo faber to similarly radical acts of innovation.27 On the other hand, we must beware of our instinct to transform this logical position into a metaphysical Other Place occupied by a transcendent subject (God, Nature), endowed with purpose and agency, and directing human life and death. This is a fantasy with which we veil both the gulf of the Real and the unacceptable fact (itself an aspect of the Real) that it is only human activity which veils that gulf. Lacan insists on the foreclosure of any forward-looking vision, thereby divorcing the second death (and the destruction drive of which it is an image) from a redemptive ’seconde vie’, whether on earth or in the afterlife. At the same moment he notes, ambivalently, the human tendency towards sublimation in this special sense. Intuitions of death's nature and humanity's metaphysical isolation bring detachment and creeping disillusionment under one aspect; under another they vitalize the further ideological engagement which generates further chimeras as well as real, and sometimes valuable, change. Lacan's complex stance is both receptive to revolutionism and wary of endorsing calls to political renewal, especially when backed up by apocalyptic violence. This ambivalence must be seen in the context of the Cold War with its nuclear threat, to which Lacan refers several times in Seminar VII. His position is that of one who refuses to love the bomb, in defiance of its promotion by various states. Apocalypse nevertheless represents a crucial mental discipline; as the mise en cause of ’all that exists’, it gives the measure of Lacan's intellectual ambitions. Unlike Anouilh's Antigone and Charles de Gaulle, he refuses merely to ’dire non’. Negativity has greater reach.
It is self-evident that an emancipated consciousness cannot be achieved without adventuring psychically and ethically beyond the cycle of everyday living and everyday dying sponsored by the hegemonic order. In principle, however, the radical destructiveness of the second death cannot be maintained as such but will give way (or birth) to a new order. Once the revolution achieves a form in which it can be recognized as such — in other words, once a new system has successfully replaced the old — then the properly revolutionary moment is past. Its radical openness has been exchanged for closure, its inchoate swirl by new forms which, however different (or not), nevertheless represent an incipient settled order. It is this openness which Lacan exhorts his audience to cherish in the momentary flashes of it afforded them; this is the touchstone of a secular and non-idealist ethics, to which humans should aspire. Lacan terms this philosophical position, committed to demolishing the status quo and sceptical about the possibility of authentic innovation arising from any revolutionary act, ’beyond the second death’. Insofar as he cherishes a revolutionary spirit which must be perpetually beyond any attempt to represent it concretely, Lacan may be compared to such a classic French revolutionary thinker as Robespierre. However, his objections to ’creationist sublimation’ distinguish him from political thinking in this vein, and warn of its dangers.28 Revolution and apocalypse frame Lacan's ethical thinking and psychoanalytic teaching, and allow for political engagements and actions quite other than those he himself endorsed.
Assonance and rhyme
Roland's entre-deux-morts quality makes his value difficult to assess. The early parts of the assonanced poem are animated by the debate over Roland's worth, a debate which focuses on the contested significance of his (then hypothetical) death. Oliver, Ganelon and the Saracens question (while also, in their different ways, reinforcing) his status as military hero. The Saracens portray him as a hollow man, Ganelon as quarrelsome, rash and irresponsible, Oliver as something perhaps worse. This uncomfortable aspect is, in fact, eradicated from the Chanson de Roland after the assonanced account of Roland's death. In the aftermath of that death in both O and V4, tensions generated during the personal crisis of the living hero ’between two deaths’ are turned to political advantage by forces that expel the hero's problematic destructiveness from their literally official account of the narrative. I shall discuss in the final section of this chapter how this process of internal revisionism appears in O, the only text to conclude in assonance. In the present section, I compare the assonanced tradition with the rhymed Roland, which throughout presents Roland as normative ideal and martyr. I read this aspect of the rhymed tradition as an extended response to the disruptive Roland of assonance, along the same lines as that found in the later sections of the assonanced works, though more thorough-going in revision and appropriation. Roland's entre-deux-morts is not only inscribed in his characterization, but also enacted formally and thematically through the early parts of the assonanced poem. Its erasure is correspondingly thorough. In Lacanian terms, the rhymed response shifts the death drive from destruction to Nirvana.
Although the individual manuscripts vary in presentation, the assonanced and rhymed traditions display substantial narrative differences, in particular after Roland's death. The rhymed tradition, that death accomplished, greatly expands the treatment of both Aude and Ganelon. Aude's protracted anxiety and anticipatory mourning enhance Roland's status, while Ganelon's escape and the comic and cruel pursuit which follows emphasize his wickedness and whet the audience's appetite for his brutal punishment.29 Thematic differences are also evident, and these run throughout the texts. The heroes of the assonanced tradition are much more divided, quarrelsome and destructive, their treatment by the texts less straightforwardly laudatory. All the main characters including Ganelon and the Saracens are treated as worthy barons, while no individual is wholly righteous. These phenomena reflect a fissuring of the ideological domain in the assonanced poem. Actions are set within an assortment of sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory ethical and strategic frameworks. In short: up until Roland's death, the assonanced Rolands ambiguously encourage discord as well as unity within the Christian community of audience and characters, and maintain an uneasy tension between those forces (the repeated use of collective first-person plurals highlights this tension). In conspicuous contrast, the rhymed versions harmonize the conflicting values of the assonanced tradition into a comprehensive ideology in which the Christian God, Carolingian emperor and French king, country, family and military unit, form a single allegiance. All its characters are carefully placed on one ethical scale stretching from an idealized Roland to Ganelon, a pantomime villain.30 The Saracens are uncomplicatedly demonized, with little evidence of the similarities which in the assonanced tradition cut across distinctions between faithful and infidel.31
These thematic differences of approach correspond to formal distinctions worth pausing over. I rehearse Simon Gaunt's analysis of the first horn scene in O and P, which contrasts the handling of Oliver's challenge to show how the rhymed tradition proleptically resolves questions about Roland's value that the assonanced tradition keeps in suspension until after his death.32 In order to demonstrate that the textual features discussed do not belong only to O as an individual masterpiece, I shall concentrate on the little-known V4; I use Duggan's composite CV7 as the fullest rhymed text. In V4, laisses 79, 80 and 81 (compare O, laisses 83, 84 and 85), Oliver appeals three times in very similar terms to Roland to summon Charlemagne, and Roland responds with dissimilar refusals. This is an example of the technique known as laisses similaires in which successive laisses depict what appears to be numerically a single event in qualitatively different ways.33 The effect is one of narrative disturbance, since the audience is unsure how to make sense of what it has heard. Laisses similaires are associated in the assonanced tradition with moments in which Roland's death is foreseen and its significance discussed. Audience members are thus obliged to decide not only which interpretation of Roland's character, but which version of events to credit. The scene culminates with the claim that ’Rollant est proç, Oliver est saçe’ (V4, 1038; ’Roland is valiant, Oliver is wise’; compare O, 1093), an interpretative crux. Elsewhere in the assonanced texts, lines on this model sometimes imply complementarity or opposition: ’Alti son li poi e le val tenebror’ (e.g., V4, 765; ’The hills are high and the valleys in shadow’; compare O, 814); ’Païn ont tort et cristïans lo dres’ (V4, 950; ’The pagans are wrong and the Christians right’; compare O, 1015). On other occasions, however, the same framework contains mutually reinforcing and harmonious elements: ’Bel est li çorno el sol est mol cler’ (V4, 601; ’The day is beautiful and the sun is very bright’; compare O, 157). Contrast and comparison use a single paratactic structure. Further complication is introduced by the following line: ’Ambes dos ent bon vassalaçe’ (V4, 1039; ’Both have good vassalic qualities’; compare O, 1094), a pronouncement which may either offset Roland and Oliver's difference or further intensify their similarity. The audience is faced with a complex ethical and aesthetic challenge: to assess the relative claims of valour and prudence and each's relation to the standard of vassalage, and to determine the relationship between lines 1038 and 1039. Weighing the alternatives requires us to reflect on the question of what will be (has been) lost or achieved by Roland's death, a problem which the assonanced texts do not allow us to answer with finality — except in far off hindsight. By contrast, in the rhymed remaniement the equivalent couplet reads: ’Rollanz fu proz et Oliver fu ber; / per igal furent et compeignon et per’ (CV7, 1887—8; ’Roland was valiant and Oliver valorous; they were absolutely equal and companions and peers’). The virtually synonymous adjectives proz and ber uniformly denote martial qualities, the second line unambiguously reinforces the first and no division is created in the audience response. As Gaunt points out, there is no longer any difference of principle to ground the quarrel between Roland and Oliver and thereby to unsettle the audience's attachment to its hero.
Significantly, the rhymed tradition emphasizes the fact that Oliver repeats his request to blow the horn (’Sire compeing, car sonez la menee; / je le vos ai autre fois rovee’, CV7, 1839—40; ’Sir companion, sound the blast; I have asked you before to do so’). The provocative laisses similaires of the assonanced tradition are thus replaced with laisses parallèles, a technique in which numerically different events are described in qualitatively similar terms, buttressing a single interpretation. Roland is the greatest of heroes, a paragon among men and among leaders, whose tragic demise we can mourn wholeheartedly, following the examples of Aude and Charlemagne in adding lustre to his image. Roland's death here does not mean his loss as an ideal or the end of his influence; on the contrary, it consecrates him as the incarnation of the ideals of leadership and vassalage.
In line with its streamlined, positive interpretation of Roland's character and death, the rhymed version makes very different use of the space between two deaths from that found in the assonanced version. Roland, who has previously shown no signs of the flirting with death which characterized his assonanced counterpart, here steps consciously into the entre-deux-morts at a precise point in the narrative: before the first horn scene, when he first sees the Saracen army (which he does before Oliver): ’“Deus,” dist Rollant, “qui feïs mer salee, / men esïent, ma mort est hui juree”’, CV7, 1532—3; ’“God,” said Roland, “who made the salt sea, to my knowledge, my death is sworn today”’). Believing it too late to call for help, Roland reasons that his task is to ensure that his troops make of their final battle and of the chanson that will be sung of it an inspiration to generations yet to come. (In the assonanced version he is more concerned to avoid a ’male cançon’, V4, 1439, a ’bad song’, than to rouse others.) He is contrasted to Oliver who, faced with the same realization, wishes to call for help — an unambiguous and futile breach in his courage. Oliver's later opposition to the blowing of the oliphant will be based on personal rancour and on the misapprehension that there would have been time to call Charlemagne back; there is none of the righteous anger nor the valid different perspective that the character voices in the assonanced Roland. Moreover, the Oliver of rhyme cannot match the piety that distinguishes Roland, whose repeated recourse to prayer emphasizes that he submits to God's will and accepts his own role as a pawn in the cosmic struggle against evil.34 Roland has become the exemplar of both sagesse and prouesse, Oliver his foil.
A more unquestionably virtuous hero, Roland in the rhymed version is also in an important sense more dispensable. In spite of demonstrating his pre-eminence, the poem insists on the absolute equality, not only of the two heroes, but of all its Christian characters. As Roland himself exhorts the Franks, ’As colps doner soiez tuit par ingal’ (CV7, 1594; ’may you all be absolutely equal in dealing blows’). At once a sacrificial victim and a self-sacrifice, his death is eagerly embraced for the impetus it gives to future undertakings. Thus Charlemagne urges his men on:
Ferez, baron! Ne vos atargez mie!
Ge ai grant droit, tort a la paienie!
Il m'ont tolu tant de ma compeignie
dont dolce France est lasse et apovrie!
Rollant m'ont mort, mon nevo, par envie,
et Oliver a la chiere hardie.
(Strike, barons! Do not delay! I have great right, the pagan people has the wrong. They have deprived me of so many of my retinue, by which sweet France is wretched and impoverished! They have killed my nephew Roland out of envy, and Oliver of the bold face.)
France may have lost its champions but their exalted memory will be translated into glorious undertakings inspired by their example. The Roland of these texts lacks altogether the awkward singularity which distinguishes the hero of the assonanced versions, this lack forming an important part of his value. Hence the rhymed texts repeatedly compare the surviving warriors to the lost hero: ’Dist l'uns a l'autre: “Cist fiert bien par vigor! / Unques Rollant ne dona cop meillor!”’ (CV7, 5677—8; ’One says to another, “This man strikes with great force! Roland never delivered a better blow!”’).35 Not Roland but his idealized memory is to be kept alive, a resource for moulding future generations in his socially useful image. Heroism here is a much less challenging concept.
We can read the thematic and formal repetition in the Chanson de Roland in the light of two contrasting forms of repetitive action that Freud analyses in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. One he illustrates by what has become known as the fort/da game: a small boy repeatedly throws out of his curtained cot, and retrieves, a cotton reel on a string, at the same time articulating sounds that Freud interprets to mean fort (’gone’) and da (’there’). Freud hypothesizes that the child is playing out the everyday situation of his mother's coming and going, and that the frustration, humiliation and pain encountered when passively suffering this situation are transformed into pleasure when the boy awards himself the active, masterly role, ’disappearing’ and ’reappearing’ his mother at will. The other form of repetition offers no such pleasurable yield; Freud exemplifies this by the shell-shocked survivors of World War I whose recurrent dreams of their terrible experiences fail to put the subjects in control of their experiences and instead deepen their trauma.36 He suggests that in this latter form particularly we witness a repetition compulsion which lies ’beyond the pleasure principle’, and links it instead to death. His account is complex and, if not contradictory, leaves open multiple possible interpretations. Thus one reading would align the ultimately pleasurable, mastering repetition with the Nirvana principle, which renders death as peace, return, reunion and equilibrium. The repetition associated with shell-shock recalls rather the destruction drive, and refers to death as violent agitation and fragmentation. Repetition is therefore a crux at which these two conflicting interpretations meet and diverge.
The moments of unsettling conflict over the value of Roland and his death that mark the assonanced texts attract laisses similaires. Most critics read such laisses in ways that make rational, cumulative sense: each laisse in a set moves the action on or opens new avenues of interpretation. This is to focus on variation rather than on repetition, and thus to neglect an important effect of laisses similaires. Repeating a word too often, as everyone knows by experience, produces the vertiginous effect not only of making it seem meaningless but of making one doubt language as a vehicle of sense. Laisses similaires as a stylistic strategy invoke that kind of repetition which, for Freud, shatters the illusion of mastery, in part through the destruction of coherent meaning. The recurrent and bewildering accounts of critical moments deepen the trauma of Roland's loss for the audience. Such a strategy indicates the destruction drive at work. In contrast, laisses parallèles, which encourage a univocal interpretation, partake of Freud's other kind of repetition, permitting mastery and comfort. They are reserved in the first half of the assonanced texts for combats between Christian and Saracen. Whatever the similarities between the two sides, they are opposed in combats presented with a repetition which is unthreatening, indeed reassuring to Christian ears. Thus the sequence of laisses in which the Saracen peers proclaim in turn their intention to kill Roland (V4, laisses 64—74) enhances their villainy and his reputation, encouraging a limited moral certainty. Laisses parallèles alone continue in the second half of O, and in the rhymed texts, as Gaunt shows, replace laisses similaires. These laisses parallèles work to defuse the possibility of trauma over Roland's death. Death now follows the Nirvana principle, for Roland, a secular saint, unquestionably deserves the heaven into which he is finally received. No less than his absence, his presence is here a morally unifying force within the Christian ranks and against the infidel. Critics who consider Roland to be ’the ideal knight submitting himself body and soul to his feudal lord, and by extension to his country and God’ describe the rhymed rather than the assonanced hero; or view the latter wholly within the perspective established in the assonanced texts’ developments after his death.37 This idealized hero is ’dead’ even during his life inasmuch as his meaning is fixed and assimilated into a particular order represented within the text itself. This pacific ’living death’ or Nirvana reworks and responds to the disruptive entre-deux-morts of the living assonanced hero.
We might expect that the rhymed tradition's unequivocal elevation of Roland would constitute the more successful and politically effective memorial tradition. Certainly its survival in six manuscripts (including V4) and three fragments suggests a respectable level of popularity. (The relative paucity of manuscript evidence for the assonanced tradition does not allow us to assume that it was unpopular. There is a huge rise in the number of manuscripts of all sorts surviving after the mid twelfth century, and the Oxford Roland is one of a tiny handful of chansons de geste surviving in earlier manuscripts, the majority of them Anglo-Norman.) However, each of the extant rhymed texts departs in some way from the ’rhymed tradition’ as it can be pieced together from other witnesses, and there is a noticeable tendency for such departures to disturb the smooth handling of Roland's death. Both C and V7, for example, include assonanced as well as rhymed material in the first horn scene, disorienting the audience with a narrative discord comparable to laisses similaires but with the added jolt of the formal shift from rhyme to assonance. V7 includes only two extraneous laisses (printed in Appendix A as 92A and 108A by Duggan) but in C the effect is carried to a grand scale, the text containing first the assonanced account of the whole first horn episode (laisses 90—9) and then the rhymed (laisses 100—27). Both versions of the couplet comparing Roland and Oliver, discussed earlier as emblematizing the two traditions’ different conceptions, are found in C (1465—6 and 1939—40).
Such indifference to strict coherence is typical of medieval textuality. Although often edited out of modern published texts, textual inconsistencies of this kind repay close attention. They invite speculation on the conditions of textual production; where multiple versions of a story were circulating, individual redactors might be unable or unwilling to choose between alternatives.38 They also allow us to consider the effect on readers or audiences of the end product regardless of the intentions or accidents which brought it about. Thus, in manuscripts C and V7, the idealized Roland of rhyme is periodically and inconsistently cut through with the problematic figure of assonance as if the former, however rationally desirable, lacked some quality that only the more disturbing persona could bestow; yet the texts’ primary allegiance to the rhymed tradition is clear. The archaic material and form intrude on the ’official’ text as indices of Roland's troubling past and of the past as troublesome: the return of a kind of textual unconscious.39 Reintroducing in these slippages a confusion and ambiguity which the rhymed tradition consciously works to erase, C and V7 reanimate the debate over Roland and thereby refuse his passing. His uncanny, repetitive return re-establishes the protagonist entre-deux-morts. This may be compared to manuscripts L and T, which open up the Roland question by omission: L commences its narrative in the middle of the first battle just after the horn scene; T, whether intentionally or accidentally,40 starts in the middle of Roland's nomination to the rearguard and thereafter loses much of the first horn scene to a lacuna in the manuscript between lines 411 and 412. P, which has lost a quire, now begins just before the first horn scene.
Before moving on, it is worth observing that the rhymed tradition represents only one possible response to the cultivated ambiguity of the assonanced tradition. We find a complementary response in such chansons de geste as Girart de Vienne (late twelfth century) and Gui de Bourgogne (early thirteenth century), both prequels to the Roland;41 the former relates the first encounters between Roland and Oliver in the war which opposes Oliver's uncle Girard to Charlemagne, the latter how the sons of Charlemagne's army, grown to adulthood during their fathers’ long absence, come to Spain to help the militarily and spiritually bankrupt older generation. Both these texts expand on and polarize the prouesse/sagesse distinction, contrasting a pugnacious, arrogant Roland to an idealized counterfoil (Oliver and Gui, respectively). They emphasize that the hero's military usefulness is offset by the imprudence which leads him unnecessarily to risk his men's lives and by his willingness to quarrel with fellow Christians and thus weaken the social order. This Roland's death, when it comes in the narrative future (but intertextual past), will inspire mainly relief at the passing of a source of too often inappropriate conflict. These texts conclusively bury Roland while resisting the loss of an ideal threatened in the assonanced tradition, for they provide alternative candidates for the role of model hero and leader — better men, they imply, than Roland ever was. Killing Roland allows text and society to move on from an unsatisfactory past to a brighter future: heading for Nirvana.
To summarize: the texts examined offer three distinct treatments of Roland's death. In the rhymed tradition (and in some chansons de geste not examined here) he dies an unquestioned hero, the text making of itself a memorial to Roland's enhanced and clarified reputation, harnessed to the surviving social order. Those works which reject Roland or refuse to lionize him view his death as the possibility of a new beginning for a society in which he is made to represent the main real principle of internal conflict. In its first part, in contrast, the assonanced Roland tradition rejects either form of closure and emphasizes the uncertain value of what is lost in Roland, thus keeping him uncomfortably ’between two deaths’.
The sublime object of ideology
I turn now from the revolutionary act and figure to the revolutionary institution in the assonanced Roland: the new dispensation which replaces that which Roland destroys.42 As I noted earlier, Lacan understands the entre-deux-morts to be defined by its externality in relation to order (strictly, to two orders) and not by its propositional content. He interprets the destruction drive, with its relation to the Real, as a challenge to the symbolic and imaginary registers, hence to the intelligible order of the world. Strictly speaking, therefore, the ’between two deaths’ is beyond ideology. This raises a question mark over instances where institutions or ideologies dramatize their claims using an entre-deux-morts topos. For instance, Sarah Kay argues that hagiography depicts saints ’between two deaths’ in Christian apologetic.43 Apocalyptic discourse too lent itself to different political messages throughout the medieval period.44 Lacan accounts for such instances by emphasizing the role of the imaginary. As Seminar VII has it, we access the Real through an image which simultaneously veils and displaces it.45 The ideological content of revolutions therefore both gestures towards and obscures the Real of the destruction drive. This duality can be illustrated by the tension between theatricality and inexpressibility in propaganda following the Great Revolution of 1789; the revolutionary institution was torn between a need to represent itself and an insistence on the defectiveness of representation per se.46 Thanks to its designation of any concrete equivalent as inadequate, the Real, to which Lacan links the sublime, may itself become a motor of ideological inflation, its pressure detected in the proliferation and intensification of imaginary constructions purporting to conceal or contain it. Equally important is the burst of vital energy issuing from the jouissance of the unleashed destruction drive. Thus Roland's destructiveness in the first part of the assonanced Roland, which I have been arguing is a manifestation of the Real, attracts and energizes numerous ideological investments. Whereas Lacan is primarily interested in urging us to look beyond the fantasies in which the entre-deux-morts is dressed to the Real beyond, other critics — notably Žižek, interested as he is in pressing psychoanalysis into the service of Marxist politics and revolutionary socialism — regard the fantasies themselves as objects of significance, for they are the stuff of ideology.47 The subject of this final section will be the ideological content of the Oxford Chanson de Roland, the sole surviving text to relate in assonance the aftermath of Roland's death.
Roland in the Oxford text repeatedly refers to certain ideological values or figures: los, family, France dulce, the emperor who will love his warriors for their blows, the Christian God and Christian community. I argued earlier that the assonanced poem stages his invocation so as to emphasize ideological fracturing and dissonance. In another perspective, however, these values if not examined carefully are sufficiently widely acknowledged and imprecise to function like ’motherhood and apple pie’: hearers may accept them as defining a collective which many can, however temporarily or loosely, support, and which gives a provisional unity to their diverse political goals. The values that Roland proclaims perhaps confine the Chanson de Roland's usefulness to a Christian framework; however, the text's cultural history is evidence of the practical flexibility of the interpellations it permits within that limit. It was for medieval writers and audiences a bearer of imaginary investments in community and struggle, different from but analogous to those it has borne in modern France.48 Just as Gaston Paris and Raoul Mortier invoked the Roland to give courage in modern times of war, twelfth-century historians felt inspired to report that a cantilena Rollandi was sung to lead Duke William's troops into the Battle of Hastings.49 Norman conquests were thus ennobled by absorption into a communal heroic tradition.50 Rendered helpfully indeterminate by its territorial extent as well as by its temporal distance, ’Frankish’ identity lent itself to multiple appropriations.51 Mandach describes the rash of new Charlemagnes: ’The glorification of Charlemagne and the ambition to equal him were a kind of disease among the great medieval princes.’52 The Roland circulated well beyond modern France; neither of the two substantial manuscripts in which the assonanced tradition survives can be considered unproblematically ’French’, O being written in Anglo-Norman, the dialect of post-Conquest England, and V4 (which follows the assonanced tradition only until the end of the Baligant episode) in a particularly difficult form of Franco-Venetian, a koine devised for the diffusion of French works in Northern Italy.53 Within what would become modern France, but outside the sphere of Old French, Roland is more frequently cited in the Occitan lyric tradition than are such major figures as Tristan, Alexander, Charlemagne and Arthur.
Evidently the Chanson de Roland's appeal was significant to various medieval communities, not limited to those which we today would call French. Its future as a symbol of French nationalism was not, in medieval times, an obvious one. My view of the ideological values invoked by Roland in the first part of the assonanced Roland, therefore, is that they do not in themselves encapsulate many firm identifications. Even the opposition of Christian and pagan is not at this point as energetically invested or as energizing as is sometimes argued.54 Hence Roland's infamous declarations of religio-moral hierarchy (O, 1015, 1212) in the assonanced texts are not shored up by the consistent denigration of Saracens individually and collectively that is found in the rhymed tradition. More significant in the assonanced version are the structure of opposition and the ethic of collective struggle, both repeated at multiple levels throughout the text. To put it another way, Roland's singular desire and destruction drive, from which the poem's energy derives, are not represented by this vague ideological collection. While the pannier of values invoked works as an imaginary crutch enabling the protagonist's drive towards the second death, it does not adequately explain or limit it. Nevertheless, these categories will be expanded, specified and invested in responses to the poem. Like the rhymed remaniements and other chansons de geste discussed above, the episodes which follow Roland's death in the Oxford Roland exemplify one such response — a binding of the largely free-floating energy that accumulates around Roland's destructiveness. Exploiting this energy to specific political ends, the latter part of the text provides an ideologically bound ’second life’ to complement the hero's focus on the second death. This second life, as Sade feared, knits him back into the social and political hegemony from which the destruction drive temporarily extracted him.
The main ideological thrust of the second part of the Oxford Roland centres on the figure of Charlemagne as divinely empowered king and emperor.55 This is evident in the arguments put forward in Ganelon's trial. For Ganelon, Roland was just another baron where all are equal and private conflicts no affair of the king's. For Thierry, Roland was something quite different: the right arm of a king who is not to be considered first among equals (the paradox denies royal authority a firm basis), but a ruler by divine decree. The representation of a reluctant and weakened king with which the poem ends strengthens this mandate, of course; Charlemagne's legitimacy now rests neither on his ability to fulfil his duties nor on his support from his barons, but directly on God. In case anyone be deceived about the way in which it intends to wield power, the new order founded on the debris of Roncevaux is confirmed by a series of crushing victories owed to God's direct intervention; it will not be satisfied with ’moral victories’ such as Roland's. In the same movement, the barons on whom Charles may call are diminished in stature. Roland and Oliver are replaced in the vanguard by Rabel and Guinemant, characters who might as well be anonymous for all the distinction their names carry. Like Thierry, they never exceed the definition of the barony as instruments of the king. Despite the sanctions that attend dissenters such as Ganelon, the power of the king is now represented as internalized by the baron himself. Charlemagne's lesser ability to coerce his barons is compensated for by the entrenchment of his authority in the baronial psyche.
Charlemagne's pain at Roland's death and his terrible, wide-ranging revenge confirms Roland's own assertion earlier in the poem that ’por itels colps nos eimet li emperere’ (O, 1377; ’for such blows the emperor loves us’). The exemplary bond between king and baron is that of love, and whatever it means in the first part of the Oxford text, as it is read in the second half the conception of love recalls that described by Žižek in an analysis of Christianity:
love is, as Lacan pointed out, an interpretation of the desire of the Other: the answer of love is ’I am what is lacking in you; with my devotion to you, with my sacrifice for you, I will fill you out, I will complete you.’ The operation of love is therefore double: the subject fills in his own lack by offering himself to the other as the object filling out the lack in the Other — love's deception is that this overlapping of two lacks annuls lack as such in a mutual completion.56
Roland's death is interpreted retrospectively as a sacrifice for Charlemagne's sake, a superlative attempt to earn his love. Charles's love would then be what Roland really wanted: an intelligible, ideological desire to replace the incomprehensible, singular drive towards death. Although this sacrifice reveals Charles's lack by depriving him of his ’right arm’, it also completes him as a king by relieving him of the need to admit a source of weakness other than Roland's death and its scapegoat, Ganelon. Converted into a lack, Charlemagne's loss becomes the essential ground of his authority and the guarantee of the political order established through the poem (compare the discussion of Pearl, Chapter 4 below). Haidu comments that the Oxford Roland plays out the Oedipal myth in reverse, the father killing the son, but this action can be recuperated to a more orthodoxly Freudian interpretation.57 At his trial, Ganelon's quarrel with Roland is reinterpreted as an attack on Charlemagne, the king-father, and the text in its later parts labours to stress how Charlemagne is weakened by the resulting loss. At the end of the narrative he feels the full weight of his two hundred years, an age which previously testified to his superhuman power to resist time. ’Murdered’ by his son-baron, Charlemagne can for the first time access the unassailable authority of the symbolic father.58 His real suffering over Roland therefore has a yield of ideological gratification. Roland, ironically, becomes the founding figure of an order in which the king lays claim to considerably greater control over his barons than he exercised over Roland himself.
The monarchy is further legitimized and extended by the Baligant episode. Prior to this point Charles was only a king of France, his pagan counterpart similarly a king, Marsile. When Baligant enters the poem as Charles's new double, his status as overlord of merely national kings elevates Charles to imperial eminence. The introduction of Baligant also broadens the sense of the emperor's Christian mission, since it results in the extirpation of the Saracen presence in Spain and presumably its unsettling in its heartland. Like the taming of independent barons, this is achieved in Roland's name, in revenge for his death and thus as a completion of the revolution which he began. In the revision performed by the second half of the poem, Roland's estultie aimed at this previously unimagined annihilation. His destructiveness is provided with a horizon, albeit one not visible at the time. Charlemagne's revenge makes of Roland a Christian visionary. In comparison Turpin himself, however ready he was to follow Roland, appears now to have been too entrenched in the established order to see beyond it. (Contrast this with the earlier parts of the text, where Turpin possessed a wider Christian vision than did Roland. The latter, though naturally pious, showed little concern with either the afterlife or the political condition of Christianity as a dominant world religion.) In the Oxford Roland we find an organization similar to that of hagiography, in which the saint is represented as a revolutionary force disrupting secular society in the name of Christ's new order.59 Whereas in saints’ lives that new order is aligned with the Church in some form, here the Christian revolutionary is a secular baron, and the arch-churchman Turpin is one representative of the limited, compromised status quo from which he must break away. Even if Turpin is of all men the closest to Roland and most willing to support him, the difference of ethical status is established. By claiming to follow Roland's star, Charles can legitimately claim a degree of independence from the Church, as presumably can a later ruler who identifies with him. The question of empire is a related one. Medieval French kings periodically laid claim to the status of Holy Roman Emperor, and were concerned at least to establish equal rank with, and therefore independence of, the Empire; the legend of Charlemagne played a key role in such claims.60 Roland's disturbingly motiveless death is confiscated to provide a shot in the arm for a religious and political order which bears little relation to what appears to have been his original inspiration, in spite of the redeployment of terms creating a link at once superficial and crucial.
This much strengthened monarchy nevertheless presents itself as an improved incarnation of feudalism, and in this respect as traditionalist.61 By adopting Roland as its patron it proclaims its allegiance to baronial values and professes to fulfil baronial ideals. In the early part of the poem Roland may be viewed as no less guilty than Ganelon in flaunting a baronial competitiveness which both weakens the king and discredits the barony. But in the trial scene, this is conveniently forgotten, the official record rewritten (not without difficulty); Thierry establishes that Ganelon, not Roland, has enacted what Haidu calls feudalism's self-destruction.62 Since the feudal system has clearly failed adequately to prevent such destructive competition — and may even have encouraged it — the king needs to step in to ensure that the system can work properly. The greater the need for collective unity — provided by the expansion of the battle against Marsile into a global crisis — the more authority the king needs to hold and the more his barons need to subordinate their personal interests to the Crown. Roland's idealization and Ganelon's demonization are complementary parts of a symbolic fiction designed to unite king and barony against their mutual enemies internal and external; and significantly, it wards off the disruptive power possessed by every baron, the very thin line between the loyal and the rebellious baron being as evident in many chansons de geste as it is in Charles's own council.63
The second half of the poem, therefore, consists of an attempt to attach the large and fairly free-floating ideological terms invoked by Roland, together with the significant charge that they gain from Roland's death (retrospectively reinterpreted as sacrifice or martyrdom), to a specific political order: that of a Christian monarchy wishing to enhance its power in a variety of domains and with imperial ambitions. This order presents itself as novel, sweeping away an older regime; in this it draws on the revolutionary force of Roland's destructive, second-death-directed actions earlier in the poem, awarding those a teleology which, in my view, they did not have. Thus I interpret as rhetorical strategy what are often considered signs of actual historical change. The rhetoric of change in the poem I read as the programmed creation of an order that wishes to increase its ideological standing in a competitive field by injecting itself with the sublime and by representing itself as at once rooted in a unique past event (Roncevaux), and visionary in the political programme it proposes to implement. It is possible, of course, to consider the early stages of the text in the same light, and Roland's revolution an artificial one. Basing myself on the discussion of repetition above, however, I affirm that Roland's act in the assonanced poem is an authentic one, an instance of the Real; that its later opportunistic exploitations are not incidental, for instances of the Real cannot but provoke efforts to bind them to meanings; and that both the multiplicity of appropriations and their failure are intrinsic, since they result from the Real's resistance to meaning. There is a genuine difference between the disruptive forces of the early part of the assonanced Roland and the palliative influences that dominate the later sections of the Oxford text, and which bear comparison with the techniques of the rhymed remaniement; the latter's deployment in V4 is thus congruent with the O development, as is V4's incorporation of further empire-building through a Prise de Narbonne episode.
The revolutionism of the Oxford Roland thus falls into two parts: the phase of destruction — performed by Roland — and that of new beginning — performed by Charlemagne. If we take the work to promote continuously a single message, destructiveness being performed with an eye to the radical renewal it enables, then it conforms rather to Sade's than to Lacan's model. However, Lacan's insistence that the initial impulse to destruction should be detached in theory from the later movement to a new order is valuable. His discussion of the second death in the context of entre-deux-morts, hence as ethically unplaceable, captures the destructive passion and energy not only of Roland in the assonanced tradition but also of other chanson de geste heroes such as Raoul de Cambrai. Turning to Christian monarchy and imperialism as improved feudalism and construing the hero as a martyr in that cause, the second half of O indeed appears as both a sublimation créationniste and a retrospective ideological appropriation, following Lacan's suggestion that creationism incorporates a revolutionary urge absent from evolutionism. This sublimating response does not, however, either account for or exhaust Roland's purely destructive energy. Thus Roland's death engenders in different retellings various responses which all in their way aim to resolve that death's problematic aspect. They retrospectively endow the protagonist's horizonless destructiveness with a final aim, defined in terms of the ’common good’. Wasteful destruction, an evil, is ascribed to the villains who attack that good. Within the Roland narrative this is effected by the aftermath of Roncevaux: Charlemagne's immediate revenge and subsequent war with Baligant, the massacre of the Saracens and Bramimonde's conversion, Charlemagne's and Aude's mourning, Aude's death, Ganelon's trial and execution. However, all the surviving versions of the Chanson de Roland are also themselves part of the ’aftermath’. None represents the original version of the story and each brings its own solution, and therefore must be considered along with other chansons de geste among the reactions to Roland (this is not to posit an ’original’ version lacking in self-reflexivity). The story of Roncevaux is reworked, with episodes added or omitted and with shifting emphases; it is furnished with sequels and prequels and is inserted into manuscript compilations with other works whose selection invites us to read it in particular ways.64 All these responses constitute so many explanations which attempt to render Roland's death-directed actions acceptable according to some literary, historical, spiritual or moral logic, and thereby to remove their outrageous, offensive, traumatic quality. Their effect is not only palliative, for such responses also exploit the energies generated by Roland's destruction drive. The ideological claims formulated derive considerable force from the aesthetic and psychic dynamics issuing from that drive and from the entre-deux-morts to which it brings the protagonist. That this position is intolerable for either protagonist or audience to maintain for long may explain why O's early encouragement of controversy over Roland's worth does not lead to a more discriminating or detached pose in the heavily ideological sections following his death. Moreover, it is crucial to the legend's literary life that Roland's death should meet no final resolution; hence the potential for future action stressed at the ending of all the extant Roland texts. It seems that the vitality of the Chanson de Roland tradition — its ability to generate further textual responses — is best served precisely by the destruction drive enshrined within Roland's revolutionary act.