Nov 30, 2020, 06:27AM

Let's Wake Up

Reading Boccaccio's Decameron during the coronavirus pandemic.

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I left Oregon the second week of March in general freedom, with people in Bend joking about the hysteria around the COVID virus, and arrived over a week later in Boulder in full shut down. I'd already planned on staying with my friend Alex for a month, and found myself grateful that I had a place to hunker in. She was the one who suggested reading Boccaccio's The Decameron—a book, considered one of the best 100 of all time, of stories told by small group of people also hunkering, during the Black Plague, seemed a fitting way to pass a little time every night.

Although The Decameron is sometimes described as a collection of short stories, it’s sort of a novel, in which the 10 characters each tell a story a day, over 10 days. The character don't get too much description—what there is happens in the "Induction," though each story (or “Novel” as they're called here) actually begins with a paragraph or two of and about the character whose turn it is, usually as a segue from the last person's story, as in, “the last story made me think of this story,” though we get glimpses of their personalities, some more than others, like Madame Pampinea, the “Queen” of the first day's festivities, whose idea it is to tell the stories, and that there will be a new Queen each day to direct the festivities and give a general theme for the stories.

Boccaccio sets The Decameron in the year 1348, during the height of the Black Plague, 48 years after Dante's Inferno. Boccaccio survived and witnessed it, and his Induction gives the gruesome details, though that Induction is part of the novel (again, not to be mixed up with the fact the each story is called a “Novel”): What is most probably his own experience in the first half segues into the fictional story of the 10 characters, seven women and three men, all young, single and rich, as they decide to escape the city and plague and hide out in abandoned villas in the countryside.

I bought the Fritz Kredel translation, the first into English, in 1620, a little post-Shakespeare, and 300 years after it was published in Italy! I can only imagine it was allowed to be published because it satirizes the Catholic Church and not the Protestant one. But speaking of the Protestant Church, Kredel's translation gives us a very King James Bible-sounding text, with “-eths” following present tense third person verbs. It's a little Shakespearean too, with verilys and perchances. The spelling can be wild and odd—not as obscure as The Faerie Queene but, since sometimes I was reading stories out loud to Alex, enough to trip me up. The lack of apostrophes to show possession bothered me not a bit, but the biggest trip-up was the verb “travaild” (sometimes spelled travayld—not sure if that's Kredel's sic, or the editor's, or some past editor's, or the publisher's, or the printer's, or all of the above) which I thought at first, like in French, meant to work arduously but which, I realized was 'travelled'. Until the time it meant to work arduously.

Note: the effect of reading Boccaccio out loud for Alex was for her to fall into a deep sleep, mid-story. When we first tried the experiment we gave up after a few nights and went on to The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, which also seemed relevant for these pandemic days. I continued on my own, reading one or two stories a night. But after we finished The Testaments, Alex asked me to return to The Decameron because, even if she wasn't sure she liked the stories, she liked that they allowed her deep untroubled sleep during worrisome times.

And while there’s a huge difference between the Black Plague and COVID, Boccaccio's description of doctors' reactions from that time sounds familiar: "....ignorance in the Physitians could not comprehend from whence the cause proceeded, and so by consquent, no resolution was to be determined." As of this writing, no real resolution to this mess is imminent. In fact, fear remains the driving factor in any (non)-decisions from our leaders, at the federal, state, and right down to counties. But likewise Boccaccio's description of how various people respond to the plague doesn't sound far off from people in America to COVID, which “...begat divers feares and imaginations... namely to flie thence from the sicke, and touching anything of theirs, by which means they thought their health should be safely warrented... Some there were, who considered with themselves, that living soberly, with abstinence from all superfluity; it would be a sufficient resistance against all hurtfull accidents. So combining themselves in a sociable manner, they lived as separatists from all other company, being shut up in such house, where no sicke body should be neere them... refusing speech to one another, not looking forth at the windowes... Others, were of a contrary opinion, who avouched, that there was no other physicke more certaine... then to drinke hard, be merry among themselves, singing continually, walking every where, and satisfying their appetites with whatsoever they desired, laughing, and mocking at every mournefull accident...Yet in all this their beastly behaviour, they were wise enough, to shun (so much as they might) the weake and sickly...

“Betweene these two rehearsed extremities of life, there were other of a more moderate temper... and without shutting up themselves, walked abroad... Some other there were also of more inhumane minde... saying, that there was no better physicke against the pestilence, nor yet so good, as to flie away from it, which argument mainely moving them, and caring for no body but themselves, very many, both men and women, forsooke the City, their owne house, their Parents, Kindred, Friends... as if the wrath of God, in punnishing the sinnes of men with this plague, would fall heavily upon none, but such as were enclosed within the City wals; or else perswading themselves, that not any should there bee left alive, but that the finall ending of all things was come.

“Now albiet these persons in their diversity of opinions died not all, so undoubtedly they did not all escape; but many among them becommming sicke, and making a generall example of their flight and folly, among them that could not stirre out of their beds, they languished more perplexedly then the other did... one Citizen fled after another, and one neighbour had not any care of another, Parents nor kindred never visting them, but utterly they were forsaken on all sides: this tribulation pierced into the hearts of men, and with such a dreadfull terrour, that... a countlesse multitude of men and women fell sicke.”

I'm more of the “moderate temper” type, walking abroad every day and accepting the Hunger Games tribute job of going to the Mad Max grocery store shopping trips, though if this goes on much longer I may graduate to the kind that “drinke hard.” There are neighbors here in Boulder who have “not any care of another.” But that's a good taste of Boccaccio's style, for good or bad, and a little paraphrase of Boccaccio even, sadly, captures what's happening with some of our own medical personnel: "Servants, who attended them them... for... unreasonable wages... in the performance of which service, oftentimes... they lost their owne lives." And doesn't this sound like New York City, or at least some headlines for a while: "Hallowed ground could not now suffice, for the great multitude of dead bodies... wherefore... they were constrained to make use of great deep ditches.”

A feeling of helplessness pervades the Induction, as it does our world right now, not least here in America because of a lack of any reasonable response from our leaders. "In misery and affliction of our City, the venerable authority of the Lawes, as well divine as humane, was even destroyed, as it were, through want of the lawfull Minister of them. For they... lying sicke with the rest, or else lived so solitary, in such great necessity of servants and attendants, as they could not execute any office.” Except I find myself wishing that our Congress could not "execute any office," since its done nothing to help people, except a $1200 pittance to keep quiet while they shovel money over to corporations for “stimulus,” and to banks, supposedly for small business loans, which either ran out quickly, and/or seem to be being redirected to, surprise, corporations. This is in contrast to most other First World countries, which have something like a National Health Service, so that, for example, if/when people lose their jobs, they don't lose access to health care like here in America. And where they are issuing UBIs in the range of $2000 a month.

With our government not helping us but actually emptying the country's coffers, the question is what is the proper response in a pandemic when we're not supposed to do anything. Our government (and I mean both parties) loves for us to not be able to do anything, even in “normal” life—the pandemic has just made our helplessness more obvious. In his book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce “cultural philosopher” Slavoj Zizek argues that both attempting to attack the system head-on and/or trying to change it from within are ineffective—we've seen this happen during the pandemic with Bernie Sanders' second (half-hearted) attempt to challenge the establishment ending in another fixed primary and, amazingly, his second capitulation—the fix is in, always has been, and not even this pandemic can convince anyone in Washington to fight for Medicare For All which would’ve saved thousands of lives and, maybe, our economy.

The best thing we can do, Zizek argues, is "undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers that be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices." He's only talking about symbolically castrating them here, and though he's including his own style of critique (i.e. Marxist-Lacanian-Hegelian-based) any and every critique will do, including stories, satires and farces à la Boccaccio, and Zizek is familiar with The Decameron (he mentions it in his latest book, Pandemic!). Boccaccio's stories take place during the plague and are a critique of his society, because Boccaccio (or, the narrator of the "The Induction of the Author") explicitly states a cause and effect: "...which plague... for our enormous iniquities, by the just anger of God was sent upon us." And he means not just for the “enormous iniquities” of the church, but upper-class society as a whole, because though each story inevitably ends well for the protagonist, each has at least one person, usually whole households, who are corrupt/dishonest/hypocritical. Though misfortune, like a plague, or a coronavirus, happens to the innocent too.

Even the whole set-up of the book is both farce and maybe a dream: the 10 young rich people decide to leave the city and escape to secluded villas and wander the grounds, go swimming, and gather in the evenings to tell stories—their own little nightly The Moth. This is absurd for most of us, but resonates somehow today—we all want to do this—no Mad Max grocery store run even necessary—the fantasy being if we were rich, we wouldn't have to be scared, we could escape to our villas, like all the rich people are now doing, such as Nancy Pelosi with her ice cream.

Each story ends, like a Shakespeare comedy, “all's well,” which is part of the comedy—we all know that things don't usually (ever) end well. What makes the stories interesting is that there's usually some kind of transgression, mostly sexual, either with people fucking (though Boccaccio would never say that—his comic genius being the use of euphemisms such as “intimate conversation,” or even “gardening”) and some almost-homosexuality, and plenty of cross-dressing, for example in "Day 2, Novel 4," about a gender-swap in which a young Italian merchant meets up with a young British archbishop, who asks the Italian to his bed at an inn. We’re left for a whole paragraph thinking that the two men will have sex when just in time, the archbishop reveals herself to be a young woman in disguise, even letting the Italian feel her breasts as proof. Imagine the scandal in England (in Italy, apparently, this stuff happened all the time).

Boccaccio isn't satirizing people who have sex, he's satirizing their hypocrisy, especially the leaders, religious and political, who tell us sex is (and other things, like women's freedom, and exploiting the poor) bad, but indulge in it themselves. After that, this story, like the rest, becomes less interesting and more absurd, though absurdity is the only place it could go and be acceptable in polite society—the young woman is a daughter of the King of England, asks the Pope to marry her to the young Italian, who goes on to be the King of Ireland. But that nugget, that paragraph of gender play makes the story, though it's an example of yet another transgression: movement, up or down, across class, either rich people being forced to live poor or, as here, of someone from the merchant/middle-class marrying up.

The rich storytellers in The Decameron are living out a blissfully unaware life while the rest of the world suffers, just like rich people nowadays. Boccaccio knew this. Anyone reading The Decameron, back then or now, couldn’t suspect/realize/confirm that our society is always a farce because we're surrounded, and ruled, by the idiots in these stories. We are the idiots in these stories. But we're suffering. We're not punished by God, but we're suffering not just from poor leadership, but a political system that doesn’t care for the underprivileged (or the middle class, which I'm sure they're righteously angry about).

As the protagonist in They Live says, "I came here to kick ass and chew bubble-gum. And I'm all out of bubble gum." We're all out of bubble gum. Time to kick ass. By May Day, workers were striking at Amazon and Whole Foods and other evil places still open for business for their rich clients, and rent strikes had started. Black Lives Matter protestors shut down all the ports on the Pacific, with help from the dockworkers union. Protests continue in cities, even if the MSM isn't covering it, unless something “newsworthy” happens like in Portland with federal cops kidnapping people off the streets in unmarked cars. Meanwhile Democrats withered and we have Joe Biden, who said to his rich donors, "Nothing will fundamentally change." Great. So do your Zizekian best: Write a critique, write a story, write a screenplay. Write a book review. Write a poem. Write ideologico-critical tweets. Graffiti “General Strike!” in your workplace bathroom, if you still have a job.

The Decameron ends as a non-ending: the group of storytellers decides that they're done, and  return to the city, with, apparently, the Black Death still raging. Their reaction, or lack of one, is unclear, and confusing, just as our own situation, and reactions, appear, as some of us—those who can afford to, or who don't care, or who need to—emerge, while some of us, from fear, respect, or caution, don't. Boccaccio uses hopeful-sounding language for his characters' last day: "and all the world awaked out of sleepe." That's not for his characters, but for us—he hopes that his stories have woken readers. We need some stories of our own. Let's wake up.


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