I think the fondest pre-reading memory of Boccaccio I have is as I stood outside a billiards-room in Amherst, having been reintroduced to Will after some years, and while I’m trying to decide if anyone realizes that I’m only pretending to smoke a cigarette, he’s trying to make a point about Walter Benjamin’s “Mechanical Reproduction” and asked me, “so, if you’re familiar with Boccaccio, you’d, oh, are you familiar with Boccaccio?”
“The Decameron, yeah” Apparently he wasn’t expecting me to say that.
“Why do you know who he is?”
“I dunno, because I studied English and it’s important to know where Chaucer and Shakespeare got their stories from?”
Of course, I was bluffing. I knew just enough to bluff. But he immediately switched the subject to the connection between Boccaccio and Charlie Chaplin, which, if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I can bluff just as well when it comes to the great silents…anyway, he was dismayed, I was delighted, and we got a place together and lived happily ever after.
One comes across the plague in various forms, a source of fascination to every generation, a muse in every genre, sometimes lightly as Bergman’s Seventh Seal or Boccaccio, sometimes dark, as in Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, or Mary Shelley’s Last Man. At its heart, I think, is the extreme focus of the singularity of man, in whose fragility and amidst a divine silence it becomes apparent that there is nobody watching over us, no higher order, no final recompense; there is only life, which is suffering, and death, which is horrid. But it’s precisely that divine silence that allows brilliance to flourish time and again, not that we need a plague to feel forsaken, as I think the atmosphere of post-Enlightenment war straight through the 20th century has produced rarely more than works of forlorn schizophrenia to the point that we may have replaced Greatness with Feelings forevermore.
Anyway, Boccaccio so transparently wants to write stories of frivolity yet needs to grant himself license to do so somehow, and so the framing begins. Indeed, he reminds of the horrors of the plague and how it led many to…well, licentiousness. Well, forget them, as his characters are religious and well-disciplined young men and women who, with their servants, of course, pack up and take a trip far off into the countryside, about the distance that I’ll go for a slice of pizza when I’m super hungry, and tell stories befitting such religiosity, discipline, etc. etc.
Master Ciappelletto dupeth a holy friar with a false confession and dieth; and having been in his lifetime the worst of men, he is, after his death, reputed a saint and called Saint Ciapelletto.
And this is where the fun begins. It takes quite a long series of introductions to reach this point, but the payoff is fabulous. The most horrible man you’ve ever heard of becomes a saint because he lies about his deeds. That’s it. And the way he goes about it is so very, very funny, and heretical, and one wonders how things like this become classics anyway.
Abraham the Jew, at the instigation of Jehannot de Chevigné, goeth to the court of Rome and seeing the depravity of the clergy, returneth to Paris and there becometh a Christian.
Just to remind you that one religion is the correct religion, or something, but a brief story with none of the character development, the humanity, of the first one. I think it’s written for one reason, which is to provide an excuse going forward, that “it having already been excellent well spoken both of God and of the verity of our faith, it should not be henceforth forbidden us to descend to the doings of mankind and the events that have befallen them.” Voila. Who can argue with logic like that? The Church is responsible for logic like that, and so…
Melchizedek the Jew, with a story of three rings, escapeth a parlous snare set for him by Saladin.
I haven’t anything else to say about this one. Saladin asks him which religion is best, and he answers “to each his own,” and then happily lends Saladin some money for war and the two become BFFs.
In short, it’s the lovely framing of the stories that I find so fascinating, as Boccaccio, under a pious cloak finds a way to tell us dirty little stories.
I wonder if I can fall asleep this time.