Boccaccio, First Day, Story Five

Note: this entry had a photo of hens on it, but I was getting DOZENS of visits every single day from Pakistan from people looking for photos of hens. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I don’t know why Pakistanis are so interested in looking at photos of hens, and perhaps I’ll never know, but this isn’t a petting zoo, it’s a Very Serious Blog. 

It’s another one of those nights. I feel this insatiable sadness that, ultimately, is probably just a fear of death or something like that…I suspect that’s what all sadness is.

I shouldn’t be writing this write now, because I owe Lucy about 10,000 words of a letter. But I was hoping Boccaccio might give me another laugh. He didn’t. And now I need draw something from this story before I can allow myself to jot her a few notes and go to sleep. So, onward, thinking cap…

Philip Augustus, king of France is about to head out on a crusade when someone says “aw, too bad you don’t have a wife, there’s this great chick, she’s great.” And Philip thinks to himself, “sounds good to me, I’ll go seduce her while her husband’s out of town and then have him killed.” So off he goes to have breakfast with her, and she serves an enormous breakfast of nothing but hens. And he’s like “do you have nothing but hens in this city?” and she says “women are pretty much all the same.” And he says “point taken” and heads off to the crusade.

Not funny. Not even a good story.

Here’s the purpose I think it serves, and I find the concept fascinating: storytelling. That’s something we discuss more often when it comes to Beowulf, but in a work of Chaucer or Boccaccio it’s unavoidable. An author writes a work, and is then held accountable for that work. This holds true now just as it did in, say, ancient Greece. How do you, as an author, get around this difficulty? One ancient solution is “inspiration” — if you know me, you know I rarely use the term because of its implications: that the author did not create the work himself, but that it came to him through the ether and he was the vehicle for its transmission. Great idea, but I work fucking hard to be creative and I’m not giving the magic air credit. But, that’s the concept behind the Bible. Was it written by God or divinely inspired and written by man or just plain written by man? That makes all the difference in whether or not you’re going to follow it, right?

But that’s precisely the point. If God wrote it, then of course you need to follow it! If it was inspired, well, you probably need to follow it. Essentially, though, it’s a system of placing blame. No, I didn’t write all this erotic poetry–I was inspired by love of God to do it (Song of Songs). But recall that writing itself was seen as magical for perhaps longer than it hasn’t. Writing, a system of nonsense scrawls that somehow transmit complex concepts. Beyond death. That’s the fucked up thing about it. How do you live forever? You write something down, die, and you’re now living forever. Magic.

So who’s the next one we can place blame on, if not God? Other people. Boccaccio writes whatever he wants for two reasons:

1) Because he can claim that it’s somebody else telling the story.
2) Because he repeatedly comes to deserve telling the dirty stories by telling the clean ones, and being a faithful narrator. And because he does this, he has more evidence for his claim that someone else is telling the story. Consistency.

Phew. Didn’t think I’d be able to draw something out of that waste of time, right? And…now I’m going to sleep instead writing to Lucy. Therefore, I’ve wasted my own time too. Sorry, Lucy.

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Boccaccio: Day 1, Stories 1-3.

Mike's Billiards

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.
“…really?”
“Of course.”
“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.

drama: Moliere: Tartuffe (1664)

Although I’m looking at Moliere through a translator, I haven’t been quite impressed by what I have read, which, I suppose is ignoring language altogether in favor of meaning. Tartuffe is a story of a prominent and wealthy man duped by a con-man, Tartuffe, who pretends to be excessively pious in such a way that is thorougly modern, considering the sorts of religious figures in Chaucer or even in Grapes of Wrath, in which the religion is the clothes one wears, this is entirely different because religion becomes Tartuffe’s very skin. Since those who term themselves non-denominational have grown to such prevalence in recent years, I only began studying religion because of such people who would ask me questions like, ‘yes, you read the bible, but did you READ it?’ So, I must relate one of the best examples of casuistry I’ve ever heard, which is only the finest example I know of a million others. I asked, ‘so…you said you’d never have sex again if he broke up with you…so, how is sleeping with all these guys possibly in line with the teachings of Jesus?’
‘Easy–I thought about it and I figured it out. You see, as a Christian I’m only supposed to sleep with the man I’m married to. And really, if you plan on marrying a guy it’s pretty much the same as if I’m already married to him, because my intentions are sincere. So, all I have to do is tell myself that this is the guy I’m going to marry, and it’s as if I’m already married to him, so that when I have sex with him it’s not against un-Christian of me.’
‘You know…finding loopholes in the bible is a bit dangerous.’
‘Why?’
‘Well…because you’re not going to outsmart god.’
‘It’s all right there in the bible.’
‘Well, that was very clever of you.’

This is how Tartuffe operates, convincing Orgon to sign over all his worldly possessions, force his daughter into marrying him, and giving him enough evidence to have him jailed as a traitor. With just a few pages to go, the king saves the day and the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The emphasis everyone places on this play is over the criticism of religion–Moliere was nearly excommunicated over it, and the play was banned–over his depiction of a man falsely religious, whose religious logic makes sense for evil ends. And I don’t particularly care–the movie Saved does a better job of putting it together for me.

But there’s this question which isn’t entirely answered, being: how is it that Orgon can be so easily duped, and then so steadfast in believing in the goodness of Tartuffe, against all reason? Well, the answer is suggested in the introduction I read, too bad I didn’t come up with it on my own. In any case, nobody seems to discuss this one: Orgon is getting on in years, with a daughter on the verge of marriage, a young second wife for himself, and various spunky servants living with the family, and in his bitterness over his declining overall virility, his only answer is to force everyone else to lead the life time has doomed him to live, and his solution is found in Christianity and its ‘no fun allowed’ principles. While Tartuffe is exploiting Orgon for money and power, Orgon is exploiting Tartuffe as shackles over his family. This is all that gives him depth, and it takes Tartuffe’s near-rape of Orgon’s wife before Orgon is shaken out of bitterness. Orgon himself is never religious, but enamored by the religiosity of Tartuffe, and uses one for the substitute for the other.

Once a day I have a small ability to write, and this is not that once a day, because I just can’t convince myself to care right now!