Matthew Burriesci, Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner foundation in Washington, D.C., uses my portrait of him to help emphasize the gravity of a situation during a meeting in April 2012. I’m proud to picture the leadership of nonprofit arts organizations wherever I can.
Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron after the bubonic plague hit Florence in 1348. It has a self-consciously bawdy feel and to a large extent seems to be a study in loose morals—how they develop and why they’re fun to talk about. Seven young ladies and three young gentlemen go off into the country, shirking their familial obligations in the face of the Black Death. They decide each will take a turn as king or queen for a day, ordering the others to hang out in the garden of an abandoned house drinking lots of wine, singing songs and, naturally, each telling one story every day. (“Decameron” is Latin for “ten parts,” though to me it rolls off the tongue more like the name of a villain from a gothic novel or a Star Wars monster, large and drooling.) Corrupt friars; salacious princes; murderers; drunks; star-crossed lovers who tend to die by each other’s side (especially in the fourth day stories); a knight who hunts down a woman and feeds her heart to his dogs (fifth day, eighth story); a gorgeous lady who gets shipwrecked, sleeps around foreign kingdoms for years and lies her way back into respectable society (second day, seventh story); and so on for a total of 100 little fictions.
The translators for the version I read, Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, say they think Boccaccio finished writing this series no later than 1352, four years after a third of his city died. So the plague, an actual brush with the end of civilization, is fresh for the author and his target audience. In his introduction, Boccaccio keys on a thought-provoking conception of freedom that I suppose must have felt chillingly familiar to the “most gracious ladies” to whom he writes (5). “And in this great affliction and misery of our city the revered authority of the laws, both divine and human, had fallen and almost completely disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or sick or so short of help that it was impossible for them to fulfill their duties; as a result, everybody was free to do as he pleased” (8). This post-apocalyptic world at first glance seems kind of familiar. In our zombie movies and after-the-nukes novels, the rule of government breaks down and gets replaced by some other code, the love of family or another sense of duty. The main characters are profoundly free, and as a result they get in touch with a deep sense of human goodness. They risk their necks machine gunning through vampires or they sacrifice themselves to cannibals to save their brothers and sisters.
Freedom in Boccaccio’s telling affects people in a less noble way. In his recollection, the freedom that came with local government’s collapse meant “almost no one cared for his neighbor,” while “relatives rarely or hardly ever visited each other—they stayed far apart.” Not only that, there seemed to be “no shame whatsoever” while the disaster became “the cause of looser morals in the women who survived the plague” (9). This is background info, in the introduction, and we expect the arc through the book should lead to some self-realization or redemption for the ten main characters who take off to green pastures while their friends die. Yet besides some self-congratulations for not doing anything really terrible, we get no indication these young people develop at all or have any redeeming qualities. They go through no trials, no crucibles of deeper human connection. They just drink, joke and tell lurid stories, then pack up and head back.
It’s something to pause on: How beneficial was the rigid social structure Boccaccio gently pushed against? He’s no hedonist, after all. He’s satirizing the tight-collared, chastity-belted dictates of nobles and church officials as well as their transgressions behind closed doors. He writes at what we now see as a time between times, and the shift must have been disorienting. In the middle of the Fourteenth Century, the city of Florence was helping to kick off the Italian Renaissance, that big reaching back to the art of Ancient Greece and Rome for new ways to examine of all kinds of things, including pleasure itself. A central theme of the book is that pleasure per se isn’t sinful. It should be ok for young people to go out into the country and tell stories about sex and murder, as long as they don’t act out those stories. But that’s where Boccaccio’s progressivism stops. Our ideas about basic gender equality, for example, have no place in his tales. At the start of the story, one lady says to the others, “Remember that we are all women, and any young girl can tell you that women do not know how to reason in a group when they are without the guidance of some man who knows how to control them. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, timid, and fearful” (15). Boccaccio has her say this as a quick device to get the women and the men to meet up and go on their way. As tone deaf as it is to us, to him it’s both efficient and believable.
I’m trying to imagine how disorienting Boccaccio would find our social normal, where national debates center not on whether women should be allowed to vote or own businesses or whether gay couples should be allowed to live together without harassment, but on whether we need specific laws to make sure women get equal pay or to guarantee marriage and adoption rights for other than heterosexual couples. Would Boccaccio, known for his celebration of freedom, see this as too much?
In his conclusion, Boccaccio stresses the idea that freedom is dangerous. Stories about freedom, which he has just told, should be viewed like weapons, or like wine or fire. Wicked people will use them wickedly. He can’t be blamed for making people wicked. Only people who are already bad might go off and do the things he writes about. (I don’t read this as a warning that wicked people with power might use these stories to keep the masses down. There’s no Orwell in Boccaccio.) He shouts at his reader, “A corrupt mind never understands a word in a healthy way!” (686). I wonder how Boccaccio would handle a Friday night out in Portland. Would he be more comfortable hanging out with the Taliban?