Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE DECAMERON by Giovanni Boccaccio

I'm wandering around inside The Decameron, skipping my way through Boccaccio's world and finding the stories surprisingly good. Readers like myself who while revering the Divine Comedy consider it mistitled (and its title an oxymoron) can take heart at the manner in which Boccaccio sets things right by putting comedy back on its crooked, worldly, populist path. The Decameron is the Profane Comedy, a vast panorama of a still quite recognizable sublunary world. In an important sense, Boccaccio's world is our world, just as Balzac's world is our world, while the worlds of Shakespeare and Zola are--for very different reasons that can be crudely noted by the labels 'genius' and 'scientism'--not quite ours. Boccaccio's world of ordinary and extraordinary human corruption, his cheating spouses and their outrageous stratagems, his vengeful cuckolds, his greedy merchants, hypocritical saints and gullible citizens (reminding us that even in the 1300s intelligent people must have considered unseemly the desire to define oneself as a 'believer' above all, even above questioning the sensibility and morality of one's beliefs)--all these characters and situations show that there's surprisingly little space between the mundane corruptions of Boccaccio's world and those of ours. Just swap the princes for CEO's, the friars for megavangelists, and you have a modern satire, a fact that suggests not an immutable human nature so much as the continuity of Western culture from the late Medieval/early Renaissance era to our own time (whatever historians of the future will call it--the Electronic Era, perhaps?) Yes, we are still 'Western'--and so, these days, is much of what used to be called the 'East'.

The Decameron gives us good evidence of the bawdy humor that must have been current in the Middle Ages: stories of horny monks and randy nuns, cuckolds and cuckoldry, transgression and vengeance. There are some 'gay' characters in Boccaccio's tapestry, and their sexuality is handled in a very matter-of-fact way--it's no big deal, just something else human beings can do. The most 'Medieval' element in the stories, the high percentage of clergy among the characters, both reflects the Medieval theocratic reality and speaks to a popular need to puncture church power, a spirit of Canivalesque mockery that often, to my mind, exceeds the explicitly moralistic 'frames' of the tales. When mockery is placed beside morality, morality will always be mocked. The fact that these tales are more entertaining than exemplary, more comic that moralistic, lies at the root of their genuine subversiveness. Boccaccio's profane and profound unseriousness blasts the schoolmen and their dry treatises to dust--and does so more effectively, perhaps, than Rabelais a century later, for the Frenchman's work seems safely outrageous by comparison. Rabelais' works, however outrageous their satire, exist in a marvelously imaginary, highly aestheticized, Mannerist world; Boccaccio's tales, more often than not, take place in a world that any citizen of the 14th century might have easily recognized. Here is our world, our flesh, and Rustico's 'devil,' all as vibrant and vivacious as a millefiore tapestry and bursting like a pomegranate with all the colors of life. Funny, sexy, human and humane, veined with corruption like a block of flawed granite, here is Boccaccio's human world, and ours. The Decameron is an encyclopedia of (European) mankind, one of those Big Books of Everything that no one writes anymore, because how could an MFA program professor possibly find time to read and grade it?

More readable and ironic than Rabelais, larger and funnier than Chaucer, Boccaccio just became a favorite of mine. Why did I wait so long to read him?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Boccaccio is fabulous, loves your comments. As regards the Divine Comedy, it was called a "comedy" as opposed to a tragedy, because it has a happy ending, as it were... hence the name Comedy... you know what I mean. One can't read the word comedy in its current use, when dealing with our friend Dante. I presume you've read Boccaccio's views on Dante, of whom he was a great admirer.
Thanks for your post.