For the Ladies

May 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Boccaccio’s preface seems remarkable. The main thing most people (self included) know about the Decameron is that it’s bawdy; but the preface is a remarkably subtle, perhaps ironic, discussion of love lost, won, represented.

I’m reading the 1972 translation by G.H. McWilliam; his introduction focuses on how badly the work has been translated in the past. This does little to soothe the great torture of reading translated literature, the monolingual reader’s insecurity about the quality of the translation: how much do I trust word choice? To what degree do I infer meaning based on sentence structure, tone, or vocabulary? To what degree is the meaning of the words I read match the original author’s intention? Nevertheless, I must say that the language so far seems remarkably fluid, beautiful, and interesting.

The very first sentence of the preface surprised me, and overturned my expectations: “To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.” Boccaccio goes on to explain that he received comfort from many others as he had experienced a love “far loftier and nobler than might perhaps be thought proper.” The love was, apparently, only from afar or perhaps just never declared (although the passage seems intentionally cryptic, in a lovely way); Boccaccio has passed through the painful stages of longing for it to the time when he can think back on his passion with nostalgia, “the delectable feeling which Love habitually reserves for those who refrain from venturing too far upon its deepest waters.”

Boccaccio goes on to explain that, in gratitude for the support he received, he intends his work to provide support in kind for those who most need (and will most appreciate) it. Therefore, he dedicates his work to “the charming ladies.” But not all ladies: only “those who are in love.” He says he wants ladies to read his book for advice as well as entertainment. By “in love” he clearly refers to the kind of passion he, himself, partook in and overcame: a physical, unrealistic love, I suppose. He refers to it as an “affliction” which can be overcome by reading the following stories, to discover what should be avoided in love, and what appreciated. Just as remarkable as the first sentence of the preface is the last: “If this [ladies being freed from the affliction of their love] should happen (and may God grant that it should), let them give thanks to Love, which, in freeing me from its bonds, has granted me the power of making provision for their pleasures.”

Give thanks to Love for torturing Boccaccio, so they can be freed from Love? For making him pass through a purgation of his lust to reach the point when he can pleasantly look back on his infatuation? It’s tempting to see this as an ironic, jesting statement, and, in retrospect, to see the entire preface as ironic (how, indeed, was he “helped” to overcome his unrequited love?): is Boccaccio saying that, no matter what he may write in his dedication to throw the Church’s censors off his scent, the book to follow will celebrate carnal love?

In the introduction we are introduced to the background of plague-ridden Florence in 1348, and the theme of pity and compassion for the dead and dying resurfaces, Boccaccio lamenting the lack of it among the citizenry inured to the sights of corpses, even of their own relatives. And then we are introduced to the group of ten — seven women, three men, all respectable and wealthy, all having lost many relatives to the plague. They decide to flee the city. Boccaccio had earlier said that many “callously maintained that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it.” What are we to think of these young merry-makers? What are we to make of their palace on a hill, two miles outside of Florence, and their plans to shut out the world entirely, leaving their troubles and the world’s behind for a utopian society in which each of them will lead the group for one day?

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