June 22, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Decameron.
Following up on my post on the eighth day and of importance to the ninth is the analysis of the characters of the “brigata” (the ten storytellers) on Decameron Web, the scholarly website maintained by Brown University. Sometimes it’s convincing on the character revealed by the introductions and conclusions of days, the choices of tales, the songs sung, etc. Other times it seems like the kind of selective magnification of some evidence and ignoring of others that people (okay, me) dislike academics for.
Nevertheless, it’s important on this day for its analysis of Emilia, the day’s queen, who chooses to allow each of the ten to discourse on whatever topic they want. Way back on the first day, Emilia sang that narcissistic song about gazing in the mirror. She also told, on the sixth day, a story about an unpleasantly vain young woman who gazes at herself in the mirror all day but is too stupid to understand a put-down about this very fact. Emilia introduces that story by saying she was “absorbed for quite a while in distant reverie”; after telling her very short tale, the day’s queen, Elissa, perceives that she had “dashed off her story.” (I learn from Decameron Web that Elissa is thought to be a Ghibelline, a noble supporting the Holy Roman Empire.) Emilia’s one whose dancing at the end of days is often pointed out, and she’s apparently one of the hotter ladies.
Again, it’s hard from this evidence to tell if Emilia is to be seen as a narcissist oblivious to her own narcissism, or as a beautiful young woman interested in combatting the narcissism she sees as a common vice of beautiful young women, or as Boccaccio’s rhetorical device representing narcissism and not necessarily imbued with any psychological depth at all.
Whatever the case, her story on her own day, when she can choose any theme she wants, is pretty freaking troubling. It is, quite frankly, a fascistic, misogynistic story, by far the most cruel in the whole work. Her introduction to the story is long, and she states that her theme will be that wives must be submissive to their husbands, and she cites the proverb “For a good horse and bad, spurs are required; for a good woman and a bad, the rod is required.” She points out the ribald wordplay available here — perhaps opening the door for a sexy undercurrent to her story — but immediately says that these words are valuable “even in their moral sense.” Emilia seems to be the biggest prude in the group.
In her story, a man with a shrewish wife receives the advice from King Solomon to “Go to Goosebridge.” There, he sees a stubborn mule beaten across the bridge. He goes home and beats his wife “until eventually he stopped from sheer exhaustion.” She behaves after that, and this is presented as a desirable outcome. The other half of the story deals with a man who feels unloved, and whose advice from Solomon is simply, “Love.” At the end of the story he understands that he must do everything out of love, not from simple obligation or courtesy, if he wants to be loved in return. This story seems so out of keeping with Boccaccio’s themes of pity, love, and questioning of received wisdom that I wonder whether this second story in conjunction with the wife-beating tale is meant to subvert that ugly message.
After this story, the ladies murmur, and some of the men laugh. The Decameron Web interpreters think that the characters of Emilia and Dioneo are linked by Boccaccio as subverters of the common laws of the group, in support of his theme that “transgression and repression are two sides of the same coin.” That certainly does seem to be one of his main, quite radical messages in the work as a whole, insofar as we go looking for political messages; but I’m unconvinced by the idea that Dioneo’s tale, as always, divided from the other stories of the day as a special privilege, is supposed to reflect upon Emilia’s. It seems utterly unrelated. I think the key to deciding how sincere Boccaccio is in the misogyny of this story depends on our decisions on Emilia’s character, and on whether we think Boccaccio presents her as a thoroughly unpleasant narcissist and fascist (not that fascism existed as an episteme at B’s time!), an earnest young noble, or a container for his ideas about vain ladies disposed to become shrewish wives. I’d like to learn more about this.
May 28, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Decameron.
The first day is really fun. The ten, sitting in a circle, take their turns telling a story. The stories build upon each other, suggested by the theme or characters or setting of the previous. At the conclusion of the first day Filomena, named queen of the second day, declares a theme for the stories of the next day so they can each prepare a tale, so the very pleasant looseness of this first day might not be repeated. (However, I love that Dioneo, who told the dirtiest story of the first day, receives an exception from the theme should he choose to use it, and also volunteers to tell the last story of each day.)
Many of the stories deal with corrupt clergy in one way or another — Boccaccio’s humanism showing — and the most memorable line of the first day is probably this, from Filostrato’s introduction to his story, the seventh: “It is not unduly difficult, for anyone so inclined, to discuss, criticize and admonish the clergy for their foul and corrupt way of life, which in many ways resembles a sitting target of evil.” Catholic clergy remain easy targets: I’m reminded of that scene with the priests and nun in the restaurant in The Departed, which is utterly crass and cliche. (But then, like so much in that movie, it’s also strangely perfect in its telegraphing of the antiquated themes of societal corruption.)
Boccaccio has no qualms whatsoever about hitting that target, it’s already clear, but it’s also clear that he’s got bigger fish to fry. After the stories are done, the day ends with a good old-fashioned bathtime orgy, then song and dance after dinner. Emilia sings a bizarre song: it begins, “In mine own beauty take I such delight/ That to no other love could I/ My fond affections plight.” It gets much more narcissistic from there, and Boccaccio does tell us that “this little song caused not a few to ponder its meaning,” but “they all joined cheerfully in the choruses.” The lyrics are quite beautiful, and mysterious, and really do create this incredible image of a beautiful woman singing them in firelight; and this combination of joy and happiness with darkness and uneasiness is quite a master note, at the end of the first day.