The Chaos of the Present Age: The Sixth Day

June 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron, by Boccaccio.

The sixth is the day of the shortest stories, each revolving around a witty retort of some kind and most fairly lightweight. Panfilo’s, the fifth, is nice, featuring the painter Giotto, who was apparently a friend of Boccaccio. Says Panfilo, “so faithful did he remain to Nature… that whatever he depicted had the appearance, not of a reproduction, but of the thing itself, so that one very often finds, with the works of Giotto, that people’s eyes are deceived and they mistake the picture for the real thing.” Nature seems to be coming into its own as a theme, joining Fortune and Love; we’ll see where Boccaccio takes it.

The other interesting aspect of this day was the way that reality seemed to intrude upon the ten to a greater degree than usual. The chapter begins with a squabble between two of the servants — lighthearted and bawdy, but an intrusion into their fantasy world nevertheless. Then, for whatever reason, Lauretta mentions that a young woman in her story is “no longer with us, having died in the middle age during this present epidemic.” Mentions of the plague have been rare, and this is the first time I can recall a death from it being dropped into a narrative like this. After the final story, when Dioneo has been named king for the next day, he chooses the day’s theme as wives playing tricks on their husbands; responding to the concerns of the genteel ladies, he says,

Ladies, I know as well as you do that the theme I have prescribed is a delicate one to handle; but I am not to be deterred by your objections, for I believe that the times we live in permit all subjects to be freely discussed, provided that men and women take care to do no wrong. Are you not aware that because of the chaos of the present age, the judges have deserted the courts, the laws of God and man are in abeyance, and everyone is given ample licence to preserve his life as best he may? This being so, if you go slightly beyond the bounds of decorum in your conversation, with the object, not of behaving improperly but of giving pleasure to yourselves and to others, I do not see how anyone in the future can have cause to condemn you for it.

Similarly, it seemed especially absurd to keep Victorian sexual proprieties after the Great War; it seemed ludicrous to keep any topics off limits, or regulate social behaviors in the usual way, when the threat of atomic extinction loomed; it seemed absurd to keep discussions of homosexuality out of the media when AIDS was rampaging in the ’80s. The message is somewhat compromised by its coming from Dioneo, an impish figure who is looking for a good time above all and follows this argument with the sophisticated claim that rejecting the theme would make outsiders think the rejecting lady had a guilty conscience. Nevertheless, it’s as close to a manifesto as the ten have, and it functions as an argument for all of those who try to understand and enjoy life in troubled times — and who hasn’t thought they lived in troubled times?

Of course, as even Dioneo points out, to make this argument work you have to balance the enjoyment with virtue — doing good. I wonder if that is where Boccaccio is leading us: will the ten realize that they must take the good with the bad, and that to withdraw from society without helping their troubled fellow citizens amounts to an abdication of the responsibility of the privileged?

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