Simone Marchesi- "Paradigms of Pandemic: Reading Boccaccio’s Introduction to Decameron Day I, Today"

June 7, 2020

Fall-Spring 2019-2020 Vol. 45 n. 1-2

Paradigms of Pandemic:
Reading Boccaccio’s Introduction to Decameron Day I,
by Simone Marchesi

A few weeks ago, at the start of my University’s response to the current pandemic, the Chair of my Department asked me to lead a zoom conversation with students and colleagues about the Introduction to Day I of the Decameron. The brief for the exercise, the first in a series that was eventually to include a discussion of La Fontaine’s Fables and Camus’ The Plague, was simple. Focusing on his account of the 1348 epidemic in Florence, I was to try and tease out from Boccaccio’s pages their relevance to our situation today. To indulge my Chair’s kind request and do my part in the collegial effort to keep our Department’s intellectual life going in a time of social rarefaction and interpersonal distancing, I picked up Boccaccio’s text and read it one more time. He was right to ask that we talk about those pages together. What follows is my way of continuing the conversation that took place around that reading.

In the Introduction to the first Day of the Decameron, Boccaccio readily admitted that his account of the  consequences of the social cataclysm brought about by the plague of 1348 would produce some of the darkest and most difficult pages of the Decameron. Yet, he insisted that readers should start there, and we may want to do so as well. Reading the Introduction to Day I during the Covid-19 pandemic may help us see in a clearer light, and potentially articulate more effectively, some of the concerns we share today. The Decameron may be especially valuable, I feel, for its constant call to examine the way we conceptualize and speak about what surrounds us. From the long geographical and chronological distance of the epidemic in Florence, that text may preemptively debunk some of the current myths about the emergency we are collectively working through and help us counteract the rhetoric that has associated itself to them.

In Boccaccio’s view, for instance, the plague is not treated as a social leveler. On the contrary, he registers and signals  that there is inequality in death. The rich may die as the poor do, but they do not die like them. Boccaccio’s accounting of the different mortality rates among the implied ‘grandi’ and the ‘minuta gente” (as well as the “gran parte della mezzana”) is not the incidental reflex of an epidemiologist’s scruple, but the indication of an unredeemed social gradient, which we may do well to bear in mind today. It is the powerless and not the powerful who “da speranza o da povertà ritenuti nelle lor case … a migliaia per giorno infermavano, e … quasi senza alcuna redenzione, tutti morivano” (I.Intro.36). The plague did certainly shock the social norm and unsettle its articulation, as his text reminds us throughout, but it did not erase the lines between the elite and the servants, the dominant and the subaltern in the world it affected.

Illustration of a face masked crowd

Illustration of a face masked crowd

Secondly, for the Decameron the plague did not admit to any easy determination of causality. When Boccaccio strategically refrained from adjudicating the origin and finality of the plague, listing as potential explanations natural causes (the “operazion de’ corpi superiori”) as much as divine punishment (the “giusta ira di Dio” of paragraph 8), he gave us a way to reflect on the current constructing of alternative chains of causation for the Covid-19. In his text, the suspension consisted in reading the situation in terms of either divine providential correction or natural automatisms. And Boccaccio allowed both readings to stand. Today, the design-and-retribution model has perhaps mutated into the wide range of conspiratorial theories, hypothesizing obscurely transparent finalities in the artificial creation of the virus. Correspondingly, the chance-automatism model has taken the form of a call for a rethinking the rules of human engagement with the environment, leading to a potential redefinition of the Anthropocene. Whichever of these mutually dissonant assessments we subscribe to, emphasizing religious-conspiracy explanations or natural-environmental ones, the Decameron reminds us that, in positing and pursuing this kind of alternative, we are catering to the same consolatory thinking to which Boccaccio had already provided a reasoned answer –bracketing both hypotheses as beside the point.

Thirdly, in the Decameron the plague is not presented as a state of exception for the social body that it affects, but as  one of its determinants. After having reviewed the practical dissolution of all rituality of death in front of the generalized mortality, Boccaccio adds a controversial and obscure sentence to which he apparently attributes some paraenetic, if not even prescriptive, force. “Assai manifestamente apparve,” he writes “che quello che il naturale corso delle cose non avea potuto con piccoli e radi danni a’ savi mostrare doversi con pazienza passare, la grandezza de’ mali enziandio i semplici far di ciò scorti e non curanti” (41). I am not sure what the ultimate lesson of these lines was meant to be for Boccaccio’s first audience. What clearly emerges, however, is a simple notion that may be useful for us today. Mortality is nothing new for the social body; what may be new –and what becomes perverse– is the social response that a community (Boccaccio’s as well as our own) provides to it. Read today, it seems to me, these lines suggest that the plague does not trigger a state of exception in the social body, as a war does and would, but recalls its reason for being. Perhaps, thus, in framing the epidemic we may want to consider alternatives to a rhetoric that avails itself of the metaphor of armed conflict. Perhaps terms like ‘battle’ and ‘frontlines,’ ‘heroism’ and ‘sacrifice’ are not necessarily the ones that best serve our situation. Just as we may consider alternatives to a thinking that equates the need to curb an epidemic with an exceptional suspension of rights rather than the assumption of a constitutionally communal responsibility.

Illustration of a face masked people, some working and others holding each other.

Illustration of a face masked people, some working and others holding each other.

Finally, but not with the least importance, what appears to interest the Decameron is to use the plague to measure the ethical response of a society in terms of collective and not individual goals. Boccaccio’s procedure in reviewing the various responses given to the outbreak of the plague is at first disconcerting. Seemingly, his condemnation extends to all potential avoidance behaviors he surveys in the central paragraphs of the Introduction: fleeing the city or staying there, pursuing pleasures in moderation or excess or even finding a middle path between the two extremes – they are all differently culpable behaviors. The fact that each of them is found wanting, however, does not absolve them all. To the contrary, it points to their common fault: their innate egotism. Societies, Boccaccio intimates to us, function or fail insofar as they keep their focus on remaining collective bodies. Even self-isolation today does not necessarily imply atomization, insofar as it does not become another aspect of the self-serving quality of an individual choice. Rather, it may be the result of a social choice that is collectively embraced –one that values a true political solution to shared crises, not a personal way out of them. It is not coincidental that the only response to the crisis of 1348 that the Decameron endorses is precisely the temporary and carefully-structured community of the brigata, a society in which story-telling becomes a non-zero-sum game of collective interaction. One final consideration is perhaps in order here. When I was first asked to start the conversation whose essential points you have just read here, I resisted the idea. I felt that one of the advantages afforded to students and teachers working on culturally distant texts is the freedom from looking for exactly the kind of immediate relevance that the exercise seemingly implied. If a classic is a classic (and the Decameron certainly is one), it is such because it contains the potential to answer ever-new questions. Thus, we should perhaps be asking the text questions that are actually new. We should try, that is, to ask questions that are different from the ones the text was called to answer in the first place. Thus I reasoned. Yet, I also realized that if, as readers of Boccaccio’s texts, we have trained ourselves in the crisisresponse protocols of a distant culture, this does not absolve us from serving our own. Any specific competence comes with an obligation to try and translate it into this time and space. It is a collective mandate that I feel we should honor because, and not in spite of our sources’ ‘unmodernity.’ We may be tempted to tell us otherwise today, but the Decameron is there to remind us, as Käthe Kollwitz stated not so long ago, that Jede Gabe ist eine Aufgabe.

Illustration of a face masked couple kissing.