April 14, 2020 | Brian Chappell

The Decameron

“First Day”

Editor’s Note: This blog post was written in the early days of COVID-19 quarantine. It therefore express a “First Day” kind of mentality in response to it. This point is relevant, because we have reached a point when we can track how our engagement with quarantine has evolved over these months. We can look back on earlier thoughts and even writings, and wonder how they hold up. 

One concept that arises during times like these is what I’ll call “referentiality.” The entire world shares the same frame of reference right now, and so my question is about the extent to which this virus will become all that we talk about–and write about and create art about. But while the virus rages outside, the entertainment industrial complex rages inside. We are the generation of the televisual binge. There is plenty to look at, plenty of sand to bury our heads in. I like to say to my students (and anyone, really): you are what you pay attention to. The World Health Organization has advised that we now only check the news twice, maybe even once, per day. We are reminded that at any given moment, we must grapple with what we think and talk about.

This concept of “referentiality” appears prominently in the “First Day” of The Decameron. The entire book opens with the narrator’s commentary on the state of the plague in Florence. It is eerily similar to what we are dealing with now (albeit with key differences, such as piles of corpses in the streets). The narrator, perhaps like some of us, wonders if the pestilence is “the operation of the heavenly bodies or of our own iniquitous dealings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God.” What does it all mean? Some entity out there must be pretty upset if this is happening. But more realistically, the narrator is considering the interpersonal and societal effects of plague. It turns loved ones on each other: 

This tribulation had stricken such terror to the hearts of all, men and women alike, that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew and sister brother and oftentimes wife husband; nay…fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children.

This interpersonal dissolution leads to larger social fraying, bordering on the dystopian imagination that we so frequently indulge today:

In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for [lack of] ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office, wherefore every one had license to do whatsoever pleased him.

From this situation, the plot emerges, which is rooted in the frantic desire to survive: 

From these things and many others like unto them or yet stranger divers fears and conceits were begotten in those who abode alive, which well nigh all tended to a very barbarous conclusion, namely, to shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus doing, each thought to secure immunity for himself. 

Enter our ensemble of young women and men, who decide to exercise their considerable privilege to abscond to the countryside and wait things out. And why not? Pampinea opines, 

What look we for? What dream we? Why are we more sluggish and slower to provide for our safety than all the rest of the townsfolk? Deem we ourselves of less price than others, or do we hold our life to be bounden in our bodies with a stronger chain than is theirs and that therefore we need reck [think] nothing of aught that hath power to harm it? We err, we are deceived; what folly is ours, if we think thus!

Do we need to think “nothing of aught that hath the power to harm” our bodies? Is the plague the only thing that will define us anymore? This is folly for Paminea, who concludes:

[B]ut methinketh it were excellently well done that we, such as we are, depart this city, as many have done before us, and…betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country, whereof each of us hath great plenty, and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason.

Indeed, a villa in the country sounds nice right about now (or any time), with the “plenty,” “diversion,” “delight,” and “pleasance” it might provide. But in The Decameron, what constitutes the main “diversion”? Stories. Stories upon stories upon stories, amounting to a hundred. A binge, if you will. 

Pampinea sets the format for how the storytelling will proceed, and first up is Pamfilo. We are presented again with the question: if you are holed up during quarantine, and you are asked to tell a story to pass the time, will you tell a story about the plague, to keep the conversation relevant, or will you opt for “diversion”?

Pamfilo’s story does a little bit of both. He tells about how one handles impending death. So, yeah. Relevant. But Ciapelletto is certainly an interesting choice. “False witness he bore with especial delight,” says Pamfilo. He is so consistently devious that he is a type, an emblem. But I am trying to put a name to the type of archetype that Ciapelletto might express. Someone who has a puckish relationship with truth and truth-telling. I am thinking of Harry Frankfurt’s prescient essay “On Bullshit,” in which he describes bullshit not as lying, but as a discourse that disregards truth and falsehood altogether. This is Ciapelletto, a bullshit artist. But he is true to himself, to the end, to the extent to which that he lies to a friar on his deathbed. And this is where the political theme enters. The friar buys the bullshit. And so Pamfilo says, in the last paragraph, “Thus, then, lived and died Master Cepperello da Prato [his proper name] and became a saint.” I like the translation on Brown University’s Decameron Web Project: “So lived, so died Ser Cepperello da Prato.” Consistent to the end, unphased by the prospect of death.  

By its end the first story therefore becomes a meditation on the power of language and storytelling itself. In so doing it skewers the Catholic Church, who falsely reserves some kind of magical power to canonize and to send to (and restrict from) heaven. 

How will we use language and storytelling during our time of plague? Moreover, how will we deal with those who bear false witness with special delight?