Tales in the time of a pandemic

Tales in the time of a pandemic

Empire of the Mind

Gurucharan Gollerkeri

The news in recent weeks that the rich and the famous were fleeing the pandemic for safer foreign havens prompted me to read The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, if only to escape the unrelenting sense of disconcert the pandemic had wrought. What I gained, instead, was a new perspective with which to understand the pathos and the chaotic cross-purposes that have engulfed us this past year. A masterpiece written on the cusp of the Renaissance, The Decameron, probably composed between 1349 and 1352, presents one hundred stories by ten storytellers who take refuge from the plague sweeping through Florence. Narrated in frame story style, its fundamental theme is the struggle between life and death in the face of the Black Plague.

The Decameron begins with the flight of ten young people (seven women and three men) from plague-stricken Florence in 1348. They retire to the countryside, where, in the course of a fortnight, their alternate storytelling occupies ten days, hence the title of the book itself, Decameron, or ‘Ten Days’. In evocative, sombre tones, Boccaccio captures the plague and the moral and social chaos that accompanies it. Reading Boccaccio can be therapeutic because it reminds us that history is replete with examples of communities and countries overwhelmed by disease and disruption far worse than what we face today. The Decameron serves as a historical chronicle of people striving with misfortune and learning to overcome it without bitterness, taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions, however contrary to expectation, disruptive, or even tragic they may be.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), born in Florence, was the quintessential Renaissance man and his humanism comprised the everyday life. Many of Boccaccio’s characters are practical -- they want to make their lives work. The narrative in The Decameron works at two different levels. There are the stories themselves, but there is also the frame, that is, the story about how ten young citizens of Florence decided to carve out a time and a space to re-imagine their world. The 100 stories are as diverse as their protagonists. Over the 10-day narrative, all of life’s dimensions – scintillating liveliness, the power of the human will, adventure, love, deception, gloom, laughter – come alive and Boccaccio ennobles everyday experience, tragic and comic alike. It mimics life in its essence and the common is made heroic.

There are many critics of Boccaccio’s earthy bawdiness, often portraying his writing as sensual and frivolous, little recognising that the humour was not gratuitous. Boccaccio was subtly challenging religious tradition, upending it with erudite and comically surprising narratives. In the context of our own times, Boccaccio points at once to human powers and their inherent limitations, without reference to the possible intervention of divine grace -- an affirmation, if you will, of the ethical values underlying every one of the stories, presenting a unity in philosophical outlook. Society is completely re-imagined in The Decameron with some stories told earnestly, while others poke fun at established orthodoxies, religious and otherwise. Part of what is happening in that masterful text is the shedding of outdated theologies, of narratives that have become irrelevant and no longer serve any purpose, and the creation of new economic, social and cultural identities.

The Decameron provides valuable insight into how our moral compass alters during adversity, a grim reminder of what Covid-19 has done to us as a society -- the willingness to abandon the poor, the ostracism of the sick, the self-imposed exile of the healthy, the unmindful flight of the wealthy, the ready forsaking of family and friends, and the extreme indifference towards the disproportionately affected disadvantaged classes. Even as our own world changes rapidly, The Decameron is a metaphor that urges us to commit ourselves to a more examined way of living, a more conscious way of consuming, and to pause every once in a while from a self-centred life to rediscover our sense of community.

We live in an age of uncertainty characterised by technological advance, innovation and human ambition, yet we are on a cliff, at the edge of impending disaster manifesting as excess consumption, resource depletion, climate change and pandemics. These factors create a profoundly existential predicament – the unhappy mix of the hubris of those who have and the resignation of those who have not. What might we learn from the pages of The Decameron? That death is final, yet life so full of possibilities. Accept reality as it unfolds; be irreverent of oppressive orthodoxies; abandon beliefs that are unreasonable; take time to appreciate the other; and pause to embrace humanism. Quite simply, if we fail each other, we fail as a society. Reading a creative genius like Boccaccio teaches us patience, hope, and above all, solidarity, in times of crisis. 

(The author is a former civil servant who enjoys traversing the myriad spaces of ideas, thinkers, and books)

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