Archive for April 1st, 2020

“The fabric of life itself is woven into and by stories”: Boccacio’s back at Stanford on Sunday, April 5, for another Zoom discussion of “The Decameron”

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
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He’s baaaack!

Many of you missed last Sunday’s Zoom discussion of Boccacio’s Decameron. Now you have another chance.

A second discussion will take place this Sunday, April 5, at 10:30 a.m. to noon – that’s Pacific Standard time. There’s a new URL here,  or use this Meeting ID: 183 283 555 .

Participants are encouraged to read the following stories: Second Day, story #5; Third Day, story #1 and story #10; Fourth Day, story #5; Fifth Day, story #9; Sixth Day, story #1. The Gutenberg ebook version of The Decameron at no cost here:

To warm you up for the discussion (and in case you didn’t hear the first one), Robert Pogue Harrison began with the notion of storytelling in a time of crisis.

Some of his remarks echo his words in his 2009 book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition:

“Human culture has its origin in stories, and its ongoing history is one of endless storytelling. Where would we be without stories? Without the art of recounting them? Without their narrative organization of events and their structuring of time? If you ask me where I’m from, or what happened at the gathering last night, or why my friend is so distraught, I can hardly answer you without telling a little story. In its formal as well as informal modes, storytelling is one of the most basic forms of human interaction. The fabric of life itself is woven into and by stories, so much so that the quality of human conversation depends to a great extent on our mastery of the art of narrative. This art is something we either bring or fail to bring to bear, day in and day out, on our relations with others.”

And again:

“It bears repeating that the brigata’s temporary escape from the demoralization of a plague-ridden Florence does not have any direct influence on the ‘reality’ of things. After two weeks in their liminal garden environment the ten storytellers return to the horrors they had left behind, yet meanwhile the stories of the Decameron, like the garden settings in which they are told, have intervened in reality after all, if only by testifying to the transfiguring power of form. By recasting reality in narrative modes they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief, precisely in the way gardens draw attention to the aesthetically determined relations of things in its midst. That is the magic of both gardens and stories: they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.”

Here’s a pleasant coincidence. One of the stories he told last Sunday will be one of the “assigned” tales this Sunday. The account is the first tale on Day Six. It pays tribute to “the celebration of wit and elegance in the prescribed theme for the day, namely to tell of ‘those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd manouevre, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule.’”

Here is Boccaccio’s version:

… As many of you will know, either through direct personal acquaintance or through hearsay, a little while ago there lived in our city a lady of silver tongue and gentle breeding, whose excellence was such that she deserves to be mentioned by name. She was called Madonna Oretta, and she was the wife of Messer Geri Spina. One day, finding herself in the countryside like ourselves, and proceeding from place to place, by way of recreation, with a party of knights and ladies whom she had entertained to a meal in her house earlier in the day, one of the knights turned to her, and, perhaps because they were having to travel a long way, on foot, to the place they all desired to reach, he said:

‘Madonna Oretta, if you like I shall take you riding along a goodly stretch of our journey by telling you one of the finest tales in the world.’

‘Sire,’ replied the lady, ‘I beseech you most earnestly to do so, and I shall look upon it as a great favour.’

Whereupon this worthy knight, whose swordplay was doubtless on a par with his storytelling, began to recite his tale, which in itself was indeed excellent. But by constantly repeating the same phrases, and recapitulating sections of the plot, and every so often declaring that he had ‘made a mess of that bit’, and regularly confusing the names of the characters, he ruined it completely. Moreover, his mode of delivery was totally out of keeping with the characters and the incidents he was describing, so that it was painful for Madonna Oretta to listen to him. She began to perspire freely, and her heart missed several beats, as though she had fallen ill and was about to give up the ghost. And in the end, when she could endure it no longer, having perceived that the knight had tied himself inextricably in knots, she said to him, in affable tones:

‘Sir, you have taken me riding on a horse that trots very jerkily. Pray be good enough to set me down.’

The knight, who was apparently far more capable of taking a hint than of telling a tale, saw the joke and took it in the cheerfullest of spirits. Leaving aside the story he had begun and so ineptly handled, he turned his attention to telling her tales of quite another sort.

Our host, Robert Harrison

According to Harrison, “Boccaccio’s version opens onto a little garden, as it were.”

“To begin with, it introduces a gender dynamic that gives a wholly different kind of punch to Madonna Oretta’s repartee, which sparkles both in its elegance and its tact. The metaphorics of horseback riding arise naturally from the scene (ladies and knights, a long and fatiguing walk in the country, etc.). The specifics of the knight’s mangling of his tale are catalogued in what amounts to a kind of negative manifesto of narrative style, as the reader is directly drawn into the discomfiture and exasperation that the flailing performance induces in Madonna Oretta. The discrete sexual connotations of horseback riding in the tale also serve to establish an overt parallel between the ineptitude of storytelling and the ineptitude of lovemaking. In sum, while it too culminates in a repartee, there is a density to this reworking that involves far more than a punch line. It articulates an aesthetics of storytelling on the hand, and (like all the stories of Day Six) a discrete social ethics on the other.”