lunes, 25 de enero de 2010

The Decameron #3/10: Christian Fiction or Pre-Porn Porn?



While it's probably been far too long since my last Decameron post here, rest assured that Boccaccio continues to push the envelope of good taste! The Third Day's set of stories, ostensibly a series of tales on the theme of "people who by dint of their own efforts have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost" (189), is actually primarily concerned with lampooning the sexual misdeeds and hypocrisy of the clerical class.  The ten storytellers go into attack mode from the outset, launching the satiric barrage with a story about an enterprising young man who pretends he's a deaf-mute to gain employment as a gardener at a nunnery.  Once installed in the new position, he immediately begins to receive non-stop sexual attention from eight nuns and eventually even the abbess herself, all nine of whom feel that their secret is safe with the hunky gardener on account of his feigned disability.  In a later story, the amusing tone of the gardener piece gives way to a spirited dissertation on the friars' dissolute ways in a speech that runs a full six or seven paragraphs in duration.  Although the speaker who chides the friars for desiring "riches and women" (243) is actually a fake "pilgrim" who derides the clergy as part of an elaborate scheme to win his ex-lover back, it's quite a hoot to see his laundry list of anticlerical sentiments aired out with such gleeful proficiency.

Naturally, this is all just a set up to the closing story in the sequence, a raunchy episode in which a desert hermit teaches a naive, non-Christian girl that the proper way to serve God according to the Christian faith is by helping the hermit put the devil back into hell.  Since the girl, Alibech, doesn't know what the hermit, Rustico, means by all this, the formerly ascetic Rustico decides that this is a concept perhaps best explained while both are naked!

" 'Rustico, what is that thing I see sticking out in front of you, which I do not possess?'
'Oh, my daughter,' said Rustico, 'this is the devil I was telling you about.  Do you see what he's doing?  He's hurting me so much that I can hardly endure it.'
'Oh, praise be to God,' said the girl, 'I can see that I am better off than you are, for I have no such devil to contend with.'
'You're right there,' said Rustico.  'But you have something else instead, that I haven't.
'Oh?' said Alibech.  'And what's that?'
'You have Hell,' said Rustico.  'And I honestly believe that God has sent you here for the salvation of my soul, because if this devil continues to plague the life out of me, and if you are prepared to take sufficient pity upon me to let me put him back into Hell, you will be giving me marvelous relief, as well as rendering incalculable service and pleasure to God, which is what you say you came here for in the first place.' (277)"

If you'll forgive the lack of exegesis here, suffice it to say that the two characters spend much of their time thereafter in bed--practicing "the art of incarcerating that accursed fiend" (277) until Alibech becomes so fond of punishing the devil that the hermit has to send her away to get any rest.

Laugh out loud as I did throughout this latest batch of stories (I have to say that the last one had me in tears!), I should note that translator G.H. McWilliam actually brings up a serious point about The Decameron's morally casual prose in a footnote.  Referring to Boccaccio's use of "the resurrection of the flesh" as a euphemism for an erection (277), McWilliam notes that this "profane sexual metaphor," first used by Apuleius in The Golden Ass, led to a situation in which English translators of The Decameron either "omitted this story altogether or resorted at this point to either the original Italian or one of the French versions" until the end of the 19th century.  "Pornography, it seemed, was permissible provided it appeared in a language that only a minority of one's readers could understand" (825).  Say what you will about these translators' ethics, I'd love to know what the typical medieval readers must have thought of Boccaccio's combination of religious and sexual imagery.  Were there "typical" readers, in fact? And would they have laughed like me at the union or would they have given it the Florentine equivalent of an NC-17 rating?  For one possible answer, I'll soon be turning to Guido Almansi, whose 1975 The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the "Decameron" includes a promising chapter on the novel's "erotic episodes."  And for a Spanish parallel, we can always turn to Juan Ruiz' Libro de Buen Amor [Book of Good Love] (c. 1343), a long narrative poem from Castile that sports some religious verses comparing "adoring the cross" to oral sex (LBA 121c).  Ok, so maybe you're not ready for that kind of medieval verbal wordplay just yet--but extra points if you are!

9 comentarios:

  1. How fascinating about the combination of religious and sexual imagery! I know that with art, it seems as if the opposite philosophy obtained; e.g., it was permissible to show nudes if they were, e.g., angels.

    And what a great line about needing to put the devil into hell. I wonder how many of the modern abusive clergy have tried that one.

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  2. Whoa! I've always been curious about The Decameron as a collection of stories--but I had no idea! I regained my comfort level with your "Boccaccio for Dummies," especially when you wrote: one's appreciation of a story really only boils down to two things: what does the writer have to say and how does he or she say it? Everything else is fluff...or worse, "theory." This is something I've been cogitating on lately, each time I read something new. What is the Story here? Is it successful as a Story? Does Story have to be "successful," or does it just need to be told?

    I do like your comparison of Undset's approach with authentic medieval fiction. It's probably a good rule that writers of historical fiction reflect their own times (with its biases) more than those of their topic -- I've just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities. Although, once again, I want to concentrate on the Story and not be distracted by elements like historical accuracy.

    Always a pleasure to read your blog.

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  3. Richard - it is a joy to read these posts, having never heard of the Decameron before. I would love to know what medieval readers thought fo this collection of stories.

    In fact I would love to know who the medieval readers were. Who had access to these books and to the other you mention. Can't wait to see your review of Libro de Buen Amor!

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  4. Don't you love the snobbishness of assuming that English people educated enough to read French or Italian would have the moral strength to withstand porn, but the plebes reading their native language wouldn't?

    It sounds like the Decameron continues to be a laugh riot! I, too, will be curious about what Almansi has to say on contemporary reactions to these stories.

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  5. *Jill: Your reference to the art world's standards of decency is very interesting--will have to keep that in mind as I continue to make my way through the book. And although this will prob. come as no surprise, I too appreciated the line about the devil/hell thing!

    *Julia: Whoa, indeed! I haven't read enough of The Decameron yet to determine what (if any) overarching "message" is being delivered, but the way Boccaccio tells his stories has been consistently entertaining and impressive. Having said that, thanks so much for your kind comments regarding the attention you've been paying to these Boccaccio posts! This actually comes as quite a relief because I've so enjoyed Boccaccio's stories, I was a little worried there for a while that I might be letting down both him and you readers with too many plot summaries and not enough attention to his storytelling technique. Anyway, glad you found something to mull over here and I look forward to seeing what you thought of A Tale of Two Cities when you get your review posted. Cheers!

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  6. I've not read The Decameron but have always wondered about it. Boccaccio sounds like he is raunchier than Chaucer!

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  7. *Gavin: Thanks for following along and indulging me in a discussion of medieval readers--what a fascinating topic! On The Decameron, I don't really know much about its target audience as yet. One complicating factor is that prose was looked on as distinctly inferior to poetry in Boccaccio's day and age. "Mainstream" readers (if such a thing can be said to have existed at the time) might not have minded the poetry/prose distinction so much, but I'm not sure what literacy rates prevailed back then. Tricky business! I have a little more info on the Libro de Buen Amor, having studied it in a class with one of my favorite professors and done some extra reading on it as a fan. The manuscript would have been known to the clerics and scribes involved in copying it for the different monastic collections that wanted a copy (three main manuscripts are extant), but a partial copy also wound up in Portugal (if I remember collectly, as part of a royal collection of some sort) and some fragments apparently were circulated by juglares or wandering minstrels who, it's suspected, performed passages from it publicly (some of it was intended to be sung). A couple of other important writers from the time also attest to having been familiar with it, but communications were such that it was probably not familiar to many outside those circles above. To highlight just how difficult it is to try to understand these things with any certainty, the famous 12th-century epic poem The Song of the Cid (oft-labeled "Spain's national epic") owes its modern existence to the precarious survival of a lone, incomplete manuscript. P.S. Sorry for the length of the reply--maybe I should have just posted on the topic instead!

    *Emily: That is some weird translation snobbishness, isn't it? Although Almansi wasn't much help on the reaction question I had in mind, I give him a thumbs-up for his insight and two thumbs-up for the potshots he takes at rival critics from time to time--a true role model!

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  8. What you wrote on the English translations of "The Decameron" omitting this story or leaving it in the original is very interesting and it made me laugh. In the past English people thought of Italians as more relaxed in terms of sexuality (I'm thinking of E.M. Forster's "A Room with a View" just now).

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  9. *Stefanie: Raunchier than Chaucer? Could be. But I'll have to get back to you after I compare some of the more scandalous analogue tales that still await me!

    *Stefania: The thing about the old translation omissions is amusing but unfortunate at the same time, especially since I understand the same thing happened to Catullus, Petronius, and Apuleius (among others) as well. Didn't know about the E.M. Forster situation you mention, but that somehow doesn't surprise me. Cheers!

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