Covid-19 and The Decameron

I confess that I have only read about half of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. But yesterday, I saw a friend’s Facebook post that included a quote from the text, which inspired me to reread the Introduction, which is relevant to what we are dealing with in these times of Covid-19.

So to provide a little background about this book for those who do not know about it:

The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Boccaccio describes how the plague originated in the East and then spread to the West, eventually infecting people in Florence, similar to the advent and spread of our current pandemic.

I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.

(p. 1)

Boccaccio then details the initial response, how the city restricted entrance by individuals showing signs of infection. This is the same as the initial response by the US and many other countries as the virus began to spread.

In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.

(p. 1)

Next, he describes how the infection was not only passed from sick to healthy persons, but that the germs also survived on materials and could be contracted that way.

Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.

(p. 2)

Finally, individuals are described as going into “voluntary exile,” essentially social distancing until the threat of contagion has passed.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they were also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.

(p. 3)

The social distancers of Boccaccio’s time passed the time by telling stories. Thankfully, we have tools of communicating which were not dreamed of in 14th century Italy. We can share our stories via phone calls, video conferences, social media, and numerous other platforms. In times like this, the stories we share matter. They allow us to stay connected to our humanity. This is why I continue to write here and share with everyone.

As you are staying home, I encourage you to talk with people you know, reach out to those who may be alone, and help each other through these difficult times. Stay safe!

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Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.

Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act I, scene i)

It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.

As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.

Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Act IV, scene i)

So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

(Act IV, scene i)

In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.

Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.

(Act V, scene i)

I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?

In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.

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Thoughts on “The Taking of Jerusalem: An Eyewitness Report” by Umberto Eco

Painting by Émile Signol

So it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco’s work, and this short piece is a fine example of why. It is a piece of brilliant satire intended to demonstrate the absurdity of news commentary, particularly in regard to war coverage. The piece is written from the perspective of a war correspondent covering the taking of Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Typical of a news reporter, the reporter is always looking to get into the heart of the conflict.

My informants tell me that the attack is more interesting on the northwestern front, at Herod’s Gate. I will hop on a mule and try to get to the other side of the walls. And now, back to the studio,

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 255)

The correspondent then gives a play-by-play account, reminiscent of sports commentary. I have often noted that coverage of conflicts, as well as politics, often seem like sports narrative.

From my new position I have a clear view of Godfrey of Bouillon directing the final assault from the top of a tower. The first Christians are on the top of the walls. They are Luthold and Engelbert of Tournai, I’m told, Godfrey and the others follow them, the Moors are falling under their blows, others are leaping from the walls. Herod’s Gate is down—unless it was opened by our men already inside. The men of the Christian Alliance have entered the city on foot and horseback!

(ibid: p. 256)

Toward the end of the piece, Eco makes his most important point, in my opinion. We like to believe that the end of a conflict is the end of the war; this is not true in far too many cases. Sadly, the termination of a conflict is only the beginning of a longer war, that of ideals fueled by resentment and hatred of the other faction.

A monk I spoke to this morning pointed out that this massacre amounts to a defeat. If we are to establish a Christian realm in these lands, we ought to be able to count on the acceptance of the Muslim inhabitants and the tolerance of the neighboring kingdoms. But the slaughter has raised a wall of hatred between Moors and Christians that will endure for years, perhaps centuries. The conquest of Jerusalem is not the end but the beginning—of a very long war.

(ibid: pp. 258 – 259)

We still have this war mentality that permeates so much of our culture: war on crime, war on poverty, war on hunger, war on coronavirus, on and on. Our political debates are battles, this side vs. the other. Everything is broken down to my team against yours (which team are you?). If we are to survive as a species, we need to collectively change this attitude. Us and them no longer works. It has to be we, and that will only be achieved through cooperation and support.

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“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte: A Polemic Against the Patriarchy

This is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought a used copy many years ago, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

Emily Bronte published this book in 1847, and it provides a harsh view of patriarchal authority which sadly still resonates today as we continue to grapple with issues of gender inequality and the abuse of women.

After Catherine is forced to wed her cousin, Linton, we are presented with a horrific image of Linton’s plan to seize everything that was once Catherine’s, as well as physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon Catherine by Heathcliff, Linton’s father.

“He’s in the court,” he replied, “talking to Dr. Kenneth; who says uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine; she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of her room, and let her out; but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all mine. And then she cried, and took a little picture from her neck, and said I should not have that; two pictures in a gold case, on one side her mother, and on the other, uncle, when they were young. That was yesterday—I said they were mine, too; and tried to get them from her. The spiteful thing wouldn’t let me: she pushed me off, and hurt me. I shrieked out—that frightens her—she heard papa coming, and she broke the hinges and divided the case, and gave me her mother’s portrait; the other she attempted to hide: but papa asked what was the matter, and I explained it. He took the one I had away, and ordered her to resign hers to me; she refused, and he—he struck her down, and wrenched it off the chain, and crushed it with his foot.”

(pp. 204 – 205)

The physical abuse is clear, but the psychological abuse is presented symbolically through the image of the locket. Heathcliff demands that Catherine give Linton the picture of her father as a symbolic gesture of her giving up all connections to her familial past and essentially becoming the property of her husband. She is not only required to relinquish all tangible property, but she must let go of her soul, of who she is, and thereby become nothing but a piece of human property, which can be done with as her husband chooses. When Catherine attempts to resist, the crushing of the locket represents the domination of patriarchal authority over her, stamping out all connections to her former self.

After Linton dies, Heathcliff takes possession of everything that once belonged to Catherine and her family. At one point, Catherine wants to use a small plot of land to create a garden. Heathcliff’s response demonstrates the patriarchal belief that a woman has no rights to any property.

“You shouldn’t grudge a few yards of earth for me to ornament, when you have taken all my land!”

“Your land, insolent slut! You never had any,” said Heathcliff.

“And my money,” she continued; returning his angry glare, and meantime biting a piece of crust, the remnant of her breakfast.

(p. 234)

While this book shows that we have come a long way, it also reminds us that we still have a ways to go. There is still gross gender inequality, as well as disparity between socio-economic classes. But as long as strong voices such as Emily Bronte’s speak out against inequality, we can continue to move forward as a society.

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“Sonnet 37: As a decrepit father takes delight” by William Shakespeare

Painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

In this sonnet, Shakespeare is comparing the adoration he feels toward the fair youth to the love an aging father feels toward his children. As a father who has passed middle age, it is this feeling to which I relate.

When I look at my kids, or talk with them on the phone, I catch aspects of myself reflected in them. As a parent, I have tried to impart only the better parts of myself, but I also see my shortcomings. I guess it’s a package deal. We try to share our experiences, strengths, and hopes, but inadvertently, we also share our fears, flaws, and sufferings. Essentially, we share our lives.

When I see my children happy, the feeling of joy that wells within me is something that is beyond my normal happiness. It is like a geyser of euphoria erupting from my soul. Conversely, when I see my children sad or in pain, the anguish I feel knows no depth. I suspect any parent reading this can relate.

These uncertain times are making me appreciate what is truly important in my life, the relationships to people I love. I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope you and your family are all safe and healthy.

Many blessings.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 56” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

He who knows does not speak.
He who speaks does not know.

Block all the passages!
Shut all the doors!
Blunt all edges!
Untie all tangles!
Harmonize all lights!
Unite the world into one whole!
This is called the Mystical Whole,
Which you cannot court after nor shun,
Benefit nor harm, honour nor humble.

Therefore, it is the Highest of the world.

In Buddhist thought, there is a concept called maya, which roughly means illusion, that basically what we perceive is a construct of our mind. If one accepts this tenet, it stands to reason that reality is something that exists beyond the limited grasp of our senses. It appears that Lao Tzu is expressing a similar idea in regard to the Tao, that it is the “Mystical Whole” that lies beyond the scope of our normal consciousness.

In the opening couplet, Lao Tzu warns against those who profess to know the Tao. To speak of the Tao is to attempt to use words to convey the ineffable. It does not work. All that one can do is provide guidance as to how one may glimpse the unseen reality of existence, and this is what Lao Tzu does in the second stanza.

By blocking passages and shutting doors, we are essentially turning off the stories that our minds tell us about what is real. Our brains are a tangled knot of information that dictates how we perceive everything. But as we begin to silence the noise of our minds, our focus shifts and we can glimpse the harmony and connection of the world around us, as well as our connections to this world.

As we all grapple with our rapidly changing world, it would serve us well to pause and reflect. By silencing our overwhelmed minds, we may be able to get a clearer perspective on what is really happening in these times of uncertainty.

Pause, and breathe.

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Spring Equinox: Ostara and Temperance

Today is the Spring Equinox, symbolic of balance and rebirth, themes that seem even more important as we grapple with the rapid changes that COVID-19 is bringing to our world. Anyway, after my morning meditation and journal writing, I read a short essay entitled “Ostara and Temperance” published in Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook 2020, and figured I would share part of it in today’s post.

At Ostara, the Goddess returns from the underworld, bringing with her a celebration of miracles, spring, new life, and balance. The Temperance tarot card beautifully represents these themes. Birth is considered a kind of miracle, a mixing of life and death (for the minute anything is born, it begins to die) that creates our experience on this planet. The angel in Temperance holds two cups, their liquid blending at a scientifically impossible angle, representing an alchemical mystery. Although equinoxes represent balance, and at this time life and light are becoming stronger than death and darkness, each equinox contains the seed of its opposite. Like an eggshell—which is strong enough to protect new life but at the right moment is weak enough to be broken through—something is destroyed and the old existence of the newly born creature dies.

(Barbara Moore)

For me, it is evident that our old way of life has cracked like a fragile eggshell, and is dying to make way for something new. It is a scary time, because all birth and all things new are scary. None of us can envision what our new world will look like. But clearly, our consumer-driven capitalist society is the thing that is actually dying right now as a result of this virus. That said, we all have a role in manifesting what will rise from these ashes. It is crucial that we nurture the new growth, and not let fear and self-centeredness dictate our actions in the coming days.

Have a blessed Equinox, and may you be a conscious participant in the change to come.

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