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The Decameron. On our need for stories in order to live

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”: Joan Didion’s words never seemed so true.

Italy has been the first European country to be hit on a massive scale by the Covid19.

We have known before anyone else the deaths, the lockdown, the ambulances outside and the silence inside.

What I’ve observed is how much we need stories now, both to listen and to tell.

I’m telling a story as I frantically update the news about the Coronavirus in order to report them to my family at dinner; so does my sister as she complains about how difficult it is to work with mask and gloves on.

Every philosopher and writer describing with the most poetic words their quarantine days are providing us with stories.

Even the conspiracy theorists warning us about the 5G danger are telling their own story.

What is worth noticing is that, when humanity faces a pandemic, with Death coming along with Chaos, so we not only see others die but our normal lives are altered as well, we turn to stories for help.

Collective experiences, such as wars or pandemics, do foster collective narrative as well.

When it comes to similar events we feel the need to articulate our experiences and our emotions, as if that was a way for us not only to survive but also, as Joan Didion said, to live.

Why do we need stories so much? Do we have any evidence that this need was already displayed in the history of humanity? Do we tell stories to escape reality or to have a better grasp of it?

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio is considered a milestone of Italian Literature; recognizing its impact and then influence on European Literature, Harold Bloom included it in his Western Canon, stating that "The ironic storytelling whose subject is storytelling is pretty much Boccaccio's invention, and the purpose of this breakthrough was to free stories from didacticism and moralism, so that the listener or reader, not the storyteller, became responsible for their use, for good or for ill" (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994)

Decameron - Hamilton 90

The City of Florence, as it happened to Dante, had a major role in Boccaccio’s writings.

Still he spent his happiest moments in the City of Naples, where he worked as a bank employer.

Naples, the Neapolitan Nobility and their fondness for French literature, chivalry romance in particular, would have a lasting influence on him; he claimed that he found his true vocation to poetry there.

Boccaccio then returned to Florence in 1340; it’s unknown if he was present during the infamous Black Death, the plague that hit the town in 1348, killing three fifths of the population.

The plague experience represents a breakthrough in Boccaccio’s life: he then started to write The Decameron and he set his masterpiece in the plague-ravaged Florence in 1348.

The Decameron is structured as a frame story and it’s made up by a collection of 100 novelle (tales) told by ten characters for ten days.

If the frame story pattern looks familiar to you it’s probably because of the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, who was heavily influenced by Boccaccio.

The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales have several elements in common as well, such as the frame story structure and the fact that both were not written in Latin but in vernacular languages.

While Chaucer’s characters told stories to each other to basically have some fun during their pilgrimage, on comparison Boccaccio gave us a far darker setting.

Three young men and seven young women run away from Florence to find refuge in a villa on the hills, probably inspired by a real estate owned by Boccaccio himself.

This villa is a locus amoenus, an idyllic place where the comrade, called brigata, can establish the norms of common decency and the well manners again in a stark contrast to the town, where people die relentlessly and where the self-preservation has become the priority for the survivors.

Hence Pampinea, the leader of the brigata, proposes to nominate a Queen or a King among them every day.

It’s up to the ruler of the day to set up their daily routine and to choose the theme of the stories everyone has to tell.

The themes will be very different to each other: loves that end tragically, misadventures that ends happily, wives who play tricks on their husbands and vice versa…

What emerges from these tales is an accurate portrayal of the Late Middle Ages in Italy with a particular focus on the society of Florence and its prerogatives, such as the rise of the mercantile class and the rivalry with the aristocracy and the corruption of the clergy; because of that many commentators defined the Decameron the Human Commedia and some even labeled it as the Anti-Commedia.

Overall what prevails is a Humanistic faith in the power of humanity, in our intellectual resources.

If we look closely at what Boccaccio means for cleverness in the Decameron, we would note that most of characters in the stories manage to avoid many troubles thanks to their powerful oratory (Ser Ciappelletto, Melchisedech, Monna Nonna De' Pulci… ) and that most of them can give many moving speeches as well (Ghismunda's speech about love).

Boccaccio views our ability to tell stories (even where that means lying) as the highest expression of our human nature.

Day Six delves further into this topic (and we should note that, on Ten Days, Day Six has a central position in the structure of the book).

Under the reign of Elissa the brigata tells stories in which an attack or an embarrassment have been escaped thanks to a clever remark, a motto. This can be applied to a funny circumstance as it happens to a woman who can get rid of an annoying storyteller thank to her wit, or to a trickier situation, when in another tale a cook can escape a punishment thanks to a clever joke.

But the most emblematic novella of Day Six- and I dare to say, of the whole Decameron- it’s the one about the poet and philosopher Guido Cavalcanti (VI,9).

Guido Cavalcanti (who was a close friend of Dante) had a wise but somehow unapproachable personality.

The jeunesse dorée of Florence resented him for that and since he refused to join them; so, as they stumble across him when he is walking near some marble tombs, they start to tease him.

Cavalcanti replies calmly that, since they are at home there (among the tombs, so among dead people like them A/N), they can say whatever they want; with a quick leap then he leaves.

This leap is not only a physical action but rather symbolizes the quickness and the superiority of Cavalcanti’s mind.

Italo Calvino, an Italian writer, in his “Six Memos for the Next Millennium” (1988) views Cavalcanti as someone we should look up to: “Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness[…]”.

Cavalcanti is the highest representation of Boccaccio’s ideal man and citizen: he is wise and well mannered, but he still knows how to use his tongue as his sharpest weapon.

As I said above, we meet many characters who are proficient orators in The Decameron; what sets Cavalcanti apart are his wide culture and his unconventional mind.

I think this tale sums up really well why humanity needs stories so much.

While many argue that the characters of Decameron started to narrate because they wanted to have some fun or to distract themselves I think of it as a narrow interpretation.

Thucydides, Camus and many other writers taught us that when it comes to a pandemic what does really terrify humanity is the breaking of every social construct and norms, of ethics and morality- the underlying Chaos of our existence now suddenly revealed; “What the Coronavirus outbreak reveals is not the unreality of our present moment, but the illusions it shatters”, the fact that what we call “normal life” doesn’t exist, Charles Yu says on The Atlantic.

Wars and pandemics trigger our self preservation instinct; we find ourselves fighting for our lives.

At the same time stories give us some relief and we start to tell them first to ourselves then to others; eventually these stories will develop into a collective narrative.

It’s probably the same impulse that prompted our ancients to draw buffalos on caves: the need to express ourselves beyond the borders of the empirical world only relying on our intellectual resources.

On the other hand the fact that we communicate with such a complex language and that we use it not only in a utilitarian way but also to tell stories is one of our greatest achievements.

In his book "Sapiens. A brief history of human kind" (2015) Harari says that what sets Homo Sapiens apart from his "uncivilized cousins" is his imagination thus his ability to elaborate concepts like religion and economy, things we have never “seen, touched or smelled”, in order to cooperate.

“Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful, a lion!’

However, thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say ‘The lion is the guardian of our tribe’ ”.

Hence our ability to tell stories has given us an edge over any other living being:

“Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers”.

The characters from The Decameron did not start to tell stories just because they needed to have fun or to escape from reality: they did so to remind themselves who they were before the plague and to reconcile with the side of ourselves- our ability to tell stories- that allowed us to make the ultimate “leap”, to be "human".

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