4 Ekim 2009 Pazar

The Decameron: De/Re-Construction of Literature

     The Decameron is said to be the start of a new new understanding of morality in literature in medieval times. This claim  can be regarded as true when the context of the stories in The Decameron is considered. The themes of passionate lovers and their intercourses, curious nuns, covetous clergymen are not mainly the topics that the writers or poets of the time had touched upon before. It is known that most of the stories that Boccaccio included in his book were already orally in circulation among the public. What Boccaccio did was to frame those stories with another story of the brigata and present them in The Decameron. The matter of bringing in a new form of morality may be ambiguous at first glance because it may mean a different understanding of vice and virtue, and since those stories are part of the public tradition, the themes of those stories are not the subject of this ‘new’ morality. Furthermore, one can interpret those themes as direct criticism to the oppression of the church, under which morality in its true sense is abused. What I understand from the new morality that Boccaccio brings in is his openness to carry those social matters on a literary level. Before Boccaccio, the literature of the period was heavily involved with philosophy or in praise of religion. As he himself claims in the prologue to day IV that he is writing about human life in its most naturalistic sense. What I will argue here by focusing on the incomplete story of Filippo Balducci is that Boccaccio is using this humble style in The Decameron as opposed to the high style of the period, with a specific aim of freeing the literature from its boundaries under the name of morality.
    First of all, it will be appropriate to analyze in what context Boccaccio tells the story of Filippo Balducci. He claims in the prologue to day IV that there have been accusations against him on the basis of being too fond of women and he was given the advice to remain with the Muses in Parnasus. According to the advice he received, it can be said that the accusations are mainly on the morality of his work, because he is advised to remain with divine creatures rather than women. His so called accusers also said that he should better be employed in earning himself a good meal than in going hungry for the sake of producing nonsense of this sort. It is not certain whether Boccaccio was really exposed to such criticism even before he completed the writing of The Decameron, or was he very well aware of the potential criticism he will receive and wanted to prevent them by including his defense in the book beforehand. I assume the latter is more coherent with what I believe Boccaccio is trying to achieve with The Decameron. One by one he opposes the accusations that he himself created in order to prove that kind of discourse against his work is pretentious. He does this without any sign of vulgarity and in such a confident way that the reader comes to realize what he claims to be the accusations against his work is actually his criticism on the literary tradition of his period. 
     At this point I would like to clarify the discussion on morality and style. What I argue here a s Boccaccio's literary aim is not liberation from the existing moral values, but from the high style of literature that separates it from the natural life. It is not hard to follow the traces of this argument with his strategic allusions in the prologue to day IV and especially in the story of the young Balducci’s education. After Filippo and his son move to Mount Asinaio, they live in complete isolation from the society and Filippo educates his son only on the eternal life and God, as Boccaccio puts it:
"At all times, he took very great care not to let him see any worldly things, or even to mention their existence, lest they should distract him from his devotions. On the contrary, he was forever telling him about the glory of the life eternal, of God, and of the Saints, and all he taught him was to pray devoutly. He kept this up for a number of years, never permitting the boy to leave the cave or to see any living thing except for his father.”
    It is important to notice Boccaccio’s interpretation of this educational process is based not on "what to do's", but "what not to do’s". Filippo takes great care ‘not to let him see any worldly things’, ‘not to leave the cave’. In the passage above, all the worldly things are expressed with negative expressions, whereas Boccaccio uses positive expressions like ‘forever’ and ‘all he thought him was…’ while talking about the eternal life. In this sense, the education of the young boy and the criticism on his work show similarities on discourse.  Boccaccio was advised to ‘not to produce that sort of nonsense’, but rather ‘remain’ with the Muses. 
     Although Boccaccio claims that he tells this story to show how it is impossible even for the young Balducci, who was raised in complete isolation, to resist the natural attraction he feels towards women, his story points out his allusive criticism on a certain style of education and the use of literature. The failure of Filippo in his son’s education when he takes him to Florence can be interpreted as the failure of the strategies of negation. In the story, the peak of this negation is when Filippo names women as “goslings” while he is striving to prevent the collapse of his educational technique at the moment of his son’s encounter with women. Boccaccio here, by being witty, shows how those negation strategies prove to be ridiculous when they are threatened by the forces of the nature which can also be reflected on the natural consequences of the plague and the wind of change it created in the society against the church. The morale of this story is what Boccaccio claims it to be that Nature shapes human beings in such a way, as they cannot but yield to the power of love. But it is equally true that he also proves a subtler, and in no way less important, methodological point: that a teaching based only on removal and repression is sooner or later destined to fail. Therefore, he aims to provide a diversity of stories on human emotions rather than excluding from his work what is socially repressed.
    It requires some certain attention for the modern reader to appreciate Boccaccio’s work because the modern reader's perception on literature is not limited to the constraints of Boccaccio’s time. Therefore, it will not be wrong to claim that his work is revolutionary in the sense of his efforts to break the chains of literature from religion and philosophy. What is more important in that context is that he is devoted to his case. We can understand his devotion from his interruptions to his work as the author of the book in the prologue, epilogue and the prologue to day IV. In the prologue, he first describes the conditions that led to the out coming of his work. He gives his reasoning to be able to use a humble style to write stories, which are only for pleasure and not for higher artistic aims. He explains the general atmosphere of the era, how some people started to lose faith in church with regard to their experiences through the painful era of the plague. Then he moves on to defend his work against the general writing traditions of the period and the criticism caused by those norms in parallel with the story of the young boy’s education. In the end again, by using an allusive approach he claims only to serve ladies in order to give them pleasure, but the overall achievement of The Decameron in literature is pleasing for the continued existence of literature.

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