Monday, August 29, 2011

The Fifth Day, Part Two

I'm really happy about the reading I've finished so far this year -- even the books I didn't enjoy so much. I'm glad I read Spengler's Decline of the West. I'm glad I read Thackeray's Henry Esmond. I'm glad I read Blackmore's Lorna Doone. Each of these books surprised and disappointed me, and each became a chore after the first few days. But I look back at the experiences with satisfaction. I also struggled my way through about twenty-five days of Hegel this year. Hegel did not surprise me; I knew what I was in for. I knew it would be rough going, but I learned what I wanted to learn. And then there's Aristotle and Aquinas and Euclid. I take careful notes on every philosophical chapter, every theological question, every geometrical theorem, and it takes a long time to get through a page. But these guys always serve up huge rewards for the effort I put into them. When I also consider that I reread the Odyssey and David Copperfield (two of my favorite books) and discovered the beauties of the Shahnameh and Orlando Furioso, I have to say it's been an extremely enjoyable eight months of reading.

But it's been eight months of work, and now the work is over. I schedule each year this way and knew that this time was coming: the dessert that follows the meal, the coasting descent that follows the driven climb, the "Saturday in the Park" that follows the "Takin' Care Of Business." I've danced to this annual rhythm for five years now, and it works beautifully. Just as the school year gets busy and more stressful, my reading gets easier. As much as I've learned and as happy as I am with what I've accomplished from January to August, the rest of the year is filled with reading that I know will give me joy every day. I've been reading Plutarch most days at lunch for about three weeks now. I finished Boccaccio the other day and started on Bruce Catton yesterday. It's been so stimulating, I have too much to say; I've been working on four blog posts at the same time for the last three days.

I commented on four stories from Boccaccio in an earlier post, so now I'll just pick up where I left off. The fifth story of the fifth day of Boccaccio's Decameron, like some of the first four, involves two men fighting over a girl. When one of the combatants discovers, though, that she's his long lost sister, the fighting ends and his former opponent marries her. Of course the news about being siblings immediately stops the actual sword fight; what seems so strange to me is that all animosity of any kind disappears so thoroughly. Everyone's happy with everyone in the end. The girl is happy to see two men fight over her, then to find her brother, and then to get married. The brother is happy to be reunited with his sister. The groom is happy to get a bride and a new brother-in-law. The absence of emotional residue from the duel suggests to me that the two men weren't very emotionally invested in the battle to begin with. Apparently they treated bloodshed casually as a routine part of business, like a bid or a budget.

This calm acceptance of death probably came naturally to a culture surrounded by the dying and the dead. The hundred tales of the Decameron, after all, are told by ten people who have quarantined themselves to hide from the plague. Maybe a trial by battle or a criminal execution just seemed to the typical fourteenth-century European like adding a little extra humiliation to a painful event that would have happened soon anyway. Actually, execution is probably a lot less painful than death by the plague, so they may even have thought of it as a kind of mercy killing. In any case, this acceptance of violent death continues in the next two stories from day 5, each about a father who catches his teenaged daughter in bed with her boyfriend and -- as judge, jury, and executioner -- decides to kill one or both of the lovers. (I feel a special ache when I read about parents like this.) Interestingly, though, someone in each story finds a way to convince the father to change his mind. Although the society as a whole (at least the society depicted in the stories) accepts the executions as normal and right, simple arguments can change the situation pretty quickly. And each of the listeners in the framework story accepts these reversals as happy endings. Maybe medieval people weren't all so hardhearted after all. (Of course, in our advanced civilization, we don't kill the teenagers anymore; but that doesn't mean we aren't hardhearted in this situation, and it certainly doesn't mean we don't still look for someone to kill.)

The eighth story adds a supernatural element. A man takes the woman who has cruelly spurned his attentions out to the woods to witness an uncanny phenomenon: every Friday afternoon the ghost of another rejected lover hunts down the spirit of the girl who spurned him and cuts her heart out. In Scrooge-like fashion, the living woman immediately sees the error of her ways. She offers her services to her suitor, but happily, the man tells her he will not accept her offer if it means dishonoring her. So the two get married and live happily ever after, presumably -- again like Scrooge -- with no further ghostly intercourse.

The ninth includes a foretaste of The Gift of the Magi, and in the tenth, homosexuals finally show up. Dioneo, the storyteller of the tenth tale, instructs both his listeners and the reader how to receive all these stories. Treat them like roses with thorns, he says (supposedly meaning to approach the stories with both delight and caution). Leave the wicked to their misfortune, laugh at the deceptions, and feel sorry for the misfortunes of other characters. I hope I've followed the formula correctly. I know I've laughed.

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