Sunday, March 29, 2020

"You must read, you must persevere"

Scene from Decameron (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    Facebook gets a lot of grief, but I find it helpful. Not only do you see the news stories your friends are tossing up, with a cry of alarm, increasingly nowadays, but also sharing warm and encouraging human moments—some choice ones that I solicited are the basis for my Monday column.
     On Friday I was tired, so rather than read, I began listening to a new book on Audible. Well, not a new book—it's The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, completed in 1353. I would have never thought to read it, but was reminded of it, on Facebook, by my friend Michelle Durpetti, which just goes to show that running a steakhouse and being well-read are not mutually exclusive.  
     This was her post Friday at 8:07 a.m.:
”You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark... —Giovanni Boccaccio
     I have had the privilege of reading this twice in English and three times in Italian. Looking for a truly special read, especially now?
     Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was the first great masterpiece of European storytelling.
     In the summer of 1348, with the plague ravaging Florence, ten young men and women take refuge in the countryside, where they entertain themselves with tales of love, death, and corruption, featuring a host of characters, from lascivious clergymen and mad kings to devious lovers and false miracle-makers. Named after the Greek for “ten days,” Boccaccio’s book of stories draws on ancient mythology, contemporary history, and everyday life.
      That was good enough for me. I probably should wait until I'm done—28 hours of listening on Audible—and make my report, but frankly I don't see the need for delay. The Decameron is laugh-out loud funny—particularly the second story, where two Parisian merchants are friends, one Giannotto di Civignì, a 'thoroughly honest, upright man," a cloth merchant, who "entertained a singular friendship" with a wealthy Jew, Abraham, who was also a very good man. 
    Giannotto feels distressed that Abraham should be consigned to hell "for not possessing the faith, so he took to urging him in friendly fashion to forsake the errors of the Jewish faith and turn instead to the truth of Christianity."
    The Jew "remains obstinate and would not be converted." Giannotto perseveres in his efforts. Eventually he wears Abraham down, and he says that yes, he will convert. But first he wants to go to Rome and see the man Giannotto calls "the vicar of God on earth."
   "I wish to acquaint myself to his style of living and that of his brother cardinals," says Abraham.
    This news devastates Giannotto, who suspects that a visit to the Vatican would sour the strongest believer. "All my efforts gone to waste," he broods. "If he goes to the Court of Rome and observes the impious and disgusting lifestyle of the clergy, far from turning to Christianity from Judaism, he'd revert to being a Jew if he'd already turned Christian."
    But Abraham persists, as Jews tend to do, goes to Rome, where he sees the utter corruption of the papal authority.
     "Every one of them from the greatest to the least was given over to the worst sort of lechery. Not merely the kind which accorded with nature, but also that practiced by sodomites. They did so, moreover, without a scrap of shame or conscience, and the courtesans and pretty boys could ask the earth in exchange for their favors. Aside from their lechery, they were one and all gluttons, he discovered, topers forever at the bottle and like brute beasts more concerned with stuffing their paunches than anything else. On further scrutiny he found that they were all so grasping and money grubbing that they would buy and sell human, nay Christian, blood,  and by the same token sacred objects of whatever sort."
      There's more, but you get the idea. That brought a smile, to remember that while we consider ourselves apostates for questioning our religious leaders, that tradition goes way back, dwelling at the heart of our culture.
      But that wasn't the laugh-out-loud part. The truly funny moment is Abraham's conclusion. 
     "A sober and temperate man," he surveys the corruption and debauch, "grieves not a little," and returns to Paris. 
     "What an unspeakable lot," Abraham tells his friend all about it, not only the lack of the smallest degree of holiness or mercy, but also "lust, greed, gluttony, deceit, envy arrogance, and worse." 
    The Holy See, he continues, seems to be putting all their effort and skill in expunging the Christian religion rather than preserving it.  Then Abraham reaches a surprising conclusion.
     Despite the best efforts of its leadership, he observes, Christianity "continues to spread and acquire ever brighter radiance. I think I'm right to see the Holy spirit at work in it."
     In other words: only the direct intercession of God Almighty and His continuing favor could bring success to a religion otherwise so thoroughly undermined by the evil of its leaders. Abraham declares "nothing will stop" him from joining such a mighty faith.
    "Let us go to church and have me baptized," Abraham insists. Together they proceed to Notre Dame. Giannotto is his godfather.

You can learn more about the version I'm listening to on Audible here. 



  1. Amusing and it's good to learn of this writer.

  2. I think you're undervaluing the value of that "genteel." Given the virulent anti-Semitism, then and now, and the grotesque caricatures accepted at face value, to have them presented as friends and equals I thought was significant. Taking offense is so common that it's almost devoid of all value at this point, and doing so at a 670 year old work, well....

  3. Love the irony and humor in the original writing and, of course, love how this blogger presents it. Going to read the book for sure. As far as what other blog readers mentioned about the anti-Semitism, my mind didn’t go there. You could also say, if one leaned in that direction, that the debauchery and corruption depicted at the Vatican was a slam against Christianity. Could be Boccaccio was neither an anti-Semitic nor a practicing Christian — merely a witty observer of the human condition, and a very clever writer like Neil Steinberg!

  4. I've never used an audiobook. But I am a little surprised at your statement that doing so is less tiring than reading. I'd think it would be the opposite. When you're reading, you can stop any time or go back over what you just read but weren't paying attention to. Don't you have to constantly concentrate when you're listening?

    But as I said, I've never tried it. Maybe I should.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Can't remember exactly what I said, but don't believe it was incendiary. I liked The Decameron.


    2. Which is why "slip of the hand" is significant. Sometimes I go to post comments, but I'm actually in the already published comments, where the box I check to delete them is in the exact same location, as the box checked to post them in the Unposted Section. Confusing, I know.

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