There was at the time—not at the other end of the earth, but in its heart—not an island, but a city. It was called Florence. And on the off chance that something from that world still exists, it must still bear that name. It was at the time the most extraordinary city. Yet, “the noble city of Florence, which for its great beauty excels all others in Italy,”[i] along with the other Italian cities, gradually tore itself out of feudalism so as to devote itself entirely to bizness.
It gradually—not entirely, of course, but to a great extent—tore itself out from the earth, from the village and from the castle, to be integrated into a network of trade. From one city to the next, networks organize flows of data and merchandise. It is an unsurpassable axiom. Data grows in proportion to exchange and so, too, does the need to entrust this data to a system that encodes it. For thousands of years this system, which is called writing, has continued to refine itself. So, in the long thirteenth century, which is the century of Italian cities, writings are multiplying. They are multiplying in order to record exchanges and stories of exchange, in an attempt to control flows and to grant meaning to them. But not all flows, as you must have suspected, allow themselves to be controlled. Florence, a city that draws all of its power and all of its wealth from trade also suffers the full effects of the black plague, which hits it in 1348.
As far as the black plague goes, I must ask, if I may, regardless of where you come from, that you do not project your third-millennium petty bourgeois habits onto these circumstances. And you should not see my request as discriminatory, no offense. I assure you that I am just being descriptive. Anyway, this should not bring to mind hospitals, pills and curves that analyze the spread of an epidemic. You should not look at numbers, which might appear frightening, such as “hundreds of concerning cases.” That’s all baloney. Here, we are talking about true carnage. And the most extraordinary thing about it is that the human race survived. Some people speak of hundreds of millions of deaths, while others say that half of the European population was lost. That may be an exaggeration. I don’t know. But when we think of contemporary TV shows that try to pitch us horrors such as 3% of humanity vanishing at the same time or one country wiping out 10% of the population of another, it seems as though nobody would be willing to accept the storyline of the black plague: it is too demented. It’s just not believable.
Yet, this is the situation that we are faced with when we open Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It was written—and this is a first—in the immediate aftermath of an event. A frame narrative then unfolds. One that, as apocalyptic as it may be, is also essential for understanding what we are living through today.
The narrator says that he wants to tell the story of “deadly pestilence” while still hoping that hardship will be “dispersed by the advent of joy.” In the description that he offers it is all a matter of flowing, of spreading, of transmission. He could not have cared less about the reasons why: “Some say that it descended upon the human race through the influence of the heavenly bodies, others that it was a punishment signifying God’s righteous anger at our iniquitous way of life.” The narrator says this because he must, but he could not care less and neither do we. None of this matters at all. God and the heavens: it’s will-‘o-the-wisp. What counts is the world, the earth, the phenomenon of spreading and whatever is producing it. And, most importantly, that “all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing” in the face of this spreading, since all obstacles, limits and policing were incapable of stopping it. Finally, he tells us that the deadly pestilence mutated. It started in the East and made its way to the West. Over there, “it had claimed countless lives,” which was already a lot. Here, in a way, it did something worse: it attacked bodies and transformed them, making them monstrous and hybrid.
It is needless to say that death awaits. Still, there is something else that is even more frightening: uncontrollable flows of information. A virus like the plague—at the risk of an obvious anachronism—appears to be nothing more than a spreading flow of information. It causes mutations and transforms human bodies by enlarging them with boils, blotches, and animal or vegetal characteristics. The plague destroys each individual’s humanity, just as it destroys each social group’s ties and attachments. Everything becomes contaminated upon contact with the sick. The disease not only attacks bodies in good health—which, of course, is classic—but it also has an effect on clothes, which it transforms into nodes of connection.
Welcome to the Anthropocene! All life is contaminated by man! Soon, following plants and animals, geological and climate systems will also be affected. Boccaccio does not know it, but he is offering us a written account of what is to come. And soon, most importantly—which is always the case in these situations—, imaginations will get carried away as stories haphazardly abound and mythocracy goes off the rails. The rapidly spreading flows are lined with bits of sampled, remixed storylines that are now being played in loop.
In the presence of devastation, there are two scenarios that dominate. We are quite familiar with them, since they are the same ones that we still confront today. The first one constructs a vacuole for withdrawal and concealment inside the disaster’s core. The second one merges with the flows to profit from them, effectively saying: “What the hell! Let’s have a go, once and for all!” We thought the situation was new. But it is not; it is old. It has maybe even been there since the very beginning. In this, you may well understand why I see a ray of hope, insofar as The Decameron is not only a work that best describes our current situation—given that we are confined, unsure if something from the outside world still exists—but also because it offers a potentially inspiring or, at the very least helpful, way out. Thus, at the start, there are two scenarios.
Boccaccio describes the alternatives, laughing at those moderates who settle for herbs in hopes that they will combat the deadly pestilence! They want to keep going, those poor things, as though nothing were happening. We do not know how they manage, but they go on hoping that this will eventually be figured out. They are the apostles of business as usual.
Meanwhile, some others had at least understood “that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it.” And can we blame them for it? Oh, yes, of course, we can. We can blame them from the moment that they stop worrying about “anyone but themselves.” We can blame them for abandoning everything: “their city, their homes, their relatives, their estates and their belongings.” Après eux le déluge! These are the followers of secessionism. And we know what this led to in the early twenty-first century. These fanatics settled on islands off the coast of a Silicon Valley, which they destroyed along with the rest of the world. There, shielded by their billions, they could savor the finest drinks and dishes, provided that they still had a body and emotions at their disposal. And they no longer even wanted to cheat death. Those lunatics wanted to cancel it. They were no longer interested in anything other than themselves. They were transformed into cosmic ultra-individuals that were no longer in any way connected to a shared humanity. They wanted to end humanity, which was founded upon ties and attachments and had been devastated by deadly pestilence. I even have the sense that Boccaccio is harshest of all on them—if I may ventriloquize—since they represent the disastrous example of a total, generalized abandonment.
Everything is falling apart: political ties, with “one citizen avoiding another”; community ties, with “people almost invariably neglecting their neighbors”; and, worst of all, family ties, as people would “rarely or never visit their relatives” and “brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases wives deserted their husbands.” All ties are on the verge of disappearing in Florence as a result of uncontrollable flows and derailing mythocracy.
This happens in Florence, which is to say, it happens everywhere. Florence is the world and the world resembles Florence. Florence transcended itself. It is not so much the plague that contaminated Florence, as the world, contained within Florence, that contaminated the earth. Villages and rural areas are not immune to the catastrophe, either. They abandon the same things. They also do away with ties and attachments. The abandonment of a structure of time specific to rural areas is the most subtle and also, perhaps, the most essential, loss. By the way, I do not want you to think that I am pitting the nice pastoral countryside against a detestable urban plague. Once again, I am acting as Boccaccio would. He represents these two poles as though they were one. He only sees continuity. Even if literary humanity has been urbanized, as it was in Florence, it still began in rural areas where the agricultural revolution sped up the course of time.
To better see what is happening, I invite you to take a look even further into the past, five thousand years before us. Expand your depth of focus to bring into view the period when agricultural communities first came into existence, closely followed by the first cities. This is when the first writings emerged, revealing themselves to be a tool that was as necessary as it was deadly. There you already find the first totalizing fictions: religions, economies, politics and art. And there’s the rub: the first totalizing fictions do not cheat death; instead, they inflict death by ignoring it. Language and writing are still at work at the heart of these totalizing fictions, trying to divert them, but the outcome is rarely favorable.
Everything functions as a whole. And that is no doubt what bothers us and what worries us most. Agriculture, cities, writing and literature emerge at almost exactly the same time. This is because the new urban world that came out of the agricultural revolution is, by nature, a mediarchy: the management of flows and data, the externalization of memory, the quantification and fictionalization of exchange that serves to produce ties and to maintain order. Within it, we are doctors, shamans and drug dealers. We know that it is all a question of dosage, because taking too much and overdosing are never far off. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as you are well aware, we have never pushed this deadly logic so far.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Boccaccio.
We might believe that it is all over. That’s it! It’s too late. But it is never too late. Listen to the narrator. He seems exhausted. He’s out of breath: “What more remains to be said?” It’s true. What more remains to be said? But this question is rhetorical. He regains his energy because the miracle is still to come. And the miracle occurs. That’s the word that he chooses—miracle—because this is how miracles happen. They are random. We have no way of predicting them.
Just imagine this scene: it occurs in a deserted church in the form of a meeting between seven young ladies. “Each,” the narrator stresses, “was a friend, a neighbor, or a relative of the other six, none was older than twenty-seven or younger than eighteen.” None of them is a wife or a mother, even though in that time period they surely ought to have been. Boccaccio introduces them using elegant pseudonyms. He jokes around with us by claiming to defend their virtue. There is a deeper reason for this: they are bearers of stories and authors who assemble, bind and synchronize; they are no longer mere young ladies, since they cheat death. That is worthy of their pseudonyms.
One of them, Pampinea, gives a speech. It is one of the most beautiful death-cheating speeches ever to be recorded. She tells us: “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve, and defend his own life to the best of his ability.” She asks, “how can it possibly be wrong, seeing that it harms no one, for us or anyone to do all in our power to preserve our lives?” She is telling us that our attitude is strange because we have forgotten this and because we are not opting for this path to survival. She tells us that we are standing there as though all that we wanted was to simply bear witness to the disaster and to the piling up of dead bodies. She tells us that we have fallen under the spell of local brothers and mythocratic clergymen, “very few of whom are left,” and who “chant their offices at the appropriate hours,” just so that we can continue to show off our mourning clothes. They continue to feed us stories, but they are always stories that we have had enough of. And it gets worse: their thoughts are taking us over and are even marching into our homes where we see, “the shades of the departed, whose faces no longer appear as I remember them but with strange and horribly twisted expressions that frighten me out of my senses.”
This is a rebellion. Pampinea asks, “If this be so (and we plainly perceive that it is), what are we doing here? What are we waiting for?” And, most importantly, she asks, “What are we dreaming about?” Death strikes, as you would expect. But it is even worse than that: imaginations are being cheated. We have to bring them back to life. We have to dream again. She tells us that we have to leave and that we do not have a choice; she says that, when imaginations are broken, it is pointless to add fictions to fictions. By way of example she assertively bids us, as a first step, to describe and to pay greater attention to the forms that a disaster can take. Then, she tells us to leave, to break it off, to look for a refuge, to find a base of operations. If we want to rebuild, we need this pas de côté, since we cannot rebuild in a central location. We have to get out of the city. Then, Filomena, “being more prudent than the others,” points out to her that this friendly gathering is just missing a few men. Elissa goes even further and, then, suddenly, fortune strikes: three young men, of which “none in fact was less than twenty-five years of age,” enter the church of Santa Maria Novella. This gathering is beautiful, composed in this way, with seven ladies and three young men. Now, they can hit the road.
Listen to Pampinea who in her infinite wisdom tells us that “a merry life should be our aim, since it was for no other reason that we were prompted to run away from the sorrows of the city.” Pampinea is concerned with nothing other than “the continuance of our happiness.” Here is what she suggests: “I consider it necessary for us to choose a leader…” I can hear you trembling, saying, “What? The return of a boss? Out of the question! Anything but that!” But this is not what you think it is about. Let Pampinea run through her program:
“So that none of us will complain that he or she has had no opportunity to experience the burden of responsibility and the pleasure of command associated with sovereign power, I propose that the burden and the honor should be assigned to each of us in turn for a single day. It will be for all of us to decide who is to be our first ruler, after which it will be up to each ruler, when the hour of vespers approaches, to elect his or her successor from among the ladies and gentlemen present. The person chosen to govern will be at liberty to make whatever arrangements he likes for the period covered by his rule, and to prescribe the place and the manner in which we are to live.”
She does not stop insisting on freedom—the freedom to offer or to accept, the freedom to refuse, if necessary. We are lucky to witness a political experiment in vivo. And this could be enough to make us happy, deprived as we have been. But she goes even further by offering the following suggestion:
“For the moment, it would surely be foolish of us to venture abroad, this being such a cool and pleasant spot in which to linger. But if you were to follow my advice, this hotter part of the day would be spent, not in playing games, but in telling stories.”
This is where we are now, at the hotter part of the day. And this hot part of the day is burning us up; it is consuming us. There is fire everywhere. We know that Pampinea’s words are much more tragic than they appear to be. We know that they are set against every option that Boccaccio had considered, as much against the adherents of après-moi-le-déluge as against the secessionist sectarians. We know that the stories of the Decameron deploy the powers of narration against partial writings, chief among which one finds the algorithms that have come to control us. We know, on the contrary, that the fictions that we should produce must be partial, temporary and always renewable, and that together we will have to finetune them, to arrange and maintain them. We know quite well that we have a needle in our hand and that a wrong dosage could kill us. Our hopes are not excessive, since nothing is really sure. Have we not repeatedly observed that this process had worked, at least for a time? So why not do it again? And why not try it now? Pampinea turned toward Panfilo “who was seated on her right, she graciously asked him to introduce the proceedings with one of his stories. No sooner did he receive this invitation than Panfilo began as follows, with everyone listening intently…”
Translated by Jackson B. Smith
“Forever Decameron” is a loose adaption of a passage from Trompe-la-mort (Paris: éditions Verdier, 2019).
[i] Quotes are excerpted from Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (Translated from the Italian by G.H. McWilliam, New York: Penguin, 2003).