I was in a Zoom session recently with a group of ten old friends -- a regular virtual meet-up that began with the pandemic, and I hope will continue when it ends. Each of us was telling stories about life in our separate places of self-imposed isolation. Strict schoolmaster that Zoom is, the software doesn't allow for over-talk, so we take turns amusing each other by telling stories, bad jokes, and recalled exploits from pre-pandemic days. There's a premium on wit and storytelling.
The structure of the conversation made me think of a wonderful book -- The Decameron. (Later, when I saw the book trending on Twitter, I realized others had the same thought.) I first encountered the book and its creator, the Florentine poet and author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), long ago in a university class on the Italian Renaissance. In retrospect, it was a class that changed my life.
Now, sitting in front of my laptop, with the faces of my squad arrayed around the edges of the screen, I had the strange sense that this 21st century mode of communication was zooming me back to that medieval villa in Fiesole, outside Florence, where the “brigata” in Boccaccio's story (ten characters, the same number as our group) are sheltering in place to escape the La Pestilenza -- the Black Death, the global pandemic that killed more than half of Florence's population, most between March and June of 1348. Dioneo, Philamata, and the other characters pass their days in the villa's garden and their evenings telling each other stories that recall the pre-pandemic worldly delights -- just like us. In our regular Zoom sessions, we had been unconsciously doing the same thing as the brigata in Boccaccio's tale, which was first published in 1353.
“Have any of you read The Decameron?” I asked, when it was my turn to speak. No one had, although several in the group had seen the raunchy Pier Paulo Pasolini film version from 1971. So, since I had the floor, I told my story about the book.
As a young man, I had planned to be an engineer, like my father, or a scientist; instead I became a writer (like my mother) devoted to telling stories about people like my father -- scientists and engineers. I try to look for the human element in complex and technical subject matter -- the soul inside the machine. Artificial intelligence has made terrific strides in the last decade, as a result of the switch to deep learning-based neural nets, but for all its processing power, A.I. is still in its Dark Ages; it lacks “humanism,” the core philosophy embedded in the Renaissance.
Much of the credit (or blame, as my father saw it) for this realignment of my career goals belongs to Boccaccio, and that class, and the man who taught it, Professor Anthony Grafton, of Princeton University, who is the single most learned person I have ever known. The professor's first lecture concerned The Decameron, and Grafton began by reading from the Preface, a vivid and horrifying account of the effects of the pandemic on Florence.
“But why begin a course on the Renaissance with the Black Death?” one of my friends asked, his face momentarily replacing mine on the Zoom screen.
“Because without the Black Death, nothing would have changed,” I answer. My friend's face looked doubtful.
I recalled for the group the professor's remarks on how the plague had unleashed technology. With so many scribes dead, experiments were launched in machine printing, leading Gutenberg's world-changing 1452 invention, the printing press.
“Did you know that The Decameron was one of the first books printed?”
“But what does The Decameron have to do with the Renaissance?” one of the brigata asked.
“Only everything,” I replied. “Think of it: the world is ending, and five years later comes the first epic prose masterpiece of modern western literature. The canon begins with Boccaccio. And the moral of his story is, ‘As long as there is storytelling, humanity will go on.' Even the Black Death couldn't quench that life force. Is there a better example of human resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity than the Decameron?”
“You mean, ‘Creativity Goes On,” someone put in, quoting Apple's post-pandemic commercial.