“The fabric of life itself is woven into and by stories.”
The pandemic has changed Stanford. The university has sent most of its students and staff away, and the buildings are locked. Even construction has come to a halt. The radio station KZSU has also closed down its studios, hence this episode of Entitled Opinions was recorded from the campus home of its host, Robert Harrison. “No one knows what lies ahead,” he said in this episode. “No one can say what the future holds in store – how much will have been lost, altered, disfigured, or reconfigured by the time we get to the other side of this pandemic. I’m talking about the future of the polity, the economy, social and political institutions, as well as the way one’s personal fate will be inflected by the world to come.”
“The world is always a world we share in common,” he continued. “We’re not meant to live inside our own heads for too long. When we do, we discover just how insubstantial the egoic self is when it’s world-deprived. And then you realize there is nothing you can do to constitute or reconstitute the world yourself. You are in need of others.”
Our world isn’t the first to make that discovery: the seven women and three men who leave plague-stricken Florence for the countryside recreate their own world of order and beauty. And in the ten days that follow, they tell a hundred stories to entertain each other. The result is The Decameron.
“Human culture has its origin in stories, and its ongoing history is one of endless storytelling. Where would we be without stories? Without the art of recounting them? Without their narrative organization of events and their structuring of time?” storytelling is one of the most basic forms of human interaction. The fabric of life itself is woven into and by stories, so much so that the quality of human conversation depends to a great extent on our mastery of the art of narrative. This art is something we either bring or fail to bring to bear, day in and day out, on our relations with others.”
Their escape from plague-ridden Florence doesn’t “change” anything, and they return to the horrors they had left behind. “Yet meanwhile the stories of the Decameron, like the garden settings in which they are told, have intervened in reality after all, if only by testifying to the transfiguring power of form.”
(The discussion focuses on the preface, introduction, and first tale in the book. Listeners are encouraged to read these in advance. The Project Gutenberg e-book of The Decameron is available at no cost here.)