Parables of the Plague

By Elena Comay del JuncoApril 3, 2020

Parables of the Plague
It is of course a function of my rather narrow social class that the Decameron has become suddenly present. But even if the uptick in its popularity remains somewhat niche, it is not any mystery. Given the uncertain crisis under which we are all — and for once it feels acceptable to make such a sweeping statement — living, albeit it in very different circumstances, there is an obvious appeal in the fantasy that we might have something in common with a group of young, and presumably beautiful, Florentine aristocrats fleeing the plague for a country villa overlooking the besieged city. The general tone is that the book has “lessons” for us, that we can read it as self-help: “The 14th-century Italian book that shows us how to survive coronavirus,” one such article declares. Another declares that Boccaccio’s depiction of suffering and cruelty within the city should serve “as a warning.” (The fact that the Decameron’s Tuscan setting is a short couple of hundred kilometers south of the epicenter of the Italian outbreak in Lombardy also probably contributes.) In a lighter tone, one literary website declares in the title of their monthly round up of book reviews that the “Decameron is online.”

Of course, it is Boccaccio’s frame story that is presently of interest, rather than the content of any of the hundred tales told over the course of ten days by the ten aristocrats. The stories themselves have rather little to do with the plague. But the idea that we might pass our time in social isolation so pleasantly is undeniably seductive (it also helps that Boccaccio’s frame has what might be crudely called a happy ending).

Much as I understand the appeal of a text like the Decameron right now, there is also something intolerably superficial in its optimism. Not everyone is optimistic, of course. The most popular title on Netflix is Contagion, an admittedly mediocre movie about a severe respiratory illness that throws the planetary order into complete disarray. But instead of, or at least in addition to, catastrophizing about the costs of disease to human life, we would be well advised to consider the costs of the response.  The president’s line that the cure is worse than the disease is of course outrageous. Nevertheless, even if the cure may be necessary, its harms must not be ignored.


Before he was murdered in 1975, the leftwing Italian writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini made film adaptations of both the Decameron and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Sade’s novel, written in his own form of isolation (imprisonment in the Bastille) is not a literal quarantine narrative. But it is both a story of confinement and isolation. Unlike the Decameron, with which it shares — along with the Canterbury Tales and the 1001 Nights, both of which Pasolini also adapted for the screen — it is not, however, optimistic. In the 120 Days, the storytellers are four aging prostitutes, brought in to encourage four libertines who have taken captive sixteen teenagers, in addition to four of their own daughters, in order to torture them sexually, physically, and emotionally before killing them.

I do not mean anything so tendentious as to suggest that Sade’s story is a literal parable for our own isolation. The sort of simplemindedness with which the Decameron has been taken up will not do in this case. But Pasolini was right to see a deep affinitiy between the Decameron and the 120 Days: to put it bluntly, the latter is the dark mirror image of the former.

For our part, we might hope that quarantine will include, in addition to anxiety about our jobs, our loved ones, our communities, opportunity for simple pleasures. Board games, calls with friends, reading novels, craft projects. Walking has suddenly become a favorite social activity — spaced at a responsible six-foot distance, of course.

But even the modern equivalent of fleeing the city is hardly innocent. We have reports of wealthy New Yorkers spreading the infection to the Hamptons; the Scottish government has called on owners of holiday homes in the Highlands and Western Isles to refrain from retreating to their property, for fear of overburdening the already stretched thin rural healthcare system. Sade’s libertines barricaded themselves in a castle accessible by a single narrow bridge. Year-round residents of eastern long island, meanwhile, wonder — perhaps rightly — if they “should blow up the bridges” to keep out selfish and infected Upper East Siders. (Sade’s libertines, for their part, destroy the bridge leading to their fortress.)

Such explicit selfishness is visible in any emergency when the imperative for survival is suddenly brought to the surface. Already in the impulse of the rich to flee to the countryside, we see an indifference to the effects this will have on others. And the callousness of the White House’s response needs no lengthy elaboration: profits must be maintained, regardless of the human costs.

But in addition to these more easily identifiable acts of selfishness, there is a more silent danger. I mean by this the coldness and cruelty, the callousness, indeed the sadism, that will begin to come to light. What is distinct, though, about this crisis — in contrast, say, to the same sorts of behaviors that emerge in times of war or natural disaster — is the fact that much of this cruelty will happen behind closed doors. Indeed, the simple and yet potent lesson to learn from Sade is that cruelty in its fullest form, though it requires a group to egg each other on, also requires privacy.

Though the mutual aid projects and community initiatives springing up around the country are heartening, and much as we take succor in videos of Italians singing from their balconies, isolation breeds a particular kind of selfishness. Loneliness and precarity are only some of the risks of an indefinite period of being largely confined to our domestic spaces. Predictions of major spikes in domestic violence are now being borne out: in addition to being confined with abusers, the resources available to victims — sparse and insufficient at the best of times — are themselves becoming radically less accessible. Mental health suffers. In rich countries, food insecurity is on the rise. In poorer ones there is talk of starvation and famine.

None of these cumulative harms bear the concentrated force of Sadean violence. But their diffuseness makes them less visible and therefore far more dangerous. Indifference to the pain of others, a pathology of modern life at the best of times, risks slipping into genuine cruelty.

One of the more provocative ways of reading Sade is that his cataloguing of infinite modes of violence is simply the logical endpoint of Enlightenment rationalism. For a number of twentieth-century critics, Sade’s depiction of the amoral pursuit of pleasure at the expense of all others represents the culmination of Immanuel Kant’s injunction to treat all others equally. Kant tells us that in order to keep within the narrow bounds of morality, we must “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This is a merely formal criterion: any act that can satisfy it is justified. But in the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s provocative formulation, Sade’s novels represent the perverse culmination of Kant’s formula. For Sade, “‘I have the right to enjoy your body,’ anyone can say to me, ‘and I will exercise this right without any limit to the capriciousness of the exac­tions I may wish to satiate with your body.’”

Kant is rightly seen to be the forefather of our liberal political order. The idea that all must be treated equally, that laws must apply just in the same way to all people, are shot through the very structure of our social order. The flip side of this, though, is the individualism and isolation that have only increased since we were introduced to the notion of the “atomized individual” at the turn of the last century by Max Weber and other sociologists.

The breakdown of social bonds and the move toward individual self-interest as the reigning ideology already gives cover to the unleashing of cruelty, particularly toward strangers. (Indeed the Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s claimed that not only Sade, but also the cataclysmic violence of National Socialism, emerged as the tragic endpoint of Kantian liberalism.)

This is already with us at the best of times and our tendency to look away is already culpable. Now, though, in addition to the atomized existence under which we already live, we have been robbed even of the paltry public sphere and retreated behind our walls. If cruelty is a threat of our mode of existence at the best of times, let us be particularly wary of what is to come under the new reality. In particular, let us make sure this does not become the new normal.


Elena Comay del Junco is a writer and academic.

LARB Contributor

Elena Comay del Junco is a writer and academic.


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