- Decameron and the Philosophy of Storytelling: Author as Midwife and Pimp
In his Esposizioni sopra la Commedia, an incomplete commentary on Dante's Inferno, Boccaccio twice invokes a passage from Augustine's City of God to the effect that just as ploughshares require a plow, and harp-strings a frame, to support them, the "significant things" of Scripture are attached to a "framework" of words that have no allegorical meaning: the attempt to wring significance from every word is a hermeneutic pitfall. Despite such warnings, certain critics, enraptured by the sheer abundance of interpretative possibilities, have been possessed by the unshakable conviction that every word, letter, and number of the Decameron is freighted with hidden meanings: the text is a dream in need of a Daniel, a riddle awaiting its Oedipus. That Richard Kuhns's new study, Decameron and the Philosophy of Storytelling, is designed to situate him squarely in this camp of inspired interpreters is evident both from his bold assertion that the Decameron "opened itself" to his interpretations "quite readily" (xvii) and his methodology, one that tends to onomastics, numerology, and strained allegories.
One of the central arguments of Kuhns's work concerns the salvific quality of stories and the pimp-like (mediating) function assumed by the Decameron, a text which explicitly declares itself a Gallehaut ("Prencipe Galeotto") and encodes — for the perspicacious reader — a subversive message having to do with the redemptive qualities of narrative. Like the Socrates of the Phaedrus, the poet, Kuhns argues, assumes the role of intellectual "midwife," or "pimp," and the manifest eroticism of so many of the tales is enlisted in a "covert" pedagogical effort to promote philosophical insight.
To students of Boccaccio, all this has a familiar ring. After all, the pattern of erotic passion converted to philosophic ends — and the crucial role of verbal and visual narratives in catalyzing this process — is not only one of the ideological lynchpins of Dante's Convivio, but is exquisitely parodied in Boccaccio's Ameto and Amorosa visione. That neither these texts nor their associated criticism is mentioned is characteristic; Kuhns's work as a whole is remarkable for the scarcity of references to Boccaccio's minor works and to Boccaccio criticism.
Wishing to preempt any accusations of having given short shrift to literary studies of the Decameron, Kuhns notes that his objective is not to provide a "literary-critical assessment" of the work so much as a philosophical, "aesthetic" one (xvii). While this decision to exempt himself from engaging in a critical [End Page 135] discourse with all but a select handful of Boccaccio scholars may contribute a refreshing freedom and lightness to his arguments, it is a liberty too dearly bought. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to a close reading of Decameron 7.9, a novella, Kuhns asserts, that epitomizes Boccaccio's method of deploying a language of subtle allusions, significant names, numbers, and so on, to convey a "latent" message. Since, however, it was not Boccaccio, but Matthieu de Vendôme, author of the Comoedia Lydiae, who assigned the names ("Nicostrato" is the one exception) and orchestrated the events recounted in this tale — a fact noted in several critical studies of 7.9 — the granting of a peculiarly Boccaccian significance to these inherited narrative elements is, it seems to me, a recipe for misreadings and misrepresentations.
Readers well-versed in Boccaccio criticism are likely to be perplexed and piqued by any number of extravagant theories and unfounded assertions. Upon what evidence or authority does Kuhns claim that Boccaccio's birth name was Boccaccino (80), that Maso del Saggio is Saint-Thomas (66) and Frate Cipolla, Boccaccio (44)? But perhaps these are cavils. More worrisome, because more far-reaching, is Kuhns's tendency to conflate Boccaccio's anti-clericism with an anti-Christian stance, and his declaration that, in contrast with Dante, Boccaccio had "cut himself loose from the doctrinal theological and religious positions of the day" (154). Boccaccio was...