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  • The Passions of the Body in Boccaccio's Decameron
  • Irene Albers

I. Pathognomy in the Novella

The sixth day of Boccaccio's Decameron begins with a very short and apparently insignificant story. A knight wants to shorten a woman's long journey with a narrative, a "novella," but he is a bad storyteller, who mixes up names, muddles, and hopelessly botches the story. The reaction of his female listener is described in the following terms: "Di che a madonna Oretta, udendolo, spesse volte veniva un sudore e uno sfinimento di cuore, come se inferma fosse stata per terminare [. . .]."2 Thus, Madonna Oretta reacts bodily to the aesthetic and linguistic failure of the novella: the blockage of the narration causes the sweat to flow from her pores and her heart to miss a beat. Sentences like this one are often skimmed over, as if they referred only to formulaic bodily reactions and gestures, long become cliché, that do not contribute to the meaning of the text. In contrast, the purpose of this article is to explore such notations of the physical by regarding their ambiguous reference to language and body, poetics and somatics, literature and anthropology. The novella about Madonna Oretta shows both the close relation between bodily and linguistic gestures and the poetological dimension of the theme, since it refers to the bodily and emotional impact of storytelling, which was already a subject of ancient rhetoric. As a "metanovella" that thematizes novella telling, the story which Boccaccio places at the exact center of his Decameron hints at a poetics of the bodily emotions that will remain specific to the genre [End Page 26] of the novella until the seventeenth century.3 Whether in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, Bandello's Novelle, Boaistuau's and Rosset's "histoires tragiques," Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares or María de Zayas's Novelas amorosas y ejemplares, just to name the major works, one always encounters numerous references to both expressive body movements and gestures related to emotions. Because the subject of the novella, from Boccaccio onwards, is the tragic or comic encounter between physiological needs and moral or social norms, between "nuritura" and "natura," this form of affective and pathetic body language is of fundamental relevance to the overall meaning of the text.4 The novellas refer, in particular, to what today are often called the somatic automatisms or vegetative epiphenomena of emotions.5 These include such involuntary physiological symptoms as blushing, turning pale, being paralyzed by fear, crying, fainting, horripilation (i.e. goose bumps), sweating, trembling, fever, etc. The conspicuous frequency of such somatic automatisms is also found in Kleist's stories (in part drawing on the Romance novella). While the phenomenon has often been commented on in Kleist scholarship, it has hardly attracted attention in research on the Romance novella.6

The superordinate area of "gestures," that which Lavater calls, in [End Page 27] the context of his research on physiognomy, "pathognomy,"7 and Darwin, "expression of emotion,"8 and Wilhelm Wundt, the "expressive movements" (the German word is "Ausdrucksbewegungen")9 of the body, has always received exceptional status, because it can neither be fully assigned to the psyche, nor to the body. Thus, the actor Johann Jakob Engel (1741-1802), in his important treatise Ideen zu einer Mimik (1785-86), endeavors to differentiate between bodily reactions which do have purely somatic causes (when exhaustion causes one's eyes to close or quick running leaves one out of breath) and those, which can be ascribed to "effects of the soul." Engel refers to the latter as "physiological gestures":

Among the physiological gestures, there are many which simply do not obey the free will of the soul, which can neither be kept back when real sentiment draws them forth, nor be generated when real sentiment is lacking. Thus are the tears of sorrow, the paleness of fear, the blushing of shame: phenomena which I should not properly call gestures, but which may be so called according to my somewhat broader explanation.10 [End Page 28]

The main distinction in this passage is that between voluntary and involuntary, intended and unintended (and impossible to intend) acts of expression. The nineteenth century does not...


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