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Friday, May 31, 2013

Sin and Punishment vs. Sickness and Cure

While not reading junk fiction based on Dante, or riding my bike up and down Tuscan hills (and in and around Tuscan thundershowers!), I am also doing some real academic work! My current project is a translation of Giovanni Boccaccio's "Minor" Latin Works, or short odds and end that nobody has translated yet. Most of these texts are Boccaccio's Letters, 24 in total, that he wrote to friends and colleagues. I am now preparing the 3rd drafts of these letters, and I have come back to the XXIst, one of my favorites. Why? Because the entire letter describes, in gory detail, Boccaccio's maladies and the cure for these maladies. Written in 1373, Boccaccio is an old man, 60 years old, living in discomfort in his hometown, really a village, of Certaldo. It makes for fascinating reading.  I provide my translation of Boccaccio's description of his sickness.

"Thus, since the last time that I saw you, whom I always hold in high honor, my life has been like death, afflicted by tediousness and annoying even to me. It has not been vexed by just a single torment. Indeed, first of all I have an incessant and burning itch, a dry rash; to scratch this dry patch and dead skin it takes the constant application of my fingernails both day and night. Add to that the heavy constipation of my bowels, perpetual kidney pain, swollen spleen, conflagration of my bile, panting cough, stuffed up chest, and congested head, and many other maladies, which if I enumerated, you would certainly say that all of my body languishes and my humors are all in discord."

Boccaccio's description of his sickness reminds me of Dante's description of the sin of falsifiers in Canto XXIX:

Passo passo andavam sanza sermone,29.70We journeyed step by step without a word,
guardando e ascoltando li ammalati,watching and listening to those sick souls,
che non potean levar le lor persone.who had not strength enough to lift themselves.
Io vidi due sedere a sé poggiati,29.73I saw two sitting propped against each other-
com' a scaldar si poggia tegghia a tegghia,as pan is propped on pan to heat them up-
dal capo al piè di schianze macolati;and each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs;
e non vidi già mai menare stregghia29.76and I have never seen a stableboy
a ragazzo aspettato dal segnorso,whose master waits for him, or one who stays
né a colui che mal volontier vegghia,awake reluctantly, so ply a horse
come ciascun menava spesso il morso29.79with currycomb, as they assailed themselves
de l'unghie sopra sé per la gran rabbiawith clawing nails-their itching had such force
del pizzicor, che non ha più soccorso;and fury, and there was no other help.
e sì traevan giù l'unghie la scabbia,29.82And so their nails kept scraping off the scabs,
come coltel di scardova le scagliejust as a knife scrapes off the scales of carp
o d'altro pesce che più larghe l'abbia.or of another fish with scales more large.
"O tu che con le dita ti dismaglie,"29.85"O you who use your nails to strip yourself,"
cominciò 'l duca mio a l'un di loro,my guide began to say to one of them,
"e che fai d'esse tal volta tanaglie,"and sometimes have to turn them into pincers,
dinne s'alcun Latino è tra costoro29.88tell us if there are some Italians
che son quinc' entro, se l'unghia ti bastiamong the sinners in this moat-so may
etternalmente a cotesto lavoro."your nails hold out, eternal, at their work."

However, I find Boccaccio's description of his cure much more gory than the description of the sickness itself, which comes across as pathetic. Boccaccio's cure, delivered by a local doctor (Boccaccio does not like doctors, much like his friend and mentor Petrarch), outstrips his description of the sickness.

"The doctor, seeing that fiery stain, a sign of inflammation of the liver, reasoned from that evidence that it was necessary to immediately expurgate the superfluous and harmful material, and that that sickness required swift care; and if that cure were done, health would return on the spot; but if it is put off for a day, within four days certainly I would be dead. I feared, I confess, and I ordered that they carry out the doctor’s order. Without delay, the instruments were prepared for my excoriation, iron and fire. The irons having been reddened, they were repeatedly driven in, extinguished, and removed from my flesh, which had previously been shaved after having been burned in the same place. That skin having been broken by repeated blows, over and over again these hot irons were inflicted on me, not without my great torment. Taking these ill humors out of me was not done without the loss of much blood, indeed, as the doctor asserted, the deadly poisoned came out with the blood: then the doctor said, 'you are healthy.' "

Yikes! As Virgil says in Book 12 of the Aeneid (which Boccaccio certainly knew well) "Aegrescitque medendo," or the cure inflames the malady, or even more colloquial, the cure is worse than the disease. 

Permit me a reflection about the differences between Dante and Boccaccio's representations of physical illness. For Dante, Hell's punishments physically manifest the interior corruption, perversion, or exuberances of the soul. Illness and other physical suffering are allegorical symptoms of spiritual disease: physical disease is punishment for spiritual disease. While in Purgatorio, the diseases are curable, in Hell they are chronic and terminal. But for Boccaccio, here again showing signs of his "Humanism," his disease is only a symptom of old age. Illness keeps him from working, and when healed, albeit with great pain, he picks up the pen and composes the letter describing his ordeal. Writing is a symptom of recuperation, a sign of mental health. Perhaps this is an effect of living through the Black Death, which Boccaccio described most famously in the Introduction to Day One of his Decameron: perhaps their is no explanation for Divine Justice in sickness. 

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