The End of the World

| May 10, 2017 | 0 Comments

Don’t you wonder how you’d handle the end of the world? I bet you’ve thought of how you’d handle the zombie apocalypse, if nothing else. The idea that the world is ending occurs throughout cultures and times, from early Christianity to the Mayan Empire, so much so that it seems a constant human fascination, almost a part of our nature.

I recently started reading The Decameron in one of my courses. The book is a series of Italian stories from the 1300’s — think The Canterbury Tales — with a very interesting frame story which holds them together. The tellers of the stories are fleeing Florence for a short stay in the country, and in the process of describing that plague-ridden city, the author, Boccaccio, introduces some pretty interesting ideas about human nature.

Some of the citizenry respond to the plague by partying. They could die at any time, so they might as well go out having a good time. They eat out, dance, and get laid.

Another portion of the people spend all their time in church, praying and preparing for the next life.

There are, of course, scavengers — the people who take advantage of the crises and find employment carrying the bodies. Many houses are looted and crime becomes rampant. Strangely, Boccaccio seems to judge no one, opportunists included, as vehemently as he judges those who fled the city alone, abandoning their kin. He says that the plague will most likely get them anyway, but far in the country, without hope of help.

But there is a last group of people — the characters who leave Florence to tell the stories of The Decameron, and who head out into the countryside. Boccaccio does not judge them as he does the other cowards who have left the city, because their trip seems to be much more proper and temporary, a respite rather than refuge from the city. They party, but only in ordered, socially acceptable ways; they meet in church, by chance, so they must pray; but they also reveal another way to cope with the end of the world as they know it.

photo credit: Ramon Boersbroek Monte Subasio via photopin (license)

photo credit: Ramon Boersbroek Monte Subasio via photopin (license)

They tell each other stories. Lewd, outrageous, hilarious stories — sometimes sad, sometimes sweet, sometimes astoundingly pragmatic. Because the world is falling apart, they leave morality partially to the wayside, and many stories that should end in death end in astounding and unconventional forgiveness. Men who would murder their cheating wives in a regular story end up going to bed with them and their lovers; best friends cuckold each other, and instead of fighting, decide to become a polyamorous community. The stories satirize, accept, and celebrate the world which has been escaped, one in which nothing is serious but much pleasant.

Funny that though The Decameron mentions the women going home at the end of the story — and the men going out — all characterizations of respite describe people coming together, whether feasting, fasting, or temporarily fleeing. Perhaps that is why he judges those who depart the city permanently, abandoning their friends and families. How incredibly foolish they must be, to choose to face the end of the world alone.

I do not have much to offer you, by way of interpretation or application. Even the categories of coping I have offered are, ultimately, specious. In Dionysian revels, prayer and partying were one, and Jesus’ first miracle was turning water to wine at a party. The Bible is a series of stories — astounding, at times, for their violence — and yet few could think of an item considered more holy. Is not a story well-told, a painting well-painted, a song well-song, in and of themselves acts of worship? Certainly their composition requires sacrifice and focused devotion, worship’s foremost components; and like the worshipper, the artist can only hope for an audience.

I know what I’ll be doing, if and when it comes. But what about you? What will you be doing, at the end of the world?


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Category: Art and Literature, featured, Reflections

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