Beyond Seduction: A Reading of the Tale of Alibech and Rustico (Decameron III, 10)

by Marilyn Migiel
Beyond Seduction: A Reading of the Tale of Alibech and Rustico (Decameron III, 10)
Marilyn Migiel
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Beyond Seduction: A Reading of the Tale of Alibech and Rustico (Decameron III, 10)

lthough the Author of the Decameron had claimed in the Preface that his book would contain "piacevoli e aspri casi d' amore e altri fortunati avvenimenti" ("a number of different cases of love, both bitter and sweet, as well as other exciting adventures" Proemio 14; 3), the tales at the very beginning of the Decameron do not hasten to bring up the topics of erotic interest that presumably attract an audience to this book. I The entry into erotic matters is delayed, as if to represent the narrators' initial resistance-then their surrender-to the pull of concupiscence. On Day I, only Dioneo tells a story that treats of sex (in the tale of the monk and the abbot [I, 4]); his companions blush, laugh, and remind him that such stories are not appropriate for the ears of ladies. On Day II, it is the three male narrators and Pampinea (never to be outdone by one of her male companions) who tell of sex-. ual encounters: Filostrato tells the adventures of Rinaldo d'Asti (II, 2), Pampinea the story of Alessandro and the daughter of the King of England, Panfilo the tale of Alatiel (II, 7), and Dioneo the tale of Bartolomea, wife of Riccardo Chinzica and Paganino da Monaco (II, 10]). By Day III, when the group moves toa lovely enclosed garden, the desire to tell stories about sex-but especially about illicit sexual relations-has spread like the plague.

Only the Queen of Day III, Neifile, chooses to tell a story of a married woman who industriously seeks to regain her husband's affection; the rest of the group seems happy to indulge in fantasies about forbidden sexual encounters.? A number of the narrators explicitly conclude their tales with statements of their own hopes for sexual fulfillment. Filomena, for example, commenting on the happiness of two young lovers, says, "alle quali io priego Idio per la sua santa misericordia che tosto conduca me e tutte l'anime cristiane che voglia n'hanno" ("And I pray God through the bounty of His mercy that He may soon bestow the same thing upon me and every other Christian soul who has such a desire" III, 3, 55; 184). Fiammetta seconds her a few stories later when she describes the love that Ricciardo and Catella enjoyed and exclaims, "Idio faccia noi goder del nostro!" ("And may God grant that we enjoy ours as well!" 111,6,50; 202); the next narrator, Emilia, repeats Fiammetta's phrase virtually verbatim at the end of her story (III, 7, 101; 217).3 Moreover, Day III is framed

ITAUCA Volume 75 Number 2 (1998)

by two particularly provocative tales about the sexuality of the religious: Filostrato inaugurates the Third Day by telling of Masetto da Lamporecchio who willingly works the garden of a convent of nuns, and thereby gains intimate access to them (III, 1), and Dioneo concludes with a story where the hermit Rustico, by asserting that they are "putting the Devil into-Hell," induces a naive Alibech to comply with his sexual desire (III, 10).4

Dioneo's novella strains against the bounds of decorum, and raises pointed questions about the moral aims of the Decameron. After all, Alibech is an unsullied virgin, seduced by a man wielding a fiction. And to make matters worse, Dioneo exhorts his listeners to accept such behavior: "E per cio voi, giovani donne, aIle quali la grazia di Dio bisogna, apparate a rimettere il diavolo in inferno, per cio che egli eforte a grado a Dio e piacere delle parti, e molto bene ne pub nascere e seguire" ("And so, young ladies, if you seek the blessing of God, learn to put the Devil back into Hell, for this is not only pleasing in the sight of God but also to the parties concerned. And much good may rise and come from it!" III, 10, 321; 239). When the only thing that seems to stall lascivious activity is the veiled metaphor, it is not hard to see how, for many readers, the Decameron is synonymous with sex: a literary portal to libertine pleasures, a reaffirmation of the naturalness of indefatigable sexual desire, an invitation to woman to resist outmoded constraints.>

Of course, where one finds liberals and libertines, one is likely also to find more guarded and cautionary readings, some of which will openly embrace moralism. Generally speaking, readers of the Decameron tend to feel the pull of these two poles, and perhaps nowhere more than in the apparently seductive novellas of Day III. This portion of the Decameron, drawing the unexpected intervention of an Author who mounts a defense of his work in the Introduction to Day IV,6demands that readers come to terms with the invitation to illicit sexuality and take a stand on the power of the word to shape and determine future action. We had already been told at the opening of the Decameron that the book might be a seductive figure: "COMINCIA IL LIBRO CHIAMATO DECAMERON COGNOMINATO PRENCIPE GALEOnO" ("Here begins the book called The Decameron, also known as Prince Galeotto" Proemio 1; 1). No annunciatory opening could be more enigmatic. With the word "Galeotto," of course, Dante's Francesca da Rimini had railed against a book and its author, claiming they were responsible for her damnation in Hell's circle of the Lustful: "Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi 10 scrisse" ("A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote it" Inferno V, 137).7 Throughout the Decameron, we are asked to consider whether narrative fictions can be held accountable for the effect that they have on readers. Dioneo's novella of Alibech and Rustico is a watershed moment. In times other than our own, editors and translators of the Decameron have been especially vigilant in shielding readers from this novellaf Portions of the novella might be excised; on occasion a more palatable novella might be substituted.? More typically, part of the offending novella would be left in the original Italian or translated into French, conveniently censored for a reader marked as less worldly, and tacitly appealing to the reader familiar with a foreign tongue.

Guido Almansi has argued that Dioneo's novella of Alibech, Rustico, and the "devil in Hell" is structured so as to keep us from grasping its immorality. He observes that in "this neglected novella (avidly read by everybody, analysed by very few)," the "rigid symmetry of its two halves ... [the] geometric order (the order which we are all taught to accept unquestioningly) serves to filter out our anguish at a possible outrage in what we are reading" (85-86). Others claim that anyone who is scandalized by a tale like Decameron III, 10 has not really taken account of the contextual framework that determines the meaning of Boccaccio's work. Janet Smarr, for example, maintains that if we read the tale about putting the devil into hell with attention to the structures of symmetry and balance throughout entire days of the Decameron and indeed, throughout the entire work, we can understand the point of the author's including a story that others have considered worthy of expurgation. To her eyes, the overall ordering of the Decameron indicates the necessity of a moral, rather than aesthetic, reading:

The organization of the Decameron points towards a moral reading of the work. Critics who see the Decameron as a declaration of rebellion against prevailing social standards or as a work concerned with aesthetic or literary and not with moral issues, tend to treat the stories one by one and to ignore the framework within which they are set or the ways in which they may be commenting on one another within the total structure.... Boccaccio had a very special interest in order; and the framework he selected to contain his tales is one which repeatedly emphasized order in moral as well as in aesthetic terms. IO

Going a step further, Victoria Kirkham sets the tale of Alibech and Rustico in a Christian narrative of sin and redemption, and offers a prophylactic against the potential obscenity, indeed, the potentially negative pedagogy of the text. She encourages us to adopt a descriptive rather than prescriptive stance. According to Kirkham, the carnal love celebrated in Day III, which takes us on a reverse journey from Paradise, through Purgatory, and into Hell, leads to the tragedy of Day IV unless it is sanctioned by the institution of matrimony in Day V.

For these readers, it appears that a literary work can be deemed moral if one of the following conditions is met: if there is a mimetic relation between word and deed, or if there is a structural framework that is presumed to be incompatible with immoral and illicit behavior. Since the interchangeability of word and deed is not sustainable within the Decameron, where the Author and a variety of narrators (especially Dioneo) consistently maintain that there is no reliable link between fiction and life, readers who affirm the morality of the Decameron tend to invoke the supports provided by allegory, numerology, astrology, philosophy, and theology in order to stabilize the "right" reading.

Some approaches have attempted to confront novellas like Dioneo's without embracing transgression, ignoring it, or transcending it. By focusing on the rhetorical texture of the novella itself, and especially by reading the novella in light of sources and of generic conventions, they have sought to determine the weight and the parodic force of given elements in the novella. Because this kind of reading does not openly embrace moralism, it has sometimes been called an "aesthetic" reading. But the name is deceptive. Such a reading, attentive both to intertextuality and to the novella's multiple narrative levels, shows how storytelling in a work like the Decameron can educate the reader.

It is within this particular camp that I would situate the reading of Dioneo's novella that I offer here. I am interested in how Day III of the Decameron proposes an extended meditation on the nexus of word and deed, and I believe that it is this metacritical reflection on the status of the word that makes questions about the Decameron's immorality impertinent. We have no need of an ordered Christian framework to reaffirm morality (and in any case, the Decameron repeatedly reminds us that such frameworks are not fully reliable). It is clear from the immediate context of Dioneo's novella that he is no Galeotto and his novella poses no serious seductive threat to his audience. Dioneo may end his novella by exhorting the women in his audience to be like Alibech, but to address this exhortation to the far more worldly women of the group is patently ridiculous. The novella of Alibech and Rustico, far from encouraging seduction and lascivious excess, invites the reader to reflect critically on the role that language plays in the creation of desire-indeed, in the role that language plays in the construction of all social reality.

The first thing to alert us to this fact is the striking repetition of the verb dire ("to say," "to speak," "to tell") in Dioneo's introduction to his novella. Particularly worthy of remark is the decision to situate this verb so that we are forced to dwell on it:

Dioneo ... sentendo che finita era e che a lui solo restava il dire, senza comandamento aspettare sorridendo comincio a dire:

-Graziose donne, voi non udiste forse mai dire come il diavolo si rimetta in Inferno; e per cio ... io il vi vd dire. . . . (III, 10, 2-3; my emphasis) [Dioneo ... realizing that [the preceding story] was finished and that he alone remained to speak, without waiting for further instruction smiled and began to speak:

-Charming ladies, perhaps you have never heard tell how one puts the devil back into Hell; and therefore ... it is this that I want to tell. . . .] (my translation; my emphasis)

Dioneo then coyly delays entry into the story by describing first what it will offer the ladies. His language, complete with a sexual metaphor of the force of love among rigid mountains and gaping caverns (III, 10, 3), is obliquely reminiscent of Filostrato's assertion earlier in the day, that love remains strong even among the clergy and among those who work the land (III, 1, 4). There is no way not to see what is coming. Dioneo states that he is just about there: "Adunque, venendo al fatto . . ." ("So, getting to the deed . . ." III, 10,4; my translation; my emphasis). But once again, he is flirting with his audience. He isn't quite there at the actual thing yet. He has marshalled the ambiguity of the word [atio, which like storia in Italian (meaning both the events of history and the discursive account of those events), can mean both the "deed done" and the "facts" about it. So he follows up his claim that he is getting to the "thing" (thefatto) by saying, "Adunque, venendo al fatto, dieo che ... ("So, getting to the actual thing, I'll tell you that ..." III, 10, 4; my translation; emphasis mine). Dioneo knows that the reality provided by narratives is but a representation.

We are brought to ask: What is the relation between word and deed? Is the word, as a fact, a deed already done? Is it just the beginning of a slippery slope toward action? Beginning with these questions, Dioneo's novella of Alibech and Rustico charts the tension between words and deeds, between request and response, between teaching and learning. It shows how language creates the desiring subject. Using the terminology of Jacques Lacan, we could say that the drama of this novella is not that of Alibech and Rustico, but of need, demand, and desire.II


The story of Alibech begins when her interest is awakened as she hears tell of the Christian God:

non essendo cristiana e udendo a molti cristiani che nella citta erano molto commendare la cristiana fede e il servire a Dio, un dl ne domando alcuno in che maniera e con meno impedimento a Dio si potesse servire. II quale le rispose che coloro meglio a Dio servivano che pill dalle cose del mondo fuggivano, come coloro facevano che nelle solitudini de' diserti di Tebaida andati se n'erano. (III, 10, 5)

[Since she was not a Christian and she heard so many Christians in her

city praising their Christian faith and the service of God, one day she

asked one of them how she could serve God with the least impedi

ment. This person answered that the best servants of God were those

who most fled the things of this world, like those who had gone to live

in the seclusion of the Theban desert. (my translation)]

Formulating a simple question, to which she receives a straightforward response, Alibech acts immediately upon the information she acquires. She sets out toward the desert.

Simple? Actually not. Alibech's question has received an answer that fuels the possibility of further questions and quests. We begin to see how information might be reinterpreted by a young girl who is motivated "not by ordered desire but by youthful impulse" ("non da ordinato disidero rna da un cotal fanciullesco appetito" III, 10, 6), an impulse that maintains its strength as Alibech struggles across the desert ("durando l'appetito" III, 10, 6).The important thing about this impulse or drive ("appetito") is its indeterminacy, which will allow Alibech to be misled.

The first holy man Alibech meets in the desert reflects her desire back to her, by asking her what she is looking for ("la domando quello che ella andasse cercando" III, 10, 6); Alibech responds that "spirata da Dio, andava cercando d'essere al suo servigio e ancora chi le 'nsegnasse come servire gli si convenia" ("she was inspired by God, and that she wanted to enter his service, but that she had not yet met anyone who might teach her how to serve God" III, 10, 7; 236). In a short time, Alibech's yearning has grown to include not only the longing to serve God that was initially mentioned, but also a demand for the Other presumed to know. The good and holy man declines assuming the position of the Other; he knows better than to test himself. He tends to Alibech's needs by giving her food and drink, but refers her demand for masterly presence to another saintly man ("un santo uomo, il quale di cia che tu vai cercando e molto migliore maestro che io non sono" III, 10, 8). But from this second saintly man, Alibech receives the same words ("queste medesime parole" III, 10, 9), words that once again defer her demand. So she arrives at the cell of the hermit, Rustico, lie quella dimanda gli fece che agli altri aveva fatta" ("and she asked of him what she had asked of the other two" III, 10, 9; my translation). Although the first holy man had taken the initiative in posing a question to Alibech, it is not clear who asks the first question when Alibech meets the second holy man. This suspension of the voicing of demand is the necessary prelude to Alibech's assumption of that voice. For when Alibech arrives at the cell of the young hermit Rustico, she is now portrayed as taking the initiative in articulating her demand: "quella dimanda gli fece che agli altri aveva fatta" (III, 10, 9). Alibech is seeking a master who will teach her to serve God, and it is from the devoted Rustico, who is attempting to prove himself a master over temptation and a servant of God ("per volere fare della sua fermezza una gran pruova" III, 10, 9), that she will soon receive her demand back in a distorted specular form.

Accepting Alibech into his cell and preparing a place for her to sleep, Rustico seems to be attending to Alibech's bodily needs, just as the first holy man did when he gave her food and drink. His decision to focus on Alibech's need for sleep is obviously overdetermined. For Alibech, the little bed of palm leaves that Rustico prepares will be the site of the conversion of her need into demand and desire. For Rustico, the bed of palm leaves anticipates not only the glorious triumph he hopes for, but also his martyrdom.12

The blurring between need and demand-between bed as site of repose for a weary body and bed as site of sexual encounterengenders a series of double entendres that nestle within Dioneo's description of Rustico's plan, especially around the words "tentato" (meaning "attempting," "testing," "tempted"), "domanda" (meaning both "question" and "demand"), and "conoscere" (signifying the desire to know carnally as well as intellectually): "E tentato primieramente con certe domande, lei non avere mai uomo conosciuto conobbe e cost esser semplice come parea: per che s'aviso come, sotto spezie di servire a Dio, lei dovesse recare a' suoi piaceri" ("After trying her out with some questions, he came to know that she had actually never known a man before and that she was really just as naive as she appeared; so that he thought of a way that, under the guise of serving God, he could have his pleasure with her" III, 10, 11; my translation). The sentence just barely masks Rustico's motive. "Testing" Alibech, Rustico is himself "tempted"; the "questions" he asks are the sign of his own "demand"; and behind "coming to know" that Alibech is unsullied by other male hands is his own desire to "know" her himself.

Here is the primal moment: the first articulation of demand, the first question, the first temptation. Are we absolutely sure of its primacy? This is the question to which Dioneo alerts us when, in the following section, he repeats the adverb "primieramente" ("first of all") in two successive sentences:

E tentato primieramente con certe domande, lei non avere mai uomo

conosciuto conobbe e cost esser semplice come parea: per che s'aviso

come, sotto spezie di servire a Dio, lei dovesse recare ai suoi piaceri. E

primieramente con molte parole Ie mostro quanto il diavolo fosse

nemico di Domenedio, e appresso Ie diede a intendere che quel

servigio che pill si poteva far grato a Dio si era rimetter il diavolo in Inferno, nel quaIe Domenedio I'aveva dannato. (III, 10, 11; emphasis


[And first of all, with certain questions, he came to know that she had

never known a man before and she was as naive as she appeared; so he

thought of a way that, under the guise of serving God, he could bring

her to satisfy his desires. And first of all with many words he showed

her how the devil was the enemy of God, and then he gave her to,un

derstand that the best service one could render to God was to put the

Devil back into Hell, to which God had condemned him.] (my transla

tion; emphasis mine)

Dioneo had begun by forewarning us that a language might not bring us to the real thing. Now, by marking two instances of an "initial" moment, Dioneo makes us wonder whether we can ever really identify an unproblematic origin.

Dioneo is also showing us precisely how, and under what conditions, language precipitates action. Or, as the proponents of speech act theory would phrase it: How, and under what conditions, does language do things in addition to describing them?

When Rustico shows Alibech how the devil is enemy to God, he does so with "molte parole" ("many words"). Only with words does he give her to understand how she can serve God by putting the Devil back into hell. All this verbal presentation engenders a further request from Alibech (that is, more words): "La giovanetta il domando come questo si facesse" ("The young girl asked him how this might be accomplished" III, 10, 12; 236-37; emphasis mine). At this point, for the first time, the narration breaks into direct discourse, as if to signal the imminence of the deed. Rustico responds to Alibech: "Tu il saprai tosto, e percio farai quello che a me far vedrai" ("You shall know soon, and therefore you must do what you see me do" III, 10, 12; my translation).

Thus far, as I noted above, Rustico has been doing things with words alone. Now he promises Alibech that she will attain understanding when she imitates him. Here is the crucial fracture. For Rustico's strategem to work, Alibech has to imitate his bodily gestures and positions, not his narrativizing or symbolizing. He undresses, he has her undress; he kneels down, he has her kneel before him. In brief, he has to narrow the scope of Alibech's imitation. He tries to assure that Alibech reads bodily signs in strict accord with the symbolic system that he has generated. In each of his subsequent statements, he reminds her that their utterances and actions are part of a sequence of narrated events: "'questo eil diavolo di cheiot'ho parlato" ("this is the Devil I told you about" III, 10, 14; my translation; emphasis mine); "Tu di' vero, rna tu hai un'altra cosa" (III, 10, 16; "What you say is true, but you have something else" [translation mine; emphasis minel): "Hai il ninferno, e dicoti che io mi credo che Idio t' abbia qui mandata per la salute dell'anima mia ... se tu per quello fare in queste parti venuta se', chetu di''' ("You have a Hell, and I tell you that I believe that God has sent you here for the salvation of my soul ... if you have come to these parts in order to do that, as you say you have" III, 10, 18; my translation; emphasis mine). These constant reminders of their verbal exchanges serve a dual function. First, they shield us from awareness that we are no longer exclusively within the realm of the word. After all, if Rustico were to remain strictly within the bounds of the discursive, could there be a sexual transgression? More important, they bind narrative and mimetic action.

This binding of discursive practices to the real is the stuff of ideology. Rustico's fiction of the devil and Hell is supremely ideological in that it offers an imaginary representation of the actual conditions of Alibech's experience. Like all authors of fictions and narratives, Rustico is attempting to create the subject that will assume a desired role. Following Louis Althusser, who first used the term "interpellation" to describe how subjects are granted a social identity that assures them a role within a system of relations of production, we could say that Rustico "hails" Alibech into the system of social relations that he has established.13

We should not forget that the novella began with the interpellation of Alibech, who responded to what looks very much like a call to serve God. She now finds herself with a hermit who has situated himself as the authorized medium of this divine interpellation. This hermit hails her, addressing her as the privileged listener of his narrative: "0 figliuola mia ... questo eil diavolo di che io t'ho parlato" ("Oh my child ... this is the devil I told you about" III, 10, 14; my translation). To this, Alibech responds with a series of exclamations marked by an o of desire: "Oh lodato sia Iddio 0 che? ... 0 padre mio ..." ("Oh, praise be to God! ... Oh what? Oh, father ..." III, 10, 15, 17, 19; my translation). She has reaffirmed her position as interpellated subject.

This sound of 0 is the sound of human desire, and in many ways, it functions the way that Joel Fineman has described the sound of 0 in Shakespeare's Othello. In Oioneo's novella, where the religious context is more marked, the repeated 0 combines with an equally insistent repetition of the morpheme 01 in order to reveal a God (Oio) split into 01 and 0, and a subject whose cry for recognition is rendered as a choked 0 and 01 ("Odi!" "Listen!", or "Oh di'!" "Oh say!").14 These are the utterances of a fallen desiring subject. 15

In splitting the articulation of desire into the morphemes 01 and 0, Boccaccio has Dioneo echoing a pattern found in two other texts, one internal to the Decameron, one external to it. The more obvious echo is of a portion of Filostrato's tale of Masetto da Lamporecchio, told earlier on Day III. Among the most striking stylistic effects of that tale were the repetitions of the morphemes DI and a in a relatively short period: first di, di', and dt, with a brief variation on da,l6 and then 0, Oh, Ora, Oime, with intercalations of di and di', In particular, the sound of a as the sound of desire emerges in the dialogue of the two nuns as they consider acting on their sexual desire for Masetto: "Oime! ... che equel che tu di'?" ("Oh ... what are you saying?" III, 1, 25; 168; emphasis mine); "Oh" disse colei "quante cose gli si promettono tutto il dt, che non se ne gli attiene niuna!" ("Oh," answered the first, "think how many things He's promised all day long and not one of them gets kept!" III, 1, 26; my translation; emphasis mine); "0 se noi ingravidassimo, come andrebbe il fatto?" ("Oh, and if we were become pregnant, what would happen?" III, 1, 27; my translation; emphasis mine); "Or bene, come faremo?" ("Well, all right, how shall we proceed?" III, 1: 29; 168;emphasis mine).

The striking pattern of repetitions is reminiscent of the end of Paradiso V, where the pilgrim Dante sees the soul of the Emperor Justinian in the Heaven of Mercury. Beatrice, encouraging Dante to speak, says: "Di, di/ sicuramente, e credi come a dii" ( \ "Speak, speak securely, and trust even as to gods" Paradiso V, 122-23; emphasis mine).t? I believe that Boccaccio duplicates some of the stylistic peculiarities of passages such as this one from Dante's Paradiso in order to draw attention to the thematic concerns that the novella of Rustico and Alibech (indeed, many of the novellas of Day III of the Decameron) share with cantos VI and VII of Dante's Paradiso, namely: the relation between words and things, and the validity of Dialectic as a methodological tool.

In the Christian providential schema to which Dante adheres, the coherence of language and history is made possible by the Logos. The central events of salvation history are the Incarnation (the Wordmade-Flesh) and Christ's Resurrection (the indestructibility of that Word-made-Flesh). These events redeem humankind from the damnation threatened by the sin of Adam and Eve, and restore the hope of everlasting life.

Dante reaffirms these ideas about the Logos and matter in the Heaven of Mercury, which as he had pointed out in Convivio II, xiii, 11, is associated with with Dialectic. Mercury is a minor star, just as Dialectic is a minor science; Mercury is more veiled by clouds than any other star, just as Dialectic is more obscure in its procedures, given its reliance on sophistics and subtleties. For Dante, the philosophical method known as dialectics cannot by itself arrive at the truth of the providential plan, which is grounded in the Logos, a point outside the system relevant to dialectical method. Dialectics lingers within a realm where truth correspondence (the relation of words to verifiable facts) is ambiguous and uncertain.

Boccaccio has good reason to consider these issues on Day III of the

Decameron, where the subtleties and sophistries of dialectical thinking

hold sway. Neither the Queen for this Day (Neifile) nor her topic

(how, by means of industrious and clever application, desired objects

can be gained or lost objects recovered) are at fault. Decameron III re

veals how inadvisable it is to base ethical action on dialectical inquiry

without examining the initial premises. Although premises of a de

bate may seem coherent and laudable, the conclusions derived from

them are not always so. The basic syllogism of all of the stories of De

cameron III is: whereas, to love is a laudable good; and whereas, like

wise, to be industrious and committed to achieving the good is also

commendable; therefore, it is proper to use all forms of human inge

nuity in order to gain the beloved object (or recover a lost one).

The novella of Alibech and Rustico, like many of the other novellas of Decameron III, explores the relationship of word to deed within a framework offered by human dialectic with all its shortcomings. How far we have come from Dante's Paradiso, where clear and unambigu. ous language can be conceived of, and where Christ as Logos underwrites language and history! The Decameron remains uncompromisingly focused on language and history as they are constructed by humans, with no transcendent point that grants the system meaning

or coherence.

Under these circumstances (which will certainly make us think of

our own postmodern condition), parody is the only viable mode that

remains. Human language but parodies the Word-made-Flesh. Ru

stico can name male and female genitalia as "the Devil" and "Hell,"

with the consequence that he can achieve, at least momentarily, some

sort of satisfaction; but there is no context, no background, to validate

this performative use of language. Likewise, the resurrection of the

body can only be portrayed parodically, as an erection (III, 10, 13).

Counter to traditional representations of woman as diabolic, Rustico

is in possession of the devil himself. His life parodies the lives of men

who were, or might have been, holy. 18 Alibech's experience parodies

the life of a woman saint such as Mary of Egypt. 19

From here, there appears to be no way out, no definitive resolu

tion. In Boccaccio, as Robert Hollander has taught us, Dante's struggle

to proclaim a human life ordered by justice and virtue is a beautiful

fiction, but one in which it would be unwise to place great faith. Boc

caccio brings us into a world where, as Hollander sums it up,

"nothing can be finally embraced with certitude, except a sort of hu

man solidarity among those (few) of us who experience our frailty

consciously" (5--6).

This, of course, is the fallen world of Alibech and Rustico. The

doctrine of "Word-made-Flesh" that Alibech has learned from Rustico

is destined to fall short of her expectations. Her unfulfilled demand produces a "quistione" (III, 10, 31), or, using the terminology of medieval dialectics, a "quaestio.'.' Neither party can offer a definitive resolution because the dialogue between the two parties is at crosspurposes, and neither party can assume permanently a position of mastery.20 In effect, Alibech is saying to Rustico, "Who are you? Can you teach me how to serve God?'.' By this she means, "Do you know?'.' Rustico, exiting from the context of religious thought, responds with another question that is, in effect, "Who are you? Do y'ou in fact not know how to serve God? Do you not know?'.' In the proper religious context, the impulse to serve God might have been fulfilled; in the context provided by Rustico, Alibech's demand becomes desire, it becomes limitless. Rustico has no exit from the implicit contract into which he entered when he responded to her first question/demand. Since he cannot respond to Alibech's requests ("poteva mal rispondere alle peste" III, 10, 30), he resorts to other uses of language: he appeals to God as a higher authority who could stop Alibech's requests ("egli priega Idio di starsi in pace'.' III, 10, 28), and he orders Alibech to be silent ("impose di silenzio alla giovane" III, 10, 28). But the "questione" between Rustico's devil and Alibech's hell remains (III, 10, 31).

Since the novella can offer no resolution to the quaestio that has been posed, it is forced to move to a seemingly arbitrary conclusion. Rustico, Alibech's substitute father in her religious education, is liberated from the trials of hell when Alibech's true father and all his offspring and family die in an infernal 'blaze in Capsa, and a young spendthrift named Neerbale comes to marry Alibech, thereby acquiring all her family's wealth.U The focus on marriage as a purely economic venture also stands an apt mockery of "true'.' marriage.

This story about unsatisfied demands and questions ends, appropriately enough, with further questions. Upon her return to her native land, Alibech is asked by other women ("domandata dalle donne" III, 10, 33) to explain how she served God in the desert. And upon hearing her reply, they question her about the way to put the devil back into hell ("Le donne domandarono come si rimette il diavolo in Inferno'.' III, 10, 34). But the women of Capsa ask questions that are substantially different from the ones that Alibech had formulated for the holy men. Like the seven women of the "brigata," the worldly women of Capsa are able to distinguish between literal and figurative. They will not slide easily into the quandary that beset Alibech.

The (presumably not well educated) women of Capsa are inscribed in this story as readers who are neither rigid nor imprudent. Theirs is not the simple-minded moralism of those who refuse to read (or see, or listen) for fear that they will be corrupted. They hear Alibech's story and are able to derive, pleasure from the telling of it; it would appear that they would have no objection to appropriate reenactments of it. But theirs is a pleasure and a reenactment with a difference. They demonstrate, at least in this instance, an awareness that language can create, shape, and mask reality. So they are the ones who retransmit Alibech's experience as a story, a "saying": "ridussono in volgar motto che il pill piacevol servigio che a Dio si facesse era rimettere il diavolo in inferno: il qual motto, passato di qua da mare, ancora dura" ("it actually became a popular proverb, stating that the most pleasurable means of serving God was to put the Devil back into Hell. This saying, which spread across the seas to all parts, can still be heard today" III, 10, 35; 239). Sensitive to the discontinuity between word and deed, between narrative and action, and between appearance and truth, the women of Capsa are immune to seductions such as Rustico's, even as they acknowledge that there are times and places to put the Devil into Hell.

Nevertheless, a sense of prohibition lingers for many of us, myself included. When I ask high-school and college students to read this novella for my courses, I often harbor anxieties about whether someone will take offense and accuse me of sexual harassment (or worse). Yet time and again, my students prove invulnerable to the novella's conflation of word and deed. They reproduce the measured evaluation of the women of Alibech's community. Why? Because they are experts at decoding and responding to certain forms of mystification. As an audience, they are not powerless; they come to a text with a well-developed ability to offer an active reading.22 What is astonishing is that this balanced reading, a reading open to the appropriate uses of pleasure and resistant to abuses of that pleasure, is so rarely acknowledged in published scholarship.

Curiously enough, several scholarly readers who have examined the narratives parodied by Decameron III, 10 have concluded that the parodic and carnevalesque elements in this novella reaffirm the primacy and inculpability of Love.23 These readers have tried to use a theological and religious tradition as a weapon against itself. Aligned with Dante's Francesca, they implicitly invite us to see the Decameron as a seductive Galeotto-but in a world where the terms "devil" and "hell" have been redefined, and where no love can be denounced as lust.

I very much doubt that this lesson about the inculpability of Love is the one we are meant to take away from the Decameron; and as should be clear from this essay, I would also question whether Decameron III, 10 is about Love. I exhort readers instead to see the novella of Alibech and Rustico as a self-reflexive meditation about language, subjectivity, and the construction of social reality. With this novella, Dioneo positions himself as seductively beyond seduction, inviting the women to experience the pleasure in repeating a story, but having by means of his very novella made it impossible for the women to believe in a facile passage from stories about sex to sex itself.


Cornell University


IThe Italian text is taken from Vittore Branca's edition of Boccaccio's Decameron, and the English translation is that of Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. Later references appear in the text with the Italian text cited by Day, novella, and passage number, and the English translation cited by page number. On some occasions below, I provide my own translations in order to follow the meaning of the Italian more closely; translations that are mine are indicated as such.

2In describing the triumph of illicit love in Day III, Cole notes the ways in which Neifile, the queen who established the topic for Day III, resists this tendency in her story of Giletta di Nerbona (III, 9).

3Emilia makes only a very minor change by modifying Fiammetta's "Idio" as "Dio."

4In the critical discussions of Day III, particularly those that have taken shape outside Italy, these novellas have figured prominently (though sometimes to the detriment of readings of other novellas of Day III). Readings of Decameron III, 1 include: Limoli; Almansi 76-81; Cottino-Jones; Marcus; Mazzotta 105-15. Readings of Decameron III, 10 include: Almansi 82-88; Baratto 384-87; Branca, "Giovanni Boccaccio, rinnovatore dei generi letterari" (esp. 27); Kirkham; Storey; Mazzotta 117-18; Feinstein; Paolella; and Vacca. Although Feinstein presents himself as "wildly and recklessly rhetorical" to suggest that Dioneo's novella of the Third Day is the "key tale" of the Decameron because it sums up the Decameron's "transgressive spirit" (116), the idea is implicit to many other current readings of the text.

5For a representative view of the vitality of sex in the Decameron, see Lawrence.

6Despite the fact that there is no external historical evidence that Boccaccio circulated stories from the Decameron and found that the reaction to them was negative, the Introduction to Day IV has been widely used as proof of this debate between critical readers and the author. See, for example, Branca, "Per il testo del Decameron," 33-36; Scaglione 102; Simonelli 132; and Padoan 97-102. For the contrary argument, see Billanovich 153, and Fedi 45--46.

7All citations from Dante's Comedy are taken from Charles Singleton's edition and translation. 8Vacca comments on such censorship of the novella in English-speaking countries (207).

9In The Decameron Preserved to Posterity by Giovanni Boccaccio and Translated into English Anno 1620 with an Introduction by Edward Hutton, 4 vols. (London: David Nutt, 1909, rpt.; New York: AMS Press, 1967), an apotheosis to the chastity of Serictha (who "would not looke any man in the face, untill such time as she was married") is substituted for the novella of Alibech and Rustico (II, 103). The translator takes care to emphasize the moral worth of this substitution: "This Novell of Dioneus, was commended by all the company, and so much the rather, because it was free from all folly and obscoenesse" (II, 128).

lOSmarr 174. Although Smarr and I agree on the necessity of reading Boccaccio's tales within the frame that they themselves construct, we have substantially different notions about how to carry out such readings. While it is important to recognize the overall structuring of the tales and the ideological message that emerges as a result of their ordering, I do not believe that we should adopt this technique as "a way of closing our eyes to what the text is saying to us.

IIFor a concise account of need, demand, and desire in Lacan's thought, see Benvenuto and Kennedy 174-75.

12Mazzotta notes that the palm tree and its leaves are symbolic both of triumph and of "the process by which the Christian viator moves from the realm of fleshly delight to the pleasure of the Heavenly Jerusalem" (118). Although he recognizes Dioneo's ironic reversal of these traditional Christian emblems and adds that Rustico's "carnal delights" tum to "hellish punishment," he does not note that the palm leaf is also traditionally the emblem of the Christian martyr. Cesare Pavese does appear to grasp the ambivalence surrounding the palm leaf, as the opening of "Si parva licet" suggests (see Racconti 216).

13See Althusser 128-32. 14When I pointed out the morphemes that evoked God ("Dio''), Irene EibensteinAlvisi called to my attention the possibility of the reverse reading ("odi ").

15Vacca notes only the first of Alibech's exclamations ('0 che?), and she reads it, along with the "0" of Filippo Balducci's son ("0 come si chiamano?"), as the sign of these characters' "innocence and credulity with respect to the duplicity of their teachers" (225). Vacca reads these exclamations of "0" differently than I do, because she is operating on a model that risks conceiving of language as referring only to things that exist independent of language. In disagreeing with Vacca's reading, and proposing that we see Alibech's "0" as the 0 of desire, I am taking issue with the linguistic model that Vacca espouses. Language is also involved in creating things that have absolutely no existence apart from language (e.g., desire, marriage, money, property, etc.)

16Theabbess begins by recognizing Masetto's potential usefulness to the convent: "In fe di Dio tu di' il vero! ... dagli ... dagli ..." (''By God's faith, what you say is true ... give him ... give him ..." III, I, 17; my translation; emphasis mine). She then receives confirmation from the steward: "II castaldo disse di farlo" ("The steward said he would do so" Ill, I, 18; 167). The pattern continues as one of the nuns notices Masetto and contrives a plan ("se io credessi che tu mi tenessi credenza, io ti direi un pensiero ..." ("If I thought that you could keep a secret, I would tell you an idea of mine ..." III, I, 21; my translation; emphasis mine), to which her companion responds, "Di sicuramente, che per certo io nol ditc" (''You can tell me without fear, for I shall certainly tell no one else" III, I, 22; 168; emphasis mine).

17Moreover, Beatrice's repetition of the morpheme di carries over into the pilgrim's speech to Justinian, and the poet's description of it in Paradiso V, 124-32.

18Rustico clearly pales in relation to predecessors whose name he bears. Muscetta cites Vittore Branca as calling our attention to the relevance of Jerome's Ad Rusticum; Muscetta goes on to mention the legend of Saint Rusticus, which Boccaccio had himself transcribed in his Zibaldone Magliabechiano (220). Vacca analyses Dioneo's novella as a pointed commentary on the construction of sexual morality in texts such as these. Storey, on the other hand, discusses Rustico in light of the lives of the desert fathers.

19Paolella was the first to advance this argument, which has been reiterated most recently by Di Girolamo and Lee 152.

20Storey argues that the novella's humor lies in the reversal of dominant position: "The devil, the eager seducer in the first half of the tale, is now subject to the aggressive advances of Alibech as the desirer becomes the desired, effecting a total reversal of the direction of the narrative's action" (168).

21Wallace notes that the fire in Gafsa is a "crude narrative device to get Alibech back to civilization," and though he acknowledges that "storytellers often take drastic steps to enforce narrative closure," he expresses concern that "it does seem excessive to incinerate an entire family in a single sentence" (46-47). He ultimately justifies the narrative move by noting that it "exemplifies Dioneo's privileged talent for subversion" (47).

22To spell this out further: Even relatively inexperienced readers of literature, even the less educated, are practiced readers of social experience. This is evident in studies of children's response to television, such as that of Hodge and Tripp. As Fiske notes, "Hodge and Tripp assume that children are not fools or passive dupes able to be affected against their will and against their interests by the wicked stepmother called television. Rather, they assume that children are engaged in a constant active struggle to make sense out of their social experience, and that television plays an important role in that struggle" (68).

23Paolella reads the story as an affirmation of "liberta carnevalesca," in which a sin committed on account of Love is blameless and requires no repentance ("e esente dalla colpa e non ha bisogno di alcuno pentimento") (204-05). Storey also concludes, "In the end, the monk's traditional morality and chastity are supplanted by a doctrine of naturalezza, in which Love becomes the ultimate auctoritatas [sic]"(175).

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