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From Shirazi to Boccaccio: The literary legacy of pandemics

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27.03.2020

As the cases and casualties of COVID-19 increase globally, medical professionals are deeply concerned not just about the virus itself, but also about the increasing anxiety and sheer fear people are experiencing as they try to deal with the pandemic.

As people around the globe are asked to self-isolate, practice social distancing, and altogether lead a hermetic life to help "flatten the curve" of human catastrophe, there is no doubt something in the very texture and disposition of the global village is changing, and changing rapidly.

A key question today is how to survive not just the pandemic itself, but to do so with a healthy and robust constellation of our mental, moral, creative and critical faculties.

Recently I read a delightful piece by Andre Spicer in the New Statesman about Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century book The Decameron and how it can show us how to survive coronavirus.

Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348 to guide fellow Italians on "how to maintain mental wellbeing in times of epidemics and isolation". The racy stories in the book are allusions to the power of storytelling to maintain robust mental health in a time of overwhelming anxieties.

"That meant protecting yourself with stories," Spicer tells us, "Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic." That sounds like a perfect recipe these days, too.

Boccaccio's novel has served other purposes in more recent years. The 1971 film The Decameron, based on Boccaccio's 14th-century masterpiece, was the first movie of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life, which........

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