By the time this exercise is finished, students have a tiny, thought-experiment taste of the trauma of the plague. Suddenly, the idea that you might need to tell stories to reconstruct your life doesn't seem all that absurd. The opening story of The Decameron, about Ser Cepperello, transforms from a story about esoteric questions about grace and faith into a more pointed story about the questions that must have confronted Europeans after these plagues -- Did my loved ones who were not especially faithful go to Heaven? Has God abandoned us? If we had just prayed for intercession to a different saint, would God have spared us?I haven't read The Decameron--a gap in my education I hope Dr. Nokes will forgive--but will soon. I have a hunch that, much like Children of Men and Narcissus and Goldmund, its lasting value isn't in the answers it seeks, but in the questions it raises.
You've got to be careful about these sorts of exercises. It would be easy for sadistic personalities to use them as an excuse to psychologically torment students. If every class is an emotional spectacle, the effect can be dulled by over-use. Still, I've found it is one way to help students connect with the book on a deeper level. It never seems frivolous to them again.
Mar 31, 2007
a Plague of doubt
Just over a week ago I finished Narcissus and Goldmund. It wasn't my favorite novel, but I found its depiction of the Plague particularly terrifying. Now, in another bit of synchronicity, last night I watched Children of Men for the second time, and then read a Richard Nokes' fantastic piece on teaching The Decameron this morning.