Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween and the Decameron

I did not plan to be teaching the Decameron over Halloween. It just worked out that way. Nonetheless, I'm struck with the similarities between the two events.

Children's Halloween and adult's Halloween are two different things. Adult Halloween is about trying on identities. When we are teens, we are able to cycle through identities pretty quickly; freshmen in my classes often end the semester with a different identity than that with which they began. Once we move into our middle 20's, though, we are expected to pick an identity and stick with it (even, I'm sorry to say, if it isn't a particularly good identity). Halloween gives us a time to play dress-up again, which probably explains why so many adult women's costumes are of the vixen variety -- it gives women the chance to dress dangerously without any real threat of social stigma. I've only seen our Chinese students dance at one ISCO dance ever: the Halloween party last week. When in costume and in the dark they lost their inhibitions. They could momentarily pretend to be someone or something else.

Children's Halloween is more like the Decameron; it is about managing our fears. When you are seven years old, you might intellectually understand that monsters aren't real, but deep down in your heart you know that they are not only real, but lurk in the shadowy corners of your house. Children can take control of these fears through Halloween. They can transform themselves into scary creatures, and be surrounded by scary creature all bound to the same quest for candy. Cookie Monster's desire to gobble cookies and the neighbor kid/ghost's desire to gobble candy turn children's fear's into something familiar, comfortable, and even a little fun.

The Decameron is like that. In the introduction, Boccaccio sets the frame story during an outbreak of the plague. He describes a city in which all social order has died: The dead are buried outside of their faith; servants rule over masters; family members are abandoned; the economy is in ruins. Surrounded by horror, the ten young people flee to the country and set up a new social order -- determining who will rule, having med to rule over the women, but fewer men than women to prevent overbearing patriarchy, etc. How do they cope with the death and disorder in the city? By telling stories, of course. Through telling stories about faith, love, and kinship, they can reclaim control of those areas that have been disordered by the plague. Their fears become managable.

Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" is what Halloween pretends to be about. Boccaccio's Decameron is what it is really about.

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