We’re living through an international emergency, whose real hideous face we have yet to see. But in every emergency, there is something to find consolation in.
Boethius had his own personal emergency as he was waiting on death row for the vagaries of a capricious king. He made wisdom his consolation and welcomed its arrival in the guise of Lady Philosophy. His stoicism assured his fame over the centuries, and although many drew water from his well, we find it hard today to identify with his predicament.
Dante found brief consolation in revilement. It soon became clear to him that one must rise above spite and embrace the beauty of the universe, which stands above the stench of the sublunar world. The Inferno was a misguided starting point, but an existentially unavoidable induction. We cannot endorse his ill-advised solace these days, however bitter the exile and however great the loss. He learned, and we know, that love governs all and disarms all evil.
But perhaps there is someone we can consider our fellow in distress. I submit to you Giovanni Boccaccio. Perhaps our generation may find no better instructor in the art of consolation through the power of jest and storytelling than him: the master of memorable memes, the architect of razor-sharp raillery, the one who truly knew how to keep his social distance from pretension and disdain. He can instruct us on how to flee the plague of our own sanctimony, how to minimise contagion with self-importance and how to tell a bloody good story in times of trouble, when there are cracks and tears in everything, from the social fabric to our immune system. The Decameron is the decalogue for a world out of joint, of exposed inequalities and pain, where to flee is not so much about running away from danger, but finding shelter on a common pilgrimage, with others under the arcades, for sharing a piece of bread, a glass of wine and the best story you’ve ever had to tell.