Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Boccaccio looks back

What is it that has led men and women from the dawn of history, all over the world, to build shrines - temples, mosques, churches, cathedrals, pagodas - in honour of the divine? Thousands of volumes have been written on the subject of the origins of the religious instinct in man, but some writers have the knack of saying in one paragraph that which would stretch to three hundred pages in another's book. Here is Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian writer best known for his book The Decameron, writing in the fourteenth century on the wellsprings of the human religious imagination:

The first peoples in the first centuries, although they were very rough and uncivilised, were exceedingly eager to find out the truth by study, just as we now see everyone naturally desires this. Seeing the heavens moving continually in accordance with fixed laws, and earthly things with their fixed order and various functions at various times, they thought there must be something from which these things proceeded, and which, as a superior power, governed all other things and was not governed itself. And after diligent thought they imagined that this thing, which they called divinity or deity, was to be cultivated, venerated and honoured with more than human service. Therefore they built, in reverence to the name of this great power, large and distinguished edifices. They thought that these should be separated by name as they were in form from those in which people generally lived, and they called them temples.
Boccaccio lived in the same century as, and was a great admirer of, the poet Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, and this passage appears in his short book Life of Dante, sometimes considered the first modern literary biography. Boccaccio's meditative but supple sentences, heavy on clauses and commas because of all the different elements they gather up within their folds, present to the reader the sense of someone thinking slowly and carefully on a matter that stretches human intelligence to its limits. I like this book so much that in those idle moments when I think of which books I would take onto a desert island, or into the afterlife, if I could, it always appears on my list along with about three hundred others.

The translation of Life of Dante now available is published by the Hesperus Press, which brings out beautiful and distinctive paperback editions of little-known works, often no more than a hundred pages long, by great writers of the past. Hesperus's motto is the Latin phrase "Et remotissima prope" - to bring near what is far in space and time.

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