The Decameron John William Waterhouse 1916

Introduction

Although in Poland have been struggling with the coronavirus only since the beginning of March (in many countries the virus appeared a few months earlier), we still do not know how to adapt a rational approach to it. Even the masks – the symbols of the plague – raise questions: should we or should we not wear them? As the number of questions rises, there are also more specialists who share their opinions. Some say that although masks do not protect us from others, they do protect others from our viral load. Therefore, if everyone decides to wear a mask, we will find ourselves in a biblical land world where everyone protects everyone. Some specialists assure that a mask with a right filter can protect not only other people, but also the person wearing it. There are, however, many specialists who say completely the opposite. According to them, a healthy person who wears a mask needs to change it often, otherwise they will create for themselves a small gas chamber filled with bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Ireneusz Domagała – Transforming Face Masks Into Art

Masks can sometimes serve as an inspiration. Ireneusz Domagała, an artists based in Poznań who has created over 60 stage and costume designs, decided to join the national discussion on masks.He seems to be all in favor of wearing masks. In late April, the artist published on his Facebook profile a photo of himself wearing an extremely intriguing mask. Each day, Domagała published more photos of himself wearing a different mask. The set I received from him on 1 June featured 54 photos. I suspect that he has greatly exceeded this number by now. Why are masks so intriguing? First of all, because they want to be something more that non- masks that protect us and others. Instead, they want to become masks that we use in the arduous process of building our own identity and diagnosing the context of the time of the plague. And that is precisely why every single mask  indicates a certain important context of the situation we are experiencing. Domagała’s masks do not emerge from cultural void, but are a result of  reaching to various artistic traditions. The title of each work, on the one hand, makes commentary on the current situation and, on the other, makes references to tradition. The first work from the cycle is entitled The Time of Interrupted Continuity – Mask á la Fontana. Among other works we can find projects like e.g. The Time of Splashed Intentions – Mask á la Pollock /Jackson/, The Time of Closed Operas – Mask á la Degas /Edgar/,  The Time of the Revolutionary Refusal of the Old Age – Mask á la Kobro /Katarzyna/,  The Time of Walks as Speedy as a Dog on a Leash – Mask á la Balla /Giacomo/, The Time of Extreme Mood Swings – Mask á la Mark /Rothko/, The Time of Dead Values of the Political Class – Mask á la Kantor /Tadeusz/, The Time of Infectious Ventilation pipes and Air Conditioning- Mask á la Fernand /Léger/. There is also an autothematic work entitled The Author’s Camouflage – Mask á la Domagała.

Pluralism in a Time of Pandemic

Difficult times can definitely be conducive to the plurality of views – including those based on a solid, scientific background. Perhaps that is the reason why the power of imagination among society is becoming weaker. Maybe one day, we will divide history into the pre-virus and the post-virus period. We still do not know anything about this post-virus period. However, we begin the re-evaluate the pre-virus period. 

Not so long ago, to be human meant to be powerful. It is worth to bear in mind that in contemporary philosophy, a post-humanistic trend has been developing for many years. It teaches humility and modesty, and emphasizes that humans are only a part of the world and will sooner or later be reminded about this fact. It appears that for some time many of us have been taking a course in post-humanistic sensitivity, a course taught not only online.

There is an increase in philosophical uncertainty and melancholy, as many attractive forms of life expression have to be abandoned, or at least their expansiveness has been significantly reduced. In one Polish city, four young people were obliged to pay a fine in a total amount of 2000 zlotys because they decided to have a round of beers next to a garbage enclosure. Another man had to pay 500 zlotys because, as he explained to the policemen, he had to leave his home to realize his basic human need of buying a bottle of vodka in a local shop. One cycling enthusiast from Cracow decided to take a ride along the Vistula river. For allowing his senses to experience Poland’s longest river, he was fined by the Health Protection Agency with 12 thousand zlotys.   

Despite the fact that imagination seems to be fading globally,  many questions have been raised about the future. Although I am writing this in late May, I do not seem to know much more about the situation than I did two months ago. Back then, I had a conversation about the social, cultural, and political consequences of the pandemic with Błażej Dąbkowski, journalist working for the newspaper Głos Wielkopolski. Our social space is losing both signs of prohibition and signs of injunction, which are the most faithful allies of any repressive society. However, there are still only few information signs that would make it easier for us to navigate outside our homes. Our in-home navigation also sometimes fails.  Should we buy bread, or bake it on our own? If you buy bread, buy one that you can heat in your oven – say skeptics looking for a compromise.  

Since mid-March, only one disease exists in the mind of Poles – the disease caused by the coronavirus. The only ones that matter are the ones that contract this disease and, sometimes, die.  All other diseases have lost their social significance and in the media sense have even ceased to exist. If someone has a stroke or heart attack, their death becomes socially unimportant and has no political significance. But it is not true that with the advent of the virus other diseases have withdrawn from our lives. The coronavirus has reversed our entire system of values. Not long ago,  we were told that we should leave home as often as possible and use public transport.  Now we are not supposed to walk, run, and we should only travel by cars. What was black became white, and what was white became black.

Our dilemmas do not seem so serious if we confront them with the imaginary world of The Plague created by Albert Camus, or the description of the plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th included by Boccaccio in the introduction to The Decameron.  It is hardly surprising. Most of us are healthy, well-fed people who have more contact with the media image of the coronavirus or with the fear of the virus, than with the disease itself. However, we are fully aware that this ‘good’ state of affairs can end at any moment. After all, the number of people infected with the virus is increasing. So how will this pandemic experience affect us?

The most obvious and truthful answer: how should I know that? Traumatic experiences are likely to bear surprising fruits. They were supposed to be bitter, and they seduce with sweetness. They were supposed to have zero calories, and yet they are eaten by alternatively slim people.

A man shoots with words, and history makes sentence out of them. I have already mentioned that Giovanni Boccaccio was a perceptive witness of the greedy and morbidly effective advance of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century. Giovanni Boccaccio.

This is how it once was…

I wrote about it in my book that was published a couple of years ago1 I will therefore allow myself to make a very close reference to it. In The Decameron, Boccaccioprovides a journalistic account of the Black Death in many context of human life. Boccaccio begins his account with words, “I say, then, that the years of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had attained to the number of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when into the notable city of Florence, fair over every other of Italy, there came the death-dealing pestilence, which, through the operation of the heavenly bodies or of our own iniquitous dealings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God. To the cure of these maladies nor counsel of physician nor virtue of any medicine appeared to avail or profit aught; on the contrary, — whether it was that the nature of the infection suffered it not or that the ignorance of the physicians (of whom, over and above the men of art, the number, both men and women, who had never had any teaching of medicine, was become exceeding great,) availed not to know whence it arose and consequently took not due measures thereagainst”2 We learn that “from these things and many others like unto them or yet stranger divers fears and conceits were begotten in those who abode alive, which well nigh all tended to a very barbarous conclusion, namely, to shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus doing, each thought to secure immunity for himself”. In the ocean of uncertainty and fear, the only safe island was the conviction that it was necessary to avoid contact with people already infected. However, the very decision to seek refuge from the reign of the Black Death on this small island was the only thing people had in common. Those who inhabited the island created a few communities. One community decided to give up on life, while other community, on the contrary, decided to live as intensely as possible.

“Some there were who conceived that to live moderately and keep oneself from all excess was the best defence against such a danger; wherefore, making up their company, they lived removed from every other and shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick and where living was best; and there, using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk.”3 Boccaccio thus describes the so-called decent people (whatever that beautiful word means)who, despite the inhumane conditions, wanted to continue to be humans, that is to say, they wanted to live in accordance with the cultural rules that existed before the Black Death invaded their world. One surprising thing in Boccaccio’s account is the lack of religious motifs. The decent people he described live without religious values. Did they think that  God only existed in a place they had not yet reached?

The other community composed of those who believed that, “to carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. That which they said they put in practice as best they might, going about day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking without stint or measure; and on this wise they did yet more freely in other folk’s houses, so but they scented thereaught that liked or tempted them, as they might lightly do, for that every one — as he were to live no longer — had abandoned all care of his possessions, as of himself, wherefore the most part of the houses were become common good and strangers used them, whenas they happened upon them, like as the very owner might have done; and with all this bestial preoccupation, they still shunned the sick to the best of their power.” People representing that community believed that in the land of death, the only sign of freedom was to engage in as many aspects of life as possible. Apart from frolicking in houses that did not belong to them, we could assume that they believed in personal freedom limited only by the freedom of others. They also did not expect anything from God. However, Boccaccio is far too intelligent to forget about God. With great grief he writes, “In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for [lack of] the ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office.” In a world where death seemed omnipotent and ubiquitous, only personal freedom could be possible. “Wherefore everyone had license to do whatsoever pleased him.” The island was not divided only into two communities. Apart from the ‘hot’ ones and the ‘cold’ ones, there were also the ‘lukewarm’ ones. “ Many others held a middle course between the two aforesaid, […]Some were of a more barbarous, though, peradventure, a surer way of thinking, avouching that there was no remedy against pestilences better than — no, nor any so good as — to flee before them”, explains Boccaccio.4 Which attitude was the most reasonable? Well, Boccaccio has a clear answer, “the plague languished on all sides”5 In the land of death, the only sure thing is death indeed. Where only death is possible, there is no place for God or other people. “ This tribulation had stricken such terror to the hearts of all, men and women alike, that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew and sister brother and oftentimes wife husband; nay (what is yet more extraordinary and well nigh incredible) fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children, as they had not been theirs.”6 Customs changed radically. The plague killed people but also destroyed some prejudices. ‘Of this abandonment of the sick by neighbours, kinsfolk and friends and of the scarcity ofservants arose an usage before well nigh unheard, to wit, that no woman, how fair or lovesome or well-born soever she might be, once fallen sick, recked aught of having a man to tend her, whatever he might be, or young or old, and without any shame discovered to him every part of her body.” Boccaccio suspects that “in those who recovered, was the occasion of lesser modesty in time to come.7 The writer stresses that this new experience of death resulted in many manners and customs that did not exist before… The excess of death thus proved detrimental to Christian concepts and values.

Death can become a victim its own the excess. Because it is always and everywhere, it loses its uniqueness and exceptionality. It is no longer the voice of common truths that are metaphysically deep, but becomes and metaphysically shallow. ”It was then (even as we yet see it used) a custom that the kinswoman and she-neighbors of the dead should assemble in his house and there condole with those who more nearly pertained unto him, whilst his neighbours and many other citizens foregathered with his next of kin before his house, whither, according to the dead man’s quality, came the clergy, and he with funeral pomp of chants and candles was borne on the shoulders of his peers to the church chosen by himself before his death; which usages. after the virulence of the plague began to increase, were either altogether or for the most part laid aside, and other and strange customs sprang up in their stead. For that, not only did folk die without having a multitude of women about them, but many there were who departed this life without witness and few indeed were they to whom the pious plaints and bitter tears of their kinsfolk were vouchsafed; nay, in lieu of these things there obtained, for the most part, laughter and jests and gibes and feasting and merrymaking in company; which usance women, laying aside womanly pitifulness, had right well learned for their own safety. Few, again, were they whose bodies were accompanied to the church by more than half a score or a dozen of their neighbours, and of these no worshipful and illustrious citizens, but a sort of blood-suckers, sprung from the dregs of the people, who styled themselves grave-diggers and did such offices for hire, shouldered the bier and bore it with hurried steps, not to that church which the dead man had chosen before his death, but most times to the nearest, behind five or six priests, with little light and whiles none at all, which latter, with the aid of the said pickmen, thrust him into what grave soever they first found unoccupied, without troubling themselves with too long or too formal a service”8 The number of priests was quite impressive. The Church as an institution shows the last ally of the magnificence of death.         

Perhaps it was the pandemic and the death it brought that contributed to the end of medieval imagination and opening up to the values and concepts of ancient culture, which turned out to be the Trojan horse of the Renaissance. The official medieval imagination was shaped by the principle of “memento mori” – remember you must die.  When almost everyone started to die, the principle became quite funny, if not existentially and axiologically dead. That is why, several decades after the Black Death, people learned – or rather had to learn – the difficult art of living in an increasingly different world – namely the world of the Renaissance.

And It Seems to Be Like This

Will the coronavirus, in a similar way, ” reshape” humanity and change the world? But what is the world? It is something formed by societies with very different traditions. In order not to complicate things, I will limit myself only to Europe. It is composed of secular states like
France, Holland, and Germany, but also of deeply Catholic states like Poland and Italy. How will such different groups react to the pandemic? Reactions might vary. Will religious people lose their faith and atheists, on the contrary, return to its bosom or will it be even different: believers will begin to believe even more intensely and those who doubt in the existence God will replace their doubt by denying him any right to exist? 

We do not know which is more prevalent: the coronavirus or the fear of it? Probably the fear, because it has more media impact than the virus itself. However, it cannot be ruled out – as the examples of Brazil, Italy, and New York show – that if there was no excessive fear of the coronavirus in Poland, the virus would probably spread on an unimaginable scale.  I am writing these words on first Wednesday of June. Although there is much less fear of the coronavirus, the news clearly show that the virus is still doing quite well.

Why are we all so afraid of the coronavirus? Let me remind you that just after the end of World War I, when our grandparents and great-grandparents celebrated Poland’s regaining of independence, the Spanish flue killed about 200 thousand Poles. Back then, there was no lockdown, schools were open, and so were the cinemas and cafés. The way we think about life and death has evolved over the years. The latter has become non-existent in our world, we therefore want to escape it. We probably oppose death more that our pre-war ancestors did in their the existential imagination. We must also remember that death at that time cost less, there were no social benefits behind it, and today it is often surrounded by a series of numerous obligations. Today, there is no consent to tragic situations that used to be the commonplace occurencess. Today, children are not “allowed” to die. Before the War, children died quite often. In recent years of relative metaphysical stabilization, modern humans thought  they were immortal, that they would be young and healthy forever. The values people once died for have not completely disappeared from the statistical consumer’s imagination, but their existential attractiveness has significantly decreased. Not only people get older, values that are the necessary ‘spices’ of their lives grow old with them.                                 

What kind of future awaits us? The answer to this question depends to a large extent on the present that we are going to create for ourselves. The last phrase is far from being modest, because it proudly assumes that we have a great influence on our own present. Although the idea sounds good, it is the sound of an instrument that is out of tune. If we decide on something, it is always within the limits of the capitalist imagination, the source of which – perhaps not the only one, but certainly the most vital – is the need for profit. The coronavirus has to lose because human life, and according to the post-humanistic correctness I will even add: every life, is subordinate to this need. The modern world is unimaginably mobile. I do not think that the capitalistic rule of profit would allow any rationalization of the dynamism of this constant transfer.  There is a belief that the disease will paralyze the world. There will probably be an economic recession, but we do not know if it will last half a year, a year, twenty years, or even longer.      

At the beginning of April, I was observing the crisis of the European Union, symbolized by the closed borders of member states. The Eurosceptics, including radical supporters thinking about the nation-states, triumphed. I still believe that there has to be more and there can be more Europe  in Poland. Anyway, in June there is definitely more Europe in Poland than there was in May.       

Power in a Time of Pandemic

The time of pandemic seems to favor strong leadership over democratic culture based on discussions, disputes, and hesitation. Society can then be “forced” to certain solutions, like spending whole days at home. However, I do not think that any government is thrilled with this epidemic, because the members of governments also belong to society.  In Poland, we had one infected minister. In the United Kingdom – the Prime Minister got infected with the virus – although many leaks suggest that the his disease was more of a political than a health-related event. So it seems that the coronavirus bites everyone, including politicians. However, it appears to prefer anonymous victims. In April, I wondered whether the disciplinary measures would be maintained after the epidemic is over. I recalled an old saying “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. However, capitalistic lust for profit I already mentioned is much stronger than this saying. People locked in their homes lose their appetite for life, which is the source of most of our needs. And without them, capitalism freezes. Therefore, people must be allowed to live to the fullest, even though a premature liberalization of sanitary restrictions may end tragically for many of them.  We have been dealing with hypercapitalism for years. Could it be even more liberal? Even more cold and ruthless? Of course, it could always be worse. I will yet again go back to the plague that broke out almost seven hundred years ago. Theoretically, the Black Death of the 14th century should have made Europeans more religious, but in fact the opposite happen.

Conclusion

We need to allow the future to surprise us yet again.


  1. Roman Kubicki, Egzystencjalne konteksty dzieła sztuki. Studium z pogranicza []
  2. Introduction to The Decameron. Tr. John Payne. London, 1906. []
  3. Ibidem []
  4. Ibidem []
  5. Ibidem []
  6. Ibidem []
  7. Ibidem []
  8. Ibidem []

Roman Kubicki
Roman Kubicki

Roman Wojciech Kubicki, Polish philosopher, professor of humanities, academic teacher at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and other universities, director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.