Journal of Romance Studies

Abjection and aesthetic conflict in Boccaccio’s (L)Isabetta

Journal of Romance Studies (2010), 10, (3), 11–25.

Abstract

In 1982, the Italian literary critic Mario Lavagetto asked five other critics to comment on Boccaccio’s tale of Lisabetta (fifth story, fourth day in the Decameron). This combined effort of different readers working on the same text could also be interpreted as their attempt to unravel the secret of its extraordinary fascination. This article aims to explain this power, drawing on Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection and Donald Meltzer’s concept of aesthetic conflict. Both interpretive categories would appear to be particularly useful in making sense of the central scene of the narrative where Lisabetta digs up Lorenzo’s corpse and cuts off the head. Closely connected with its enduring fascination, this scene of sheer horror is both the centre and the key to the plot. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, it also has a metatextual function, in that it seems to allude, indirectly, to the very mechanism by which a strong aesthetic impact is produced in the reader (and indeed, in anyone having an aesthetic experience). One may summarize the sense of such experience paraphrasing Rilke’s words: beauty simply is the horror that we are able to think.

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Civitarese, Giuseppe