Lift high the cross – and Dante – for 100 days

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100 Days of Dante. Photo by Annabelle Nicholas

Sometime between the evening of Sept. 13 and the morning of Sept. 14, 1321, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the great medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri died in the city of Ravenna. His death marked the end of two decades as an itinerant poet who, as he wrote in the “Convivio,” wandered “like a stranger, almost like a beggar, through virtually all the regions to which this tongue of ours extends.” 

Dante’s peregrinations had begun in 1302 with exile from his beloved Florence, and he never got over it; in one of his Latin letters he would describe himself as “exul inmeritus,” an undeserved exile, and on innumerable occasions in the Comedy shades recognize Dante-character by his Florentine speech and address him as the “Tuscan.”

According to Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval biography of the poet, Dante completed the final canticle of his epic just before his death, and thus ended the “poema sacro” “to which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand” (“Paradise” 25.2-3). 2021, then, marks both Dante’s 700th necroversary and the seventh centenary of the completion of the “Comedy.”

Dante’s sacred poem is needed more than ever. It has been a year full of loss, a year or more bereft of almost all public, civic, and even much liturgical life. Who among us has not felt like Dante-character who, when he meets his old friend the musician Casella in “Purgatory,” cannot hug him because Casella lacks a real body? 

Who can forget Dante’s “planh,” his lament, for what I can only call, without much exaggeration, “virtual Casella,” his mind tricked into expecting a corresponding physical presence, an encounter that mirrors many of our own meetings over the past year, where we have existed as mere simulacra without corporeal substance? “O shades,” cries out Dante, “in all except appearance—empty! / Three times I clasped my hands behind him and / as often brought them back my chest” (“Purgatory” 2.79-81).

Following the events of the past year, and because of the exalted place of Dante and his “Comedy” in the University of Dallas Core, it was without hesitation that I embraced — ahem — the chance to involve us in a Dante initiative headed by Baylor University Honors College. “100 Days of Dante” is an open-source multimedia project with a website that will host 100 short videos, one for each canto, to guide readers through the epic. 

Among other features it also boasts discussion questions for each video, as well as the Italian text and English translation of the entire poem, information on recent English translations of the “Comedy”, and other Dante-related Internet tools. The initiative aims to encourage exploration of the Catholic-Christian intellectual tradition, and understands Dante’s “Comedy” as a source of wisdom, of beauty, and as a Christian epic.

Of the 100 video episodes, more than a dozen were written and filmed by some of your favorite University of Dallas professors. The first videos, “Inferno” 1 and 2, were released September 8 and 10, and subsequent ones will be available every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on a weekly basis, with the three-cantos-per-week schedule timed so that the final episode is available around Easter 2022. 

Prospective Dantephiles can join the project by visiting the website 100daysofDante.com and subscribing to the mailing list, perhaps joining a virtual or in-person reading group.

The website’s design and clean interface will allow users to move back and forth in the poem easily, either in a horizontal manner — from “Inferno” 1 to 2 and so on — or vertically — from “Inferno” 6 to “Purgatory” 6 and “Paradise” 6 — and from English to Italian and vice versa. As a result, and spurred on by the video-lessons, participants in “100 Days of Dante” will have the impetus to traverse the poem in its entirety, for to read only “Inferno” is to miss the point. 

After all, the many perversions of the first canticle — visible in the parody of the Holy Eucharist and Count Ugolino in “Inferno” 33, the inversion of music and the debasement of language throughout, profane love in “Inferno” 5, and blasphemy in “Inferno” 3 and 5 — are subsequently corrected in the latter two. As Dante writes in “Paradise” 33, he saw “contained / by love into a single volume bound / the scattered pages of the universe” (vv. 86-87). Beyond Inferno reigns unity, the disordered infernal cosmos gives way to the ordered Empyrean.

What is the source of that unity? For Dante, wisdom and truth begin and end with God.

In the “Letter to Cangrande,” Dante — or someone else, it matters not; fake but accurate, as I always say — concludes: “But in the natural position of the whole universe the first heaven is the heaven which contains all things; consequently it is related to all things as the formative to the formable, which is to be in the relation of cause to effect. […] And since, when the Beginning or First, which is God, has been reached, there is nought to be sought for beyond, inasmuch as He is Alpha and Omega, that is, the Beginning and the End, as the Vision of John tells us, the work ends in God Himself, who is blessed for evermore, world without end.” 

To consider Dante from a purely biological, i.e., infernal, perspective neglects the whole. Our mission-oriented university, which in its ideal form attempts to construct a coherent whole out of disparate parts, provides a logical home for Dante’s poem, and “100 Days of Dante” is a project faithful to that mission. 

Beginning on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, join us in 2021 and 2022 as we trace Dante’s journey from the cacophony and disorder of “Inferno” to the polyphonic unity of “Paradise”, ensuring that we do not efface the role of the efficient cause on the way to the final one.

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