Aeneid quote at the 9/11 Memorial

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Aeneid quote at the 9/11 Memorial

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Edited: Apr 3, 2014, 12:54 pm

On the wall in the entrance gallery of the 9/11 Memorial Museum (slated to open to the public next month) there stands a 60-foot inscription from the words of Virgil:
“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
The inscription originally noted that this line came from the Aeneid, but the citation has since been removed. It comes, in fact, from Book IX of the Aeneid, line 447; here's the context:
Fortunati ambo! si quid mea carmina possunt,
nulla dies umquam memori uos eximet aeuo,
dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum
accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.

{Fortunate pair! If anything can come of my verses,
no day shall erase you ever from the memory of time,
so long as the house of Aeneas mounts the Capitol's fixed rock
and the Roman Father ever holds his power.}
The thing is, Virgil here is writing of the tragic pair of Nisus and Euryalus--their frenzied nighttime slaughter of the Teucrians and the fated death that met their bloodlust.

So it's not surprising that classicists are a bit dismayed at the quote's wrenched-from-context use to memorialize the victims of the 9/11 terrorists' bloodlust:

A Memorial Inscription's Grim Origins (NYTimes -- I have copied almost the entire thing so that you don't have to use up a free monthly article to read this):
It sounds fitting — except in the context of Book 9 of the “Aeneid,” from which it is translated. There, a reader learns who “you” are.

“You” are not nameless. You are Nisus and Euryalus.

“You” do not number in the thousands. You are two.

“You” are not civilians. You are Trojan soldiers.

“You” have not been thrown together by cruel chance. You are a loving pair.

Your deaths are not unprovoked. You have just slaughtered the enemy in an orgy of violence, skewering soldiers whom you ambushed in their sleep. For this, the enemy has killed you and impaled your heads on spears.

Clearly, “you” does not fit the profile of Sept. 11 victims.

“If we take into account its original context, the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than to those honored by the memorial,” said Helen Morales, a classics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “So my first reaction is that the quotation is shockingly inappropriate for the U.S. victims of the 9/11 attack.”

But Dr. Morales added that by invoking the two warriors, the quotation might also productively encourage some visitors to “wonder, as might Virgil’s readers have wondered of Nisus and Euryalus, what drives young men to commit such atrocities.”

I asked a half-dozen classicists about the use of this inscription at the memorial museum. All but one questioned the choice.

“Two warrior/lovers have sacrificed their lives in the interest of the future Roman state,” said John F. Makowski, an associate professor of classical studies at Loyola University in Chicago. “While the loss of all human life by violence is lamentable, the parallel between the victims of 9/11 and the Virgilian heroes is a stretch.”

In an aside to the dead youths — whom Dr. Makowski has argued should be understood as a classical pair of “erastes” (a mentor and role model) and “eromenos” (his beloved) — Virgil promises that if his poetry has any power, their memory will endure as long as Rome.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation has known for years of classicists’ objections to the use of this line, which “offers neither instruction nor solace,” Caroline Alexander wrote for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times in 2011.

Since then, museum officials have eliminated the word “Aeneid” from the inscription as it appears on the wall, presumably to distance the sentiment somewhat from its literary context.

Alice M. Greenwald, the museum director, said last week that the quotation appropriately characterized the “museum’s overall commemorative context.”

“The quote speaks to the indelibility of our memories,” she said. “In selecting this quote, our focus was not on the specific narrative of the classic story nor its characters. What resonated with us, and with everyone who reviewed its use in the context of the museum, was the reference to a single day not being able to erase the memory of those we love.”

However, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a classics professor at the University of Chicago, suggested that the foundation had a special duty to guard cultural history. “For a private individual to use a quotation and shrug at its source is one thing,” Dr. Bartsch-Zimmer said. “But in a public, institutional context that memorializes an event of national importance, not knowing one’s source seems irresponsible.”

While acknowledging his ambivalence about the use of the line, Llewelyn Morgan, a lecturer in classical languages and literature at Oxford, allowed that its power was not limited to those who knew the story told in the “Aeneid.”

“I can see that this might do the job required,” Dr. Morgan said, “and it’s perhaps a little arrogant to think that the proper perspective from which to assess it is my own, that of an academic. We don’t own Virgil, much as we might think we should.”

James Zetzel, a professor of the Latin language and ancient literature at Columbia, said he was troubled by a line describing such specific characters — and “not the best role models” — used as a kind of epitaph for those whose identities are not known.

“On the other hand,” Mr. Zetzel said, “the story is an example of willing self-sacrifice for somebody you love.”

As Virgil tells it, Nisus realized as he was fleeing from the enemy that he had been separated from Euryalus. Rather than spare himself, Nisus returned to a scene of mortal peril in the hope of saving another’s life. Both young men died as a result.

Now that sounds like a 9/11 story.
(For what it's worth, I object at least as much to the failure to include the citation as to the inappropriate context. Unfortunately, it seems popular to omit citations with these kinds of epigrammatic quotes, which to me always makes them immediately suspect -- if you don't include a citation, I half-assume that you simply made the quote up and then attributed it to an ancient auctor to give it a patina of auctoritas.}

Apr 3, 2014, 5:27 pm

I have more of a problem with removing the attribution.

We adapt ancient quotes to fit current needs and situations all the time. I'm sure they consciously stayed away from anything religious (though the Aeneid certainly had a cultural myth-making role) and I'm as happy with Virgil as Shakespeare.

Apr 4, 2014, 1:07 pm

As long as the memorial itself lasts, the quote, its source, and its context will not fade from memory, because reporters will perennially find it tempting to write the occasional story about it.

Edited: Apr 4, 2014, 1:32 pm

Why should the original context have any bearing on its contemporary meaning vis-a-vis 9/11. The inscription is apt.

Regarding hermeneutic justification for this position, consider Paul Ricoeur. Because the author is absent in the act of reading, the reader faces the meaning of the text alone.

“As we shall see, the text is not without reference; the task of reading, qua interpretation, will be precisely to fulfill the reference. The suspense that defers the reference merely leaves the text, as it were, ‘in the air,’ outside or without a world. In virtue of this obliteration of the relation to the world, each text is free to enter into relation with all the other texts that come to take the place of the circumstantial reality referred to by living speech. This relation of text to text, within the effacement of the world about which we speak, engenders the quasi world of texts or literature.
Such is the upheaval that affects discourse itself, when the movement of reference toward the act of showing is intercepted by the text. Words cease to efface themselves in front of things; written words become words for themselves.” (“What is a text? explanation and understanding,” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II, 109)


“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfill the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes.” (113)

What does this mean for the appropriation of an ancient text by contemporary readers?

“In short, in hermeneutic reflection – or in reflective hermeneutics – the constitution of the self is contemporaneous with the constitution of meaning” (119). This is what it means to “(make) one’s own what was initially alien” (119). This is also what it means to return the worldless text of structural analysis to the world of speech, the world of the present. “This world is that of the reader, this subject is the reader himself” (119).

Edited: Apr 4, 2014, 1:37 pm

It does fit well. though a new line, just as apt, could have been fashioned in english.
Why pick a line translated from the latin if the provenance or context isn't relevant?

*edit* >4 theoria:
posted this when only your first paragraph was visible for some reason. I guess that answers that!

Edited: Apr 4, 2014, 1:41 pm

5> "Annuit cœptis" (from the Aeneid) is on the US one dollar bill, incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States ...

5> Concerning your edit: we moderns like to bind ourselves to the greatness of antiquity :)

Apr 5, 2014, 4:50 am

The Ricoeur passages ought to be inscribed below the line of Virgil, just to make sure that all visitors to the memorial are on the same page.

Apr 5, 2014, 10:47 am

7> I agree.

Apr 30, 2014, 2:19 am

This is the Cento Tradition, revived; Ausonius used a lot of Vergil.