Does context matter?

When the National September 11 Memorial Museum opens next month at the World Trade Center, visitors will find a stark wall separating them from a repository containing about 8,000 unidentified human remains from the 2001 terrorist attack.

On the wall is a 60-foot-long inscription, in 15-inch letters made from the steel of the twin towers: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time. Virgil.”

The quote is from the Aeneid but the inscription doesn’t say so.  In earlier versions, as in this rendering, both Virgil and the Aeneid are cited.

An early rendering of the inscription at the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

An early rendering of the inscription at the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

At issue is the context of the quote.  In 2011, Caroline Alexander, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which she argued the inappropriateness of the quotation.

The memorial inscription, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” is an eloquent translation of the original Latin of “The Aeneid” — “Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo.”

The impulse to turn to time-hallowed texts, like the classics or the Bible, is itself time-hallowed. In the face of powerful emotions, our own words may seem hollow and inadequate, while the confirmation that people in the past felt as we now feel holds solace. And the language of poets and great thinkers can be in itself ennobling.

But not in this case. Anyone troubling to take even a cursory glance at the quotation’s context will find the choice offers neither instruction nor solace.

The immediate context of the quotation is a night ambush of the Rutulian enemy camp by two Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euryalus, whose mutual love is described in terms of classical homoerotic convention and whose deaths represent one of the epic’s famously sentimental set pieces. Falling on the sleeping enemy, the two hack away with their swords, until the ground reeks with “warm black gore.” Stripping the murdered soldiers of their armor, the two are in turn ambushed by a returning Rutulian cavalry troop. As each Trojan tries to save his companion, both are killed, brutally and graphically. At this point the poet steps in to address them directly:

“Fortunati ambo! si quid mea carmina possunt, nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo.”

“Happy pair! If aught my verse avail, no day shall ever blot you from the memory of time.” (The translation here is from the famously literal Loeb edition.) At dawn’s light, the severed heads of the two Trojans are paraded by the enemy on spears.

The central sentiment that the young men were fortunate to die together could, perhaps, at one time have been defended as a suitable commemoration of military dead who fell with their companions. To apply the same sentiment to civilians killed indiscriminately in an act of terrorism, however, is grotesque.

That’s one argument for context matters.  But

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.”

The museum has opted to use the quote without the reference to the Aeneid.  I, for one, dislike quotations without a citation. And without the reference to the Aeneid, I fear that the context will become lost.

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.

The answer for me is to use the inscription with reference to both Virgil and the Aeneid – just as in the rendering.

Rendering by:  Thinc/National September 11 Memorial & Museum

8 thoughts on “Does context matter?

    • Thank you. for the link to your very interesting piece and for putting the quote in a much larger context. I haven’t read Virgil since I was a sophomore in college, but maybe I should re-read him.

  1. Funny how many of the classics which inspire us also describe quite a bloodthirsty world, no matter how much we try to sanitize it. I guess we still live in a bloodthirsty world, so the context does make sense. But yes, do mention poor Virgil while you’re at it 😉

  2. Agree, Maya – literary works / words should always be attributed properly. It is this type of carelessness that will ultimately lead to future generations attributing that quote to the 9/11 memorial, all connection to the literary and academic history gone. I, myself, did not have a clue about the origins of the quote, but I appreciate the “backstory” and relevant or not, it should be quoted and attributed properly.

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