Scholarly Perspectives on Inscription at the 9/11 Memorial Museum –

Scholarly Perspectives on Inscription at the 9/11 Memorial Museum –

Scholarly Perspectives on Inscription at the 9/11 Memorial Museum

An excerpt from the Loeb Classical Library edition of "Aeneid."An excerpt from the Loeb Classical Library edition of “Aeneid.”

“No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” says theinscription on the repository of unidentified remains at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opens next month. The line — “nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo” — is taken from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” in which “you” are not nameless, numberless, innocent citizens, but two bloodthirsty young Trojan soldiers. The Times asked a few classicists to share their thoughts about the appropriateness of this quotation. Here are three responses:

Helen MoralesSpencer Bruttig, UCSBHelen Morales

Helen Morales
Professor of Classics
University of California, Santa Barbara

One way of looking at it is this: 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. After all, Nisus and Euryalus were on what became a suicide mission; before their inevitable deaths they were high on killing the enemy. Virgil’s line memorializing them is ironic. So my first reaction is that the quotation is shockingly inappropriate for the U.S. victims of the 9/11 attack.

But my second reaction is that this may be a productive irony. Which is to say that the quotation makes us remember the suicidal killers of 9/11 as well as their victims. Remember with horror, anger, disbelief, to be sure, but remember them nonetheless. And wonder, as might Virgil’s readers have wondered of Nisus and Euryalus, what drives young men to commit such atrocities. This may not be the intention of the designers of the memorial, who quite probably have used Virgil as a rent-a-quote Latin author, but monuments often exceed the expectations of their creators.

Llewelyn MorganLlewelyn Morgan

Llewelyn Morgan
Lecturer in Classical Languages and Literature
University of Oxford

What I’m wondering is whether it has to be part of the game that we consider the context. Not to anyone except a professional classicist, I suspect. “Carpe diem” in its original context is an invitation from Horace to Leuconoe to join him in the sack, but I’m not sure that should stop us using it the way it is generally used.

You don’t deploy a Virgilian tag in the first place unless you want to lend things some kind of dignity, and the citation does make the viewer assess the words as Virgil’s. But does that entail getting a text down, finding which book, and reading the whole of it? Isn’t “evident to anyone who ever bothered to read it in context” perhaps rather snootily academic? Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people won’t read it in context, and there’s no reason why they should, but they might respond to the rhetorical move of citing an ancient author, the significance and timelessness of the sentiment that implies.

Shadi Bartsch-ZimmerShadi Bartsch-Zimmer

Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer
Professor of Classics
University of Chicago

The very idea of quoting an “authority” (here, Virgil) without knowing what he actually said, in the belief that the sentiment will thereby seem more valuable and important, seems to me to raise the larger issue of what it means to accept “authorities” passively and without question — a move surely antithetical to our culture.

Perhaps this protest seems like caviling against a noble sentiment that resonates with those who read it. But we can’t simply accept noble sentiments without looking at their origin. We should be responsible for the content of our own cultural history. For a private individual to use a quotation and shrug at its source is one thing. But in a public, institutional context that memorializes an event of national importance, not knowing one’s source seems irresponsible. The victims of 9/11 deserve a legacy that is not marked by the carelessness of those who chose it. I am only sorry their families have to endure this debate in the first place.

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