NYT Slays 9/11 Museum Virgil QuotePosted: April 7, 2011
The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum has gotten some heat this week over their plans to store the unidentified bone fragments of those who died in the 9/11 attack inside the museum. The human remains would be kept out of sight from visitors behind a wall artfully featuring a quote from Virgil’s Aneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Sounded good to me. But Caroline Alexander with the New York Times writes:
Anyone troubling to take even a cursory glance at the quotation’s context will find the choice offers neither instruction nor solace.
Virgil’s epic relates the trials of the unhappy Trojan hero Aeneas, who, as Troy burns, flees with the remnants of his family and people to his ships and the sea, eventually winding up in Italy, where it is his destiny to lay the foundation of what will become Rome.
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.
Perhaps we should find something from Homer?