April 7, 2014
Classicist says quote of Virgil’s inscribed on 9/11 Memorial is “shockingly inappropriate”
by James McQuade
Next month the National September 11 Memorial Museum will open. On a bare concrete wall that separates visitors from a repository holding the unidentified remains of victims of the September 11 attacks, is a quote of Virgil’s: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” From end to end, the sentence stretches 60 feet. Each of the 15-inch letters is made of steel appropriated from the wreckage. Read against the backdrop of the cool, gray, towering concrete wall, the sentiment is one of solemnity, remembrance; at first glance, Virgil’s words seem a fitting commemorative for the lives lost that day. But put back in the literary context from which it was pulled—Book 9 of the Aeneid—the quote becomes somewhat more macabre.
As the New York Times ‘ David W. Dunlap points out, Virgil’s “you” actually refers to the characters, Nisus and Euryalus, two warrior-lovers who “have just slaughtered the enemy in an orgy of violence, skewering soldiers whom [they] ambushed in their sleep.” And for this massacre, Nisus and Euryalus are killed, their heads impaled on spears. Of the inscription at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Times, “If we take into account its original context, the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than those honored by the memorial…So my first reaction is that the quotation is shockingly inappropriate for the U.S. victims of the 9/11 attack.”
It may come as a surprise, then, that those representing the 9/11 Memorial were not unaware of the quotation’s objectionable context. Speaking on the contentious inscription, museum director Alice M. Greenwald says, “In selecting this quote, our focus was not on the specific narrative of the classic story or 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.” Seems like whoever was put in charge of compiling a list of potential quotes just googled “Important Things Said by Latin Poets,” and didn’t bother to research it any further—because, you know, who reads epic poetry anymore?
But what if this literary oversight was made for the better? As Morales adds, “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.” Maybe the brutality and violence of implicit in Virgil’s line better reflects the violence and brutality of 9/11, and the years that have followed, than some classicists or museum officials would care to admit.