Tuesday, 22 April 2014


An exemplary contemporary kerfuffle happened recently.  It has to do with the wording on a memorial to the victims of "Nine Eleven", as we call it even here in the UK, where "Eleven Nine" would make more sense.  We ignore the irrationality of American date numbering in deference to the solemnity of the occasion commemorated.  I don't recall where I was, or what I was doing on 22/11/63,  the day Kennedy was shot, but I certainly do remember 11/9/01.

It seems a new National September 11 Memorial Museum will open in New York in May.  It seems an odd move, to me, and one does wonder what such a "museum" might contain.  But one thing it certainly will contain is a repository of the remains of the unindentified victims, behind a large, bare concrete wall, on which there is mounted -- in fifteen inch letters made from steel recovered from the Twin Towers site --  a quotation from the Aeneid:  "No day shall erase you from the memory of time".

It is this rather dull and awkwardly-translated quotation that has caused the kerfuffle.  Now, I am no classicist, and my acquaintance with the Aeneid is limited to the single book we had to study in Latin O-level, and a cursory skim-read of various translations over the years.  I am curiously immune to classical mythology, and can never remember who was who or who did what to whom, never mind why or when, or in what order.  Therefore the names Nisus and Euralyus mean nothing to me.  I'd be amazed if they meant anything to most readers of this blog.

However.  It seems that, to those to whom those names are not just empty signifiers, the quotation chosen for the Memorial Museum is not just dull, but shockingly inappropriate.  Virgil's words, apparently, are his elegy for a pair of exiled Trojan warriors, bonded by mutual love in the not-at-all-gay Greek fashion, who carried out a surprise night attack on a tribe in Italy -- a terror raid, in effect -- spearing and slashing dozens of warriors in their sleep.  You can read a summary of their story here.  As classicist Helen Morales told the New York 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".

Oops.  But, as James McQuade revealed in his post on the excellent Melville House blog:
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?
It's a curious modern disease, this shallowness, what we might call second-order source-blindness.  Primary source-blindness is not yet a serious problem.  If Google had turned up a perfectly apposite quote in Mein Kampf, for example, someone would surely have stamped on it.  Something in Trotsky or Lenin?  Reject!  Some of the more fascistic musings of Henry Ford or Ayn Rand?  Nix!  But the Aeneid?  Excellent choice! Nothing lends more gravitas than the classics.  We'd better have it in translation, though: the days of e pluribus unum are long gone.

But what about the second-order source of any quotation, its context?  As I have noted on this blog before, context increasingly counts for very little in our sound-bite culture.  I recall my rant against the London Olympics opening ceremony (An Island Full of Noises) where Bowie's "Heroes" and Pink Floyd's "Eclipse" were filleted of meaning, in the service of mere illustration.   But, surely, context is everything?  The recognition of the significance of context is 90% of what we call intelligence.  "All red berries are good to eat" was never a good survival strategy.

I admit, I have a thing about context-checking, where quotations are concerned.  It's a basic principle of humanities scholarship, after all.  You should never recycle a quotation found in a secondary source without first checking the primary source.  Not least because beating up another scholar on grounds of misquotation or quotation out-of-context is a large part of the fun.  So, if you're going to sling quotations around yourself, you'd better make sure your own backside is well-protected.  Especially with quotations in translation from languages you don't know, from books you've never read, by authors you've never heard of.

There is an alternative, of course. If you have great contemporary wordsmiths available to you, why not ask one of them for a few choice words, rather than rummage through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations?  The First World War covered no-one in glory, but the post-war grieving was deftly and tastefully handled.  Kipling's words on the anonymous tombstones of the War Graves Commission did the job nicely: A soldier of the Great War -- known unto God.  You don't have to believe in any particular god, or any god at all, to grasp the meaning and intent of those words.  You don't even have to know that Kipling's own, only son, John, was killed by a shell at Loos, and his body never identified in Kipling's lifetime.  Though context, as always, will add poignancy.


David Brookes said...


I am no classicist, but I did recognise Euryalus as the name of a British frigate which fought at Trafalgar!

I hope you are enjoying you break (presumably in Powys - not far from us here in Ludlow).

David Brookes

Mike C. said...


Yes, thanks, got back about an hour ago -- were were near Llandrindod Wells, as usual, but actually visited Stokesay Castle, very near Ludlow. Looking at the state of the timbers, it is amazing to me that place is still standing.


Martyn Cornell said...

Not only should you always check the original source, I've also found it an excellent idea to try, if possible, to get a new translation even of someone much-translated, like, eg, Pliny: turns out the word he used for what the Spanish did with grain during brewing, "madida", generally translated as "soaked", could also mean "boiled" (rather like "sodden" in English), which has very different implications in brewing technology ...

Mike C. said...


Quite right -- translation is an inexact art, and there can be serious semantic wobbles between languages. In literature, I have come across instances where the translation is actually better than the original -- very dangerous for the monoglot student...

I have to say, you are an exemplar of source-checking -- I'm always impressed by your thoroughness on The Zythophile.