Virgil in the NY Times

We will no longer be accepting nominations for Snarkiest NY Times Op-Ed piece for 2011; we have our winner. Caroline Alexander, in yesterday’s Times, for “Out of Context.”

Alexander sharply criticizes the choice of a line from Virgil’s Aeneid as the memorial inscription at the planned 9/11 memorial in New York. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” an “eloquent translation,” she admits, of Virgil’s “Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet sevo.” She describes the context of the quotation – the death of two Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euralthus. In context, she says, the verse expresses the “central sentiment that the young men were fortunate to die together” — a sentiment that is “grotesque” and “disastrous” when applied to “civilians killed indiscriminately in an act of terrorism.” She finishes up this way:

Finding words that do justice to a momentous event is always difficult — especially so, perhaps, in the age of Internet trawling, when a wary eye needs to be kept for the bothersome baggage that may be attached to the perfect-sounding expression. There is an easy mechanism, also time-hallowed, for winnowing out what may be right from what is clearly wrong: it’s called reading.

Oh, please! My objection is not to her illuminating the context from which the quote is drawn. That’s an interesting little point; I adore Virgil, and the Aeneid — Robert Fagles’ magnificent recent translation of the latter is one of the four or five best books I’ve read in the last decade or two — and I’m always interested in learning more about the work. But the arrogance of it: “You Philistines who haven’t read the Aeneid (in the original Latin, of course) couldn’t possibly understand the true meaning of these words you’re inscribing at the memorial. That, I’m afraid, is reserved to those of who can “winnow out what may be right from what is clearly wrong.”

Sorry, but Caroline Alexander does not get to decide for the rest of us what those words on the inscription “mean.” Neither, actually, does Virgil (though he’s got a helluva better claim on it than she does). The words mean what we decide they mean. This notion that they’re somehow frozen forever in time, attached to Virgil’s tale, is ridiculous and the worst form of elitism. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” strikes me as a perfectly appropriate sentiment for this memorial. That Virgil used these words for a different purpose is interesting and entirely irrelevant to whether they are appropriate.

[And by the way: don’t construe my sentiments above as an argument against originalism in Constitutional interpretation. The argument that the meaning of the Constitutional words is frozen in time rests on an entirely different foundation: that a constitution retains its original meaning by virtue of having been enacted into law, at a specific moment, by a specific “People.” Virgil’s Aeneid, of course, comes with no such baggage.]