A fresh controversy has apparently broken out about the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. As reported by the New York Times:
On the wall is a 60-foot-long inscription, in 15-inch letters made from the steel of the twin towers: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time. Virgil.”
This line is drawn from The Aeneid. A classics professor issued the following objection.
“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,” said Helen Morales, a classics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “So my first reaction is that the quotation is shockingly inappropriate for the U.S. victims of the 9/11 attack.”
But why should the original context have any bearing on its contemporary meaning vis-a-vis 9/11? In my view, the inscription is apt for the victims of the 9/11 attack.
For hermeneutic justification of this position, consider Paul Ricœur. Because the author (Virgil) is absent in the act of reading the text (of The Aeneid or the inscription on the wall of the Memorial), the reader faces the meaning of the text alone.
“As we shall see, the text is not without reference; the task of reading, qua interpretation, will be precisely to fulfill the reference. The suspense that defers the reference merely leaves the text, as it were, ‘in the air,’ outside or without a world. In virtue of this obliteration of the relation to the world, each text is free to enter into relation with all the other texts that come to take the place of the circumstantial reality referred to by living speech. This relation of text to text, within the effacement of the world about which we speak, engenders the quasi world of texts or literature.
Such is the upheaval that affects discourse itself, when the movement of reference toward the act of showing is intercepted by the text. Words cease to efface themselves in front of things; written words become words for themselves.” (“What is a text? explanation and understanding,” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II, 109)
“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfill the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes.” (113)
What does this mean for the appropriation of an ancient text by contemporary readers? “In short, in hermeneutic reflection – or in reflective hermeneutics – the constitution of the self is contemporaneous with the constitution of meaning” (119). This is what it means to “(make) one’s own what was initially alien” (119). This is also what it means to return the worldless text of structural analysis to the world of speech, the world of the present. “This world is that of the reader, this subject is the reader himself” (119).
What is worth exploring about this choice of inscription, however, is why we moderns seek to bind ourselves to the perceived greatness (i.e., the superiority and authority) of antiquity. Virgil is a popular choice: “Annuit cœptis” (also from The Aeneid) is imprinted on the US one dollar bill, incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States.