One hashtag which emerged unexpectedly was #fluctuatnecmergitur (for more information about its surge on social media, see http://www.konbini.com/en/lifestyle/fluctuat-nec-mergitur-paris-motto/). I had not heard of this phrase until Monday, when I read that this slogan had been painted on a wall at the Place de la République. Fluctuat nec mergitur has been the motto of the city of Paris since at least the fourteenth century, and might have been connected even earlier with its boatsman’s corporation. It is Latin for ‘[someone/something] wavers and does not sink’. As Paris's motto, it can be found alongside images of a ship at sea.
I doubt many people will have heard of this phrase before the attacks. One might ask why this motto now suddenly resurfaces, and how it was able to take on such a visible significance both in Paris and internationally, via social media. Because the use of this phrase is not without irony, particularly in comparing Paris with a ship tossed on the waves in an atrocious attack on freedom, while so many refugees - desperately trying to escape the same terror - have physically been tossed on the waves for many months now, with survivors not only mourning their lost loved ones but also facing homelessness and xenophobia in countries that are at the very least ambivalent about their presence.
At a time of national mourning in France, it also seems a little strange that people seek refuge in Latin, a ‘dead’ language the French government has only recently culled from the French educational curriculum – in spite of huge protest – because of its lack of practical use. In defiance to the government's decision, local schools in Paris (north Paris to be precise, in the district of Blanc-Menil) have recently put Latin and Greek on the primary school curriculum (see www.leparisien.fr/le-blanc-mesnil-93150/le-blanc-mesnil-du-latin-et-du-grec-des-le-primaire-17-06-2015-4870391.php). And here it is again: in the very centre of the city, Latin is used to fuel national resilience and defiance in the face of terror, while silently (whether deliberately or not) questioning the authority of the state.
Some people have compared the haunting images of the French terror attacks to those from 9/11, with people desperately risking their lives to survive, and the government retaliating swiftly and on a large scale. New York, too, took recourse to Latin in its commemoration on ground zero, though rather than using Virgil's actual line from the Aeneid book 9 line 447 - Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo - they decided to use the translation: ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’.
This reference was much criticized, as it exalts the death of Nisus and Euryalus, two lovers, after they have gone on a nightly killing spree in the enemy camp and violently slaughtered many and even beheaded one (for an introductory discussion, see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/opinion/07alexander.html). Even though, at the surface, the line is meant to commemorate friendship and loyalty, the narrative context hints at the protagonists' violence, thereby calling into question - rather aptly though presumably not deliberately - the US's role in the continuation of atrocities.
Using a reference to our Classical past is thus inevitably fraught with complexity, as references can throw light on a part of the meaning the narrator (in this case whoever decided to use the Virgilian quote) would rather have their audience ignore. Meaning cannot be controlled.
The Parisians’ engagement with their classical heritage is equally complex. To understand this complexity, let's look at a less recent application of the motto, namely in Georges Brassens’ song Les copains d’abord (‘Friends first’). Brassens, a French singer-songwriter, wrote this song for the 1964 film Les Copains. (You can listen to the song here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rslShTbqNbo - the lyrics, in French with English translation, can be found here: www.projetbrassens.eclipse.co.uk/pages/translescopains.html) The song exalts the friendship between him and his friends – while they went out sailing – as surpassing stories of friendships in literature and the past. Ses fluctuat nec mergitur, c’est pas d’la littérature (‘their fluctuat nec mergitur, it’s not literature’), he sings when he contrasts his friendships with those of, among others, the ‘amis de luxe’, the half-brothers Castor and Pollux, known from Greek myth.
Just like Nisus and Euryalus, Castor and Pollux were an inseparable pair - yet their tragedy was that, while Castor was mortal, Pollux was immortal, and so mourned his brother when he died. Zeus (the king of the gods) turned them into the constellation Gemini (‘twins’) so they would never be separated. Castor and Pollux provide a mythological paradigm for inseparable friendship and loyalty - Brassens, however, rejects the classical paradigm: his friends are not (just) literature, they are reality.
Yet for one so explicit in his rejection of the literature with which he engages, he does refer to Latin and Classics a lot: the second verse of his song refers to the Méduse, a French naval frigate that was wrecked in 1816, with only 15 survivors who had to endure unspeakable horrors. Brassens again rejects the comparison of his own ‘ship’ of friendship with the Méduse (‘Non ce n’était pas le radeau de la Méduse ce bateau’). By using this specific example, he not only refers to the famous oil painting depicting the terror of the shipwreck by the romantic painter Géricault, but also implicitly rejecs the Classical paradigm: the monstrous Medusa of Greek myth, another example of Classical furor (though again, her story is more complex, as she was once a beautiful girl but was transformed by a jealous rival). Finally, admitting his friends were no angels and hadn’t read the bible, he refers to their motto ‘friends first’ as leur litanie, leur credo, leur confiteor, using biblical Latin to reject their knowledge of the bible.
Brassens uses the phrase fluctuat nec mergitur similarly to its present use in the Paris attacks: to demonstrate that real friendship and loyalty can survive in the face of any adversity, and that we make our own heritage. In all three examples (Paris, New York, and Brassens' song), references to Classics bear more meaning than appears at first because their superficial, isolated meaning is juxtaposed with the meaning they once bore in their textual context. In the case of Paris and New York, it is unlikely that the ambiguity was deliberate. Brassens, by contrast, deliberately uses references to Latin and Classics to reject the (Classical and biblical) paradigms which provide mythical models for real people and situations.
And that, indeed, is the beauty of Latin: it allows and encourages the co-existence of both its acceptance, questioning, and rejection as paradigm. The current application of the Paris motto fluctuat nec mergitur exemplifies the same issue: written in Latin yet not canonically Classical, it both rejects the elitist history and embraces the unifying heritage. Indeed, since no subject is expressed to clarify gender, race, or religion, the Latin phrase can be much more universal than modern western languages: this is not just Paris's plight - all of us are invited to connect.
In the midst of its own crisis regarding its usefulness in the modern world, Latin is actually being used as a symbol of historical roots which cannot be extricated by violence and terror. As the model which society keeps referring to, whether as paradigm or what should be rejected, Classics both confirms and questions dichotomies, whether elite versus plebs, male versus female, or west versus east. In the invitation to question both the acceptance and rejection of its Classical heritage, Latin provides an anchor: dead yet alive, connecting nations yet without borders, constantly shifting shape in the face of a thousand threats, it offers a clear reminder – through examples such as Castor and Pollux, and Nisus and Euryalus – that human life has ever been full of both violence and friendship.
Written by Dr Evelien Bracke, Swansea University