Sunday, May 30, 2010

Were you born in a barn?

Janus was the god of doors.

The two-faced deity was also the god of endings and beginnings, and in the later Republic assumed the role of the overseer of war and peace.Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 2nd Cent. AD) wrote:
"Janus also has a temple at Rome with double doors, which they call the gates of war; for the temple always stands open in time of war, but is closed when peace has come. The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some war, as its increasing size brought it into collision with the barbarous nations which encompassed it round about. But in the time of Augustus it was closed, after he had overthrown Mark Antony; and before that, when Marcus Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls, it was closed a short time; then war broke out again at once, and it was opened."
Virgil explains the meaning of the ritual closing of the gates:
The terrible iron-constricted Gates of War shall shut; and safe within them shall stay the godless and ghastly Lust of Blood, propped on his pitiless piled armory, and still roaring from gory mouth, but held fast by a hundred chains of bronze knotted behind his back.
[Aeneid, 1.293-296]
In other words: the gates were closed to keep War in.

I know that Memorial Day is supposed to be a "holiday" for "honoring" and recalling our war dead. But, frankly, the dead are dead. As a society the 21st Century United States doesn't do honor or remembrance particularly well. We're not, by and large, a retrospective - or introspective - people. Our fear of death largely prevents us from doing much real thinking about the dead as they are, instead of the fictions and romances we tell ourselves about them.So I find that most Memorial Day "memorial" ceremonies - those not simply an honest excuse to cookout and take a day off work - are poorly-disguised flag-waving exercises, where the zombie dead of past glorious wars are invoked to bless the warfighting of their descendants.The United States has never been a particularly peaceful nation. We have sent our people out to kill and die for us in foreign lands since we tried to invade Canada during the Revolution. As we are now. And just as with our dead, we do little introspection, or rumination, about the whys, the hows, the what-now, and the what-comes-after.

We're perfectly happy to pass by the open doors of the Temple of Janus.

Every year on Memorial Day I post this. But this year I'm tired of repeating what most of us here know and what most of those around us neither know nor care. Instead I humbly suggest that we let the dead bury their dead. And think of the living, and the decisions we make for them and to them.

For through those open doors will walk the dead men we'll "honor" the next last Monday in May, and left outside those doors will be the living bereft to whom they will not return.Whenever I used to walk past the open door my father would bark at me "Close the damn door! Were you born in a barn?"

My father would know what to do about the Temple of Janus.

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