With the ebb and flow of culture, public debates rise up and fade away around holidays. This year, the active question appears to be whether it’s appropriate to say “happy Memorial Day” or even to treat it as a celebratory day. Perhaps the answer is something like the Christian concept of solemn joy. Celebrate, that is, provided it’s in furtherance of the memorial, not a distraction from it.
In a time when military service was more broadly applied, through families and across social classes, that attitude may have been more natural. We can better honor those who’ve sacrificed to enable our celebrations when we have direct connections to them. Thus does our society change in subtle ways alongside larger shifts, like the immunity of large groups to the lure of a military life.
In an excellent Saturday essay in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, tracing attitudes toward war dead throughout history, Victor Davis Hanson brings to mind another of those subtle changes:
A noble death serves, in the words of Pericles, as “a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.” The great playwright Aeschylus wanted his epitaph to read only that he was a veteran of the Athenian victory at Marathon—a battle where his brother fell.
These themes still resonate in our own habits and rites. This Memorial Day the flags on graves in American cemeteries set the dead apart, in a special moral category that discourages any discussion of the bothersome details of their short lives.
Regular readers of the paper may have caught the echo of Blake Bailey’s review of an Ernest Hemingway biography, a few weeks ago:
Readers of Hemingway biographies may not remember that dead dog en route to Madrid, but it’s hard to forget the misery that Hemingway inflicted on Mary/Pete, who held on for dear life and later got her own back by publishing, against her late husband’s wishes, unfinished (and mortifying) work such as “The Garden of Eden.” As Hemingway’s previous wife, Martha Gellhorn, pointed out: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” This is true, and it’s always worthwhile to explore (on ever accumulating evidence) what makes a genius tick, even if tabulating his flaws can get to be a slog in Hemingway’s case.
In this juxtaposition of quotations, we get a sense of the valuation. The sacrifice of one’s life in service to one’s country overcomes all personal “demerits.” Otherwise, honor requires the loathsome man to strive to create works of genius for absolution. (Of course, we can also strive to be less loathsome, bringing to mind Evelyn Waugh’s quip that without Catholicism, he’d have been an absolute monster.)
Where does this leave an era in which we seem to have taught the young that their superlativeness is to be assumed, rather than proven?
Perhaps it leaves us on a cold, gray Memorial Day, looking out the window thinking that the weather is imposing something of the proper mood on a country in need of reminders and perspective. Or rather, it would be doing so, but for the proliferation of glowing screens, one per set of eyes.
What would the dead be doing, had they not had to sacrifice the opportunity to choose? Surely, much the same as the rest of us; we’re all humans of the same cloth, after all. Perhaps it would be enough, then, to take the lesson of the day thus: Doing nothing with your day, today, is fine, provided the relaxation is in service of doing something with your life. The memorial, in that regard, is the model and sets the measure.