It isn't as if other great ocean liners haven't sunk. The hospital ship Britannic struck a mine and sank in 1916. The Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat during World War I and 1198 people died. The Andrea Doria sunk in 1956, killing 46 people. In two years, no one will remember the Costa Concordia either.
But there's one ship that still resonates with people, and as every generation is introduced to it anew, it continues to capture the imagination. What is it about this particular ship? Yes, it sank on its maiden voyage, but it's more than that. It's about more than kids reading A Night to Remember
in the sixth grade and then reading it about five more times in a row. It's about more than the teens who went to see James Cameron's movie twenty times in the winter of 1997-98. It's about more than a fascination with Edwardian clothes and luxurious carved fireplaces and grand staircases. I don't think anyone today gets on even a Carnival "fun ship" without thinking of the people who boarded the Titanic in Southhampton and Cherbourg in 1912.
Today we have 9/11 "truthers", who would be the equivalent of the Titanic nerds who got together for James Cameron's recent National Geographic Channel program
that delves into the all-important question of what happened to the ship after it sank if they were interested in starting with events and working from there, instead of going backwards from a conclusion to find a cause that matches their initial premise. Cameron may be the über Titanic nerd of all time, with over thirty dives to the wreck and involvement in the development of the cameras that have allowed us a view of the wreck that most of us will never see, but there are thousands of such nerds worldwide who continue to study and rehash the events of that night over and over again. One wonders what these people will do if and when everything that is still unknown becomes known, except that artist Ken Marschall
has been painting this ship for over forty years. If I were Marschall, I'd perhaps want to have a past-life regression done, except that there were only a little over 2200 passengers and crew, and not every Titanic nerd can be a reincarnation of the dead.
If you were going to write an allegory about income inequality and the hubris of wealthy men, you couldn't come up with a better one than the story of the Titanic. The ship is both a monument to the Industrial revolution, and the beginning of the last hurrah of the British empire. Unparallelled in size, luxury, and supposedly, safety, this vessel seemed to exist largely as a huge pat on the back to the Titans of Industry chomping their cigars after eating their Filets Mignons Lili. There was nothing that men of great wealth exploiting the labor of men of great physical strength and endurance couldn't do. One of the most effective images in Cameron's 1997 film is a shot of the engines beginning to roar as the ship leaves port, showing just how massive these things were, and all built without power tools. These were men like the Julius Caesar described by Cassius in Shakespeare's play:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Of course Cassius goes on to opine that if those subordinate to Caesar don't take it upon themselves to do something, it's their own fault, but I'm not sure these men got that far.
They are all gone now -- the dead and the survivors alike. The last survivor, Millvina Dean, who was a babe-in-arms on the ship, died in 2009. 100 years ago right now as I write this, the Carpathia
was boarding Titanic passengers from lifeboats. Those in the water were no doubt already dead.
Perhaps the story of the sinking of the Titanic resonates because it is a perpetual reminder of what happens when wealthy men become overconfident and insist that not only does everything they touch turn to gold, but that the laws of the universe don't apply to them. There might have been more first-class men saved than third-class children, but despite the clinging of today's downwardly mobile former denizens of the middle class to the nation that they might be rich someday, those first-class men who survived were largely derided as cowards. It remains to be seen if that would be the view today. To some degree, the destruction of a monument to excess by a natural phenomenon is a perpetual reminder that, as the old Chiffon margarine TV ad noted, "It's not nice to fool mother nature
." It's almost enough to make you believe in a vengeful God.
Or it may be something just more prosaic. It may be no different from our fascination with the endless loops of footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, or the tsunami devastating Japan last year...or even what I endure on New Jersey highways most days on my way to work, when I sit in crawling traffic as people gawk at everything from multi-vehicle accidents to a single car on the shoulder while the driver rearranges the suitcases in the trunk. It may not be a cautionary tale come to life of hubris, or the injustices of class inequality or the dashed dreams of the early 20th century immigrants whose lives were lost. It may just be that we like to gawk at disasters. It's just that some disasters are more compelling than others.
Next up: How That Boat Movie changed my own life.
Labels: class warfare, history, Titanic, tragedy