Tomorrow night (14 April 2012) will be the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. At 11:40 p.m. on the 14th of April, 1912, the ship grazed an iceberg and sank after two hours and forty minutes of high drama. I first learned the story of the sinking as a third grader wandering through my school’s library. Walter Lord’s book, A Night to Remember sat on a shelf, unread by the students in years. I checked it out and was immediately absorbed. In the thirty or so years since then, I’ve given the subject a good measure of thought.
The story couldn’t have been written better by one of the great ancient Greek tragic playwrights. Recall that a tragedy is the unfolding of consequences from one fatal act. A hero, a character of extraordinary nature, has a flaw that leads him to commit an act of hubris, and the gods smack him down. The Titanic was seen as the height of human engineering. The builders and the owners didn’t say that she was unsinkable, but that was the report in a newspaper and a view held by many. As with the classic plays, seers gave many warnings of the danger ahead. The ship itself was nearly struck by the S.S. City of New York in Southampton harbor, thanks to her vast bulk and engine power. Several messages came over the wireless about a field of ice that lay across her path. Like Oedipus, her officers and owner ignored the warnings. In the manner of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, many of the characters great and small in the drama died with her.
The sinking was a shock. Technology had conquered continents with railroads and was starting its assault on the air. A canal across the Isthmus of Panama was soon to be completed. Cities glowed at night with Edison’s bulbs, and messages travelled in fractions of a second through the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable and by the new invention of radio. The Titanic was the latest expression of humanity’s domination over nature. Recall that the industrial Great War hadn’t happened yet. Though the American Civil War should have taught us the lesson, many of the period saw machinery as their salvation. The loss of this great ship was a message to the world that the twentieth century would be one of mechanized death.
When the Titanic went down, she drove a crack through the age of elegance that would be blown apart in two years. For the most part, the people of all classes on board behaved as they were supposed to do. The officers kept order, and many went down. The stokers kept the boilers going and the lights and wireless on, while the musicians played to the last. The first class men stood nobly on the deck, while women and children got into the boats. Oblivious toffs like Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and cowards like J. Bruce Ismay were rare and widely condemned after the fact.
Of course, this was an age that attended little to the lower classes. Many of them, passengers and crew, died without reaching the top decks. The story of our egalitarian times has been that they were locked below, but that’s not likely true. It may simply be that they were forgotten. Add the sinking to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a few weeks before, and a realization emerges that those who have been ignored must be no longer. This is one of the messages of the loss of the Titanic that is still being taken in by those in power in our society.
The real story of the ship is a tale of Nevermore. It it an allegory of a world that fell from romance to realism. As a tragedy, it is the story of one that tried and failed. If we study it and feel catharsis, it does its job. If we learn a lesson of caution, we are the wiser for it. The account of elegance and nobility should elevate us, but we will act in our own tragedy if we allow the story of the Titanic to turn us into small and frightened people. We know now, as we really did even then, that the world is a dangerous place. But we must build and conquer and sail. Thanks to this ship, we do so with open eyes, but we must do. Like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, we must strive and seek and find and never yield.