When the traditional day for our taxes being due arrived last year, some of us remembered the 100th anniversary of another disaster: the sinking of the Titanic on a dark and cold night. Somewhere in the North Atlantic in that same year, 1309 passengers sailed a luxury liner on a 12 day journey repeating the route of that fabled vessel, minus the iceberg. In the theaters, the Oscar winning movie by James Cameron, which brought in 1.8 billion dollars on its first go around, reappeared in 3-D. My wife already made a point to see it in a premier showing in our local theater, while my youngest daughter and I re-watched it on DVD.
Artifacts from the long-sunk ship are being auctioned for exorbitant sums, while several books on the ship’s fateful voyage are scheduled for publication. Right now I’m nearly finished reading a novel of alternate history science fiction about a failed attempt to prevent its sinking by a time traveler. Written by David Kowalski, The Company of the Dead describes how a time traveler’s attempts to stop the sinking result not in saving the ship, but merely in it hitting a second iceberg after missing the first. The ship still sinks, but different people survive. The history of the world is radically changed: the United States never enters the First World War, so Germany wins. The world of 2012 looks nothing at all like the world we know and is blundering into a war of nuclear devastation. A group from the alternate reality attempt to go back to the time of the Titanic’s sinking to prevent the time traveler from preventing the sinking. It’s a fascinating book for person who majored in history in college who also happens to be a science fiction fan.
The Titanic sinking resulted in the loss of many lives. But there have been far worse disasters in world history, disasters that we barely think about now. The Japanese slaughtered 800,000 civilians in Nanking in 1938. Thousands died in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And yet, for some reason, the sinking of the Titanic has captured our interest in a unique way that other disasters have not. I wondered why—and have come up with a handful of possible reasons.
One: it was the maiden voyage of the ship. For whatever reason, we don’t expect something to go wrong with something like an ocean liner on its first trip. This, despite the fact that we are surprised if the first attempt at launching a new rocket goes well and we consider being a test pilot for a new aircraft a very dangerous job.
Two: the hubris inherent in the attitudes of those who built and took passage on the voyage. The Titanic was described as “unsinkable.” And in keeping with that attitude, the number of lifeboats was only enough for half the passengers on the ship. It guaranteed that if their belief in the ship’s unsinkability was wrong, then half the passengers would die.
Three: the Titanic, in some sense, stands as a symbol for the end of an era, and the end of a way of looking at the world. World War I, the Great War, the war to end all wars was on the horizon in 1912. The optimism of an era that was seriously wounded with the sinking of the Titanic suffered a mortal blow with the Great War that began in 1914. The war saw millions of young men brutally killed with new weapons and techniques, while the great empires and kingdoms collapsed. When the Titanic set sail, monarchs ruled Europe. Within six years, most of those monarchs were either dead or in exile. Russia had gone communist, the Kaiser of Germany went into exile, the Hapsburg rule over the Austrian Empire ended—as did the empire. The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist with Turkey and other small nations—many now controlled by the victors of the war—arising in its stead. All was in turmoil. The sensible, orderly, optimistic world had sunk. The “war to end all wars” soon became nothing but a joke, a lying farce, when conflict increased. The voyage of the Titanic was the last moment of a serene, ideal world of order and supposed grace. It became a picture of what the world had done to itself. In some ways, the Titanic divides the nineteenth from the twentieth century, just as September 11, 2001 serves more to divide the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Such events change how people see their world; they alter their perceptions of reality. Events are what divide times, rather than the arbitrary numbers of a calendar.
For my wife, she sees something “romantic” in the sad story of the Titanic. Like many people, she enjoys tragic love stories like Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers die in the end. The Titanic, thus, is the ultimate tragic love story: men and women are separated by the impossible circumstances. The men gallantly give up their lives to save their wives and children, forcing them into the lifeboats, parting forever.
Why does that image from the Titanic wrench romantic feelings from us?
We all want to believe that our loved ones would be willing to give up everything for us, even their lives. And we all wish to think that we would be willing to give up everything for our loved ones. The actions of the men aboard the Titanic demonstrate the overwhelming power of true love: it is a picture of our greatest longing. In the Titanic, we see our best selves. And so, we cannot forget the story of that tragic ship.