My father was eleven years old when the Titanic went down. He would tell his own simple story of hearing about it, living in Portugal at the time…. He was telling it as an old man to a young boy around the same age as the boy he had been then. There were fifty-one years between us.
I don’t know if that is why the Titanic has always loomed so large for me. I have always been taken by events of that decade, now coming around in their centennial series of anniversaries. Titanic will have gone down one hundred years ago this weekend.
Titanic. It means very large. It’s related to Gigantic and Olympic – the original names intended for her sisters. Gigantic’s name was changed to Britannic after Titanic’s disaster. Though it didn’t save her from going down as well, a hospital ship sunk by a submarine or a mine during the Dardanelles Campaign…. Olympic alone survived to live out a long life crisscrossing the ocean that took her grander sister on her first voyage.
Olympic is a hint at another meaning of the term Titanic. One I’ve only recently connected with the ship and her story after reading this post. The Titans were a race of giants that ruled the world before the Olympian Gods. They ruled the world horribly, unable to control their appetites, even to the point of eating their young. Only after Zeus, tricking his Titan father Cronus overthrew them, did he usher in an ordered universe. The one he and his fellow gods represented. The hope was that this would be an order in which there was room for humans to exist free of the horrors of being crushed by titanic forces raging to sate their unrulable appetites. That was the hope….
In our time calling something Titanic is considered a compliment. This boast always greeted with a smile of pride. Sure, there was a brief shrinking back, more against the “bad-luck” of claiming to be unsinkable than over any shame at calling on the time of the Titans; but this didn’t stop our pursuit and admiration for the Titanic, for anything grandiose, over-sized, able to generate in us a thrill of awe and identification with something larger than life.
Larger than life. Let’s think about that…. If something is “larger than life” how does it relate to life?
The Titans provide one answer. Badly. They represented an order so unwieldy, and so driven, and so power-mad that life was not possible until they were subdued and exiled to the underworld.
Underworld. Is that where Titanic now lies? We’ve had our glimpses at her slowly decaying corpse. Rusticles reaching down into the mud, like chains to hold a beaten yet still terrifying monster bound. A case of “belt and suspenders.” Two miles of cold, dark water cover the spot where she lies. Hard to imagine any monster returning from such depths!
Liquid, surface, depth; these are all qualities of our imagination as well as of ocean. Our relationship with myths, even – maybe even especially – the ones we now claim no longer to believe, hold us in a similar dazzled and conflicted bewilderment as what we feel watching waves, peering into depths impossible to fathom. Immeasurable, in any way that feels like some thing, beyond our sense that this is an uncrossable barrier, a one way street, where now antique lady’s boots lie in empty pairs and lumps of coal are scattered across soft smooth mud pale as a shroud. A surface with a color and texture we associate with death itself.
The story of Titanic is a story of death. Death wholesale. Death foretold and death awaited patiently or in a panic as the waters rushed in and the disbelief that anything bad could happen, or the life-long habits of weary anxiety that eventually something really bad would happen; slowly came together into focus on the quicksilver surface of icy water reflecting harsh electric light or the distant pinpoints of stars too far away to care about the tragedy unfolding down below.
In our imaginations this cast of characters, live out their lives over and over again as in a seasonal morality play. A microcosm of society, miniaturized and transported across an ocean standing in for the vastness of space and time we and our world must navigate. Their stories telescoped into an unfinished week; from fevered preparation, to settling in, to the rude awakening of disaster impending, looming, and then engulfing them.
I cannot help but see them less and less as a cautionary tale – that ship has left the dock by now… than as examples of how and how not to behave in the coming years.
A bright warm cabin, public spaces full of color and light and life…. It’s hard to imagine what a little time and intractable forces acting like gravity and the persistent eagerness of water to find its way, to infiltrate where it can, to run from a trickle to a torrent and bring about changes that seem so incremental as to be invisible until they reach, what we’ve come to call, “a tipping point?”
An image of that once proud stern standing, glistening propellers dripping high above a black sea, hanging poised before the final plunge…. The flurry and then the agonies of freezing and drowning, dying in crowds, or dying alone, or as couples. Isadore and Rosalie Straus, an elderly, wealthy, long-married couple choosing to stay together, unmoved by the illusions of those around them calling out, “See you in New York my dear!” As they separated at the rail.
These people are as if they were characters in a myth themselves. Everyone has a life, and then loses it somehow, and sometime. Theirs just seem to mean something more. They are trapped in the Enormity of that moment and in the significance we have looked for, and pondered after, and are still trying to weave together, line by line, looking to see how their moment somehow prefigured wider portents. How their errors, their tragedies, their lives and deaths could hold for us an image with some meaning, some significance, if but we could only hold it in our mind’s eye and have it settle in and leave its mark.
Life goes on. Surfaces move and meld and reveal and reflect and hide it all again, as they always have, and always will. We cannot stop, as much as we would wish to extend our own sympathies – or is it self-identification with this cast? – to stop the flow of what happened to them one hundred years ago on a silent night within sight of another ship-of-fools, the steamer Californian. Whose officers and lookouts stood by watching a distant spectacle play out on their horizon, a dumb show of lights and rockets followed by stillness and impenetrable night. Caught in their own inability to imagine what was right before their eyes. Unable, as much as unwilling, to conceive that they could do anything at a time like that.
A time like what? It was all just beyond them. In sight, but out of reach. Immobility, caution, sloth; all contributed to their shame.
They stood by while over a thousand perished that could have lived to see that dawn from her stout decks a few hours later, instead of floating, their blank eyes unable to take in the bright sunlight; or sinking out of sight, to dissolve their bones and leave their boots in pairs across the bottom as if in a procession leading towards that final resting place of a vanquished Titan.
There is one enormous gap between where we are now and the Titanic. The Titanic had lifeboats. The Titanic’s survivors had a place to go. The same world that sent the Titanic off to find its end was still there to accept them back. The disaster brought shame to a few, grief to many, and to the families of her dead crew members a bill for their lost uniforms from the White Star Line.
Titanic was a turning point. Titanic was the first tremor, for all its size, barely felt as the world that brought her forth continued in its own mad rush, a hurry to meet its end. Two years later that world was torn asunder. The ensuing century filled with shocks that have repeatedly surprised us at how far it could all go.
This Spring, its lack of ice more of note than icebergs, we are poised. We’ve felt the distant shocks. We’ve wondered at the signs that things are not as they were. We are still, many of us, especially those of us with the time and the comfort to be sitting here reading or writing… Cozy in our bunks or smiling in the afterglow of a banquet, looking forward to another tomorrow. How could that distant shudder, even that imperceptible but growing tilt of the deck under our feet, be more significant to us than all the Titanic’s glory still shining brightly all around us? Surely we can just turn over and go back to sleep. The bed is warm. The night is frightfully cold!
The glory of the Titans encompasses us. Their price, the price they demand of us to bask in that glory, does come due. Their glory appears to shelter us, but it is no more than a coffin waiting to entomb us.