Titanic: The Myth Lives on – Part 2

The sinking of the Titanic was one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century and many people connected to it – survivors and those who lost loved ones – were haunted by it – the glory and the hope – so soon to become a broken wreckage lying at the bottom of the sea.

What followed the tragedy was a public mourning – characterised by disbelief and shock, the shattering of those naïve dreams and aspirations towards splendour, opulence and invincibility. 

Titanic’s untimely demise represented a kind of fall from grace for humanity; a reminder of our weakness in the face of nature; our humble place in the scheme of things and our failure to comprehend that weakness.
The sea cared nothing for who was rich and who was poor. As the poet Thomas Hardy wrote, “Over the mirrors meant / To glass the opulent / The sea worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.”

Yet perhaps the best expression of public feeling in the wake of the tragedy is described by Titanic survivor Lawrence Beesley, who perfectly captures the tremendous excitement and anticipation, so quickly followed by dashed hopes and loss:
The history of the R.M.S. Titanic of the White Star Line, is one of the most tragically short it is possible to conceive. The world had waited expectantly for its launching and again for it’s sailing; had read accounts of its tremendous size and its unexampled completeness and luxury; had felt it a matter of the greatest satisfaction that such a comfortable and above all such a safe boat had been designed and built- the “unsinkable lifeboat”- and then in a moment to hear that it had gone to the bottom as if it had been the veriest tramp steamer of a few hundred tons; and with it fifteen hundred passengers, some of them known all the world over! The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity.

So what of Titanic’s legacy? In the years immediately following her sinking, the town of Southampton was a community in mourning. Of her eight hundred and eighty crew, more than six hundred were from Southampton and only fifty one of those survived. It was a loss keenly felt.

 

Julia Wood - Features Writer

As I pointed out in my book, The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde A Cultural Afterlife (Lutterworth Press, 2007) with regard to the tragedy of Wilde’s downfall, mourning on a collective scale induces a multitude of conflicting emotions: denial, shock, anger and disbelief. The usual questions are asked: Why? How? And most pertinently, Who?

Who was to blame for this terrible tragedy? The grieving public, the local community and those who had lost people – wanted someone to blame; a scapegoat upon whom to vent their anger and grief.

The search for a scapegoat for the tragedy led to the media persecution of Mr. Ismay, whose good name was destroyed by the disaster, under whose shadow he lived for the rest of his reclusive life.

Also severely vilified was Stanley Lord, Captain of the Caledonian, the ship who failed to respond to the distress signal because he did not believe Titanic was in real trouble.

The real truth was, of course, far harder to accept. There were only twenty lifeboats for the ship’s 2,223 passengers and Titanic, on the instructions of Mr. Ismay, had been sailing two fast for a ship of her size, not leaving her enough time to turn before hitting the iceberg.

The real culprits for the Titanic disaster were human error, over-zealous optimism, naïve exuberance and wonderment at our incredible human accomplishment, of which its designer and builders were so proud. Like any tragedy, we are left with a vast list of might-have-beens and if-onlys.

In the words of one of Titanic’s survivors, Captain Arthur Rostron, commander of Carpathia, the ship that went to Titanic’s rescue:
I still think about the ‘might have beens’ about the Titanic, that’s what stirs me more then anything else. Things that happened that wouldn’t have happened if only one thing had gone better for her. If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come. The ‘if only’ kept coming up again and again and that makes the ship more then the experience of studying a disaster. It becomes a haunting experience to me, it’s the haunting experience of ‘if only’.”

But the legacy of Titanic extends far beyond the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The story of the great ship’s fateful maiden voyage is mythic in a way that continues to engage us today. We are enthralled by the band, who continued to play as the ship was sinking, by the courage of those who remained on board to try to save the ship. We are moved by the failed attempts of her captain, John Jack Philips, whose futile attempts to signal distress with the Marconi machine fell upon deaf ears – “Come at once, we’ve struck a berg,” “come quick as possible. Engine room’s filling up to the boilers.” And of course, his last incomplete message, sent at 2.17am “C.Q. -” And then silence as the ship sinks.

What is more, the questions identified by Len Goodman in the BBC1 documentary, Titanic with Len Goodman are ones that still resonate with the contemporary human subject because they are universally valid questions: Who would I be? What would I do?

These fundamental questions challenge our humanity, making us think about the kind of people we are, or the kind of people we would like to be. Watching dramatised versions of the story from the cosiness of our armchairs, we can ponder these questions relatively safe in the knowledge that our lives and our humanity will never be held to ransom in this way.

Would we have given up a place on the lifeboat? Or begged to be saved, regardless of who we left behind?

That we can engage with the story in this way has helped the myth to flourish and garner public interest, generating as it does, questions still pertinent to our understanding of what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century. Our modern, egalitarian sensibilities are affronted by the privileging of the classes, by the ruthless way in which the lower classes were kept locked in the lower decks of the sinking ship, so that those in first class could be saved first.

But who can say how we would behave in such circumstances? The tragedy of Titanic stirs us to question what we value and how important or ethical those values are, performing a valuable function as a myth for our time. It is myth that continues to accrue interest and generate discussion.

Titanic: The Myth Lives On – Part 1

“As the smart ship grew/In stature, grace and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too…”
(Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain. Lines on the Loss of the Titanic)

At the approach of the one hundredth anniversary of its demise, Titanic mania seems to be gripping the nation. Dramas and documentaries are in abundance, including the Julian Fellowes’ five-part series (ITV1), Titanic with Len Goodman, (BBC1) and another factual documentary on Sunday 15th, exploring the testimonies of the ship’s survivors. In Belfast, where the ship was built, there is a series of commemorative events, including a tribute concert with special guest stars.

Titanic – both the vessel itself and the tragedy which befell her – have passed into legend. The tragedy has survived the ages, delivering to us its tale of human fallibility and vanity, ambition and hubris. As many have pointed out over the last few weeks, it is a story that still means so much, a tale that continues to capture the public imagination.

The story, Len Goodman noted in the conclusion to the second part of the Sunday night documentary Titanic with Len Goodman – leaves us asking ourselves two questions: Who would I have been, and What would I have done? But there is another question that has to be on peoples’ lips: how could it have happened?

"Titanic", "BBC1", "Len Goodman"

Titantic with Len Goodman on BBC1

How could a ship, built with such faith and hope and ambition, have encountered such a tragic end?

Titanic was built by the famous ship-builders, Harland and Wolff, but right from the start, there was a touch of doom about her. Eight men died in industrial accidents during her construction, which took place in a dockyard built for the specific purpose of accommodating her immense size. (Titanic was eight hundred and eighty feet long and weighed forty-six thousand tons). She took fifteen hundred men and three years to build and was docked in Southampton from May 1911. The crew that queued up to work on her were numbered in the thousands. Titanic was more than a ship. She was a phenomenon, an event.

But to us, Titanic has become even more than that. She is a symbol, a figurative illustration of Edwardian optimism and invincibility. In James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, when Mr. Ismay, president of the company who built the ship, is informed of the ship’s plight, he responds with, “Titanic can’t sink”. “I assure you, sir, she can…” replied Titanic’s head designer and naval architect, Mr. Andrews, “… she’s made of iron.”

It was precisely this kind of hubris – which in many ways typified the naïve optimism of pre-war England – which led to the disaster. Titanic had had a lot invested in her: in time, in money, in energy and in faith, to say nothing of the lives she claimed before she had even embarked upon her maiden voyage. But it was the fallacy of her invincibility that was her undoing. In the words of Philip Franklin, White Star Line’s Vice President, ‘I thought her unsinkable and I based my opinion on the best expert advice.’

Between Mr. Ismay wanting a good headline in the American press by pushing for Titanic to sail faster and thus arrive in America early, and the insufficient number of lifeboats for the passengers on board – also the result of Ismay’s poor judgement – was the belief that Titanic was unsinkable.

Underlying that belief is the ideology of ambition, the indomitable spirit of Empire. Although built in Ireland by Irish hands, Titanic carried with her something of the spirit of that Empire; the conqueror’s sensibility that nothing could possibly destroy.

Thus, when Titanic sank, she took with her more than her passengers and crew. She took much that Edwardian naivety so characteristic of the English nation in the time before the First World War, which would see things tipped upside down forever.

Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15th 1912. She was like a portend of doom, prefiguring the disintegration of Edwardian society by a mere two years and Рat the risk of invoking a dreadful clich̩ Рshe prefigured a society that would be irrevocably afflicted by the all too-powerful waves of change that came with the First World War.

The ship, sailing blithely on the waves that would destroy her, was a cross section of our class-ridden society, the social system in miniature, upended; turned upside down and then sunk, by hubris, optimism and the quest for glory. Indeed, one might just as easily be describing the outcome of the catastrophic First World War and its effect upon England, an event which was a mere two years away from the famous maritime disaster.

In Part Two, I will be exploring the legacy of the tragedy, articulating it in terms of a public mourning and it accompanying emotions: denial, guilt, anger and loss.

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