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.
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.
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.
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