Sunday, April 15, 2012

Remembering the Titanic

I have at times wondered why, a century after the event, the sinking of the Titanic continues to receive as much attention as it does. There have been bigger ships (the supertankers and aircraft carriers aside, there have been been bigger liners, like today's colossal Oasis class ships), and deadlier maritime disasters (like the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, which killed more than 9,000, and the Goya, which killed more than 6,000, compared with the 1,500 who died when the Titanic went down). The sinking of another British ocean liner, the Lusitania, just three years later, took nearly as many lives (almost 1,200), and had a far greater significance for the course of world history given its impact on international opinion during World War I.

Part of this seems a reflection of the memorialization of the event, which in turn has made it better known and therefore more likely to be memorialized yet again, as has certainly happened on the movie screen – in 1955's A Night to Remember (adapted from Walter Lord's successful book by Eric Ambler), in 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown (based on the hit play), and of course, in 1997's James Cameron's Titanic (one of the biggest blockbusters in history). But this hardly explains why the event was memorialized in the first place, or why the retelling of the story as fiction and nonfiction continues to find an interested audience.

It seems notable that the Titanic was a Belfast-built ship of the British White Star line, bound from Southampton, England for New York, which sank off Newfoundland, Canada – and did so in peacetime, when ships might have been expected to safely cross the ocean, and sailing associated with pleasure rather than necessity and danger. By contrast, the Gustoff and Goya were German ships sunk by Soviet submarines in the Baltic in the last months of World War II, denying them such resonance for the English-speaking world. At the same time, the absence of the obvious political freight of events like the sinking of the Gustoff, or the Lusitania, from the story of the Titanic; the remembrance of the ship as the epitome of luxury in its era; and the presence of numerous celebrities of the day on its passenger list (members of the Astor and Guggenheim families among them); makes it suitable raw material for those inclined to present the human experience as a collection of "stories for the amusement of the comfortable classes" (as Gore Vidal once said of a particular bestselling historian).

Yet, even if one can approach the story in this way, the event also lends itself to an extraordinary range of allegories and comments. One can see in the disparities of wealth and position among those who journeyed aboard the ship, the collision with the iceberg, the handling of the accident and the aftermath a story of the technological hubris, corporate irresponsibility, and social inequality of an era that in its fundamentals is not much different from our own. (James Cameron, certainly, has highlighted this side of the story in his comments about his film.) At the same time, the 1912 disaster can appear like one of the last moments of the long nineteenth century that has been such an object of nostalgia, and a foreshadowing of the disasters that lay ahead. (Indeed, the first episode of Downton Abbey opened with a telegram regarding the ship's sinking, and the death of the heir to the titular estate.) Indeed, the fascination of the Titanic appears a miniature version of the hold that period has on our imaginations – the Victorian-Edwardian era both as we knew it, and as it might have been.

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