Unless you’ve parted company with the non-stop news bombardment that characterizes our daily life, next weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The internet overflows with it, Jack and Rose are now at your local multiplex in 3D, and a blizzard of documentaries and at least one mini-series will commemorate the event on TV. So, in the immortal words of Howard Beale, Network‘s Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, “What does this have to do with the price of rice?” And more to the point, why is it this ship and this disaster that continue to hold the public imagination after so many years?
I think there are several factors, but one in particular stands out. Before I get to that, let me give you a bit of background: I’m writing this as a former member of two different Titanic-related interest groups (one of which I co-founded), and my perspective has changed a great deal over the years. Like many Titanic enthusiasts, I became interested in the disaster at a young age—I think I was 10 when I read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. I pretty much devoured every book and article I could find during the pre-internet dark ages, and after a B.A. in history and the passage of an unmentionable number of years, I can offer this:
Even before James Cameron’s epic, people had an incredibly romantic view of the ship, her passengers and crew. The Edwardian Age, its decor, its fashions and manners have always been a powerful draw, as any fan of The Forsyte Saga, Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey can attest (I’m a card-carrying groupie myself). The Titanic as microcosm is an enduring aspect of the story, with great wealth facing disaster alongside a poor immigrant population seeking a new life. And of course, many view Titanic through the lens of hindsight and see a world in sunset, with the horrors of the Great War looming ahead.
What’s missing in all this is an acknowledgment that the sinking of the Titanic is a safe disaster to be fascinated with. There were no cameras to record the ship in its death throes as there were in 1956 when the Andrea Doria sank; there are no tapes of the cries of the passengers in the water after the Titanic went down. In fact the only witnesses were the participants in the tragedy itself; there were no on-lookers as there were when the Eastland rolled over at its pier or the Cocoanut Grove nightclub became an inferno. It’s not a horror show. Yes, the deaths of more than 1500 people are acknowledged, but in almost abstract fashion, at an emotional distance. It’s become virtually pain-free. So there’s little to disturb an absorption in Captain Smith and his gallant officers and crew, or an identification with the Astors, the Guggenheims, the Wideners in First Class (Which reminds me of Crash Davis’s great observation in Bull Durham: “How come in former lifetimes everyone was someone famous? How come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmo?”).
In the final analysis the Titanic stands alone. It was neither Pearl Harbor nor the Challenger disaster; it certainly wasn’t 9/11, whose victims we saw dying before our eyes in an eternal video loop, scarring the nation’s psyche in ways we’re still coming to terms with. Yet aspects of the Titanic tragedy will never fade from memory—how and why people act they way they do, especially under pressure; why so-called lessons are never learned; how wealth and the lack of it will always guarantee disparate treatment. This is what will endure, long after this anniversary is past.