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Titanic–a Tale to Remember April 14, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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So now we think we know what happened, on that night exactly 100 years ago. Divers have explored the wreck, animated computer models have been presented, rescued artifacts are making their rounds around the world, stories of lost souls and survivors have been told, documentaries and movies have been made. So after the 100th anniversary, can we now close the book on Titanic? Or will it become one of the stories of humankind that we will never quite be done with? If so, it will be because, for one thing, it speaks to something perennial in the human psyche—and for another, because the story is broad and deep enough that different times and ages can find their own reflections in it.

When the disaster happened, the world was different—and I’m not talking about technology. The very mindset of the western world in 1912 was vastly different from today, because of the enormous optimism felt on two continents: the new century was going to be magnificent; the advances in medicine would soon conquer all diseases; technology would take humanity to far-away places on the planet, at break-neck speeds; politically, democracies were spreading, and war seemed like a primitive option, left behind in the turmoil of the 19th century (and few people were in the position to be able to predict the start of the Great War (WWI) just tw years later). And nature, in all its forms, would soon be conquered by human know-how and willpower. And what better symbol of the new age than the sister ships being built in Belfast, the Olympic and the Titanic? And when the Titanic, the carrier of the dream of the future, sank on April 14, 1912, the dream of an invincible 20th century perished, too, and in its place rose a wave of cynicism that we have, in effect, been riding ever since.

As we all know from Cameron’s movie (if we didn’t know already): It wasn’t the architect who claimed the ship was unsinkable—the concept came from the owners and the advertisers. The sinking of Titanic gave rise to cynicism and skepticism about what authorities tell you (don’t worry, there will be another lifeboat), about what advertisers tell you, about the promises of technology and even the wisdom of applying it. In short, Titanic now became a symbol for human hubris and nemesis, and that is the mirror Titanic has held up to us for a century.  

But now? With the 100th anniversary the drumbeat of the moral lessons of Titanic is sounding a new beat, coming from James Cameron himself. Two themes are emerging that one hundred years ago were not high on the agenda; one wasn’t even on the horizon. The recently corroborated fact that of the 1500 people who died that night, a great number were 3rd class passengers, locked up in steerage like rats, without even a change of escaping, has become a new theme: When disaster strikes, everybody suffers, but some may be suffering more than others: the have-nots. According to statistics, 75 percent of steerage passengers died, while among the first class passengers “only” 37 percent were lost. So the social aspect of Titanic as a class experience has emerged as a moral lesson, added to the hubris theme. But Cameron sees yet another moral caveat in the story of Titanic: the hubris of a planet thinking it can go full steam ahead without worrying about icebergs, for the sake of profit. For him, Planet Earth is a Titanic forging ahead into climate change.

So is that an appropriate lesson to be learned from the story of Titanic, or does it somehow deflect and detract from the actual tragedy happening to real people 100 years ago? Are they being used merely as a means to a political end? That is up to us to decide, individually. What fascinates me is that the doomed ship can take on a new narrative role as a teacher of moral lessons that go far beyond the concerns of 100 years ago. But perhaps that is the case with all good stories; they not only tell a timeless tale, but their lesson can be adapted to new ages and different problems.