The ship, a symbol of magnificent human endeavour, was, like all human endeavours, bound to perish
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic. But you knew that already. The Titanic disaster is the one disaster that you simply cannot get away from. It would be pointless, as well as impossibly tedious, to list all the Titanic-themed events that are happening about now. Suffice it to say that there are lots of them. Try Googling “Titanic anniversary”, and see how many hits you get.
All this Titanic mania is rather boring, but there are several reasons behind it that tell us a lot about ourselves.
Firstly, it was an accident. It was not “an accident waiting to happen” but rather the sort of accident that was the result of the purest bad luck. The ship and the iceberg crossed each others’ paths in the vastness of the ocean, which was surely the most unlikely of coincidences. If the Titanic had been a mere five minutes later, or a few degrees off its course, none of this would have happened. Likewise if the iceberg, which had been thousands of years in the making, has been just a few minutes later in calving from the glacier whence it came.
This is the idea behind the famous poem by Thomas Hardy, “The Convergence of the Twain”, which remains the single best comment on the disaster.
All of us have experienced malign coincidence; that is why the Titanic disaster resonates with us.
The other reason for the current obsession is that the Titanic story is about death. From the moment they stepped aboard, those 1,503 people were doomed to die, and there was nothing they could do about it. We, too, are all doomed to die one day, and there is nothing we can do about that either – even though the world behaves very much as if death didn’t exist. (This is the theme of the excellent book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.) But despite the fact that the world conspires to deny death, we all know that such denial is in vain, and that’s why we love the Titanic so – this huge ship, the symbol of magnificent human endeavour, which, like all human endeavours, is bound to perish. Some of the most wonderful images in James Cameron’s film were of corpses; rather an achievement, when one considers that most people nowadays have never seen a corpse.
I personally am not traumatised by the thought of dying, and I do not see why anyone else should be. I do not understand why death remains the last great thing we are not allowed to talk about. We talk about everything else. It is Easter. Death, let us remember, has lost its sting; and the grave has been deprived of victory. And that means even the graves of those who lie buried at sea, in graves like the Titanic. For the sea too shall one day give up its dead.