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What all this Titanic mania reveals about us

The ship, a symbol of magnificent human endeavour, was, like all human endeavours, bound to perish

By on Wednesday, 11 April 2012

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.

  • Cestius

    Disagree about it being the purest bad luck.  There were a lot of things that meant that something similar was bound to happen sooner or later – the Titanic may well have missed the iceberg, but there was a hubris and a disregard of risk that meant that some sort of tragedy on one of these large ships was inevitable given time.  Captain Smith himself had a record, having earlier seriously damaged Titanic’s sister ship Olympic in a collision.  The evacuation of the ship was a shambles because it did never been practiced properly.  The ship was going too fast in the wrong place.  The safety of the design of the ship had been seriously overestimated.

    We humans are all too prone to hubris and pride – I see it nowadays in the faith in “progress” instead of rightful humility before God and respect for the natural world.    

  • theroadmaster

    Death has to be de-mystified as it marks the beginning of one’s journey into the spiritual realm of paradise where Our Savior will be present to greet us.  I think that people in the West have invested so much of their time and energy in the pursuit of materialist happiness that their thoughts never venture beyond this life.  Catholicism can shed a lot of light on the nature of this life and the metaphysical joys beyond it.

  • Parasum

    “…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.”

    ## “love the Titanic” ? Disaster is part of life in a fallen world. Of course all human endeavours perish – St. Paul said that a long time ago. God alone endures. This is not news.

    “All of us have experienced malign coincidence; that is why the Titanic disaster resonates with us.”## What happened to belief in Divine Providence ? There are *no* co-incidences, if by the word one means an event that happens for no readily discernible reason – all events, all entities, bar none, are within the government of God.

  • paulsays

    Progress has given you the computer you send your message from, so lets not be to judgmental about it! 
    Progress for progress’s sake is not good, but when it is done with the intention of improving or prolonging human life can not often be seen as bad.

  • paulsays

     ‘all human endeavours perish’
    I think that is a claim very hard to substantiate – how about the giving of charity? It has been going on in numerous human cultures for thousands of years – and its hardly perishing today either. Is charity not a human endeavour?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Charity is divinely inspired, surely….

  • Parasum

    St.Paul:

    1 Cor 7:29  I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none,
    1Cr 7:30     and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods,
    1Cr 7:31     and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.

    And:

    Psa 102:25 Of old Thou didst lay the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands.
    Psa 102:26 They will perish, but Thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment. Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away;
    Psa 102:27 but Thou art the same, and thy years have no end.

    And there is:

    Isaiah 51.6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be for ever, and my deliverance will never be ended.

    And there is this:
    Isa 40:12     Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
    Isa 40:13     Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as his counselor has instructed him?
    Isa 40:14     Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
    Isa 40:15     Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust.

    Size is not important, length of time is not important – yet we are expected to be impressed by billions of years, the size & global reach & might of so-called “super-powers” (LOL), and similar bilge. 

    “Is charity not a human endeavour?”

    “Charity is divinely inspired, surely”

    Most definitely ! But that is the point – it is from God alone, not from earth or man. It is not human in origin, but a Divine work, done through men, to fulfil God’s Will.

    It is the kingdom of God embodied in Christ that lasts – all others are, in reality, like chaff. “The kingdoms of this world/this age” (Rev.11.15) include all earthly kingdoms & rulerships & powers. This is why it so important for the Church not be “of the world”: for Jesus brings in the new age, of the Kingdom of God, that replaces the old one that was thought of as ruled by satan. From another POV, all these things pass away because they are part of creation – & creation is nothing compared to God. It will wear out – He will not. So all the gigantic numbers thrown about like confetti are no argument against faith in Christ. If He is Lord at all, He is Lord of all creatures in every respect – & since it is not man who is central to creation, but Christ, no number of undiscovered inhabited worlds can alter that.

  • paulsays

    Perhaps, equally it cannot be proven.
    Atheists and those of other religions give and have given to charity, and cultures of giving and charity have arisen in civilizations before Christianity.

    Giving towards those less fortunate, as a human institution was really started in Judaism – with the concept of ‘tzedakah’ which is often translated as charity in the sense we know it as today.

  • http://profiles.google.com/liamronan49 Liam Ronan

    Most insightful. 

    On another matter, the url “poem” inserted within the 4th paragraph of this article leads to a website which my McAfee Antivirus software warns against visiting. Just a heads-up to all. 

  • Aunt Raven

    “[ progress] when it is done with the intention of improving or prolonging human life can not often be seen as bad. . .” that was what Dr Faust thought when he made his bargain with the devil.  Like the rest of us, he didn’t count on the law of unintended consequences.  Nothing in this world lasts, that’s why we need to remember that one day we die and all we carry from this world is our good deeds.