A CENTENARY RENEWS THE MYSTERY AND PATHOS
Looking in at some of the centenary Titanic material I ask myself, not cynically but curiously, quite why this ship’s disaster continues to haunt us to the degree it does. The James Cameron Titanic film of 1997, though perhaps the most overall inaccurate and romanticized record of the tragedy, was the biggest grossing film of all time (until his own Avatar overtook it). We now have even a Titanic Requiem being performed.
There seems little question that all our fears of drowning, sudden disaster, of loss amid ease and pleasure, separation from dear ones, the thought of having to look the jaws of death in the face gather around the story; but then there are tales of loss and heroism at war that have great pathos. So perhaps too we see the Titanic event, occurring as it did not long before WW1 as also profoundly symbolic in more impersonal ways, the soon disappearance of an empire, a lifestyle, a world that no longer exists though we are not vastly removed from it. Some of us just project personal associations upon it. In my own case when I was a child I was on a vividly remembered voyage between Wales and Ireland so rough people thought the old ship might sink - which a few weeks later it actually did, but fortunately enough in Dublin harbour rather than out at sea!
A BLACK TRAGEDY OF ERRORS
But there’s not just the pathos and the symbolism, there’s also our incredulity at the tragedy which has perhaps increased over time as research has made the picture clearer. Humanly it turns out to be a saga of the most mind-boggling, incredible series of errors, oversights and accidents from the weak, low grade iron ore rivets in the steel plating of the perfect ship and insufficient lifeboats insufficiently filled because officers didn’t understand how many should go in them, to the undelivered wireless messages and even making the vessel sink faster by gathering speed instead of staying still or at least progressing very slowly. How could even the keys to the box containing the binoculars for the Lookout have been lost?
The list goes on and on. Many people and things contributed to the disaster but it strikes me one of the most directly and gratuitously guilty was (inevitably and unjustly!) a crew survivor, Harold Bride. He seems to have been too interested in sending income boosting radio messages for the rich and famous to be concerned with warnings about general conditions and icebergs. When he was strongly told he grew so irritable with the nearest ship, the Californian, which could have steamed over in time to save passengers, it switched off for the night so that emergency messages couldn’t be received when needed.
If the passengers remained too long secure for their own good in belief the ship was unsinkable, not even the popular captain Smith that millionaires like to travel with seems to have been too bright. An arbiter of fashion, Lady Duff Gordon, who had been prone to interesting states of foreboding during the voyage, walked on deck on the morning of the 14th and found it so cold she was convinced icebergs must be near which the Captain laughed off as improbable. But admittedly it was improbable. Though April could be a dangerous month, icebergs shouldn’t have been so far south at the time and it seems the massive culprit had broken off and made a very long journey and even from the time the Titanic began to be built.
The story begins to become like a parable of something, a dark tale of doom or retribution like Captain Ahab’s Great White Whale or the whale that God “prepared” for Jonah, all ultimately unavoidable. Yet not entirely unavoidable. There are strange tales of people’s late cancellations for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, everything from dreaming it would be wrecked to perhaps providential “accidents” that prevented their going as in the case of various clergy like the Rev Holden whose wife’s sudden illness prevented him from leaving for America, Pastor Nesbitt’s suddenly changed arrangements. The ship had been like a challenge to fate by its very name. The titans like fallen angels had revolted against the Greek ur-God, Saturn. The Titanic was the boat that ”even God himself couldn’t sink” (famous words attributed to Captain Smith who perished so that we can’t check) but which nature if not God did sink.
FATE AND FAITH ON DROWNING SEAS.
It’s a sign of the times that this last weekend’s docus did not stress religion really at all though the event would carry a lot of religious resonance and stories for many people. The Cameron film included violinists playing “Nearer my God to thee”, but it’s disputed it was precisely this hymn was played. However we do know that on deck there were priests giving absolution (to those from the second and the half abandoned third class) and on some boats, like the one 17 year old John Thayer managed to get onto after floating around, people were praying and singing hymns.
However not everyone on all life boats. The unsinkable Molly Brown was registering she was unsinkable and Lady Gordon in her detailed and fascinating account, and despite all her justified premonitions about the Titanic (where or how did she have them?), never once mentions God or Providence in the matter. In the lifeboat, scarcely able to endure the cold, the sea sickness, the sight of the sinking ship and the cries of the dying across the waters, like Voltaire’s Candide she only mentions that the stars above the boat (the night was illuminated by only stars, it was the dark of the moon with a new moon due on the 17th) seemed remote and uncaring to the scene. She hardly seems thankful to have survived – possibly she suffered survivor guilt. The British Dulwich College science teacher Lawrence Beesley likewise registers nothing emotional but the horror of the screams of the dying (some said they went on for hours but that’s what it must have seemed as most people would die in minutes from hypothermia). There is no thought or mention of God or fate; we may suppose science forbade everything but fact.
An idea I musingly draw from what I read and hear in this respect is that, (as I describe near the end of my The Great Circle), belief is a truly complex thing and is not necessarily influenced or decided at all by disaster, emergency and the face of death. People have a sense of God and the beyond or they don’t and often seem to believe what they want to believe. Ultimately it is almost as though there is a predestined, or at least highly “irrational” element to the faith decision.
The most extreme Titanic story of the religious kind belongs to the Scots Baptist minister John Harper after whom a memorial church would be founded in Glasgow. He was the traditional “soul winner” and was so to his last breath. His “last convert” a fellow Scot who managed to cling to some wreckage till he was later rescued would later attest that Harpur had heroically given away his lifejacket and was being driven back and forth in the water. He had come close shouting to him to trust in Jesus and be saved and asked him if he thought he was saved. “No,” replied the man. Harper was driven away by the current but later swept back to him and shouted had he now put his trust and was he really saved?” 'No, I cannot honestly say that I am' was the reply. Harper then sank. The man said he suddenly then believed. As I don’t find the name of the alleged convert one wonders if this is evangelical fantasy but probably not as Harper had also been observed by numbers of people on the sinking deck and then in the waters similarly calling on people to place their trust.
Harper’s daughter, Nina, survived but as her mother had died in childbirth she was brought up by family friends who never let her even discuss the Titanic during her youth. One wonders with such suppression and repression, with no grief and trauma counselling how even with prayers, hymns and faith Titanic survivors quite managed. And it seems they didn’t do so too well. John Thayer suffered depression and committed suicide later in life, Madeleine, the widow of John Jacob Astor who drowned lived a confused and troubled life. There are similar tales.
The most important thing would seem to be that we should learn a few lessons from the Titanic, not just the need for responsibility and efficiency on sea as much as land but even the need to mourn and express rather than repress which perhaps today we do rather better than back a century ago. Indeed it is almost as though the collective sensed it had to do the grieving for people and those of a generation who never quite did it for themselves. However the recent wreck of the Costa Concordia, another tale of remarkable bungling, suggests we may not have learned as much as we might have done.