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Titanic: The Certainty of Catastrophe, 100 Years Later

Unless you either live under a rock or have a poor mind for dates combined with significant mathematical struggles, you’ve surely noticed that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic is this weekend (late on April 14th and the early morning of the 15th, to be precise). A century on, the demise of the largest ship in the world on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic and the deaths of 1,514 of its passengers is a historic tragedy that retains an allure and a resonant symbolism that many much more important occurrences do not. Even as the event has passed beyond living memory (the last survivor of the wreck, Millvina Dean, passed on in 2009), recognition of and interest in the sinking has endured and even grown. But what is the role played by the Titanic in our culture, and what can it tell us about our current condition?

I have to confess that I was once a certified Titanic nut in specific and a junior romanticist for the gilded age of transatlantic passenger liner travel in general. In my teen years in the early 1990s, when my peers were more concerned with snowmobiles, wrist shots, and clandestine social drinking, I could speak knowledgeably on the design failures of watertight compartments and enumerate consecutive holders of the Blue Riband (the unofficial honorific for the liner completing the Atlantic crossing in record time).

My fascination was above all a historic one, grounded in books like Walter Lord’s legendarily sober chronicle of the Titanic disaster A Night to Remember and A&E’s definitive documentary on the subject, Titanic: Death of a Dream and The Legend Lives On. My passion was focused on the detective-type minutiae and details, but the tragic human scope of the event was never far away. I recall a particular moment while perusing a list of the ship’s passengers at the end of Lord’s book. The final name was italicized, indicating the passenger had perished. The simple impact of that, the realization that this was one human life like any other abruptly ended and hundreds more were ended with it, was indelible. Childish things began to be put away.

Of course, the ‘90s also brought James Cameron’s mega-hit blockbuster Titanic film, which exploded the history-buff Titanic cult into a demographic-flattening mass cultural phenomenon. It’s a telling truth about this film’s primacy in the pop culture manifestations of the Titanic disaster that its re-release this year with 3D enhancement has been the most reported commemorative episode of the sinking’s 100th anniversary.

The film’s record success, however, served to mostly snuff out the fires of my own passion for the subject. This is not a movie review, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen Cameron’s epic to judge it fairly from memory alone (and I did enjoy it back in 1997 upon its first release). But at the time, it was obvious enough even to an awkward teen without the critical language to express it that Titanic was less about offering a sober, detailed understanding of the tragedy than visualizing and re-forming that tragedy in order to slip it into the gown of tearjerking Hollywood melodrama. That Cameron’s film builds towards a prodigious heft is undeniable even by the most cynical observer. Titanic’s final hour, in which the characters’ stilted dialogue gives way to visionary, almost wordless imagery of cinematic grandeur, is entirely defensible as pure and brilliant (if manipulative) filmmaking. As both prim civilization and impressive engineering are bent and broken by the inevitability of rising water, Cameron achieves a measure of populist art at its most irresistible.

Still, the film represented the mainstreaming of the Titanic subculture and its reduction to a soft-focus romantic sea opera for housewives and teenage girls alike. Furthermore, its overmatching spectacle was rarely sombre and hardly respectful of mortality’s grim ubiquity in the proceedings. By the final stages of the sinking sequence, when a cart-wheeling computer-generated body plunges from the upthrust stern and clangs with dull metallic emptiness off one of the immense exposed propellers, it’s clear as day that Cameron’s interest lies not in empathetic elegy but in meticulously-staged exhibition.

If Titanic the film galvanized a place for Titanic the sunken ship in our millennial culture, the symbolism of the tragedy has been galvanized into self-parody. As much as I love A&E’s seminal Titanic documentary, its greatest fault (besides the ingratiating narration by David McCallum) is its reliance on the laziest conceptions of the event’s wider significance. The idea, espoused by that documentary as well as many a popular historian of the event, that the loss of the Titanic represented either an “end of innocence” or a day of reckoning for the hubris of industrial civilization is simply a laughable concept. The technologically-driven progress and wealth of the so-called Gilded Age would, just over two years later, segue into the mass mechanized slaughter of the First World War, a social cataclysm on a scale which makes the sinking of a mere ocean liner seem quaint in comparison. Nor would either the Titanic’s ignominious end or the wars that followed it check the inexorable advance of the economic growth, technological innovation, and class disparity, those intertwined strands would form the tragedy’s unique DNA.

This last point may hint at what a distant, century-old nautical disaster can suggest about contemporary society and culture. The particular conditions which were operative when the Titanic struck an iceberg and slipped beneath the North Atlantic in 1912 may not strictly apply to the world of 2012, despite the efforts of certain incompetent Italian cruise ship captains to make them new again. But the Titanic does tell us something about the inescapability of large-scale tragedies in a human society riven by artificial socioeconomic divisions and animated by the avaricious momentum of the mega-wealthy. Our society, after all, shares the symptomatic profile of the society that spawned the Titanic, as perhaps all human market-driven societies do, in the final analysis. It is neither innocence nor hubris that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic warns us against, therefore. It marks instead the certainty of catastrophes of our own making, both inadvertent and purposeful.

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