Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Our Titanic Catharsis




I've felt some connection to the Titanic my whole life. I have an early memory of my dad in the kitchen filling the old metal ice cube trays. He brought it up, for no particular reason, saying that the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable because of its watertight compartment, but that they didn't have tops, like this tray.

"Nearer My God to Thee" was in my Magnus Organ book. I knew those words and that tune since I was 6, and later learned it was what the musicians played as the Titanic sank. (Apocryphal or not, the NY Times had the music for "Autumn" on their page as part of their coverage the next day in 1912.)

It happened that I went to college in Southampton, England, where the Titanic started her voyage with such hope. I visited the small museum they had in the 1980s, but they have just opened a new, more elaborate center. Later I moved to 106 Street and Broadway, where Straus Park is. It has a memorial called "Memory" to Isidor and Ida, the Macy's magnates, who died together rather than being separated. The sculpture is by Augustus Lukeman, and this line from 2 Samuel 23 is etched into the bench: "Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not parted.” The original reflecting pool has been replaced with a flower bed. (My photos above and below.)

I remember weeping through A Night to Remember when I saw it as a kid. It was directed by Roy Baker, who went on to direct 8 of the best 1965/66 Avengers episodes, another connection!

Daniel Mendelsohn opens his excellent New Yorker article with the quip from some historian that the three most written about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic.

Here are some of the usual reasons pointed to:
*The hubris of declaring a ship "unsinkable" was just begging for karma to act; naming the ship after the gods was bad enough

*"Tall as an 11-story building and constructed from 46,000 tons of steel, it was the largest moving object on earth" -- so what was it doing trying to float?

*The Carpathia steaming to the rescue, but too late for most, the much closer California tragically asleep

*Captain Edward Smith going down with the ship but the ship line owner J. Bruce Ismay jumping into a lifeboat and surviving to a lifetime of shame

*The New York Times has pdfs of their original coverage, all of which is fascinating. It started the reports of the first time "women and children" had been given as an order, and the first time SOS is actually used for distress, in addition to the longer standing CQD [ based on the French for secur, help, then the word distress].

But somehow the place Titanic has had in our minds for generations since April 15 is more than all those points.

My Titanic Thoughts:

*People had been crossing the Atlantic commercially since the mid1800s. They were on the boat for vacation, to see the world, to join family, to go to a new job, to start a new life. It's every circumstance of living in one defined place subjected to the cruelest way to die: unexpectedly, and in great pain.

•A ship on the ocean is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It is a floating small city built not on concrete, but on the Archimedes principle: "Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid. " Buoyancy is great while it works, until it doesn't.

*Then what seemed as solid as Manhattan is but a speck easily swallowed up by the might of the world's oceans.

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport

*What haunts my mind is the overwhelming force of the water filling the ship, taking over every physical space where there once was oxygen, including in the lungs of those on board. The men in the engine room, who worked the brutal job of keeping the boilers stoked to make the steam, died first . . .

*That horrible feeling the moment something has happened: like hearing your knee pop and knowing that it's going to need surgery. The captain and senior officers knew from the moment of the ice on the foredeck that the ship was going to founder. 

*The scenes all the movies portray of the panic of the third class/steerage passengers struggling to climb to deck level, some finding passage ways locked. It is a nightmare come to life.

*Doesn't everyone wonder: what would I have done on the Titanic? Would I have been smart and lucky enough to survive?

*Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic is generally an idiom for futility, but I once read a scientist argue that if you were able to strap enough chairs together you might make yourself something to float on.

In the hundred years since, there have been thousands of maritime disasters including ferries with the death toll in the tens of thousands.

But it's impossible to empathize with all of that. And that's what the Titanic provides us: a story that connects us to our collective vulnerability and mortality. That's why we need it. The photo that I took of the Straus memorial shows someone had recently put a bouquet in her hands.

And then the myth takes us even further: it has allowed generations to feel a cathartic grief for the suffering and death of more than a thousand people dying at once, in daily life (not on a battlefield). Sadly, not for the last time.

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