As far as I can remember, I never had the obsession with dinosaurs that young children (young boys, especially) often develop. Though both of my sons did.
But I did have obsessions of my own as I was growing up. They were almost always historical, too.
I had a fascination with Presidents, and could name all of them by the time I was in the third grade (and by the time Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House). I also remember having an obsession with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, of all things—and I read (and re-read) Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot countless times, and just about had it memorized, I suppose.
I also remember, from an early age, developing an intense interest with all things related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
In this, of course, I was not alone.
The sinking of the Titanic ranks as one of those historical events which even people not usually interested in history find intriguing. The first book I read on the subject was, quite frankly, the best: Walter Lord’s 1953 work, A Night to Remember, a gripping, hour-by-hour account of the events surrounding the sinking of that fabled ocean liner. It was another book that I would go back to, and read again and again.
It could be that A Night to Remember instilled in me the novel idea that history—written history, especially—could actually be interesting; that history was not about dry and detached names and dates and long-forgotten episodes—but was, rather, about the story, the drama, the pathos, the strange coincidences and unintended consequences and puzzling connections that have made our human voyage through life so darned interesting.
It was also from A Night to Remember that I learned that really good history books don’t just make our human story come alive and edify and enlighten us—but they get made into movies, too. And that’s a really big deal, and certainly something to strive for.
I was fascinated with the film version of A Night to Remember, and watched it every time I could (though back in the pre-video, pre-digital age which now allows us to watch anything we might want to watch whenever we darned want to watch it, you might see a film you liked two or three times a year on television, if you were lucky).
In my opinion, the 1958 British film, A Night to Remember starring Kenneth More as Second Officer Lightoller remains the best of the Titanic films, though I also liked the 1953 Twentieth Century Fox film starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck titled (just) Titanic. (Apparently, they were going to call that film Nearer My God to Thee, but decided on [just] Titanic so that people wouldn’t think it was some kind of religious movie or something.)
But, of course, neither 1953’s Titanic nor A Night to Remember was the first of the Titanic films: that “honor” belongs to a short, silent film released just a month after the disaster titled Saved from the Titanic, which starred an actual Titanic survivor. A couple of months later, in the summer of 1912, a somewhat longer and more grandiose German film was made about the sinking called In Nacht Und Eis (In Night and Ice), which featured dramatic scenes of events like a riot in the Café Parisienne on-board the ship, and flames shooting out of the funnels, and other things that didn’t happen.
But its dramatic liberties pale in comparison to a later German film, titled (also) (just) Titanic, which was released by Dr. Goebbels and the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda in 1943 to demonstrate the incompetence and arrogance and stupidity of the British who were doing a pretty good job around then of demonstrating (in real life) the incompetence and stupidity and arrogance of Nazi Germany. In rewriting history to show German supremacy, First Officer Murdoch was replaced by a fictitious German Officer named Peterson, who is, of course, the sole voice of reason on what has become an Anglo-Saxon ship of fools.
Of course, more recent years have had their share of Titanic hoopla. In 1996, there was a totally forgettable television mini-series called (you guessed it) Titanic, starring George C. Scott as Captain Smith, which one critic called “193 minutes of missed opportunity… [which] wheels out every myth and semi-myth ever told about the Titanic.” If you missed it, you didn’t miss much.
The next year, 1997, there was Broadway musical—Titanic: The Musical— which won five Tony awards, including Best Musical of the Season. I’ve never seen it, or heard the album, though a song called “Dressed In Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon” sounds… different… And at least the original cast recording doesn’t feature Celine Dion.
Which brings us to the most recent Titanic epic—and an epic it is: James Cameron’s Titanic (what else?), released in 1997, the most expensive film ever made up to that time (a budget of $200 million!)—the highest grossing film ever at the time ($ 1.8 billion! still the second highest grossing film ever)—nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards!—winner of a record-tying 11!—soon to be re-released in 3-D in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking! It is a movie which sweats exclamation points! And, in my “humble” opinion, it is perhaps the most over-rated film of all time (though, I confess, it did make me cry).
All of this just goes to show that the Titanic—its history, myth, drama, pathos, tragedy, humanity—has never lost its hold on the popular imagination.
Now, we are approaching the 100thin church.
The Titanic has not only fascinated us through the years. It has inspired us. And enraged us. And made us think. And ponder. And see connections, with our own lives, and life in general, and the life of world. And its meaning.
Or, as a headline in the satirical journal The Onion once read, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg”.
Back in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the evil Dr. Goebbels seized upon the Titanic as a metaphor for something he detested. He wasn’t alone. Nor was he the first. The Sunday right after the disaster, the Bishop of Winchester preached in St. Mary’s Church at Southampton, where the Titanic had been launched, and spoke about lessons that could be drawn from the tragedy. “When,” the bishop asked, “has such a mighty lesson against our confidence and trust in power, machinery, and money been shot through the nation?” Then, prophetically, he added, “The Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption.”
The fatal danger of hubris—that’s the lesson usually drawn from the tragedy of the Titanic. “God himself could not sink this ship,” one of the seamen is said to have exclaimed, shortly before the voyage began. Famous and tragic last words.
History is littered by words like these—words of over-confidence and arrogance and puffed up pride which pretend to have everything figured out; which claim to have instituted the perfect human system, which no powers of heaven or earth could even challenge.
Think of those days, not so long ago, when it looked as though our economic system was sailing across smooth waters, unchallenged, impregnable—skippered by self-proclaimed “masters of the universe”—with all of us going along blithely for the ride. Heading straight toward the iceberg through waters of unbridled speculation and credit default swaps and incomprehensible financial derivatives. All of which nearly took the whole ship under.
These are some of the lessons the sad story of the Titanic teaches: Pay attention too the warnings. Pay attention to that which you don’t see. Don’t always trust the so-called “experts”. Think for yourself. Question authority.
Of course, the second week in April in 2012 will bring us another 100th anniversary, this one a little closer to home. The same week the Titanic sailed, Fenway Park opened in Boston. Back in the late 1990s, when I was the driver of a sightseeing trolley, cruising over the streets of Boston, whenever we made the turn from Newberry Street onto Mass. Ave, I would call my patrons’ attention to the lights of Fenway in the distance, ring the trolley’s bell, and point out; “Fenway Park: home of the 1919 World Champion Boston Red Sox!” Then I’d add that Fenway opened the same week in 1912 that the Titanic sailed—implying, of course, a sort of unhappy and tragic parallel between the two. This was before 2004, and 2007, of course—it had been 80 years since the Red Sox had won a World Series, and you all remember how impatient we were all getting. So, in a way, we thought of the Titanic and Fenway as tragic failures, both.
But while it was too late for the Titanic, the same was not true of Fenway and the Red Sox. As Maya Angelou once wrote:
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
History can be redeemed—through hard work and heroism and humility.
The Titanic reminds us to pay attention to how we’re acting, because someone might be watching—or even if no particular person is, then history might be. The epic of the Titanic offers the whole amazing panoply of human be-ing—from the best to the worst: from the dedication of Rosalie and Isidore Strauss, the wealthy couple who decided to go down together; to the dignity of Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, changed into evening clothes for the occasion. “We’ve dressed in our best,” Guggenheim said, “and we are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”
We remember both the heroes and the villains, and we choose, in all that we do, which side of the line we stand on.
There are so many lessons the epic of the Titanic offers. It has become a sort of Rorschach test for how we view the modern age.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Titanic, of course, was the matter of lifeboats. There just weren’t enough to save everyone—at most, just over half of those on board could be saved; as it turned out, of 2200 passengers and crew, just over 700 were rescued.
Then there was the unfair class distinctions that were made to determine who was allowed into the lifeboats. Whether deliberate or not there were twice as many first class men allowed into the boats as third class children. Of 29 first and second class children all except one were saved. Of 76 third class children only 23—few than one-third-- were saved. There were only 4 deaths out of 143 first class women-- and 3 of those were by choice, wives who chose to remain with their husbands. Fifteen of 93 second class women lost their lives, compared to 81 of 179 third class women. If you were down in third class, apparently, you were considered not as “important”, more “expendable” than those on the higher decks. And often, you paid for this distinction with your life.
Could such a tragedy happen in our own day and time? Do such distinctions of class—of money and position and prestige—still determine who is to be saved, and who is to founder? I’m not sure, but perhaps so. To the extent that such attitudes still prevail among us in today's world, then we have not learned the Titanic’s lessons, and that is perhaps its greatest tragedy. As Richard Fewkes has written: “We only have one… planet to share and we will all sink or survive together or not at all. The privatized first class cabins at the top are only as safe as the steerage cabins on the lower decks.”
Remembering the sinking of the Titanic can become a parable for us, perhaps even as we face this greatest journey in the story of our human race, the very choice of the survival or demise of the human race on planet earth. Will we choose a "life-boat" ethics with the privileged few in the life boats and the masses going down with the ship and perishing? Or will we choose a more just and human ethic in which all of us-- first, second and third class alike-- passengers all together on the same ship, this spaceship earth as Adlai Stevenson put it. Those at the top may delude themselves that what happens don below is no concern of theirs. But there are others who realize that the survival of all depends upon everyone working together to patch up the leaks, to mend quarrels, and to save the ship of state. To save it we must learn to share our resources, protect our environment, curb our selfishness, and learn tolerance and mutual respect for one another.
These are but some of the lessons that the Titanic teaches. But remember: lessons taught are not the same as lessons learned. History teaches. But it is up to us to live our lives in the light of what we have learned from history.
So, in this 100th anniversary year, may we remember the Titanic and learn its lessons well. If we do, then the deaths of those 1500 precious souls ill not have been in vain, but can help us to write yet a shining page or two in this, our great human story.