Feminism? Entry to the lifeboats was “women and children first”. Even at the
time, it sounded like an anachronism, the last cry of a long-dead age of
chivalry. In Denver, the anarchist Emma Goldman wrote “Suffrage Dealt a Blow
by Women of the Titanic”. If women wanted to be treated as equals they must,
she argued, take their chances like men. Yet even a doctrinaire
revolutionary like Goldman wondered at the nobility that inspired men to
step aside and give their lives for others.
Nationalism? Captain Smith was heard shouting: “Be British, boys, be British!”
What he meant, it’s assumed, is “form orderly queues”. There was little
jostling on deck. A higher percentage of British men drowned than Americans.
Anti-capitalism? The Titanic was built as a blue chip in J P Morgan’s
rapacious bid to monopolise transatlantic travel. Its owner, J Bruce Ismay,
had merged his White Star line with Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine
Company. Ismay has gone down in calumny for climbing into a lifeboat; his
corporate strategy serves as a classic counter-argument for market
Politics aside, what keeps the Titanic alive is pure emotion. The Bulgarian
writer Elias Canetti, the least sentimental of Nobel literary laureates,
remembered it as the event of greatest impact in his infancy, the housemaids
weeping and the child transfixed by tales of the musicians who played on as
the ship sank. A violin, allegedly the bandmaster’s, is presently touring
England before being offered for sale at auction. The violinist’s name was
Wallace Hartley. You knew that already. More people have heard of Hartley
than of Jascha Heifetz.
So many stories from the Titanic are part of our common myth. There was the
honeymoon couple who clung to one another in the lifeboat, only to divorce
on reaching shore. The wife of a US tycoon who refused to leave her
husband’s side, saying: “We’ve been together all these years, I’ll not leave
him now.” The lookout boy who hanged himself. The wireless operators who
trousered $1,000 from the New York Times for a swift exclusive. The British
captain who ignored a distress call. The rescue ship Carpathia, later
torpedoed by the Germans.
All human life, all of our history, is somehow concentrated in that one dark
ocean night – and much of it will be revived a year from now at the actual
centenary, when Belfast will open a Titanic tourist district, and a cruise
liner, the Balmoral, filled with well-fed passengers snapping away on their
pocket phones, will hover above the great ship’s hulk.
The world has since seen many bigger disasters, with far greater loss of life
– two world wars and a Holocaust, earthquakes and tsunamis, terrorist
attacks and African famines. Yet no event in the past century exerts the
sustained and concentrated fascination of the Titanic, the immediacy of its
drama, the moral choices on deck.
One cause for this fixation – proposed in 1912 by George Bernard Shaw, opposed
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – is that the liner represented the rottenness of
class division and capitalist aspiration. That, however, is mere salon
politics. The roots of our engagement lie, in my perception, much deeper in
human antecedents. As the King James translators put it: “And they said to
one another, Go to, let us… build a city and a tower whose top may reach
unto heaven; and let us make a name lest we be scattered upon the face of
the whole earth.”
The Titanic was a Tower of Babel moment. It was inspired by the fear every
civilisation shares that it might be eternally erased. The urge to build the
biggest ship, the first with a swimming pool and gymnasium, was an
irresistible late twitch of the British age of engineering and invention. It
was a vanity of vanities, a homily-in-waiting on man’s folly and futility in
the greater scheme of things.
Whether we accept that or not, we all agree that folly is part of our nature.
The need to build bigger and better, to reach for the heavens, is what makes
us human. So we shall build another Titanic, or Jerusalem, or Twin Towers.
We will gasp at its luxury and be shocked forever by its fate. That’s how we
are wired. The Titanic takes us very close to the source of life.