100 years ago today, having picked up its last set of passengers at Queenstown, White Star Liner RMS Titanic left the Irish coast behind and headed out into the open Atlantic bound for New York. It never got there, as we all know so well. In Belfast where it was built, in Southampton its home port from which so many of its crew came, and no doubt in many other places as well, the centennial of the Titanic's tragic voyage is being recalled. And,of course, the 1997 romantic disaster film based on the tragedy has been re-released, and is playing right now in IMAX-3D in downtown Knoxville.
In its short life, the Titanic was an object of great popular fascination - exceeded ever since by our apparently insatiable fascination with everything about the ship and its sinking. Tragic accidents always interest, but when the subject is already fascinating in itself - the Titanic, the Hindenburg - the popular impression created by the event seems multiplied.
The Titanic tragedy takes us back to another world - the Edwardian Era, with which my generation became particularly familiar in the 1970s thanks to Masterpiece Theater's Upstairs, Downstairs. (King Edward VII, from whom that "era" receives it name, actually died in 1910, but by common convention the "era" effectively extended until it was tragically extinguished in 1914 with the guns of World War I). The Edwardian Era was both the best and worst of times - a world vastly superior to ours in dignity, values, and manners, but also a much harsher, insecure, and inequitable world, which most of us woud be reluctant to return to. The fabled images of the Edwardian luxury liner and the stories of its passengers and crew - especially the rich and famous who were lost (or, occasionally, as with the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, survived) continue to hold our interest even after 100 years. So do the accounts of genuine heroism and devotion to duty on the part of the crew (and others, among them three priests). Obviously, there are features to the story that transcend its time and circumstances sufficiently to speak in seemingly universal terms.
The same is true of the lessons of the disaster. Driving too fast is as bad an idea now as it was when the Titanic sped through the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Safety considerations often rank less than economic and other concerns, and that too is a bad idea, now as when the great luxury liner carried insufficient lifeboats to accomodate all its passengers. The list could go on.
The Titanic fascinated Edwardians then and fascinates us still because of its ambition. It was huge - one of the largest human-made objects in the world at the time. Size matters, to coin a phrase. More to the point, size speaks. It signifies. It expresses human hopes and dreams, the ambition to do what has never yet been done or go where no one has ever yet gone, etc. Where would the human race be without ambition? Certainly a lot poorer and less accomplished!
Like the Roman god Janus - or like any ordinary coin - ambition has two sides. The other side is hubris. In testing limits, in pushing the envelope (to use a less attractive modern image), we are forever in danger of pushing too far. The (perhaps apocryphal) saying that "God himself could not sink the Titanic" was proven wrong - not by direct divine intervention but by the predictable consequence of banging up against an iceberg. The image of the largest ship afloat, sunk in a little over two hours, by something so ordinary as ice made a real impression in that much more morally impressionable era. However morally obtuse our own era is increasingly in danger of becoming, the story of the Titanic still speaks, still impresses, still warns.