Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Titanic: The End of the Edwardian Era

The Titanic, if one may believe the last reports, has only scraped against a piece of ice which, I suspect, was not an enormously bulky and comparatively easily seen berg, but the low edge of a floe--and sank. Leisurely enough, God knows--and here the advantage of bulkheads comes in--for time is a great friend, a good helper --though in this lamentable case these bulkheads served only to prolong the agony of the passengers who could not be saved. But she sank, causing, apart from the sorrow and the pity of the loss of so many lives, a sort of surprised consternation that such a thing should have happened at all. Why? You build a 45,000 tons hotel of thin steel plates to secure the patronage of, say, a couple of thousand rich people (for if it had been for the emigrant trade alone, there would have been no such exaggeration of mere size), you decorate it in the style of the Pharaohs or in the Louis Quinze style--I don't know which--and to please the aforesaid fatuous handful of individuals, who have more money than they know what to do with, and to the applause of two continents, you launch that mass with two thousand people on board at twenty-one knots across the sea--a perfect exhibition of the modern blind trust in mere material and appliances. And then this happens. General uproar. The blind trust in material and appliances has received a terrible shock.

These words by author and seaman Joseph Conrad on the sinking of the Titanic are ultimately less critical of the fact that the ship sunk that they are critical of the fact that people were surprised. Of course there are inherent dangers to oceanic travel, and the larger the ship the more potent the possibility of danger. A ship deemed unsinkable is the one you must best prepare to have sunk. However, in stating the obvious, Conrad was speaking contrary to the spirit of his age.

The Late Victorian and Edwardian Eras were periods of incredible progress in science, technology and society. The Titanic was the last in a chain of innovations in transportation technologies that included the mass production of the automobile, the creation of the bicycle, the invention of the diesel locomotive and the conquest of the air. The Wright Brothers launched their historic flight from Kittyhawk, North Carolina on December 17th, 1903. Ford's first automobile, the Model A, rolled off the assembly line the same year. It was Ford's Model T, however, that began a phenomenon. Observing a basic rule that has seemed to escape modern corporations, Henry Ford set the production costs and price point of his automobile low enough so that his employees wages could be high enough to purchase the product, in turn creating the culture of the car. For those that could not afford the horseless carriage, the bicycle craze initiated by the 1885 invention of the modern bicycle was still going strong, in all its wonderful and strange variety. Though not widespread until after the Second World War, the diesel locomotive originated in 1912.

Electric light became widespread, replacing gas lighting all over the Western world. Madame Curie discovered radium in 1898 and synthesized as a metal in 1910. Through the Late Victorian Era the hunt was also on for X-rays, on which Wilhelm Röntgen published in 1895. In 1905, a young German patent office clerk and student published a series of groundbreaking papers in physics, including the theory of special relativity. Einstein followed this up in 1911 with a theory of general relativity. Experiments by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden in 1909 led to Ernest Rutherford overturning established models of atomic structure. Humanity, it seemed, was finally probing the true scientific mysteries of the universe.

The arts and entertainment entered new phases of creative expression. In fact, this period saw the invention of an entirely new and heretofore impossible medium of artistic expression: motion pictures. The Lumière Brothers inaugurated cinema as a form of popular entertainment in 1895 and D.W. Griffith filmed Hollywood's first movie in 1910. With the advent of photography, traditional visual arts broke away from Victorian conventions of representation: Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Expressionism and Post-Impressionism built on a foundation of Impressionism. New materials allowed for the invention of whole new styles of design and architecture, such as Art Nouveau. Literature, drama and music began to express new ideas of social and democratic freedom.

New religious movements fermented and broke out in tent revivals and Spiritualist sessions across the Western world. Within them was found the infrastructure and impetus for new social movements. The Temperance movement entered a new phase of activity which, for good or excess, recognized that the social ills faced by women were solvable. Though criticized in modern, free societies as moral busybodies imposing their religious views on society, we forget that the cry of temperance was more so a rally against the predatory victimization of men that in turn resulted in men's violent victimization of women. It is not religion that is the opiate of the masses, but opiates that are the opiate of the masses.

This activity empowered the movement towards women's suffrage. More so than moral arguments or legal sanctions, the full legal equality was seen as the fundamental necessity to solve the victimization of women. Not long after, hemlines went up and corsets went in the bin. The rigidity of classism came under fire from within as the British Empire came under threat from without. Imperial exhaustion set in after the death of Queen Victoria, providing avenues for substantive inroads by socialists and pacifists. The old European powers began to falter as news powers like the United States and Japan rose to ascendancy. In 1907, Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis, outlining the tenets of the now-forgotten Social Gospel Movement that defined early twentieth century Christianity, proclaiming that any form of Christianity that has neglected the causes of poverty and oppression while ministering to the poor and oppressed has neglected the full message of Christ. The magazine Christian Century began publishing in 1900, articulating a new optimism in widespread moral, political and academic progress, and the belief that "genuine Christian faith could live in mutual harmony with the modern developments in science, technology, immigration, communication and culture that were already under way."

The whole idea of an unsinkable vessel was perfectly in step with the prevailing attitude of progress and a "Christian Century". It was for this very reason that the RMS Titanic took on its symbolic status. Proclamations about such a technological marvel were not so much an expression of humanity's hubris as they were an expression of its hopefulness. It is not so much what the ship itself was as what it represented, both to those who watched its journey and to those aboard her: the richest of the rich and the immigrants aspiring to a new and better life.

Then, as if struck by God's chief archangel in charge of irony, the Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the ocean, carrying over 1500 people to their grave.

Only the wisest and most cynical could have foreseen it. As Conrad observed, there is no progress to which danger is not implicit. Another to have foreseen it was Morgan Robertson, whose 1898 novella Futility; or, The Wreck of the Titan chillingly predicted with some astonishing accuracy the marriage of technological advancement without wise precaution. John Jacob Astor wrote his own Scientific Romance in 1894 - A Journey in Other Worlds - which trumpeted the march of progress, but other contemporaneous writers turned their attention more presciently to the question of global mechanized warfare. With new technologies come new weapons, as in H.G. Wells' 1907 novel The War in the Air.

For while the Titanic sounded the cloister bell, it was The Great War that truly dashed the Edwardian Era on the rocks. The restructuring of European power exploded in gore and shrapnel, ending the hope of the inevitable marriage of technological and scientific progress with moral progress and a "Christian Century". This globally traumatic experience served the functional purpose of that which the sinking of the Titanic symbolized: the end of the Edwardian Era and the birth of the modern age.


tantalus1970 said...

Sorry, but the Titanic was never described as unsinkable until after it had sunk (I think the first time the expression is known to have been used was by the NY office of the White Star Line as the first reports came in that morning).

You might want to check out this link about 5 great Titanic myths:


The bit about the Olympic is particularly interesting.

Incidentally, for all Britain's pride in its shipbuilding (and overlooking the fact that the White Star Line was owned by a larger US company), when WW1 started two years later, it quickly became apparent that Britain's ships were nothing like as well built as German ones!

Willow of the Trees said...

I really enjoy the detailed context you give here to the Titanic tragedy. It is definately easier to understand why the Titanic is so enduring when you consider how it harkened to the end of an era that many of us (me included) tend to romanticize. (In a similar vein, the context you gave to Tarzan and John Carter was equally interesting and informative, although I didn't comment at the time.)

In part as a response to the commenter above, the myths are almost as important as the facts in the case of a tragedy of this magnitude. The myths tell us what, as a society, we tend to take away from events like this. The vilification of Ismay, the treatments of the steerage passangers, and the heroism of the band are all strong indicators of what we hope to both avoid and emulate.

As both a cultural icon and foil the Titanic tragedy is immensely intriguing.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you both for your comments. I wasn't aware that the Titanic was not advertised as unsinkable beforehand, but I think there was something in the zeitgeist that invented this afterwards... Saw in it a symbolic rebuke of Edwardian hubris?