Thursday, 26 April 2012

Titanic: A Modern Atlantis

They are alike said to rest beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, reposed as victims of the brutality of nature and humanity's lack of humility. Yet both are resurrected as nostalgic symbols of lost decadence and glory waiting to be reclaimed by a society haunted by its own impending destruction. The one is myth, sought for but unfound in the historical record. The other a concrete reality lying on the sandy detritus two miles deep... The lost continent Atlantis and the lost ship Titanic.

Contemporaneous painting of the
Titanic's sinking, by Willy Stöwer

Some time ago I wrote of the two Atlantises that occupy space in the Western cultural consciousness. The one is the Atlantis invented by Plato: a decadent, haughty, imperialistic race that embodied the antithesis of everything the philosopher believed a society should be founded upon. This despicable Atlantis of wealth and leisure was successfully repelled by Plato's ancient Athenians, the symbol of everything he thought right about social theory, before the Atlanteans were themselves wiped out by the gods.

The other Atlantis is the one cumulatively invented by nearly every fringe pseudo-scientist, fiction author and spiritualist since Plato. This Atlantis of astonishing mental powers, occult wisdom and advanced technology is forever being rescued and rediscovered. That process of loss and reclamation reflects Western cultural anxieties that we are ourselves the decadent society that Plato damned, and whose damnation we see spiraling around us, but that we can be pulled back from that damning tide.

Either Atlantis is a fiction, no such island existing in fact. The RMS Titanic, on the other hand, is hard reality. It was 882'9", weighed over 46,000 tons, was launched on its maiden voyage on the 10th of April, 1912, and sank at 2:20am on April 15th, at 41°43′55″N 49°56′45″W in the Atlantic Ocean at a depth of 4km, with loss of 1,517 lives. It is no myth. Nevertheless, it has taken on mythic overtones worthy of its namesakes.

In fact, just as there are two Atlantises, so are there two Titanics. One rusts at the bottom of the ocean, a scattered and broken human tragedy wrought by corporate greed and calculated risk. This Titanic is replete with lessons about reliance on technology and human ingenuity amidst their sloppy execution, about the need to govern those businesses into whose hands human lives are put, and about making sure never, ever to tempt God or fate. It is a stark, melancholic reminder of an end of an era, about the end of an era's naivete, and a sort of era that could not last.

The other Titanic sails nostalgically, forever. Just as the redemption of Atlantis is predicated on its demise, so too is this Titanic dependent upon its fleeting existence. Though the mere ship itself is known to be decaying on the bottom of the Atlantic, the vessel of dreams gleams eternally in all its polished brass and whitewashed decks. After all, that terrifying night is not the only hard reality of the Titanic. So too is the gilded decadence of Edwardian finery a documented fact.

Before the discovery of the wreck in 1985, there had been serious discussion about how to raise the Titanic were it to be found in one piece. A famous novel and feature film adaptation, Raise the Titanic, were made to that effect. It being ripped in two unrecoverable hulks ended those thoughts, but the ambition to raise her never seriously abated. Instead, the focus was shifted to a burgeoning industry of Titanic recreation.

Compact disks feature music by modern string quartets from the White Star Line's official songbook. Cookbooks offer up menus from the Titanic's own restaurants, or one can join numerous, regularly-performed opportunities to have the last meals served by costumed waiters. Titanic balls and murder-mystery dinners can be found throughout the hemisphere, especially in this centenary season. RMS Titanic, Inc., the explorer-exhibitors who recreate the ship's staterooms in artifact exhibitions, offer replica tableware, jewelery and bedding. The same artifact exhibits even offer patrons the opportunity to dress in Edwardian finery. The grandest of all plans, though ultimately unfeasible, was a working replica of the ship. Still, a Titanic Memorial Cruise did sail for the centennial, arriving at the very site on April 14th.

A question is raised as to why people would be willing to invest so much time, money and interest in reliving a moment in time that no one would want to have lived through to begin with. Titanic recreation can only be fun up to 11:39pm. Accoutrements like tableware allow one to enjoy the luxury of the Titanic at the cost of being constantly reminded of a horrific tragedy over breakfast. Within that luxury lies the key, however.

Unlike the riches of Atlantis dreamt up whole cloth, the Titanic offers up the concrete luxuries of a bygone age. It is the greatest single example of the luxury and appointment of the Gilded Age, the Gay Nineties... Moreso than any first class railway passage, moreso than any grand hotel. The amenities aboard the ill-starred ship were the best that the richest man in America could afford. This mystique even crosses boundaries of class, as three types of ticket mitigates the entirely unromantic crossing of immigrant rail cars and the utter nonpresence of the poor in the swankest seasonal lodging. If one does not care for the stuffy smoking room and its orchestra, then one can simple head down to Irish reels, riverdancing and excessive consumption of Guiness in steerage. There is appeal for blue-bloods and red-necks alike within its iron double-hull.

Such appeal becomes all the more exquisite because it is so fleeting. Not merely for the fact that the Titanic itself sank, but because that was the beginning of the end for the whole broad Victorian-Edwardian Era. The style and way of life represented by the Titanic was utterly burned away in the conflagration of war not long after that specific instance drowned in the frigid Atlantic. After the Great War everything was different, and the realization dawns on the observer that the Titanic was the pinnacle of the Edwardian Era because there was nothing afterwards, save for a deeply broken society roaring through the Twenties and scraping through the Thirties.


Anonymous said...

The instance I read the title, I was strucked by realization that what you said is true...Titanic is a modern Atlantis.
Even before I could start reading, I could pictured their similarities in my head. Then what you wrote on the articles talked about them all.
I really like that you argue why people are so desperately want to re-live a bitter memory such as Titanic's, and that you also symbolize it as the embodiment of the Edwardian era. Beautiful...

Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much!

I forget exactly when it clicked for me, but it seemed pretty intuitive once it did. I think at least one of the formative moments was when I was on RMS Titanic Inc's forum and saw people talking about how much they would have liked to sail on the Titanic. Really?!? I had to start wondering why.

For the record, I would much rather have sailed on the Olympic. It never sunk!

grouchomarxist said...

Now why didn't I think of that? I guess my mind is too highly trained ...

Seriously, though, that's an interesting parallel you've hit upon, Cory. Pride and haughty spirits, and all that.

I can't fault anyone for going to an exhibit reproducing parts of the Titanic -- I would, if I had the opportunity. But when it comes to anyone who says they would have liked to sail on her, to me that verges on a kind of ghoulish kibbitzing, like the time-traveling tourists in Vintage Season. And I feel somewhat the same about people who'd purchase replicas of her tableware or furnishings.