‘World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg’, read one newspaper headline on 16 April 1912, regarding the sinking of the Titanic, the infamous liner that went to its watery grave the previous morning. ‘Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic. 1,500 Dead In Symbolic Tragedy’, the story continued. ‘At 4:23am Greenwich Standard Time, the following message was received from the rescue ship Carpathia: “Titanic struck by icy representation of nature’s supremacy STOP Insufficient lifeboats due to pompous certainty in man’s infallibility STOP Microcosm of larger society STOP”.’
This was of course both a bogus headline and article. It was concocted by the makers of the American satirical newspaper The Onion in their 1999 book Our Dumb Century, a fictitious newspaper history of the twentieth century (1). And it is still fascinating how we regard the Titanic’s demise as indeed something of a metaphor; how we interpret it according to the needs of what times we live in. It remains an ironically riveting tale; ironic, that is, in that it was owing to its poor-quality rivets that the Titanic sank so quickly.
The reason why the Titanic story remains in the collective imagination owes much to the same reason why everyone remembers the nuclear attack on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 but forgets the US firebombing of Tokyo only weeks before, which actually killed more people: because it contains narrative. Firebombs aren’t interesting or novel; the first atomic bomb to be used in combat is. Everyone remembers the 1,517 people who perished when the Titanic went down in 1912, but few remember the 9,000 mainly German civilians who lost their lives when the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine in January 1945. Almost half of those killed were children.
But 1945 was a complicated year, when it was hard to feel sorry for Germans. There was too much ambivalence. Sure, the Soviets may have been raping and killing their way across Eastern Europe, but surely the Germans, who had voted for the Nazis, kind of deserved it? This is why the Wilhelm Gustloff atrocity, the worst in maritime history, remains largely forgotten. The Titanic story remains with us because it chimes with modern mores.
James Cameron’s eponymous film of 1997 rang so true to many because it appealed to late-twentieth century values. Like Braveheart (1995) or Michael Collins (1996), it may have been great cinema, but it was still appalling history, and told us much more about the year the movie was released than the year it was set. Cameron’s Titanic appealed to the idea that The Onion article alluded to: namely the current perception that science and progress are essentially bad things, and evidence of man’s ‘arrogance’. It also portrayed those responsible for the Titanic’s disaster as English, Scottish or East Coast American capitalists who were interested only in money, at the expense of the victimised women, or saintly and musical Irish and Poles below deck, who, we are led to presume, were the victims of this callous cabal of upper-class, male, misogynistic, emotionally retarded racists and borderline psychopaths. If you want to understand our victim-based, anti-science, infantilised culture today, I recommend you watch Titanic again.