One century ago, a part of me was born. The part that dreamed big. The part that, 50 years into my own existence, learned that outsize dreams can—and most often do—collide with reality and sink, leaving us to paddle about in the lifeboats of our lives.
Forgive the fatalistic poetry. Titanic does that to me. I am a Titaniac.
I am also a grave-robber. I once purchased a pebble-size piece of coal from the majestic liner’s rusted remains just to touch its legacy. I even mounted a replica of the turbine room clock on my den wall. (Spooky when it hits 2:20 a.m., when the ship went into its death rattle and officially drowned.) If my bank account was above sea level, I’d even buy the six-figure wristwatch allegedly made of salvaged metal from the wreck.
Yet of all the massive debris that spilled out of that broken behemoth after it vanished into the blackness of the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, none is more plentiful than the metaphor.
Beyond commerce and profit built on the aborted grandeur of Titanic is the irresistible profundity it inspires. We can’t help ourselves. Given the sweep of the tragedy, romanticism attaches to Titanic like barnacles. There’s heroism, cowardice, the wealthy, the impoverished, freezing black water, a ring of death in the middle of an endless ocean, the feminist ferocity of the Unsinkable Molly Brown—it makes us swoon.
Titanic was a leviathan of luxury, and by the technical standards of that era, the seafaring equivalent of a space station. She weighed in at 53,000 metric tons and stretched 882 feet, as long as an 80-story building is tall. Fortified by a double-barreled hull, she had 16 “watertight” compartments that would theoretically keep Titanic afloat even if four of them flooded, an unheard-of scenario. Her only undersize feature? A supply of 20 lifeboats, enough to hold about half of a combined passenger/crew complement of more than 2,200 people.
Setting sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, Titanic’s destination was New York City, but the journey ended about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, where at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, she met the infamous iceberg. The collision slit open five of those supposedly watertight compartments—one more than she could bear—and buckled the hull plates on her starboard side. Foundering, she broke apart on the surface, then sank, bow-first, two and a half miles to the ocean floor with more than a thousand people aboard. Many died within minutes from hypothermia or drowning. The rescue ship RMS Carpathia later collected 710 survivors from lifeboats, many of which were only half full.
To this day, ethicists, scholars, historians and religious leaders of all stripes probe this tale for allegories about the way they live. They have used stories of the disaster as handy lessons to wag a finger at the flaws of our heads and our hearts, our appetites and ambitions. Certainly the enduring metaphorical richness of Titanic is about arrogance and hubris, the “unsinkable ship” daring to thumb its razor-sharp bow at whatever you’d like to call it: God, nature, the fates.
But it’s also about the many idiosyncratic ways we as individuals see ourselves—the stories of our own lives—in the tale of that terrible night when so many lives were lost.
As we search the deep for metaphors, let’s begin with the gargantuan corpse. The individual bodies of those who perished on Titanic were disintegrated or eaten away long ago. (Let’s admit that this is morbidly fascinating too, the idea of, say, millionaire industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, who reportedly said, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” rotting beneath white tie and tails.) The corpse we do have, though, is Titanic itself. And what a haunting, hulking skeleton it is.
Discovered by oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard and his team in 1985, Titanic is a magnificent ghost. Lit by submersibles, its rust-crusted bow juts out of the blackness with startling suddenness, as if the camera had just flung open a coffin lid to expose its decomposing flesh for an undersea exhumation. Twisted, dismembered and decaying, it is breathtaking in death, made all the more eerie for the hallmarks of ruined elegance that remain: the dangling, lopsided chandelier, the piano keys swimming off the keyboard, the sagging but stately parlor doors, all serving the tiny sea creatures that have been its only guests for a hundred years. Damn, it’s a sight. And a fright. The corpse of the ship is also an embodiment of our mortality.
Few of us ever gaze at what death really looks like; the wreck of the Titanic is what death looks like. It is not unseen beneath a headstone and a neatly potted, flower-adorned exterior. Her girders and rivets are bones and organs, her withered shell exposed in a way you’d never want to see your mother, your brother, your spouse or your best friend. Standing in for our own fragile bodies, it makes death real.
After 27 years of starring in an endless, watery snuff loop in documentaries and movies, Titanic may be the most gawked-at corpse in history.
Our own fragility is also challenged when we consider that, contrary to a theory of the sinking that held for decades, Titanic did not slam into the berg, but grazed it, the icy-white villain causing not giant gashes but fatal pinpricks. Likewise, we realize that even the most robust among us can be felled not by a massive stroke or heart attack but by a small, fast-moving infection we might not initially notice, much like Titanic passengers who barely felt the iceberg’s impact, not understanding until later that they would quickly die in pain.
As a social measurement, the makeup of Titanic’s passenger manifest is exceptionally relevant now, as we vociferously argue about 99-percenters, 1-percenters and the wealth of the people who want to run this country.
Aboard Titanic were some of those in the top tier of America’s wealth and power structure. Along with Guggenheim, passengers included business magnate and investor John Jacob Astor IV and his 18-year-old bride; Major Archibald Butt, an influential military adviser to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft; Macy’s co-owner Isidor Straus; streetcar executive George Dunton Widener; and John Thayer, vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Consider the numbers when comparing the rich to the rest. Titanic statistics vary from source to source. Most estimates put the overall survival rate at 32 percent, but among the first class, it was 62 percent. Out of 325 first-class passengers, 202 survived, while only 178 out of 706 third-class, or steerage travelers—many of whom were infamously and purposely locked into the bowels of the ship—made it to the boats.
Titanic is renowned as a test for moral fiber. How did the people onboard behave—how would you have behaved—toward fellow passengers when it dawns that death may be imminent. There are stories of heroism (Capt. Edward Smith, who reportedly swam to a lifeboat clutching a child he plopped inside, then disappeared under the water). There is cowardice (White Star Line Chairman J. Bruce Ismay, who slithered to safety ahead of women and children). There is steely determination (take-charge Margaret “Molly” Brown, who helped row a lifeboat, urged other women to do likewise and demanded the quartermaster return to pick up more people, though he refused).
Above all, there is mob panic.
Staring death in the face, who are we, really? That’s a question whose answer strips away the artifice we hide behind every day, revealing us at our core. A question most of us go our entire lives without ever having to answer, but always wondering.
Once in the lifeboats, do you help others in? Or do you act like the fictional Cal of James Cameron’s Titanic—an “unimaginable bastard,” as Kate Winslet’s Rose calls him—who prevents desperate people from climbing aboard his lifeboat, shouting, “No, you’ll swamp us!” Sadly, many of the lifeboats left Titanic with many empty spots and never returned.
That question of aid, of how much of ourselves we’re willing to risk to help the desperate, echoes right up to today when we look at issues such as the homeless. Or even just people we know asking for financial assistance or emotional support in times of crisis when we have our own pressures with which to contend.
When is it morally mandatory to help? When is it acceptable self-preservation to refuse?
Finally, there is The Dream. Titanic, after all, was christened The Ship of Dreams. It was a manifestation of the best we can imagine for ourselves, and the confidence, or arrogance, to believe we can achieve it. Titanic challenged nature. We challenge life.
Myself, I dreamed of becoming a famous playwright on Broadway. It didn’t happen. The dream sank.
I’m realistic enough to accept that my vision of personal grandeur won’t pull into port. It can be a bitter realization to overcome. Yet small triumphs along the way—being fortunate enough to make my way in another form of writing, publishing poems, authoring one-act plays staged by community playhouses—have added up to sustain me.
Tossed off the Ship of Dreams, I am, like most of us, living in the lifeboat, and grateful for it.
Someday, except for the salvaged artifacts that remain like personal mementos from departed loved ones, all physical evidence of Titanic will disappear. Experts tell us that the regal, rusticle-covered lady will eventually collapse in on herself. The floating palace will dissolve into a giant orange stain on the ocean floor.
Like us, she will vanish, as if never here. Ashes to ashes. Rust to rust. Our challenge is to find contentment in lives that aren’t grandiose and anchor those lives to love, friendship and fulfillment while we’re still lingering on the surface.
When we do finally go under, it will be after a journey completed.