The Story of the "Titanic"
There are many stories to be told about the sinking of the Titanic, the ship that was launched and sunk a hundred years ago this week. Daniel Mendelsohn, in this week’s New Yorker, gives you most of them. This was a tale about social class: the undeclared war between steerage and first class that was won, as it usually is, by the wealthy. Women and children did best, and I don’t know why that is treated by feminists as a matter of condescension by men to the weaker sex. The men mostly died, and the women accepted that it was their lot to survive. That seems to me to give the women the upper hand. As Mendelsohn correctly points out, James Cameron made much of the femininity of the ship and the story, while Walter Lord had focused on how polite everyone was in living up to British customs. Mendelsohn is also very clever in pointing out that there were more than four hours between the collision with the iceberg and the sinking of the ship and so there was enough time for a number of stories to develop. That shows a good eye for how plots get constructed. Drama always has a time piece ticking.
The New Yorker article does not go into the culture of Edwardian England, which was already deep into a literature of catastrophe. Shaw projected the bombing of cities; Wells saw man made species run amok; Saki saw the slaughter of the Jews, even if he told it as a kind of a joke; and Conrad saw mad bombers on every street corner, and he did not tell that tale for laughs. So that the Titanic might sink was just another of the improbable events that had a way to just keep happening. This was, as John Dewey put it in a more optimistic way, an age of reconstruction. Things have to be torn down before they can be reconstituted.
Focusing on the reverberations of the story of the Titanic is, however, to miss the essence of the story. All catastrophes are inflected by class and gender; all foretell or sum up political unrest and give rise to religious misgivings—which, for Cameron, means no more than that a young woman loses her virginity under inauspicious signs: in a motor car that bespeaks a new age of technology. The same is true of the Lisbon earthquake, the volcano eruption at Pompeii, the tsunami in Indonesia. What hath the gods wrought and what has man usurped from the gods and made to pay as penalty?
The Titanic story is given shape by something that goes beyond literary genres. The Titanic story follows the arc of any story of technological disaster, which I would define as the stages that are gone through by a significant failure of human technology. I don’t mean your light bulb goes out and has to be replaced. That is to be expected. A technological disaster takes place when too great demands are placed on a machine or other man made product designed to bear less load and whose use had previously required less reliability. Blackouts in the power system are the result of too much use for a power grid not yet equipped to shift quickly to electricity bought from Canada; blackouts decrease, become themselves obsolete, when the technology of the grid jumps a few notches.
The Japanese nuclear reactor disaster provides a suitable example for spelling out what happens in a technological disaster and so allows for the elaboration of the story line that is repeated over and over again in any technological disaster. First, there were two natural rather than man-made disasters: an earthquake and a tsanumi. Those were bad enough. But then nuclear reactors were engulfed, ones that had been designed to withstand a certain degree of environmental shock, but not this much, just as the Twin Towers had been designed to withstand the impact of a fully fueled jet liner, just not one beyond the largest jet built at the time the World Trade Center was designed. That led, in Japan, but not the United States, to a contamination problem over a large area; people having to be rescued, treated and resettled; workers sent into the contaminated area to contain the problem (which did happen in the United States); and then a nation sent reeling by the fact that this time atomic destruction had been self-inflicted and an economic downturn was made even worse and that a part of the land scarce Japanese homeland had to be put in quarantine for no one knows how long.
Let us apply these essential stages of a technological disaster to what happened on the Titanic. This was a ship built not to sink. That would mean it was a new departure in regular and safe and swift transportation across the Atlantic. It hit an iceberg because, according to the New York Times, knowledge of weather conditions was not good enough to foresee the danger. The ship sank, I have read, because bulwarks built to withstand flooding had not been built high enough. The iceberg did not just result in the ship sitting dead in the water; the ship sank because of lack of foresight by the ship designers. The ship could stand some conditions but not those it would encounter, those far more likely to occur if the ship was to meet the speed standards now required for transatlantic travel. Moreover, as Mendelsohn does point out in his article in The New Yorker, wireless telegraphy had not reached a point where the reception of messages was reliable. There was not yet the connection through the ether that allowed all ships at seas to be a mutually assistance community. Every ship was still more or less on its own, which had been the truth for a very long time, and only the end of that would make transatlantic travel truly safe. But whether it is the space shuttle or the Nina and the Pinta, discovery and travel do not wait until sufficient systems are in place to make them safe; it is just that the passengers on the Titanic bought into the idea that there was the level of safety of which they had been assured.
There are, in fact, remarkably few long term consequences or even recovery problems as a result of the Titanic disaster. Those who survived were picked up shortly and the rest didn’t. Not much need for rehabilitation hospitals. Wall Street did not panic and there was no downturn in shipbuilding, while airship travel collapsed after what happened with the Hindenburg. Transatlantic ship travel, for its part, flourished until the advent of air travel after the Second World War. Moreover, a social class did not die when the Titanic went down; that supposedly happened on the battlefields of the First World War. Indeed, all that is left of the Titanic, aside from the wreck, is its minor cultural impact as something everyone has heard about, part of the cultural folklore, like George Washington and the Cherry Tree. James Cameron, who is interested in machines versus people, as he is in Avatar and the Terminator movies, lets the love story win out. You feel sorry for the people. That is an appropriate feeling for all victims of technological disasters, but there is nothing grand about that; it is only, in the case of ships, a way to revisit the old adage that little ships go out into big waters. Cameron doesn’t make literature, just a neat experience of a very little bit of dread and then, mainly, visuals that are not all that fresh. Compare this to movies we have seen of the Holocaust and of Hiroshima. Now those are powerful images, while Cameron’s are ones to accompany popcorn. And that makes sense because there is nothing unsettling about what happened to the Titanic. We already knew there was social inequality in the Edwardian Era and so we see it play out for its piquancy. A technological disaster gets the level of seriousness it deserves. Only Billy Wilder, in Carnival, can raise the story arc of a mine disaster—someone trapped, that person aided but not rescued in time—into a work of art by concentrating on the evil within people rather than by offering merely a recounting of the technology that got the miners free, as happened in the Chile mine disaster of a few years ago.
The drama of the Titanic is the drama of the particular sequence of events that make up a technological disaster. What is expected in the next frame is the attempts at rescue that follow a disaster, just as what is expected in the early frames is the prelude to the voyage when everyone is expecting everything to go well, there being dramatic irony in knowing that disaster will befall the travelers. And the last frame has to do with the take-away: what people have learned from or done to overcome the trauma of the disaster. What did the Japanese learn from Hiroshima? And what did the Americans learn? This sequence gets repeated over and over in every disaster movie—though not in The Poseidon Adventure which, to its credit, had no coda; it ended when the survivors made it out. But as in the Cameron movie about the Titanic, those in The Poseidon Adventure try to navigate out of a ship turned over, there always being some gravity thwarting visual as ships go down, while other kinds of disasters have their own peculiarities: the claustrophobia that always happens in mine disasters; the sinking feeling in airline disasters. Most movies about airplane hijackings show what happened to the survivors and so does Cameron’s Titanic. The reality of what is described provides the characteristic drama, minor alterations acknowledged as what the creator of the representation has a right to do, though when he changes that too much, and so makes Snakes on a Plane, that is not a disaster movie but a horror movie or a farce, depending on how you look at it.
To generalize: The arc of a story, which refers to why a narrative is pleasing or seems to be dramatic, is different from the content of a story, which has to do with the place in which it is set and the personalities of those who are characters in the story. So the content of the story of Abraham and Isaac is about their silence while they make their way with an ass burdened with wood to a site of sacrifice. Auerbach, quite properly, makes much of the lack of descriptive background, which is still an aspect of the content of the story, as is the moods of the people involved, which is made much of by Kierkegaard. The arc of that story, however, is what is gripping and most original. It is a story of a sacrifice, this time of a real child rather than a lamb, which is reversed at the last moment so that a lamb rather than a child is sacrificed. The arc of the story turns the story of a sacrifice on its head. What does it mean to be a sacrifice? How could God have ordered this particular sacrifice?
It is to be remembered that sacrifice was a very ordinary event in ancient times and that everybody had stories to tell about sacrifices they had made. This particular lamb had squirmed on the way to the altar; that knife had not been sharp enough and had made a mess. Not only departures from the routine story give a story line its attraction; there can be a tale of a sacrifice beautifully accomplished or one done in the context of particularly bad times so that the irony of the event becomes visible. And so the arc of a story is based on the process of going through with a very usual and recognizable activity. Cutting the activity into its units, the parts of the process, makes it a story.
There are other story arcs that depend on the artistry of the story teller to give them their vividness and interest and intellectual bite. Homer takes a story of war and changes it by avoiding a narrative of a battle or an entire war from beginning to end, which is the usual way to do such things, as is seen in Deuteronomy and also in any number of novels of the Second World War, and instead intersperses some battle scenes into the story of the relation of Achilles to his friends and enemies within his own camp. The arc of the story follows Achilles from his sulking to a flashback to his youth to his engagement in battle to his battle triumph and to his battle death. Now that is a grand story arc not required by the story of a battle but therefore able to mold battle to its deeper purposes.
There are a great many story arcs which do not have the artistry of Homer or of the authors of Genesis. Their creators stick more closely to the path of how actual events transpire. There is the story of the bildensroman, which follows Pip from childhood to maturity, which is the way everybody’s life arc proceeds, even if mostly less dramatically and problematically; there is the story of the affair, from the first attraction and its rejection, to its consummation and an idyll however brief, to the denouement that may merely consist of sadness or, as with Anna Karenina, in death. How could it be much otherwise? A novelist is recording life and so will give you the story arcs that exist in life. Jane Austen’s stories of spurned suitors reconciled with the women who spurned them is just an expression, I take it, of what Jane fantasized would happen in her own life. It wasn’t that she wanted it to happen; it was that she knew what those feelings were and so could elaborate content—character, setting, witty dialogue, social commentary—while spilling out what any spurned girl could imagine: lovers reconciled rather than taking revenge one on the other. Story arcs are there in reality for the taking.
Now drop the pretense that the story arc of non-fiction is any different from the story arc of fiction. If you are telling a story, then you are adopting a story arc and unless you are a genius you are adopting a fairly common one. That is what happens in the various tellings of the tale of the Titanic. They mostly fall into the objective story line of a technological disaster and the caveat of “mostly” is there because an incisive recasting of the story line is not out of the question; it is just that it hasn’t happened yet, just as, I hazard to suggest, no great novel of the Second World War has yet to emerge, and television narrations will have to serve as the cultural statement about that war. You want there to be more; you want a Homer to deal with the Titanic. But that is unlikely and, the more important point, the story line of this technological disaster is not so interesting as to make the imagination of a genius ring. What is in the event is more important, most of the time, than the artist. Hiroshima was written by an only middling writer, John Hersey, but had astonishing potency in laying out the story arc of a technological disaster as that rose to being a disaster of war. All the steps were there: the expectation, the event, the immediate impact, the secondary impacts, the rush for aid, and so on. Indeed, some story arcs are hard to write about because they are so insistent, because they are so rich and reverberating. That point was exaggerated when people said there was no way to write about the Holocaust. But people did manage, and Survival at Auschwitz and Mauss manage to do so quite well by altering the story arc not at all, telling it in a straightforward way, and so are more successful than more a mannered telling of the story, such as Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is best to stay true to any story unless you have more than a touch of genius.