TITANIC AND OTHER FABLES
We can say with certainty two things about the ship. ONE: the Titanic sank in 1912 with about 1500 lives lost. TWO: the tragedy has entertained and amused a great many people and afforded others fame, wealth, successful careers. That enterprising people will find a way to turn anything to their financial advantage comes as no surprise. The accumulation of wealth is still admirable to many, no matter how it is achieved. But how can we account for the enjoyment of it, the sheer fun of it all?
I think two things have to happen. First, it is necessary to suppress any thought of the real suffering that took place during those hours for the victims, and for others, victims as well, for many years thereafter. Terror, pain, death, grief, loss. Those were some of the experiences. There were others, such as remorse, shame, anger, ostracism. There really is such a thing as survivors' guilt, and if the people didn't suffer that, they were made to feel as if they should. It doesn't take very much imagination to realize that misery was part of the Titanic experience - the biggest part for the more than 2000 passengers and crew. There were moments of joy, too. Many could rejoice that they survived, that their loved ones were saved. I suspect that pleasure came with a price attached, a nagging doubt, a question irritating and bedeviling one. Could I have helped someone else? Am I more worthy than those lost 1500?
If we could turn away from the human side of the disaster, it would still be interesting as a puzzle - how did it happen? How could it have been prevented? What can be learned from it? There would be a few books written, certainly some official investigations, a footnote or two in the history books. That seems to have been the fate of some other tragedies where many lives were lost. They are news for many at the time they happen, and of interest to a few long afterwards.
That isn't the story of the Titanic. The great, unsinkable, floating palace of 1912 is many stories. It is books, and movies, and documentary films, and games, jigsaw puzzles, pillow cases... Would you sleep well at night with your head resting on that image? It is merchandise galore. Do you know you can purchase a piece of coal that was loaded onto the ship? A load of it was retrieved by the scavengers in one of their treasure-hunting expeditions.
Many people have devoted their lives to celebrating the sinking of the Titanic. Others are more in the category of "buff," not really giving the tragedy their full attention, but letting it occupy a good share of their leisure. Why is that? What is the fascination? How did this romantic aura develop from such an ugly event?
I believe it is a result of the myths and legends, the sweet, sweet stories that became part of the folklore right from the beginning. Survivors told these tales, of course. There was no other source of information. Something was said by one, elaborated by another, inflated by the media types of the day, swallowed whole by the public. These yarns found their way into the early articles in newspapers and magazines, were further encapsulated in books, and passed down from one generation of "historians" to the next.
Syrup literally drips from the saga of Mrs. Strauss choosing death by her husband's side over saving herself in a lifeboat. The fable of Captain Smith handing an infant into a lifeboat just before he went down for the last time is another. And the band playing, as the ship sank, the hymn Nearer My God To Thee may take the prize as a cloying image. What Mrs. Strauss said and why she decided as she did can have more than one interpretation. The story of Captain Smith and the infant has been debunked, as has that particular piece of music being selected by the ship's orchestra.
There are other stories told just as gripping. The search for villains turned up many, and that is also part of the fascination. We Americans love a scapegoat; perhaps all people do. Ismay's escape and survival is wonderful to contrast with the babies in third class who drowned. Captain Lord of the Californian is another. He slept while the Titanic took two-thirds of its occupants to their deaths. He slept and ignored the jeopardy of that other ship, knowing full well it was in deadly peril. Does anyone believe that? Sadly, yes, many do.
Some of the fictions within the story of the Titanic are harmless. Surely, the families of the Strausses and of Captain Smith took comfort in a saga of heroism told of their loved ones. It makes no difference what the orchestra played. It may have made no difference that they played at all. One could argue that, but it would be an exercise only. It's irrelevant now.
There are other fables that weren't so benign. People were cruel to Ismay, cruel to Lord, cruel to their innocent families. We have some very wise sayings from a variety of sources, proverbs that concern making judgments. One I believe is Biblical and cautions people not to judge lest they be judged, and another about withholding judgment until one has walked in the other man's shoes...
The legend that I find most obnoxious of all is the hideous lie told about Alice Catherine Cleaver.
Part II: Alice