Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why has the Titanic become a myth?

"People say, why are you so fascinated by this wreck? And for me it's a study of human psychology and the way people deal with crises. And they dealt with it in different ways. Some were in denial. Some were in a trance. Some just took action, didn't think, just went, just did. And others were craven cowards who thought only of their own survival. We all know that we would fall somewhere on that spectrum but until our lives are really put at risk - you know, the moment of truth - we don't know what we would do. [...]

"Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before? There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now. Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations. You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn. We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ‘em go. Until they do we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water and so on. It’s going to be poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with Titanic. I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people."

- James Cameron, Director of Titanic (1997) and Titanic 3D (2012),
National Geographic: Titanic - the final word.

Today is the centenary of the sinking of the HMS Titanic. Some people have got excited at the fact that some young people took a while to discover that the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster film* was based (at least at the macro level) on actual events. But that is not what I mean by myth. The story itself has become a shared cultural reference point, a story picture of flexible but fairly-well defined meanings. Why has the story of this particular ship been so often invoked, when so many other (often numerically greater) maritime tragedies have been quickly forgotten? As Cameron points out, the narrative of these events is very easily turned into a parable, or a myth - as the ship itself was already mythic in name and epic in scope when it was launched. We want to make sense of tragedies, and this one, for all its mysteries, seems to offer some pretty clear morals. Pride goes before a fall. We're all in the same boat. The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

And watch out for icebergs.
*And its recent perfectly-timed-for-maximal-cash-in-from-free-media-publicity 3D re-release.
H/T Joe Romm for the reference and second quote.