Harbinger of sorrow: The true meaning of the Titanic disaster.

last photo of the titanic pd

Today (April 10, 2016) is the 104th anniversary of the departure of the RMS Titanic from her home berth at Southampton, on her maiden and last voyage across the Atlantic, bound for New York. You all know what happened to the ship a few days later. Few events of the 20th century have been talked about or rehashed as much as the Titanic disaster, endlessly discussed in books, TV documentaries, websites and movies, most notably James Cameron’s 1997 epic that will probably stand the test of time as the most compelling document of the event. Every bit of Titanic minutiae has been talked to death, from the passengers’ stories to extreme technical details about the composition of the ship’s steel. I myself have done some Titanic lore on this blog, including the décor of the staterooms and a haunting photo of a toy found on the seafloor next to the wreck in 1986. So why do we need another post about this event? Maybe we don’t, but it occurs to me that most of the discussion about the Titanic is in fact minutiae, little details that might be interesting in and of themselves. Less often discussed is the disaster in historical context, and what it really means in a broader sense.

It may surprise you to know that the Titanic disaster is not considered very consequential among professional historians. It’s hard to link it to a broader historical narrative, and historically speaking its consequences were pretty limited, unlike, say, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand about two years later, which led to the outbreak of World War I. The vast majority of Titanic material is aimed at a popular audience. Professional historians are generally content to leave the ship in the hands of popular, as opposed to academic, writers. Interesting as the event itself is, I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the historical importance of the sinking.  In fact it’s crucial, I think, to the understanding of the transition through which Western society was about to pass during the decade of the 1910s. Historians sometimes refer to “the long 19th century,” and by that they mean the period roughly from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1815) and including the first fourteen years of the 20th century. The real turning point came in 1914 when the First World War erupted. Titanic happened in April 1912, just 28 months before the war broke out.

crystal palace exhibition 1851 pd

You can’t understand what the Titanic truly represents without appreciating the faith people had in “progress,” exemplified by the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition at Hyde Park, London.

To appreciate the historical context of the disaster, one must go back to much earlier in the 19th century. That century, especially in Europe and the United States, was marked by great advancements in–and faith in–science, technology, industry and economy. The Industrial Revolution, which got going in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat, raised the standard of living for many people in Europe and America, while also lowering it for some. But faith in “progress,” as it was usually called, was virtually total and universal. You can see this starkly in events like the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the famous “Crystal Palace” in London, a world’s fair dedicated to showcasing the new technical achievements of Britain’s industrialized and “progressive” society. Queen Victoria opened this exhibition, and she and her husband Albert (ironically a German) were closely associated with it. Machines and industry, and the capitalistic “free market” powers behind them, were transforming life in Europe and North America. Belief in the transformative power of technology was an ideology that became deeply ingrained in these societies, especially in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th.

It’s exactly this ideology at which the Titanic disaster struck, and hard. Titanic was the exemplar of how the Crystal Palace ideology worked: not only was it a technical wonder, a machine of advanced precision and great power, but it was also an object that personified the social and economic aspects of this belief in technology. The Titanic wasn’t marketed commercially as the fastest Atlantic steamer, but rather, the most luxurious and desirable in social terms. If you were rich in 1912 and had to get from England to America, you wanted to travel on the Titanic, especially in first class, because it exemplified the wealth and status that you hoped to have, and that your fellow passengers wanted too. In 1912 much of this wealth and status was generated by industry and technology. Titanic’s passenger list included railroad and steel magnates, financial barons, and the socialites who flitted on the edges of this world–women made famous by the disaster, like Margaret “Molly” Brown and Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon, spring immediately to mind. But on the lower decks, Titanic was hauling the true paying public that patronized the White Star Line’s bold new product: thousands of poor Irish immigrants paying through the nose to occupy Spartan steerage quarters on a one-way trip to America. Economically, the luxury the Browns and Gordons enjoyed on the four days they were aboard the ship teetered precariously on the backs of many of the unseen poor who lived in cramped dormitories below decks.

WWI dead

This horrifying image from the First World War is exactly the failure–technological, social, political, economic–that the Titanic disaster encapsulated in microcosm, 28 months before the war began.

This is a mirror of how European and American society as a whole worked in the last few years before World War I. Although magnates and monarchs controlled the wealth and capital of that “progressive” society, it was built on the backs of millions of underclass workers who, by the 1910s, were starting to demand greater inclusion in the fruits of their labor. Women’s suffrage was a huge issue in both Britain and America at this time and labor strife was at an all-time high. In diverse empires like the Austro-Hungarian, and to a lesser extent the German Empire, ethnic groups who felt marginalized were becoming increasingly restive. Ireland, politically and socially, was a tinderbox ready to explode. Volcanic social pressures were building in Russia, whose Tsar Nicholas II was trying to use a 16th century political system to govern a 20th century country. Imperialism, driven by those same technological and economic pressures–coal-fired warships, desires for raw materials and foreign markets–had made European fiefdoms of most of Africa and Asia. The system was unsustainable, but who could tell, when shiny new toys like the Titanic were commanding the world’s attention?

Just as the Titanic was a technological, social and economic achievement, its sinking represented a failure on all three levels. The technological failure of how the ship could be undone by an iceberg has been discussed endlessly and I don’t need to go into it. Economically, the sinking was not just a huge loss of capital, but demonstrated the devastating potential for mass casualty events in a new era of transportation and globalized commerce. It was an economic decision–the choice to maximize deck space rather than add enough lifeboats for all the ship’s passengers–that killed most of the Titanic‘s casualties. Socially, the disaster reflected the inequities of 1912 European society: a higher proportion of first class passengers survived, while the steerage class was nearly wiped out. This would become a pattern in the 20th century: the costs of economic and technological failures would consistently be distributed down the social ladder rather than being equally spread. We see that pattern today with climate change, among other things.

The 2011 film A Dangerous Method, about the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), touches on the “quivers” in the collective unconscious before World War I.

But the cataclysm of the Titanic pinched most deeply into that ideological and intellectual complacency that Europe and the U.S. had built for itself. It demonstrated that the mighty gains of technology, economy and “progress” were extremely fragile. Few really took the lesson in April 1912, but World War I blew that complacency to bits in no uncertain terms. Technology like machine guns and tanks made the war far more horrible and deadly than any that had come before. The social pressures building up before the conflict erupted during it, most notably with the Russian Revolution of 1917, but revolutions or attempted revolutions also occurred in Ireland, Germany, China, and the Arab world during the war years. (Interestingly, the Titanic carried Russian, Irish, German, Chinese and Arab passengers). The collapse of a whole world system, coming in just a few short years, was evident in microcosm in the Titanic tragedy.

I’m convinced that the quivers of these coming changes were perceptible to people in the years before World War I, if you knew where to look. Psychologist Carl Jung, famous for his theory of the “collective unconscious,” reportedly dreamt of cataclysms in the months before the war broke out, perhaps sensing–in a way difficult to explain through psychology–a sort of pent-up energy on a societal level that was about to explode. The fascinating 2011 film A Dangerous Method hints at this in a scene toward its end. It was probably easier to visualize such fears after the Titanic sank than before it. I’m unfortunately convinced that we today in 2016 are living in a similar time, and our coming catastrophe is not necessarily war, but climate change. Thus the Titanic disaster resonates with me because I think it must have resembled one of the “quivers” that I think I’m seeing in our own society today. History will prove me wrong (I hope) or right (unfortunately) about that, but in the meantime, the meaning of the Titanic as a harbinger of sorrow should not be dismissed.

All the images in this article are in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.
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