The Cold Truth

ID_IC_MEIS_TITAN_AP_001 Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

The most compelling aspect of Titanic, to me, is the degree to which it multiplies stories without lessons. It is, of course, tempting to draw out a lesson about hubris from Titanic, and many have made the mistake of trying to do so. Here is man, challenging nature and the gods with a vessel that would tame the seas, and with beautiful carved mahogany interiors to boot. This behemoth proclaimed itself invincible, unsinkable, and then promptly went under at the hands of a silent and dumb chunk of ice. If frozen water could laugh, there'd have been some icy chuckling in the North Atlantic that night.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth tried an early sermon along these lines. This was a young and inexperienced Barth, to be sure. But his tale of hubris and human neglect of spiritual matters is a forced and clunky attempt. Barth said of it later, “… in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shook the whole world, I felt that I had to make this disaster my main theme the following Sunday, which led to a monstrous sermon on the same scale.” Titanic doesn't like such overreaching. She doesn't like to be a symbol for anything. The attempts to do so seem to pale in comparison to the actual facts. The grand reflections on morality that people have tried to hang on Titanic sink even more quickly than she did.

Joseph Conrad, a man otherwise reasonably subtle in his discussions of the darkness at the heart of men, tried to pen a few big thoughts about Titanic directly after the sinking. “But all this has its moral,” Conrad wrote. “Yes, material may fail, and men, too, may fail sometimes; but more often men, when they are given the chance, will prove themselves truer than steel, that wonderful thin steel from-which the sides and the bulkheads of our modern sea-leviathans are made.” Is that the moral of Titanic? I don't think Conrad even believed what he was writing, if he understood it. There are so many qualifications and backslidings in his final sentence it is a wonder it doesn't erase itself from the page.

I would offer perhaps as a counterexample, Thomas Hardy's poem, “The Convergence of the Twain,” “Lines on the loss of the 'Titanic'”.