Off the coast of Newfoundland this week, in the eternally cold and opaque waters of the Atlantic, a team of French and American scientists located the remains of the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic.
The Titanic, the glittering flagship of the White Star Line, was speeding across the North Atlantic when it rammed an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, in the starlit early morning hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 died in the worst of man’s oceangoing disasters. About 700 were saved.
Now, seven decades later, they have found her, 2 1/2 miles down and not far from where she sent out her last sputtering SOS--the first time the new distress signal had ever been used.
Theirs is a scientific mission, a U.S.-French expedition impressively accoutered with such equipment as a robot submarine with video cameras, and broad-swath sonar to scan a hundred square miles of sea-floor terrain. It has computer-enhanced optical imaging systems, first developed with U.S. Navy funding, to see more clearly just what is down there, and eventually, some people think, to salvage some of it if possible. So precise are these devices that scientists have seen within the Titanic unbroken cases of wine and stacks of unbroken dinner plates.
But now I wish they would let her rest in peace.
I cannot fault the scientific curiosity in looking for her; I know it is science, not money, that spurs them on. No such ship, sunk to such a depth, has ever been accessible for study.
Happily, Robert Ballard, who heads the expedition, has proposed making the site a sea memorial. But Jack Grimm, the Abilene oil millionaire who bankrolled three previous hunts, has pledged to retrieve some artifacts. “We just want to dive . . . and get some of the valuables,” he declared. “What,” he wondered aloud, “is the ship’s bell from the Titanic worth?”
What is down there is far more than an 882-foot ship, sunk in waters so deep and dense that even oxygen has not penetrated to rust its hull.
The chief value of the Titanic is to the mind and soul of man, not to his bank coffers or even his science books.
In the decades since she vanished--decades that have pushed us light-years away from the smug certainties of the world as it existed before World War I and toward the precipice of nuclear self-immolation--the Titanic has transcended history to become folklore.
She has done more than just spawned Titanic historical societies, and books, films and plays about its tragic demise and fictional salvage. She has become a mystical symbol that has taught us something about ourselves.
Unprepared for Cataclysm
A little more than two years after the Titanic sank, World War I ravaged a world whose innocent arrogance had left it unprepared for the cataclysm. But the smugness of that era had already ended, on that chill Monday dawn in the North Atlantic, when the Titanic, the genius pride of a prideful age, struck an iceberg and went down by the bow.
Millionaires on the promenade and paupers in steerage all perished; the death of the Titanic, and the hundreds aboard her, shattered the world’s premises: that wealth was unassailable, that science was invincible, and that mankind had mastered both. Even her name, which bespoke her size and strength, was mocked by the ease with which the ocean destroyed her.
The Titanic, by existing so briefly and gloriously, then vanishing utterly, has in its own secular way come to rank with the Holy Grail, Noah’s Ark or the Fountain of Youth.
The steamship has become the part of our mythology, a seagoing Tower of Babel, an earthbound version of Icarus who dared to fly like the gods on waxen wings. Like them, the Titanic was destroyed by its own pride.
These things--the Titanic, the Tower of Babel--while they stay lost, they feed our souls and teach our spirits. They are parables about man’s reach and man’s grasp.
Down there, the Titanic is a mythic emblem, almost proverb. Up here, it is mere tons of crumpled metal, a pricey historical sideshow exhibit, the sort of souvenir pieces that chic catalogues sell as costly Christmas trinkets, with certificates of authenticity, the way jewelers once sold bits of the wondrous transatlantic cable.
Don’t get me wrong--I believe in archeology. But I believe in legend too.
When I visited the Louvre a few years ago, I rather reluctantly made the inevitable pilgrimage to “La Gioconde,” the painting Americans call the “Mona Lisa.”
It is the single instantly recognizable painting in all the world, a heroic artistic standard. Yet I already knew its measurements--only 30 by 21 inches--and steeled myself to see it on the wall in the Louvre, dwarfed by the vast, vivid canvases around it. Sure enough, it drew shrill comments of disappointment from American tour groups who huddled around it, crying how “dark and TI-nee!” it was.
Myths are sometimes like that: however heroic they are, once they are found, once they are captured and dissected, they shrink to the disappointing dimensions of a museum display case. They can never live up to our imaginations.
Such I fear it would be with the Titanic; we would lose her myth, and we would also lose her important, haunting lesson, which is a tragic one, in the truly Greek sense of the word: a fatal flaw of pride.
In ancient Greece, when legend held that gods walked among mortals, the cardinal sin was hubris, the prideful challenge to the gods and the Fates. In 1912, on the docks alongside the Titanic before it left on its maiden trip, a crew member was overheard to tell a nervous woman passenger: “Lady, God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” Giddy with its own power, the mastery of science over nature, the Titanic tempted fate, and fate won.
Now, 73 years later, man’s character has not changed. I worry that perhaps this expedition, like so much that is new and technological in science, may be rooted in the same ancient sense of challenge: that we do something because we know we can do it, not always because we ought to. A few years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, I interviewed several people who had been aboard her, reaching across that abyss of 70 years to understand what it had been like to live through one of history’s cutting edges. For all of them, it was a tragedy minutely personal, yet they realized it was extraordinarily vast. In later years, they had come to see the hand of something greater in it. It left them, and the world, shaken.
I read that when Eva Hart, a British Titanic survivor now age 80, heard the news of this latest triumph of science, she said: “As far as I am concerned, that ship is my father’s grave.”
It was like hearing Ariel’s song in “The Tempest”:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
So it is with the Titanic, and so it should remain, like a grave, like a legend--inviolate. In her majesty and her pathos, she is of more value to the human spirit where she is.