Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Oft-used Preachers' Allegory Reaches 100th Year

Old Edy was the contrariest old hag what ever crossed my path!

The Titanic had barely hit the floor of the North Atlantic before clergymen and preachers around the world began using her it* as an allegory of mankind's folly and hubris. It is as if, in the face of the comment that "God Himself could not sink this ship," the Almighty had replied: "Oh yeah?"

It is, of course, 100 years plus a couple of days since the "World's Largest Metaphor" struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, and there have been many commemorative events held around the world. Here in NYC, city council speaker Christine Quinn attended a wreath-laying, both as a public official, and more personally: her grandmother survived the sinking.

The story itself shows no sign of dying from our collective imagination and memory. I wonder (pointlessly) what any of those who drowned with the sinking of the largest liner in the world would think, if they could have known that the disaster has the power to move people so much today, in a vastly different era? They might well say: "That's great, but I'd still like to have had enough lifeboats..."

It is strange that the disaster has potency to make so many people today stop and think, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

Part of the event's endurance in collective memory is because of what the Onion satirical newspaper headlined "Microcosm of larger society", thinking of how the ship's manifest had people representing every walk of the highly-stratified and rigid class system of the day. Examples below in two of the remarkable collection of photos taken by Father Francis Browne, who was on board the Titanic from Southampton, but who disembarked at Queenstown in Ireland.
Upper Crust on upper deck...

...deck hands during life jacket routine...

How much society has changed... Ridiculous deference and bowing and scraping has given way to a greater sense of equality, I think, while people of standing and achievement are still given due respect. Undoubtedly, people of that era would be mystified if we could tell them that although icebergs are of little to no threat to transatlantic shipping today, there are probably far more icebergs floating around, as the polar ice caps are melting...besides which, hardly anyone gets to and from America by boat anymore, though the amount of freighting ships in the North Atlantic makes it a lot more crowded today.

And the iceberg: a special feature of icebergs, according to writer Monica Hall, is that:
Since the self-proclaimed great and the good are always running headlong into obstacles they should have known perfectly well were there, it is widely applicable and widely appreciated whenever invoked. The passivity of the iceberg provides the focus for the irony and hubris.
Hall also points out in an article entitled "Titanic as Metaphor," that the iceberg can be drawn into almost any shape, or labeled with any word or phrase, as generations of cartoonists have appreciated, see below...

Incidentally, while searching for the cartoon example above, I found the worst Titanic + iceberg cartoons ever. Ever!

When thinking about those who died in the sinking, I found myself thinking back to the Sept. 11th attacks and how the loss of life was made all the more poignant by the ways in which the dead could be grouped together in sub-groups: the flight attendants, for example -- everybody knows at least one flight attendant, and knows what difficult jobs they have -- or the many World Trade Center victims who were daily commuters from Jersey City, or, from a little further away, the same small New Jersey commuter towns which are far closer to where the twin towers stood than most of New York City. Hoboken, NJ, lost 39 residents, for example.

Similarly, there are towns and cities which were more affected than most communities by the loss of the Titanic. The ship had Liverpool registered as its home port, although it never docked there. Most famously, the Titanic was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, raising the world's awareness of that city and its shipbuilding abilities. But the Titanic sailed from Southampton in England, where it took on the vast majority of its crew of 885.

So if its maiden voyage had been completed, R.M.S. Titanic would have sailed thus: Southampton; Cherbourg, France; Queenstown, Ireland (now known as Cobh); New York, NY; Plymouth; Liverpool.

I recommend looking at Father Browne's photograph collection. Of all the photos, perhaps the saddest is this one, below, of the Titanic's anchor being raised for the last time, as it prepares to leave Queenstown, Ireland, for New York City.

Finally... what is that photo of the toy pig doing at the top of this post? That is the toy musical pig belonging to Edith Louise Rosenbaum Russell, a Titanic survivor. The pig was the one item she carried into her lifeboat, apart from her clothes. Writing from the Titanic right before it left France, she called it a "most wonderful boat," but added that she had a "premonition of trouble." She had tried to buy insurance for her possessions (she was a fashion reporter returning to the U.S. from assignment in Paris) but was told none was available as the ship was unsinkable... Her life was varied and eccentric; when she died in 1975 aged 98 in her rooms at a London hotel, a maid told a reporter: "Old Edy was the contrariest old hag what ever crossed my path." When the Almighty sank the unsinkable, how come He let Edith get away?

* I have tried to use gender-neutral it and its throughout, instead of she and her. Ships are its, not shes!