Last night at about 2:30 a.m., the wreck of the Titanic turned 100 years old. There were four of us talking about it in our kitchen yesterday evening, and again this morning – about how there were boats travelling to that very spot in the Atlantic Ocean, to commemorate the centennial… and about what an overwhelming story it is, no matter how you look at it.
Just before Easter weekend, I went with Skye to see the movie Titanic in 3D. I remember I saw it twice in theatres when it first came out, and maybe once on video since then… but it had been at least a decade since I’d seen it. Certain scenes I still remembered perfectly, so deeply did they affect me at the time. (I know a lot of people call it a bad movie, but I’m sorry. They are just haters, and they are WRONG. The dialogue may be banal, but it is an incredible, monumental story, portrayed with obsessive attention to detail and accuracy. It’s an amazing cinematic accomplishment.)
I think I can honestly say that, although I’d seen many movies involving death before, this was the first film that made me really confront the idea. So many different ways to die with the Titanic, most of them inevitable. It is such a mind-blowing moment in the film when Mr. Andrews, the ship’s designer, tells the captain and others that it is a “mathematical certainty” that the magnificent, so-called unsinkable vessel will founder. Very, very soon. With lifeboats to accommodate only half the people on board. Human brains do not want to believe such things.
Who would you have been? If you made it to a lifeboat, you were probably a First or Second Class passenger. You were probably also a woman or child, because of the “women and children first” protocol – and about to be bereaved. (You were also rare: there were only 710 survivors out of 2,223 people aboard.) If you were in Third Class, chances were good that you never made it past E Deck. If you were a crew member working the boilers or in the kitchen, ditto.
Do you think you could have managed not to panic, when you realized the truth? Would you have prayed, climbed higher, jumped ship, or sought out the best place to go down with her?
Would you be the man saying goodbye to his wife and telling his child, “Don’t worry, Daddy’s getting the next boat”?
Would you be Benjamin Guggenheim, sitting by the Grand Staircase with a brandy and a cigar, waiting to meet with death as if it were the opposing army general, declaring “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”?
Would you be in your bed, holding onto your spouse and waiting for the water to engulf you, knowing it was better to die together than live apart?
Would you be the mother in her steerage cabin, understanding that survival is a lost cause, lulling her children to sleep with beautiful stories, in the hopes that they would be spared the fear?
Would you be the crew member organizing the lifeboats who knows he’s going down with the ship – or one manning a lifeboat who will live to be haunted? And if you were the latter, would you go back to seek survivors, as only one actually did?
Would you be one of the musicians, playing lighthearted tunes with seeming serenity as chaos erupted around you?
It’s impossible to know for sure how any of us would react to death staring us in the face. Especially for the men standing on the upper decks as lifeboats were filled. Survival instinct would tell you to fight for a seat, but would you? Could you give your child over to the care of a stranger, if it came to that?
In my Hubbibi’s perspective, part of becoming a man is accepting the responsibility of being ready to lay down your life ahead of those of your wife and children. It’s the basis of chivalry, but if you are a parent, it’s also a biological imperative: protecting your offspring (and potentially their primary caregiver), even at the expense of yourself, is the surest way to see that your genes are passed on. (I guess for J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, no such conflict of interest existed, since his five children were not aboard Titanic. Hence his inviting himself onto a lifeboat.)
I think that’s what fascinates people about the story of RMS Titanic. It’s been said that humans show their true colours when they’re about to die. Would such a sudden, terrifying demise reveal us to be cowards, or first class humans?