Saturday, March 16, 2013


The violin played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley as the Titanic sank has been found.

Despite two large cracks and some corrosion, it's in remarkable shape, all things considered. And it's going on display in Belfast City Hall, less than a mile from where Titanic was built.

A Redditor named 'hootbot' asks,

Isn't it a bit ghoulish to tour bits of the Titanic around, a ship on which 1500 people died? I mean, imagine if there were a 9/11 touring carnival with bits of office furniture and blood stained palm pilots.

This is a common sentiment, and certainly understandable. But I disagree with it.

First and most facile, neither the victims of Titanic nor those of 9/11 care a bit about their personal effects at this point. That's because they're dead.

I object to the use of the word "carnival", with all the jollity and lightness of purpose it implies. Anyone who has spent any time researching Titanic, as I have--let alone those who have seen the ship, or any of its contents--will tell you there are no carnivals on the bottom of the sea. (Or at the bottom of Ground Zero, or in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, for that matter.)

Like many, I saw James Cameron's Titanic when it came out. Previous to that, I'd had a sketchy knowledge of the sinking; after watching the movie, I devoured everything I could find on the subject, until I had bits of the cargo manifest memorized.
The story affected me in a way very few had before or since. Not the grafted-on, oh-so-Hollywood love story--fer Chrissake, Jack, grab your own bit of flotsam and dare to separate from your Rose for a few hours and you'll have a lifetime together!)...the story of the ship itself. In its story is the best and the worst of what makes us human. It's a tragedy that's very much of its time--the very thought of "steerage" on a ship is repugnant to Western ideals a century later--and yet it's timeless. The same hubris that led a publisher to suggest "God Himself could not sink this ship" also led to the slipshod preparations that doomed the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and will doubtless figure in tragedies to come.
(The parallels between Titanic and Challenger are astonishing and deeply chilling....)

And the chain of errors that led to the deaths of 1517 passengers in the frigid Atlantic would be comical if the end result wasn't so grisly. From the deliberate decision not to clutter up the decks with needless lifeboats, to the bridge binoculars being left behind in Southampton, to the doomed attempt to 'port round' the berg, to the equally foolish closing of the watertight doors...nearly everything that could go wrong did, helped along by an unwavering belief in the superiority of technology right until the bitter end.

(If Titanic had hit the berg head on, she wouldn't have sunk. She'd have sustained heavy damage and been towed ignominiously into port, the butt of jokes for years to come...but most if not all of her passengers and crew would have survived. Likewise, if they'd left the watertight doors open--if, in other words, they ignored their nifty-neato technology--Titanic would have sank on an even keel, taking much longer to do so.)

The atmosphere around displays of historical tragedies is sombre and reflective, as it should be. Personal effects from the victims of such tragedies are what create this atmosphere. It is, in every sense, a memorial. A memorial to family members, for friends, or even strangers who were, nonetheless, human beings. I don't think it's ghoulish to examine the past, even the horrors of the past, so long as we try to learn from them.

No comments: