Titanic: the legacy is still afloat 100 years on

Tue, May 31, 2011, 01:00

ENSHRINING THE values and social fabric of the era, Titanicwas a microcosm of western civilisation and its misplaced certainties in a gilded age before the first World War.

With unknowing irony, the White Star Line proclaimed that Titanicand her sister ship, Olympic, “will rank high in the achievements of the 20th century” and that “time given to slumber and rest will be free from noise or other disturbance . . . in these vessels the interval between the old life and the new is spent under the happiest possible conditions”.

The wreck of Titanicwas a mighty blow to the self-confidence of the age. The great liner, a signifier of the civilised world, now lay broken in the deep ocean floor. Millionaires, emigrant poor and her labouring crew had gone down with the ship. Almost 1,500 souls perished in the icy Atlantic waters and their appalling loss generated the first international phenomenon of public grieving with its supporting commercialisation and merchandising.

For many in 1912, the disaster was rich in symbolic significance.

Titanic’scatastrophic sinking called into question the established order of things. It deeply troubled those who implicitly believed in a good and merciful God. Others regarded it as a fateful warning, or confirmation of their belief in divine retribution for human conceit and arrogance. It seemed to demonstrate the folly of human presumption and vanity that nature could be a conquest of science.

The destruction of Titanicby a spur of ice shattered popular faith in the supremacy of technology and privilege. Belief in the inexorable progress of society through the appliance of science was shaken to the core. In retrospect, the sinking of Titanic and the world it represented symbolised the end of the 19th century and, together with the outbreak of war in 1914, the cold beginning of the 20th century.

FOR THE PAST CENTURY, Titanic, and all its loss implies, has maintained a powerful hold on the imagination of people across the world.

Potent images of the stricken liner have endured, while the metaphors resulting from the catastrophe have been equally powerful.

Cultural processes of absorption, transformation and diffusion began immediately after the sinking and as resonances of Titanic’sdisaster, they perhaps have significance for humanity greater than the event itself.

Titanicand the mythic proportions of its wreck have become the subject, generator and carrier of all kinds of messages and meanings, from the sublime to the tacky. They embrace the cultural spectrum, from high culture to low and from popular culture to consumer culture; in short, Titanicgoes from art to kitsch.

The Titaniclitany includes literature, painting, poetry, music, opera, dance, drama, film, songs, verse, religion, cartoons, jokes, fantasy, graffiti, advertising, satire, politics, pornography, propaganda, romantic fiction, science fiction, merchandising and, of course, exhibitions.

Titanic, or rather titanicism, is an international cultural phenomenon which shows no sign of abating. Despite the magnitude of other horrors over the past century, Titanichas become the dominant symbol of disaster in our collective imagination. Titanic,both real and imagined, is a key icon of popular culture and one of the great metaphors of our time.

Today, we encounter Titanicalmost on a daily basis, but the sadness of the ship’s lost souls essentially belongs to the past. However, it’s not the distant past where archaeologists feel safe. For many, Titanicis not quite history, but rather is in limbo or a time warp between the present and the past. The debates and controversy generated by the recovery and display of Titanicartefacts and personal effects recovered from the seabed are a reflection of changing attitudes to the ship’s dead.

In a retrospective way, the tragedy of the Belfast-built Titaniccan be seen as mirroring that of the city itself. But today, despite many unresolved problems, there is a spirit of hope abroad. New visions for the future include the reclamation of a proud Titanicpast with the promotion of Belfast as a rising tourist destination in the international Titanicpilgrimage industry.

As a worldwide brand fusing profit, pleasure and memorialisation, Titanicis now being celebrated in its homeland as an important signifier and agent of economic, social and cultural regeneration.

The emblematic Titanicis the carrier of a whole complex of messages and meanings. In this part of the world, the ship’s metaphorical status is multi-dimensional and allows for the existence of many different kinds of Titanic– from the real to the reconstructed, from the remembered to the imaginary and from substance to pastiche.

Yet the core symbolism of Titanic’s disaster remains and is not difficult to decode. Essentially, the cataclysmic sinking of Titanicis a paradigm for the inevitable failure of flaunted technology, the fragility of human ambition, the shipwreck of dreams and the transience of life.


Michael McCaughan is the author of The Birth of the Titanic(Blackstaff Press, 1998). He is working on an expanded edition of the book, to be published this autumn. See blackstaffpress.com

*** A new £1 million exhibition opens today at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. TITANICa: the Experiencefeatures more than 500 original artefacts