Tuesday, April 18, 2017

An Anniversary Three Days Too Late

"I was visiting my father in his apartment at the Trump Tower, Rad Trad. There was this tiny Asian woman wearing sunglasses behind me, so I held the door for her. When she got closer I saw it was Yoko Ono and I let the door fly."

At first such teenage tomfoolery dismays the well inculcated probity towards good manners, especially for the woman who did music a favor by "breaking up the Beatles," but one must temper expectations for good manners in New York. When my friend first told me this story a decade ago I had to remind myself that New York witnessed some of the last men and women of good manners enter her harbor 95 years ago, now 105 years ago to the day, when the Carpathia brought ashore the 705 men, women, and children who survived the sinking of the Titanic.

The parents of this generation can still recall when a few survivors from modern history's most glamorous disaster could be counted on for television appearances. Now they are all quite dead and the unsinkable ship's maiden voyage survives only in a James Cameron film.

The Titanic was not the only ship to founder on her maiden voyage; the battleship Bismarck went down in 1941 with 2,200 on board, taking over 1,400 British sailors with "him" after sinking the Hood and damaging the Prince of Wales. Nor was the Titanic the greatest civilian maritime sinking; a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff and sent 9,400 people down to "Davy Jones' locker."

By sinking the RMS Titanic disappointed an era of boundless optimism, a time ebullient with the boundless capacity for ingenuity and invention to better the human condition. Society had matured from the growing pains of 19th century political revolution and could only be better off without the antiquarian altar and throne scheme. Edward style and society retained Victorian standards with brighter colors. Old money was fairly new, inherited wealth made two generations earlier by the Robber Barons (one had to be third generation wealth to join the clubs in Newport). Titanic synthesized all these things in her impermeable iron hull, where the old new money dined a few decks above those disjointed by industry, both propelled at 22 knots in a vessel a sixth of a mile long towards a new world unhindered by lingering social structures.

And then it all came crashing down, breaking in two on the way.

Titanic did not sink quickly like the Gustloff or as a ship of aggression like Bismarck. She died a slow, 160 minute death in which most of what was good in past society also died. Women and children were let off first, although more would have lived if Charles Lightoller did not interpret that order to mean "women and children only." Stokers who knew they would die made no attempt for a "run at it" and instead manned their positions in the boiler rooms to the end, keeping the power on and the pumps running to buy the ship additional life. The band played until the end, hoping to keep passengers calm and add some normality to the surreal sinking on the flat calm night. Contrary to film depictions, those in second and third class were not gated below, but they did not rush the upper decks and cause a panic either. The elderly Ida Straus gave her lifeboat seat to another so that she might pass with her husband, the owner of Macy's. Benjamin Guggenheim put on his white tie and top hat, ordered a cigar, and resigned to "go down as a gentleman."

How comical and carnivalesque to modernity for men in tails to listen to The Blue Danube Waltz during a watery death march, but is it only perverse because we never knew a sense of duty, place, and order and once permeated men and women more forcefully than the cold waters of the Atlantic that hit boiler room six. Their politics and religion were inherited from a revolts of past ages, but their courtesy and gentility inherited from homes more tangibly connected with Christian life than ours.

If the Titanic disappointed a changing world eager to embrace the promises of the machine, World War I yielded no reconsideration of the standing trajectory, and World War II, culminating in man's own Fiat lux on August 6, 1945. The old society died, but the new one failed to live up to billing. "Women and children first" and the band playing on was replaced with dull housewives, television, and rock 'n' roll. When promises disappoint we rarely return to our better paths; instead we wallow in bitterness and try to make the most of a new paradigm, like the child who goes off to college, lapses from faith, fails to get a decent job, and will not admit his live in girlfriend of four years is a waste of his time.

But today is a day to remember better men than we, men from 105 years gone by, all of them dead now. Offer a prayer for them in your charity.


  1. What constitutes a not-dull housewife for you?

    1. Ones with a sense of purpose, of course.

      That comment is really about men and women becoming more superficial, more imagine driven by creature comforts.

  2. Contrary to film depictions, those in second and third class were not gated below, but they did not rush the upper decks and cause a panic either.

    Had James Cameron decided to actually depict that, it would have caused, even in 1997, profound puzzlement and disbelief by American and Western European audiences. The stoic aplomb of the first class tycoons was strange enough as it was. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."