Titanic Presumption

‘The Titanic, name and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption.” That was the judgment of Edward Stuart Talbot, the Anglican bishop of Winchester, in the sermon he preached the Sunday after the fabled Atlantic passenger liner Titanic took nearly 1,500 lives with her as she sank after striking an iceberg in mid-ocean on April 14, 1912. “When has such a mighty lesson against our confidence and trust in power, machinery, and money been shot through the nation?” Talbot could not have known it, but an entire cascade of mighty lessons was about to be visited on human presumption in spades, in the form of two World Wars (Talbot would lose a son at Ypres) and the genocidal sacrifice of millions on the altars of Fascism and Communism. A mid-ocean shipping accident that cost a five-hundredth of the lives Britain lost in the 1914–18 war should seem like small potatoes indeed.

And yet, the Titanic conjures up more vivid images in people’s minds today than Ypres, and images almost as vivid as those of the Holocaust. The ship has been memorialized in six major motion pictures (including the lavish Nazi propaganda film Titanic in 1943, the American Grand Hotel–style melodrama Titanic in 1953, the British docudrama A Night to Remember in 1958, and James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997) and two Broadway musicals. A small industry of Titanic researchers has itemized the ship down to the last rivet; there are seven current Titanic-artifact exhibitions on offer; and the number of books on the Titanic has topped 200, from Walter Lord’s 1955 bestseller A Night to Remember (the foundation for the British movie) to the more mundane 1,912 Facts About the Titanic (1994).

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