This week the column remains in Melbourne, and remains, more-or-less, at the movies. After Tim Burton at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the other big attraction in the southern capital is Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. It is a subject that has been etched on the popular imagination by its portrayal in Hollywood films, the most recent being James Cameron’s blockbuster of 1997.
With all the hype about Avatar, we tend to forget that when Titanic hit the screens it was also acclaimed as the most expensive film ever made. It is one of the follies of our age that we are so pitifully impressed by the amount of money squandered on a movie that we automatically see expense as a guarantee of greatness. There is a certain similarity to the way the Edwardians celebrated the Titanic itself, as the largest, most luxurious, most expensive vessel ever to ply the waves.
No other incident so perfectly illustrates the hubris that comes with the contemplation of man-made grandeur. The ‘unsinkable’ Titanic that sank on its maiden voyage is the modern equivalent of Icarus losing his homemade wings as he flew too close to the sun. Since that night of 14 April 1912, the loss of the Titanic has become one of most mythologised events of all time. There are hundreds of books devoted to the story, and a surprising number of films, including one sponsored by the Third Reich in 1943, intended to alert viewers to the meanness and incompetence of British capitalists. The irony was that German audiences tended to equate the disaster at sea with the ongoing disaster at home.
In many ways the Titanic was the ultimate symbol of the Edwardian era, or to use its more attractive alias, the Belle Epoque. Like the Titanic the nations of Europe sailed on to disaster, convinced of their own greatness and power. Hitting the iceberg was an accident, but the plunge into World War was taken quite deliberately, with little thought for the consequences.
Because the war extinguished the Belle Epoque so completely, that first decade of the twentieth century has taken on a rare and precious quality. Not only did the Titanic represent the greatest disaster of the age, it was an event that crystallized public attention on the class divisions between passengers; the issue of whether human lives had been sacrificed because of corporate greed and haste; the personal choices made by those who were sacrificed and those who survived. It was a drama worthy of the Greek tragedians that put the same question to every member of the audience: “What would you have done?”
That question has echoed for almost a century in every account of the wreck, but nothing in this story is straightforward. Everybody knows that the Titanic did not carry enough lifeboats to rescue its entire complement of passengers and crew. The grand total was 1,178 places for a maximum capacity of 3,547 people, although there were only 2,200 on this first voyage. This sounds like scandalous negligence until we realise that many boats were launched with empty seats, and two collapsibles even went down with the ship.
The lack of lifeboats was less of a problem than the disorganized nature of the evacuation and the diminishing time involved. As it happened, the Titanic remained afloat for two hours and forty minutes after striking the iceberg, which is a relatively long delay. When the Lusitania was torpedoed during the war it sank within eighteen minutes, making life boats a non-issue.
The other great myth of the Titanic is that the ship’s owners urged the captain to push on at a reckless pace, in order to set a good time for the crossing. But J.Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director of the White Star line, who has been vilified by everyone for surviving the disaster, apparently issued no such orders. Ismay’s real crime was getting on to one of the life boats rather than going down with the ship. The heroism of those who were lost made his – entirely natural – act of self-preservation look like cowardice. It would have made dramatic sense for Ismay to take responsibility for the disaster and go to the bottom, like Captain Smith and so many others. Yet who among us would have acted differently? Perhaps it is only in extreme situations that people reveal their true characters.
If you’ll pardon the expression, this is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examining the many mysteries, arguments and moral dilemmas the wreck has generated. The fascination of Titanic: the Artefact Exhibition, is that it draws us into that event with unusual vividness. This is partly because of the pathos we feel when confronted with the meagre relics of the voyage retrieved from the sea floor: watches, wallets, jewelry, handbags, toys, books, plates, and so on. But these objects are not sufficient to completely capture one’s imagination.
More effective are the detailed reconstructions of the different classes of cabins, the grand staircase and the dining areas. This makes it easy for viewers to imagine themselves on that voyage, sleeping in those beds, eating in the restaurant. The identification is assisted by an ingenious tactic. In buying a ticket for this show, each viewer receives a boarding pass made out in the name of one of the passengers. At the end of the journey there is a board listing those who survived and those who died. Throughout the show, one nurtures a small hope that your passenger might actually be one of the lucky ones. I had first and third class tickets, and was dismayed to find that both men perished.
The rest of the show is devoted to the recovery efforts by an international team of oceanographers and archaeologists. A darkened room presents a computer reconstruction of the accident, and a large piece of ice that viewers are invited to fondle. Not many are surprised that it feels cold.
As a spectacle the exhibition is nothing special, it is the human drama that provides all the fascination. Wall labels tell many of the stories involved, with a cast that includes some of the richest people in the world and a host of poor migrant workers. The case of Isador and Ida Straus, for instance, is one of the most celebrated. The elderly Straus who was co-owner of Macy’s Department store in New York, declined a seat in a life boat, saying he did not wish to be treated differently to anybody else. His wife stayed with him to the end, saying: “We started together, and if need be, we’ll finish together.”
Another wealthy passenger, Benjamin Guggenheim, and his secretary Victor Giglio, changed into evening clothes to look their best as they sank beneath the waves. The writer, W.T.Stead sat down to read a book while waiting for the end. At the same time, Father Thomas Byles was giving absolution to hundreds of doomed souls, while the band played on. Of 2,228 passengers and crew, only 705 survived.
On the lifeboats bitter squabbles broke out between those who wanted to turn back and pick up survivors, and those who cared only for their own safety.
No-one could have made up a story like this, in which the very best and worst elements of human nature are laid bare, where a rigid class structure was broken down in the face of certain death. Yet for most of us the images conjured up by the name Titanic, will be those provided by James Cameron, in a film was long on romance and careless with history. One of the most incisive analyses of this movie came from Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher and film buff, who satirised Cameron’s “Hollywood Marxism”, with its impossible love affair between working class boy and wealthy girl. He pointed out that despite all the predictable jibes at greedy capitalists, the union of rich and poor was averted by the iceberg, allowing the existing social hierarchies to remain intact.
The true catastrophe, in Zizek’s estimation, would have been the couple’s survival and subsequent life in New York. Only in death is the “happily ever after” fantasy preserved.
The myths and fantasies surrounding the Titanic have reached such a crescendo that perhaps we have to stop and remind ourselves that the wreck was a real event, not an extraordinary work of art. One of the best reasons for seeing Titanic: the Artefact Exhibition is to grapple with the enormity of the disaster outside of the framework of cinematic schlock. The true story is infinitely more complex, more tragic and moving than anything Hollywood could provide.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 04, 2010
Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition
Melbourne Museum, May 14 to November 07, 2010