Lots of talk this week about the 100th anniversary of the maiden – and final – voyage of Titanic.
It’s an ever-fascinating morality tale of human arrogance and hubris, and a tragedy in the true sense of the word: a story that explores the human condition and whose telling leaves us moved and touched by what it tells us about our own nature.
The ancient Greeks coined the word “tragedy”. To them it was about when the young Icarus thought he could fly high and touch the sun. It was about when King Oedipus tried to outwit a prophecy about his own fate, and how every move he made to avoid that fate simply played right into it.
A hundred years ago, like Icarus before them, the owners of Titanic bragged that their ship was unsinkable, a belief that drove them to take an unnecessary and fatal risk in their race to cross the Atlantic in record time.
In his National Geographic documentary Titanic: the Final Word, James Cameron, who found the ship on the ocean floor, first explored her remains, and then wrote and directed the acclaimed movie, spends much of the show piecing together exactly how the ship broke up and scattered so much debris over such a wide area of the ocean floor.
But it’s his closing words that are the most memorable – speaking, as they do, to the story of Titanic as a parable for our own times:
“I’ll never stop thinking about the Titanic. For me it’s so much more than just an exercise in forensic archeology. Part of the Titanic parable is about arrogance, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before.
“There was this big machine – this human system that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn and couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster.
“And that’s what we have right now. Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm for the world, you have different classes. You know, you’ve got first class and third class, and in our world right now you’ve got developed nations and undeveloped nations. You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change.
“We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn. We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system – political momentum, business momentum. There are too many people making money out of the system the way the system works right now. And those people, frankly, have their hands on the levers of power, and aren’t ready to let them go. Until they do, we’re not going to be able to turn and miss that iceberg. When we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water, and so on. It’s going to be the poor, it’s going to be the steerage, that are going to be impacted.
“It was the same with Titanic. And I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people because it’s a perfect little encapsulation of the world and all social spectra. But until our lives are really put at risk, at a moment of truth, we don’t really know what we would do.
“And that’s my final word.”