When the Titanic sank, G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay called “The Great Shipwreck As An Analogy.” Now that this same ship has unexpectedly become the site of another tragedy over a century later, I take the liberty of doing likewise.
One must first, of course, say a prayer for the souls of our unfortunate fellow creatures inside the Titan and for their grieving loved ones. The cutting short of five innocent lives must be first in our minds and call forth our sympathy. Nothing I say here should be taken as ill reflection on the dead.
It is one of the marks of modernity that, having overcome various natural discomforts and challenges through feats of engineering, we tend to fancy ourselves as having conquered nature entirely. Or if not entirely, then at least to have gained quite a bit of ground on it, ground that we now feel is rightly our own to safely cultivate and enjoy outside of nature’s ability to reach us.
The RMS Titanic herself remains a fixed feature of the modern imagination, a tale told and retold time and again, in large part because of this. Great and tragic shipwrecks are not a rarity in the past couple of centuries. The SS Atlantic and the SS La Bourgogne were notorious liners whose fates preceded that of the Titanic, albeit with less deadly consequences owing to their smaller capacities.
But what makes the Titanic a legend is less the fact of her sinking than the boast that she was “unsinkable.” The blasphemous (possibly apocryphal) claim that “God Himself could not sink this ship,” followed by her sinking on her maiden voyage with such catastrophic loss of life, makes the ship a kind of emblem of modern hubris, and ready-made allegory for the post-Napoleonic Old World that was soon to receive a mortal blow of its own.
“Our whole civilization is indeed very like the Titanic,” wrote Chesterton less than a month after the event. “Alike in its power and its impotence, its security and its insecurity . . . For there is a real connection between such catastrophes and a certain frame of mind which refuses to expect them.” He goes on to describe how a ship that contains a garage for a man’s motorcar may induce him to forget that he is on a ship; a ship that, like any other, may sink.
And it is one of his defining features that the modern man never seems to learn this lesson. However much he delights in such tales of hubris (especially if they seem to reflect badly on his hated forefathers), he never quite gets the idea that this flaw might apply to him as well. He will go on thinking that the point of the Titanic was that we know better now, not that such things may still happen in spite of any precautions we may take.
The result is that these catastrophes always seem to catch us unaware; this is the sort of thing that “should not happen,” that “doesn’t happen in this day and age.” Such events do the unthinkable and seem to put us on a level with those who have come before us; to suggest that we may, in fact, be subject to the same dangers, the same disasters, and thus the same restrictions as they.
Which brings us to the Titan. I’m not in a position to say whether this submersible was adequately built for journeys under three-and-a-half tons of pressure per square inch. We will find out eventually.
What strikes me is the very fact that someone thought it a good idea to set up a touring company for the purpose. I don’t know what I think of the morals of a profit-making enterprise to take people to visit a graveyard two miles under the ocean’s surface, but if it is to be done, then it certainly should be done only with the utmost respect for the forces being challenged. A tourism company doesn’t seem quite the thing for such an undertaking (again, meaning no reflection on the victims), nor does a submersible comprised—as I understand—of ready-made parts.
All of us are too ready to look at the world as a kind of show or service—something put together by people who know how and offered up for our satisfaction. Rather like a huge hotel or cruise ship. If something goes wrong, that means someone didn’t do his job, and we have a grievance.
It takes an effort of imagination to realize we are actually fragile living creatures surrounded by dangers and discomforts, dependent upon food and shelter for our survival. How many of us even know where our electricity comes from? Or the source of the water that comes from our taps? How many know where the food at the supermarket was grown and processed?
We trust that those who provide these things for us know what they are doing, and when something fails, we are shocked and caught off guard. It seems wrong, somehow, that such things should happen to us. As Chesterton says, “man is not only governed by what he thinks but by what he chooses to think about.” Most of us are able to get by without thinking of the vicissitudes of the real world at all, and so we don’t.
The fact that we moderns never seem to learn (however often it is brought home to us) is that a man enjoying the fruits of modernity is every bit as subject to the same disasters and calamities as his ancestors. They may be less likely, but they are always a possibility. Plague, famine, war, shipwreck, they’ve never gone away and never will, and we would do well to remember that.
To travel to the bottom of the ocean is an inherently dangerous undertaking, and this remains true whether it is done for exploration or for tourism. Apparently, someone at Ocean Gate Expeditions failed to take that fact seriously enough. A dramatic and tragic example of that strangely persistent mindset that doesn’t expect this sort of thing.
Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this article appears at The Everyman.