The Titanic in Myth and Popular Culture
On the 10th of April 1912, RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage began from Southampton in England to New York City. Five days later, the passenger liner sank within less than 3 hours in the North Atlantic Ocean, after colliding with an iceberg. It caused the deaths of more than 1,500 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in modern history. The shock was intensified by the fact that it was the largest, most modern ship afloat at the time, carrying a total of 2,224 passengers and crew, out of which only 710 could be saved. “Enshrining the values and social fabric of the era, Titanic was a microcosm of western civilisation and its misplaced certainties in a gilded age before the First World War. With unknowing irony the White Star Line proclaimed that Titanic and her sister ship Olympic ‘will rank high in the achievements of the 20th century’ and that ‘time given to slumber and rest will be free from noise or other disturbance… in these vessels the interval between the old life and the new is spent under the happiest possible conditions’. The wreck of Titanic was a mighty blow to the self-confidence of the age. The great liner, a signifier of the civilised world now lay broken in the deep ocean floor. Millionaires, emigrant poor and her labouring crew had gone down with the ship.” (Michael McCaughan, ‘We’re All on the Titanic’, Fortnight, No. 443, Apr., 2006).
A variety of rumour and myth surrounded the great disaster. Allegedly, prior to the sinking, the White Star Line had used the term “designed to be unsinkable” to advertise the ship. Some also claimed that the chairman of the White Star Line escaped on a lifeboat dressed as a woman. Another widespread myth was that the internationally recognised Morse code distress signal “SOS” was first used when the Titanic sank, later contradicted by the knowledge that it has been used by wireless operators as early as 1908. In Richard Howells’ The Myth of the Titanic, the author writes about the much-loved legend that “The heroes of the Titanic followed the last command of Captain Smith: “Be British!” According to Howells, being British required “manliness … devotion to duty… selflessness … loyalty… restrained emotion, sense of fair play and … sense of humour“. Any man possessing these characteristics lived up to the high standard of Britishness no matter what his nationality. Howells argued that it was the media and popular culture of Edwardian Britain that fashioned the “true” account of how those who died on the Titanic spent their final hours and minutes. Popular culture sources are also the basis of the stories about the orchestra playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship slipped into the seas, and of the general acceptance of the Titanic as an unsinkable ship.” (Kristi A. Bell, review of Richard Howells’ The Myth of the Titanic in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 116, No. 461, Summer, 2003).
In 2012, the Titanic’s global centennial remembrance year, the actual extent of its tragic popularity came to the fore as never before. “Titanic and the mythic proportions of her wreck have become the subject, generator and carrier of all kinds of messages and meanings, from the sublime to the tacky. They embrace the cultural spectrum, from high culture to low culture and from popular culture to consumer culture. In short, Titanic goes from art to kitsch. The Titanic litany includes literature, painting, poetry, music, opera, dance, drama, film, songs, verse, religion, cartoons, jokes, fantasy, graffiti, advertising, satire, politics, pornography, propaganda, romantic fiction, science fiction, merchandising and of course exhibitions.” (Michael McCaughan, ‘We’re All on the Titanic’, Fortnight, No. 443, Apr., 2006). Perhaps the closest anyone came to depicting the real events of the sinking hours of the Titanic, as experienced by the survivors, is Walter Lord in his book A Night to Remember (1955), based on real-life interviews and survivors’ books, memoirs and articles, followed by the hugely successful film with the same name and of course, James Cameron’s much later blockbuster Titanic.
The fascination with myth rather than reality has, however, been predominant in our perception of the Titanic. This can be attributed to an inborn desire for drama and danger in human beings. “In Ways of Seeing, his seminal study of Western art, John Berger (1972) notes that until the modern era, mythological paintings of gods, heroes, and legends of antiquity were very highly prized—far more so, in fact, than still-lifes, landscapes, or portraits. Nowadays, he continues, mythologically themed pictures strike us as vague and empty. But not because art lovers are less myth-minded than before. They appear vacuous because the paintings really are vague and empty. They were ambiguous by design, painted in a way that permitted viewers to project themselves into the scene—the depicted situation—and thereby take instruction on how to behave at heightened moments of life, such as heroic action, grand passion, courageous death.” This is indeed the case with the magnetism the image and story of the Titanic still holds on our contemporaries.