Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Titanic Metaphor

The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble. There was such a sense of bounty  in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down."

- filmmaker James Cameron

This mother of all shipwrecks, is, among other things, a motherlode of metaphor: the sinking of the "unsinkable," the flagship of industrial engineering and fantastical luxury, the very vessel of technological hubris; the once largest moving man-made object on Earth, too massive and cruising too fast to pull out of a collision course with a large, cold, hard fact of nature, of which the humans could only see the tip.

A hundred years and hundreds of dives later, this ship still holds many haunting metaphors, depths to be plumbed. I want to spend this anniversary thinking about the lifeboats.

A lifeboat is an interesting presence. A reminder that the much bigger boat on which it rides could fail, and that survival could depend on this much simpler, radically scaled-down version of the big ship. What other institutions carry such overt warnings and preparations for their own demise? Imagine a school, or a government, a business or a church openly prepping its students, citizens, customers, parishioners: There is a chance that this will all come undone. In the event of our institution's collapse, the essentials needed to preserve life are the following....

Noah built a boat like that once, much to the ridicule and chagrin of his neighbours. The ark was an embarrassment to their civic faith, their belief that their society had grown too big to fail.

But the sea suffers no fools, and sailors have learned that times do come to abandon the big ship, and get into those little boats.

The Titanic, famously, had far too few lifeboats. The White Star Line gave meticulous attention to the design of the Turkish baths and to the ten course dinner menus on their luxury cruise ship, but not to the essentials of preserving life. In the more than two hours it took for her to sink, desperate, painful decisions had to be made. Some women would not to get in the life boats, refusing to leave their husbands, for whom there was no room. One man dressed as a woman so he could jump the cue. Few third class passengers, male or female, ever made it onto the boat decks.

Now that I think about it, the interesting thing about the Titanic lifeboats is not that there were too few, but that there were any at all. There persisted a seafaring culture of caution, a humility before the sea, that even the opulent and overconfident "unsinkable" Titanic could not completely cast aside.

What are the traditions still carried in the DNA of the wider culture that caution and prepare us for cataclysm? Well, the biblical tradition, handmaiden to Empire though it has admittedly been, is really one of the most honest and sober accounts we have of the corruption and the collapse, again and again, of Empire: the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans - sometimes their machinations benefit the Jews, most often they hurt them, but never do they last.

The Bible contains a history of the Fertile Crescent's "cradle of civilization" as seen from the underside of the great powers. From this view is revealed not only the ugly violence of these grand civilizations, but also their vulnerability. Even Israel's own national history is often told in a way most unflattering to its officials and their schemes. Again and again, the Bible warns against seeking security in the designs of "the nations." Security, counterintuitively, is to be sought in an unseen God, and in compliance to a covenant of justice, drawn up with a people much smaller and poorer than their come-and-go imperial neighbours.
Is this our culture's lifeboat?

Wes Hartley, the leader of band that played on while Titanic went down, at first played showtunes, at the captain's behest, to mollify the nervous passengers. But then, when the unthinkable turned inevitable, he turned to hymns. The final song, with which Hartley prepared himself and the others left on board to enter the deep was, "Nearer My God, To Thee."
I was thinking about the Titanic nine years ago, when Ploughshares Community Farm was not yet a place, and barely a notion. Drawn to do something rural and agrarian, and ready leave behind more urban, more activist pursuits, I journalled, “I am giving up on shouting over the orchestra or winning the ear of the captain. But maybe some of us could see about improving the seaworthiness of those lifeboats.”


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