Random Thoughts: “The Great Shipwreck as Analogy”

A while ago, I had some thoughts about the vulnerability of our technological society.

Today, in a completely unrelated move, I decided to listen to Robin and R. J. Gibbs’s Titanic Requiem just for its melodic beauty. It’s that good.

I had forgotten how powerfully emotional it is, and when the ship “sank” at the end of “Kyrie,” well, it was very sobering. For some reason, G. K. Chesterton’s “The Great Shipwreck as Analogy” came to mind.

I re-read that just now and find a bit more clarity in thoughts about our vulnerability as a modern society. There is some hope for us, come what may.


This part of Chesterton’s essay caught my attention for its applicability now, a century later:

Our whole civilization is indeed very like the TITANIC; alike in its power and its impotence, it security and its insecurity. Technically considered, the sufficiency of the precautions are a matter for technical inquiry. But psychologically considered, there can be no doubt that such vast elaboration and system induce a frame of mind which is inefficient rather than efficient. Quite apart from the question of whether anyone was to blame, the big outstanding fact remains: that there was no sort of sane proportion between the provision for luxury and levity, and the extent of the provision for need and desperation. The scheme did far too much for prosperity and far too little for distress–just like the modern State. . . By the time you have made your ship as big as a commonwealth it does become very like a ship–rather like a sinking ship. For there is a real connection between such catastrophes and a certain frame of mind which refuses to expect them.

Remember just how surprised you were when the subprime mortgage crisis hit? Folks were surprised in 1929, too. Since Titanic Requiem could neither have been written nor appreciated in a pre-9/11, pre-11/M, pre-7/7 world, I will add, this refusal to expect catastrophes is not just an economic thing.

The world is just full of surprises.

His May 11, 1912 essay in The Illustrated London News, four days short of the 1-month anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, had some political overtones, and as an Edwardian, G. K. Chesterton perhaps believed that society could plan for and manage catastrophes. Today we are much more worldly about the impossibility of the task, but still we try to prepare for disaster.

Nonetheless, we are always caught by surprise when it happens.

The human spirit

It’s worth noting something else Chesterton said in his essay about the 1,514 people who perished in the North Atlantic the night the Titanic went down:

. . . [N]ow that they are dead they are much more real than we. They have known what papers and politicians never know – of what man is really made, and what manner of thing is our nature at its best and worst. . . . There was probably more instinctive fraternity and sense of identical interests, I will say, not on an old skipper’s vessel, but on an old pirate’s, than there was between the emigrants, the aristocrats, the journalists, or the millionaires who set out to die together on the great ship. That they found in so cruel a way their brotherhood and the need of man for the respect of his neighbour, this is a dreadful fact, but certainly the reverse of a degrading one. . . . at the last all these big things broke . . . . and somewhat bigger things remained: a courage that was entirely individual; a kindness that was entirely universal.

Many of us discovered these “bigger things” after the blows our societies took on 9/11, 11-M and 7/7. We will do the same thing again whenever something badly surprises us. This is true regardless of how much machinery, how much infrastructure, how much glittery toys we may have surrounded ourselves with in the meantime.

It’s something ingrained deep within us, individually and collectively – indeed, it’s buried so deeply in us that it takes a catastrophe sometimes to uncover our courage, kindness and sense of common humanity, but it is there. We cannot rid ourselves of it, however much cynicism, despair and hatred we bring to the task.

I find that much more comforting than any idea that we can prepare for and manage catastrophes. We can’t.

Our civilization has come and someday it will go – four years before his shipwreck analogy, Chesterton wrote, “Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”

It’s a good question, one that each of us will answer in our own way.

Today, though, I’ve realized that whatever comes our way, the human spirit guarantees our societies will survive through the ages. We’re that good.

Repose for the soul

All requiems are about repose for the souls of the dead, but Titanic Requiem brings rest for the living as well. I’ve wondered why Robin Gibbs included “Don’t Cry Alone,” since it basically repeats the idea in “Daybreak.” Today, I realized it fits, and perhaps that’s because we know now that he was dying and this was, possibly, a personal farewell; “Daybreak” is for the rest of us.

That’s all part of love and kindness, things that become especially alive to us, oddly enough, when thinking of those who have passed on.

That is how we handle surprises. It’s a spirit that has stood us in good stead for millions of years. We build big – that’s part of the human spirit, too – but all that will eventually pass.

I hope the Internet will stick around long enough for me to enjoy it for many years to come, of course. However, it’s not our toys or our constructs – the good in our hearts is what has brought us this far and is also what guarantees there will be a future for our children and all those who come afterwards.

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