Sunday, April 15, 2012
Titanic: Precursor to the 20th Century
April 15, 1912: if you have been paying attention to the media at all, you recognize that as the date that Titanic, the majestic ocean liner, sank.
Most of you probably know more about the Titanic than I do. For some reason I have not been greatly interested in it, in the past or even now at the time of the centennial of its tragic sinking. I may be one of the few people in the U.S. who has not seen “Titanic,” the popular 1997 movie that is currently being shown in 3-D in theaters across the country.
Further, I am not likely to plunk down the $19.12 necessary to see the Titanic display now (and until September 3) at Union Station in Kansas City. (Actually, there is a 300 year, I mean a $3.00, discount for seniors, but still . . . .) I don’t know why I need to see any more than is readily available for viewing on the Internet.
This blog posting is about the Titanic because of how its sinking seems to have been a precursor to the 20th century. Yes, I know, the century technically began twelve years before the untimely demise of the luxury liner. But some historians and others have claimed that the 20th century really began in 1914.
According to that viewpoint, there was no significant change in the ethos of the 19th century until 1914. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm (b. 1917), for example, writes about the “short twentieth century” in his book The Age of Extremes (1994). So he claims that the 20th century really began in 1914 and ended in 1991.
It was the onset of World War I, of course, that marked the beginning of the 20th century according to Hobsbawm, and others. And the fall of the Soviet Union marked the end to that “short” century.
So, if we accept the idea of the 20th century beginning in 1914, which I think is a plausible idea, then it is certainly possible to interpret the sinking of the Titanic as a precursor to that century.
One characteristic of the 19th century, which carried over into the early 1900s, was a sense of overweening optimism and inevitable progress. Such ideas are seen in many places, including in the liberal theology of the 19th century. That sense of optimism and progress, chief characteristics of the Age of Rationalism, was embodied in the Titanic.
It has been widely reported, perhaps inaccurately, that one crew member of that ill-fated ship exclaimed, “God himself couldn't sink this ship!” Whether those words were expressed or not, it seems clear that many people saw the largest, most luxurious, and most “unsinkable” ship ever built to be a symbol of human greatness.
But the tragic sinking of the Titanic was the beginning of the end of the age of optimism and faith in the certain ability of humanity to create a better, brighter future.
If all of the current hoopla about the Titanic can help people see afresh the problem of human hubris, it will have served a useful purpose.