In the common parlance, a myth is a falsehood – or at very least an enduring popular misconception. But intellectually, a myth is much more complex and revelatory than that. A myth is more accurately a story (or an amalgam of stories) that may (or may not) be historically true but which contains a series of cultural truths embedded in narrative form. In this way it may (like a fable or a parable) not be “true” in the literal sense, but we can still say “there is a lot of truth in that story.” More than that, the content of the story tends both to flatter the teller and – crucially – to serve to make sense of a seemingly random universe. This is precisely the case with the Titanic.
Myths are not limited to distant, past, exotic or “primitive” peoples, and the Titanic is just such an evolving, modern myth that we continue to tell. It is also a migratory narrative that is re-articulated in an expanding variety of media forms from print to postcards, books, music, television, merchandising and computer games.
Individual examples are individually revealing, but structural anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss remind us that in order to get a thorough analysis of a myth we need to understand it as a composite of all its component versions. So, in addition to the particular and ‘local’ variations we need to stand back and take stock of the overwhelming, universal themes. Consistent among all versions of the myth of the Titanic is the notion of the vessel as the “unsinkable” ship which sank on “her” maiden voyage. No version of the myth is complete without this fundamental ingredient, and it is an ingredient which will be more than familiar to students of classical mythology as a reworking of the Hellenic theme of Hubris.
In Greek mythology, Hubris is pride – usually that of man over-reaching himself in the face of the Gods. This is especially the case when man seeks to overcome nature which is the Gods’ rightful domain. So, we see the mortal Prometheus stealing the secret of fire from Zeus, and Icarus escaping the bonds of earth by flying with wings of wax. Inevitably and swiftly, Hubris results, for the Gods are vengeful. Prometheus has his liver pecked out by an eagle on a daily basis, while Icarus flies too near the sun: his wings melt and he falls to his death in the sea.
We can imagine, then, the mythic consequences of building a ship which “God himself” could not sink. Naming it “Titanic” was only adding to the Hubris, and so the “ill-fated” liner duly finds its Nemesis at the hands of on iceberg on its first and only voyage. The reported size and luxury of the ship only adds to the moral power and significance of the tale.
But here is the vital point that is missed in pretty well every re-telling of the myth of the Titanic: nobody really called the Titanic “unsinkable” until after the ship had sunk. The Titanic’s alleged unsinkability was essentially a post-hoc, popular cultural invention to provide a moral – a meaning – to a terrible but ultimately random event. In this way, the historical Titanic became mythical within days of its sinking. The facts, even to this day, play second fiddle to the culturally preferred version.
One hundred years on, therefore, our continued fascination with the Titanic reminds us that myth – unlike the actual Titanic – is alive and well today.
Adapted from Richard Howells, The Unsinkable Myth @ 2012 by The Public Domain Review.
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