The Titanic sank 100 years and some hours ago. Over 1500 people died. Sentences do not seem the right vessel to contain this tragedy, but I don’t know what would be. Not James Cameron’s film (re-released in 3D this week), nor the “Titanic” miniseries on ABC. Maybe Walter Lord’s book A Night to Remember, which I read in tenth grade English and, sadly, don’t remember. Why are we required to read such heart-rending books — A Night to Remember, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Ethan Frome, All Quiet on the Western Front — in mid-adolescence when we are at our most heartless? But I digress …
I drifted into watching “Titanic” on Saturday night. I knew the basic story — certainly how it ended — but I’m a sucker for narrative and I had to see how the individual characters fared. But when one of the Italian brothers was locked in a windowless room, and the water started pouring in under the door, and the other brother was helpless on the other side, and the water was rising over his hips, and the key that could have given both of them a chance was in someone else’s pocket too far away … They were doomed, as were over 1500 other people — men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds, doomed to die by drowning or freezing or some other physical calamity. And I thought, why am I watching this?
A recent Washington Post article explores why we are so fascinated with the sinking of the Titanic — because of the hubris involved, the heroism, and the way its myth has evolved from the tragedy of avoidable bad choices. Even its time span — the two hours and 40 minutes between the impact with the iceberg and the sinking of the ship — has been compared to the length of a play.
The dramatizations of the sinking of the Titanic — books, films, TV shows — also make you wonder what you would have done if you had been aboard, what class you would have traveled in, how you would have scratched your way onto a lifeboat or chosen to remain behind with your husband or father or son — in essence, if you would have lived or died. Chances are, you would have died — and not as courageously as those portrayed by actors.
But for the 1500 people who did die, their stories indeed go on — through imagination and myth — because our fascination can never let them go.
The Titanic’s bow — 12,000 feet below the surface
But there was another doomed ship that caught my attention over a week ago, before I knew that the anniversary of the Titanic was nearly upon us.
This was the Ryou-Un Maru, a ghost ship. It was swept away by the tsunami that struck Japan last year and had wandered across the Pacific ocean almost to the coast of Alaska where it was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard.
I hesitate to include my own fascination with this ship in the same post as the Titanic. It is ludicrous to compare the sense of loss I felt when I read about this ship to the actual losses of the Titanic (and, in fact, I don’t compare them). But the deliberate sinking of the Ryou-Un Maru made me unaccountably sad. Here was a ship that had survived the tsunami and an unmanned trans-Pacific voyage but was allowed no safe harbor and had to be destroyed.
And maybe that’s why its loss touches me. The Ryou-Un Maru was just an abandoned fishing vessel. It will never be famous, never mythic. No one will write a book or make a film about it. It will not be remembered, except by its former owner, maybe the Coast Guard crew that sank it, and me — here.
A ghost ship indeed.