Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Depths of Loss


When the reputedly "unsinkable" R.M.S. Titanic sank after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic one hundred years ago tonight, the irony was not lost on Thomas Hardy.


The Convergence of the Twain

(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

I
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.


II
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.


III
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.


IV
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.


V
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" ...


VI
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


VII
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.


VIII
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


IX
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,


X
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,


XI
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.


One of the first great shocks of the machine age, which had led some deluded observers to conclude that nature was finally beaten and that man was now the master of his destiny, the Titanic disaster was a tragedy of such unimaginable scale (1,514 people went down with her) that, even today, having found the wreck and explored it, it still arouses a sense of awe. Not even the latest and most uninspired film reenactments, James Cameron's Titanic, with all its expensive "effects" and the interpolation of a ludicrously implausible love story, could come close to the enormity of the actual event.

In his book, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton Paterson examined the

"The loss of the Titanic . . . and the search for her have taken on something of a mythic status, combining semi-archaeology with the qualities of a quest. Since this is a secular age, sacred relics will no longer do as quest objects (the recent demotion of the Shroud of Turin from holy trophy to medieval forgery ought to have dealt the final blow to the sacred object industry). Things swallowed by the sea will do excellently in their place, however, especially if there are TV rights to their finding. Dr. Robert Ballard's search for the Titanic was on his own admission obsessive, and such things arouse wide interest. 'My lifelong dream was to find this great ship, and during the past thirteen years the quest for her had dominated my life.'(1) It had also cost huge sums of money. Yet the ideal thing about this quest was that it could be rationalized by turning it into a research project. In the 1970s the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution decided to increase the depth range of its deep sea submersible, Alvin, from 6,000 to 13,000 feet. Since 13,000 feet was roughly the depth at which Titanic was supposed to lie, searching for it would be the perfect way to test the improved submersible and a new generation of robotic vehicles which could be deployed from Alvin on cables and guided by remote control. These in turn would be prototypes of the entirely free diving robotic sleds which are intended eventually to replace manned submersibles altogether. The enterprise was further legitimized by first being put to military use. The Woods Hole research vessel Knorr, needing to try out the Argo/Jason equipment Ballard had helped develop, made a practice run over the wreck of the US nuclear submarine Scorpion, which was lost with all hands in 1968. The wreck was comprehensively filmed though the pictures are still classified and have not been released. Thus exonerated, Ballard could turn his attention to the Titanic and later that same year, 1985, did indeed find her.

"It is a happy man who can spend other people's money and indulge his own ingenuity to fulfill a lifetime's ambition. The triumph of Heinrich Schliemann when he discovered Troy stood for Freud as the perfect image of happiness, but it also begged questions about what exactly was being satisfied. The problem of Troy was that it had disappeared to the extent that people wondered if it were mythical, or maybe a composite like Homer himself. To have proved it existed and to have stood in its ruins must have been even more exciting than finding Tutankhamen's tomb was for Howard Carter. Troy had been legendary for 3,000 years whereas the young king was a footnote in dynastic history. Carter had only dangled his name in front of his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, to induce him to let him have a last dig in the Valley of the Kings,which by then had been turned upside down in the search for dead pharaohs.

"Dr. Ballard's quest was like neither of these, precisely, in that it was not an act of archaeology. Everybody knew the Titanic's fate, it was no legend. Nor was there any mystery about how she had sunk, as in the case of Affray and Scorpion. Bland reasonableness ('It's down there somewhere and I'm going to find it') is always unsatisfactory as an explanation for a life's dream and thirteen years of searching. When in such cases the search is described as being more important than finding the object, one is entitled to ask what is really being looked for. Such avidness is normally reserved for things of great personal significance that one has lost oneself, and soon gives way to resignation. What private thing, in short, sis the Titanic stand for? The question must be left unanswered, but it should be asked. What can be said of such ventures is that they seldom stop there.

"Dr. Ballard did indeed go on to find the Bismarck and, no doubt, much else besides. In the long sequence of searchings and findings such men undertake, success is a temporary setback, a resting place on a much larger and grander journey to find the one thing that will satisfy a loss which can never be specified. The sea is the perfect place for it, since whatever it hides beneath its dark leagues of surrogate tears it makes timeless. One might announce one was looking for a lost submarines but a thick, wounded shadow dimly glimpsed at the edge of a monitor screen would seem a thing immeasurably ancient in its melancholy, weeping 'rusticles' from its iron plates, and the thrill of discovery would always carry with it the minor guilt of intrusion. It would also be imbued with the knowledge that what one finds never fits the cavity which the search hollows out. 'In a way,' said Dr. Ballard of the Titanic, 'I am sad we found her.' Such hulks will always feel privately significant to their finder. At first they may appear to be playing a game with him, being deliberately, almost flirtatiously elusive. Later they become in their stately woe repositories for his own unassuageable loss. So it was that Dr. Ballard identified with the object of his quest to the extent of expressing anger at the teredo worms which had devoured her woodwork. 'After years of gluttony the creatures starved and dropped dead at the table. I have no sympathy for them . . .'

"In the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that so much emphasis should be laid on not touching. This perpetually lost object cannot be touched because at that instant it will turn into something else: an ordinary ship, an ordinary battleship, which sank, which has a salvage value, which will attract looters. Not to touch leaves it exclusive, an object of vision, in some sense still not wholly found, while heightened as the public myth. The underwater camera records the details, the mystery remains intact. How could one not sympathize with a man who dreads to think his adroitly publicized private quest might merely stimulate greed rather than a proper solemn wonder? It would be as if Sir Percival were to learn that his companions on the Quest only wanted to find the Holy Grail so they cold melt it down."


Melville once wrote that, if you seek immortality, you should chisel your name onto the face of a rock and drop it into the deepest ocean. In Moby Dick, in Nantucket, before the great voyage is underway, Father Mapple preaches about Jonah and the "whale".(2)

"Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters - four yarns - is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah's deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish's belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!"

Father Mapple vividly re-tells the story of the Book of Jonah and arrives at his glorious moral.

"Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and 'vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;' when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten - his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean - Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!"

But then he recites to the congregation a second lesson of the story.

"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him--a far, far upward, and inward delight--who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, - top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath - O Father! - chiefly known to me by Thy rod - mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"


(1) Robert D. Ballard, "A Long Last Look at Titanic," National Geographic, December 1986.
(2) The Book of Jonah tells of a "great fish", and not a whale.

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