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End of the Titanic era

Roger Cohen (Globalist) / 28 March 2012

I was on a packed rush-hour Tube the other day when my eye was caught by a headline in one of the free tabloids that help pass the time in the Underground: “Menu from Titanic’s last lunch to fetch 100,000 pounds at auction.”

That’s a lot for a menu, but then there is no limit to the fascination with the Titanic. Indeed, I found myself leaning over to read what the first-class passengers on that maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City ate on April 14, 1912, a century ago next month.

There was cockie leekie (a soup of fowl and leeks); egg a l’Argenteuil (scrambled eggs with asparagus tips); veal and ham pie; Norwegian anchovies; corned ox tongue; grilled mutton chops with mashed, fried or baked jacket potatoes; and custard pudding. Recommended libation: iced draught Munich lager.

Somehow all this was captivating, glimpsed on the London Underground one hundred years later. I could see Ruth Dodge of San Francisco, wife of Washington Dodge, a successful banker, mother of Washington Jr., slipping the menu into her purse, a small memento, as she then thought, of a happy interlude. I say “happy interlude,” but of course I cannot be sure of that, even before disaster struck the great liner and turned those mutton chops into something more.

Whether or not this was in fact your last lunch depended heavily on your sex. Only 33 per cent of the men in first class survived, whereas 97 per cent of the women in the same class did. “Women and children first” meant something. The overall survival rate for men was 20 per cent against 74 per cent for women. The lower your class of travel, the lower your chances were.

But, of course, these numbers are the product of hindsight. The Dodges had no idea what was about to happen to them; none of the more than 2,200 people aboard did. Life, as Kierkegaard noted, is lived forward but understood backward – if you are still around to comprehend it.

Looking back at the Titanic’s doomed load – the high fliers with successful lives, and the humble headed for the New World in search of one – is like looking back at old black-and-white photographs. We are struck above all by how ephemeral the expressions, so full of vitality in the moment, are; and indeed by the brevity of the lives themselves. It was Roland Barthes who observed that, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

In the case of the Titanic, catastrophe came with an inconceivable swiftness. What, I wondered on that crowded Tube, is it that explains our fascination? In part it is this rapid transition from purring routine to panicked disarray, the same on the Titanic a century ago as in the Twin Towers a decade ago, with similar countdowns from impact to implosion leaving an hour or two for agonised reflection, and the way this reminds us of the maelstrom always lurking behind order. The Titanic was unsinkable. Its fate, therefore, proves that nothing is. Perhaps the menu suggests another factor in our fascination. The Titanic sank at the end of an era and on the eve of Europe’s catastrophe.

Today, the very language – cockie leekie or grilled mutton (not lamb) chops – evokes the twilight of the Edwardian era, before the eruption of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and before the clash of classes and ideologies that the various decks on the Titanic contrived to keep at bay. That clash would become the tragic heart of the 20th century. At dinner in first class that evening the seventh course was roast squab and cress: enough said.

Today, early in another century again marked by war, we do not know how far the era-changing event of 2001 will cast its shadow. But again, as in the muddle on the Titanic, we have people second-guessing the second guesses of people who themselves do not know, and the potential for disaster in at least one region of the world is real.

Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist, remarked that memory is the only help left to the dead. “They pass away into it,” he wrote, “and if every deceased person is like someone who was murdered by the living, so he is also like someone whose life they must save, without knowing whether the effort will succeed.”

Roger Cohen writes The Globalist column for IHT
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