The Cold Truth

Titanic's small tales.


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He turned the steering wheel the wrong direction. That is the latest revelation about what happened to the greatest ocean liner of all time, Titanic. This fact, claims Louise Patten, granddaughter of Titanic’s Second Officer Charles Lightoller, was kept a secret until now.


According to Louise Patten, there was some confusion in those days about what “hard a-starboard” actually meant. The new steam ships had mechanized steering systems that meant you had to turn the wheel the opposite way for starboard as you did on the old sail ships. With the iceberg looming out in the dark night, the helmsman turned the wheel the wrong way. Later, after Titanic did, in fact, strike the iceberg, the people in charge (Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line that owned Titanic, leading the way), decided to push forward at full speed anyway, hastening the demise of the ship.

Charles Lightoller survived that night with the iceberg and was the only man left alive who’d heard those conversations. Fearful about his own career and the fate of the entire White Star Line, Lightoller kept his mouth shut, telling the secret only to his wife. She, in turn, passed it down to her granddaughter Louise Patten, who reveals it now.

That’s Titanic for you. If there is another vessel so productive of compelling storylines in all of human history, I am unaware of it. Perhaps we could give the Ark that Noah built a nod. But things went relatively smoothly on the Ark as compared to Titanic. Anyhow, the Ark generated one big story. Titanic churns out many stories, as many now as it ever did, almost 100 years after she went under.

Just two years ago we learned that Bob Ballard, who discovered the wreck of Titanic in 1985, was actually on a secret mission to find two U.S. nuclear submarines that sank in the Northern Atlantic in the 1960s. Looking for Titanic was simply a cover story to mislead the Soviets. After Ballard found the subs, the Navy gave him a few days to look for Titanic and, improbably, he found her.

It would seem that Titanic was more of a giant floating (and sinking) narrative-machine than a boat. Even today, the basic plotline is difficult to believe. Largest ship ever built, filled to the gills with notable names of the time, sinks on its maiden voyage. It takes a few hours for the boat to go under and about a third of the passengers are saved on the insufficient lifeboats, thereby guaranteeing that so much will have happened in the final hours, and so many will have witnessed it, that the world will talk about it for generations. We have.

The most compelling aspect of Titanic, to me, is the degree to which it multiplies stories without lessons. It is, of course, tempting to draw out a lesson about hubris from Titanic, and many have made the mistake of trying to do so. Here is man, challenging nature and the gods with a vessel that would tame the seas, and with beautiful carved mahogany interiors to boot. This behemoth proclaimed itself invincible, unsinkable, and then promptly went under at the hands of a silent and dumb chunk of ice. If frozen water could laugh, there’d have been some icy chuckling in the North Atlantic that night.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth tried an early sermon along these lines. This was a young and inexperienced Barth, to be sure. But his tale of hubris and human neglect of spiritual matters is a forced and clunky attempt. Barth said of it later, “… in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shook the whole world, I felt that I had to make this disaster my main theme the following Sunday, which led to a monstrous sermon on the same scale.” Titanic doesn’t like such overreaching. She doesn’t like to be a symbol for anything. The attempts to do so seem to pale in comparison to the actual facts. The grand reflections on morality that people have tried to hang on Titanic sink even more quickly than she did.

Joseph Conrad, a man otherwise reasonably subtle in his discussions of the darkness at the heart of men, tried to pen a few big thoughts about Titanic directly after the sinking. “But all this has its moral,” Conrad wrote. “Yes, material may fail, and men, too, may fail sometimes; but more often men, when they are given the chance, will prove themselves truer than steel, that wonderful thin steel from-which the sides and the bulkheads of our modern sea-leviathans are made.” Is that the moral of Titanic? I don’t think Conrad even believed what he was writing, if he understood it. There are so many qualifications and backslidings in his final sentence it is a wonder it doesn’t erase itself from the page.

Titanic is not only a grave for the men and a few women (the women-and-children-first rule was rather admirably followed in the boarding of the lifeboats) who went down with her; she is a grave for big ideas. Indeed, with the passing of each decade, the scale of Titanic’s alleged hubris is progressively diminished. The outrageous greed and inhumanity that was supposed to have doomed her looks more and more like a series of petty and understandable mistakes. The fact that she went down seems more and more like something that just happened, rather than something that had to happen or that happened as a warning and cautionary tale. It happened. Improbably, incredibly, Titanic sank beneath the waves.

The Austrian philosopher and member of the Vienna Circle, Otto Neurath, once came up with a metaphor for human knowledge that is, perhaps, his single greatest contribution to intellectual history. It is a ship metaphor. Thinking about how knowledge works, Neurath proposed, “We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismount it in dry-dock and reconstruct it from the best components.”

It is a great metaphor, partly because it is so easy to envision. There is human kind, adrift on the open sea, busily patching away at the rickety ship even as the next storm approaches. It is heroic and pathetic at the same time. But there is never opportunity for anyone on the boat to get a bird’s eye view. They are always working with the old scraps of wood, an outdated steering system, flotsam and jetsam from all the past sailings.

That’s how Titanic likes it, too. She doesn’t want to be the vehicle for someone else’s big story. She resists it every time someone tries to hold her at distance and tell us what it all means. Every time someone tries to get at her with the bird’s-eye view she counters with another improbable tale, something that happened on her gangplanks or in her cabins that contradicts the supposed lesson.

I’m always intrigued by the Captain, the inscrutable Edward Smith, for precisely these reasons. No one has really been sure, since the sinking, whether to class him among the heroes or the villains. Did he blithely ignore warnings about icebergs in the area due to his own haughty arrogance? Was he pushing Titanic to make a crossing in record time in a craven attempt to please his bosses? Was he, even, a little bit dense, an old fashioned man out of his element? There is something Washingtonian in Captain Smith’s stoicism, his tremendous beard, his erect bearing, the way he seems to have moved with calm deliberation to his demise. He went down with the ship and we will always appreciate him for that. It was to be his last voyage as a captain, the crowning achievement in an illustrious sailing career. He planned to retire immediately upon arrival in New York, to go home. Little did he know that his home was to be two-and-a-half miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic.

Surely he made mistakes. If he hadn’t, Titanic would have arrived safely in New York City. It is hard, though, to muster much condemnation. What an unbelievable two-and-a-half hours of sinking those must have been for the old man on his final voyage. He must have moved around as if in a dream, tending to the details as the great ship fell apart beneath his feet.

Yes, I’m quite pleased that a simple mistake in steering may have played a role in the demise of Titanic. I’m pleased because Titanic herself will be pleased. There is no hubris in a steering mistake, no moral tale to be cooked up out of it. But what a story. A mistake and then a secret whispered in the midnight hour to a wife. A tremendous secret handed down, then, to the granddaughter along with a solemn plea: Don’t tell it until we are all dead, my dear. And she didn’t. The secret was kept for almost 100 years.

Yes, it is a very good story. • 5 October 2010