Off the coast of Newfoundland this week, in the eternally cold and opaque waters of the Atlantic, a team of French and American scientists located the remains of the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic.
The Titanic, the glittering flagship of the White Star Line, was speeding across the North Atlantic when it rammed an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, in the starlit early morning hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 died in the worst of man's oceangoing disasters. About 700 were saved.
Now, seven decades later, they have found her, 2 1/2 miles down and not far from where she sent out her last sputtering SOS--the first time the new distress signal had ever been used.
Theirs is a scientific mission, a U.S.-French expedition impressively accoutered with such equipment as a robot submarine with video cameras, and broad-swath sonar to scan a hundred square miles of sea-floor terrain. It has computer-enhanced optical imaging systems, first developed with U.S. Navy funding, to see more clearly just what is down there, and eventually, some people think, to salvage some of it if possible. So precise are these devices that scientists have seen within the Titanic unbroken cases of wine and stacks of unbroken dinner plates.
But now I wish they would let her rest in peace.
I cannot fault the scientific curiosity in looking for her; I know it is science, not money, that spurs them on. No such ship, sunk to such a depth, has ever been accessible for study.
Happily, Robert Ballard, who heads the expedition, has proposed making the site a sea memorial. But Jack Grimm, the Abilene oil millionaire who bankrolled three previous hunts, has pledged to retrieve some artifacts. "We just want to dive . . . and get some of the valuables," he declared. "What," he wondered aloud, "is the ship's bell from the Titanic worth?"
What is down there is far more than an 882-foot ship, sunk in waters so deep and dense that even oxygen has not penetrated to rust its hull.
The chief value of the Titanic is to the mind and soul of man, not to his bank coffers or even his science books.
In the decades since she vanished--decades that have pushed us light-years away from the smug certainties of the world as it existed before World War I and toward the precipice of nuclear self-immolation--the Titanic has transcended history to become folklore.
She has done more than just spawned Titanic historical societies, and books, films and plays about its tragic demise and fictional salvage. She has become a mystical symbol that has taught us something about ourselves.
Unprepared for Cataclysm
A little more than two years after the Titanic sank, World War I ravaged a world whose innocent arrogance had left it unprepared for the cataclysm. But the smugness of that era had already ended, on that chill Monday dawn in the North Atlantic, when the Titanic, the genius pride of a prideful age, struck an iceberg and went down by the bow.
Millionaires on the promenade and paupers in steerage all perished; the death of the Titanic, and the hundreds aboard her, shattered the world's premises: that wealth was unassailable, that science was invincible, and that mankind had mastered both. Even her name, which bespoke her size and strength, was mocked by the ease with which the ocean destroyed her.
The Titanic, by existing so briefly and gloriously, then vanishing utterly, has in its own secular way come to rank with the Holy Grail, Noah's Ark or the Fountain of Youth.
The steamship has become the part of our mythology, a seagoing Tower of Babel, an earthbound version of Icarus who dared to fly like the gods on waxen wings. Like them, the Titanic was destroyed by its own pride.
These things--the Titanic, the Tower of Babel--while they stay lost, they feed our souls and teach our spirits. They are parables about man's reach and man's grasp.
Down there, the Titanic is a mythic emblem, almost proverb. Up here, it is mere tons of crumpled metal, a pricey historical sideshow exhibit, the sort of souvenir pieces that chic catalogues sell as costly Christmas trinkets, with certificates of authenticity, the way jewelers once sold bits of the wondrous transatlantic cable.
Don't get me wrong--I believe in archeology. But I believe in legend too.
When I visited the Louvre a few years ago, I rather reluctantly made the inevitable pilgrimage to "La Gioconde," the painting Americans call the "Mona Lisa."
It is the single instantly recognizable painting in all the world, a heroic artistic standard. Yet I already knew its measurements--only 30 by 21 inches--and steeled myself to see it on the wall in the Louvre, dwarfed by the vast, vivid canvases around it. Sure enough, it drew shrill comments of disappointment from American tour groups who huddled around it, crying how "dark and TI-nee!" it was.