Flirting with disaster – why is the Titanic myth so universally appealing?

The phenomenal movie by James Cameron and the exhibition of Titanic relics in Hamburg (which was also very well-received) gave rheingold occasion to conduct a psychological pilot study on the theme at the beginning of the year. The aim: to get at the core of the timeless appeal of the Titanic myth.

The demise of the huge ship makes us aware that everything we do or plan – little things in life as well as major technological or cultural endeavors – can fail. What is special about the Titanic, however, is that the disaster was not only “historical,” but above all “steeped in history.” Hence the more than two-hour sinking process of the super ocean liner, the touching ‘pre-history’, what went on on the ship during its short trip, the behavior of passengers and crew, and the dramatic circumstances of the rescuing of survivors constantly shed new light on the catastrophe. The Titanic has become a sort of psychological treasure ship which repeatedly sparks our imagination and gives us food for thought.

In the Titanic story “hot moments” of fate, ambition, and zeal are juxtaposed with “cold moments” of failure, breakdown, and miscalculated planning. Thus the Titanic and its fate have something for everyone. People can emphasize with the suffering of the victims; “amateur engineers” and “amateur captains” can analyze the circumstances of the accident; “moralists” can rail at the hubris of the shipbuilders or even of the whole world; or, conversely, one can look back enviously at an epoch symbolized by the Titanic in which such moving, monumental efforts were not yet possible. As a result, the Titanic is part of our collective experiences and emotional life. And the wreck will continue to furnish us with finds and stories for a long time to come.

© 2015 rheingold