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The Titanic versus the World Trade Center

Someone on Twitter observed that since Lego has a model for the RMS Titanic perhaps, in a another hundred years, since the Titanic sank somewhat over a hundred years ago, there will be a Lego World Trade Center model to construct. Perhaps there already is such a model, but the poster understood that the spirit behind the Lego Titanic is more about the fact that the ship was in a tragic accident, whereas any WTC models are offered in the spirit of “before the catastrophe”. My view is that it is very unlikely that a WTC model will ever be offered in catastrophic spirit, except by specialised companies that cater to the grotesque novelty market—perhaps that market includes myself, for my birthday falls on Hiroshima Day, and, one year, I commemorated the event with a little mushroom cloud cake; for many, as I discovered, this was still “too soon”.

The Titanic is just seen differently, from a narrative perspective, to events such as Hiroshima or 9/11—and so, while being a terrible disaster, it is endlessly fictionalised and talked about in a frivolous way. This relates to the basic fact that it was an accident and not murder; 9/11 was murder—and it is only people with a political agenda who elide the difference between an accident and murder. This difference aside, there are other solid narrative and metaphorical reasons why these two catastrophes—on a roughly similar scale and concerned with the same city, NYC was the Titanic’s destination—are seen very differently.

From a narrative perspective, it helps to have a contained stage or set—as, for example, in Murder on the Orient Express, another classic from the Golden Age of steam. For the Titanic, the action was neatly contained on a single ship and, further, the ship, as all ships do, had a course—just like a real story it moved from point A to point B, with certain events in the middle—and so it was a ready-made metaphor; plays, films, and novels are about voyages, of one sort or another, that change people: the Titanic fits the mould. 9/11, by contrast, unfolded in a city; the twin towers were just “there”, a tower is not on a voyage—you can stretch the tale of its construction and eventual destruction into a storyline, but this is very slow storytelling indeed. Further, the WTC had no coherence as regards the people in it; the Titanic contained all social classes and occupations—literally spatially arranged on different decks—and they were all engaged in a common purpose, to cross the Atlantic and arrive in the New World.

What about the WTC? There were many different offices and many different occupations in those towers—not all worked towards the same end. All occupations, classes, religions, and races were represented there, but not in a strict class-like arrangement; everything was more provisional and loose. The WTC lacked the coherence found in the Titanic, and so it becomes harder to grasp in our minds—and harder to empathise with, actually. What was a typical day like in the WTC? That would depend on your job—there were many jobs in the towers. What was a typical day like on the Titanic? This is easier to imagine, everyone—whatever their social status—does similar things on a sea voyage.

So with the Titanic with have an immediate narrative, a literal movement from point A to B, combined with a social arrangement that is comprehensible to us. We even know who was in charge, Captain Smith, whereas nobody was “in charge” of the WTC, at least not in the sense that a captain commands a ship. Even though the WTC is closer to us in time—within living memory—it is relatively opaque to us socially. The 9/11 attacks were also uncanny, a break into normality; an irruption so dramatic that the attacks seemed unreal. I think this is why some people, even today, refuse to accept the official narrative as regards 9/11; the attacks were so uncanny that many minds revolted at what had happened—this cannot be real. Indeed, it is quite telling that Slavoj Žižek entitled his short post-9/11 pamphlet on the political significance found in the attacks Welcome to the Desert of the Real—a quote from the contemporary film The Matrix. It was around this time that people began to speak about “the simulation argument”; and the sensation seems to have only increased since 9/11—a virtual event, endlessly recorded, that nonetheless seems less real than the unrecorded Titanic.

The narrative for a skyscraper is for it to be gradually built, and then placidly inhabited for about forty years (slowly weathering on the outside, slowly beiging on the inside) until it is demolished—sometimes, though not always, with an explosive charge. Abrupt unauthorised demolition, let alone with passenger jets, does not fit into our narrative for skyscrapers; it is far too violent and sudden. However, the idea that ships hit objects and sink is very much what we expect from “ship narratives”; the shipwreck story is ancient—the first novel in the English language, Robinson Crusoe, was about a man who survived a shipwreck. Thus the Titanic feels narratively right in a way 9/11 does not; indeed, 9/11, from a narrative perspective, was more akin to a film that has had its last frames pasted into the story’s middle; if you imagine such a scenario in the cinema you would experience a nauseous and uncanny sensation similar to 9/11 (for younger readers this is how you must imagine what this event was like to live through). You would be outraged, since there is a sensation that you have been cheated in a very fundamental way.

This is why it has proved difficult to make good films or fiction around 9/11; the event remains inherently “wrong” from a narrative perspective. It is an event that literally “just happened out of the blue”—the blue sky; from a narrative perspective we prefer everything to be tidier. Things happen in real life that are impermissible in fiction; and 9/11 belongs in the category stranger than fiction; it was “radically real”. Incidentally, 9/11 was not like Pearl Harbor at all from a narrative perspective; flagged enemies have launched surprise attacks for centuries, and the principle that air power could be used in this way was well-established when Pearl Harbor happened; most people agreed it was more about when, not if, such an event would occur—aside from the fact Europe was already at war by that time.

There was another uncanny aspect to 9/11, the attacks turned mundane objects—commuter aircraft, ever dull—into very destructive weapons aimed at civilians; everything normal and mundane revolts against you and wants to kill you—only reality can be this unreal. The WTC attacks belong firmly in the horror genre; it is in horror films that the mundane becomes uncanny and fatal, as in the sudden realisation that your family has been replaced by perfect zombie imitations and that the raspberry crumble your mother always bakes when you come home has been spiked with the juju berry that will zombify you. Naturally, after you clumsily fumble with the latch on your bedroom window in sickly slow motion—“Open, please, open.”— and jump to freedom you will run wildly round the corner and collide with kindly Mr. Samuels, the village postman. “Thank God,” you say…as his mouth opens to reveal the vermillion mark of the zombie.

Yet the horror film always requires foreshadowing to work. The figure whose icy hand shoots out to grip yours at the denouement—the hand that drags you into the crypt (cut to black, roll credits)—should have been glimpsed earlier on, perhaps in the distance on the beach…you ran towards the figure and called, “Hey! Hey!”…and yet he was gone before you were ever near him. However, 9/11 lacked even this minimal foreshadowing; and so even as a horrific event it remains without the narrative satisfaction found in genuine horror, although it was horrific. Trump’s election, for a certain demographic, was also a horrific 9/11-style irruption—dark forces emerged, senselessly, from nowhere.

The basic contention found in postmodernism, narrative breakdown, started as playful and ironic combination and recombination of narratives in the 1980s (a comic where Sherlock Holmes appears in Murder on the Orient Express would be typical); after 2000, even this minimal cross-narrative coherence broke down and now we live in a world where sudden, apparently senseless, events happen—in consequence, people increasingly speak about “glitches in the Matrix” or “simulation errors”. Even people who speak for narrative coherence, such as Jordan Peterson, would probably concede that their own lives, post-2016, have taken unexpected and in some respects senseless turns that lead to disorientation.

By contrast to these synchronous and asynchronous developments, the Titanic is a romantic and tragic story that remains coherent and reflects the richness and velvet sensation found in decadent art and the then contemporary Symbolist movement. After all, Titanic (1997) is among the most popular romantic films ever made; and it relies, as already noted, on the Titanic’s ready-made narrative structure—its strict topographical division between social classes (upper classes literally on the upper decks), a situation that delivers the archetypal “star-crossed lovers” theme between upper-class Rose (Kate Winslet, the English rose) and working-class Irishman Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio, the loveable aspiring Amerimutt).

Further, the film is a genuine tragedy; the central protagonist finds what she desires—true love—because her character is naturally feisty and rebellious, but it is her very feistiness and rebelliousness that leads her to find a lover who is unsuitable and who must die. Yes, I know it is a film for girls about how it is essential that you sleep with as many “bad boys” as possible before you settle down with a nice complaisant dolt with a reliable salary, but, gynocentric tendencies notwithstanding, the plot has elements that represent genuine tragedy in the strict sense—i.e. a tragedy for the Greeks is when the protagonist is destroyed by what is fundamental to their nature; as with an excellent archer whose relentless hunt leads him to shoot his lover, whom the gods have turned into a deer.

Indeed, as with all great romances, the Titanic disaster happened in the absolute dark; horror, by contrast, generally occurs in the twilight or at dawn—or, as with 9/11, it happens in broad daylight in such a way as to seem that dream has entered waking life. The hubris displayed by Rose in the cinematic Titanic really reflects the Titanic herself as hubris: there is a sense in the disaster, not necessarily stated explicitly, that the shipwreck was deserved—a punishment from nature (by extension, God or the gods) for man’s overreach. In literal terms, this view comes about because the Titanic was presented as being particularly safe as well as being the largest vessel to date; the degree to which she was presented as “unsinkable” is somewhat exaggerated, but there was a general sense that she was a very secure ship—and her name suggested total domination. So the Titanic has become a shorthand for a hubristic faith in technology and how the mighty can be felled by the humble—water and ice. The metaphor goes even deeper; it is not just that the Titanic serves as a cautionary tale in a technological age, the ship herself stands for Europe—namely, Europe on the brink.

The link is fairly established: the Titanic sunk in 1912 on her way to America; she represented peak European technological achievement, Europeans were titans who bestrode the globe—almost every country in the world at the time was governed by or a satrapy to a European power. The Titanic was a microcosm of Europe, from the lower-deck proletarians to the top-deck aristos and industrialists; she was fitted with the latest technology and intended to make Atlantic crossings faster than ever before. The Titanic was established European society on the verge of world war, a world war that would completely destroy European society and paved the way for America to become the world power— America being the extension of Europe to which those on the Titanic were embarked towards. The Titanic was the last hurrah for Europe, socially and technologically, before America took over. The First World War was the iceberg—the world would never be the same again; and, notably, the upper classes in Cameron’s film adaptation are the evil enemy; and this is uncontroversial, since Cameron is a film director who grew up in a socialised world where “rich people” and “aristocrats” are, by default, evil enemies—whereas Irish vagabonds are loveable rogues, unfairly oppressed by the authorities.

Titanic’s romanticism is most prominent in the sub-metaphor within the disaster: the band that plays on. The band that stays at their post, playing as they slip beneath the cold black waters. This romanticism is only possible thanks to European aristocratic virtues: the idea that a man should do his duty—even if it means he should die. This attitude—completely romantic—defies contemporary democratic ideas as regards utilitarianism, individual rights, and hedonistic expedience. “Go down with the ship? I dunno, sounds kinda retarded.” Recall that in the 2012 Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster in Italy that the captain was found to have abandoned the ship long before the last passengers had been evacuated; democratic values had truly penetrated old Europe, for the cry was no longer the Titanic’s “women and children first” but rather “every man for himself”—a situation made even more shameful by the fact that the captain had been carousing with floozies and was himself, unlike the Titanic’s Captain Smith, undoubtedly responsible for the wreck. So the Titanic represented not just European society but also an entire ethos that was about to sink beneath the waters.

After all, those men who dressed as women to take places on the scarceTitanic lifeboats were surely involved, per contemporary academic jargon, in queering theTitanic; far from being cowards, these pioneers problematised heteronormative 19th-century gender roles—the uneducated view that men must be heroic and forward, whereas women “wait to be rescued”. Really, we should celebrate those men, hidden heroes, for their transgressive actions that night. Further, they survived whereas those men who adhered to repressive ideas—implicitly associated with militarism, I might add—as regards duty died in the cold seas.

What is romantic about the Titanic is precisely these very virtues: the heroic but futile gesture displayed when the orchestra played to the last moment, along with the understated and non-hysterical approach most men on board took to their certain deaths—some even dressing up for the occasion. This impossibly romantic outlook has vanished in a time when people wear t-shirts and jeans all the time and when the first priority when faced with death is to send emotional messages to family members by text or video (as happened with voice and text messages on 9/11). This adds extra irony to Cameron’s socialistic take on the Titanic; he portrays the aristocrats and millionaires as villains, and yet it is their ethos that makes the Titanic a romantic subject in the first place—not the “do whatever the feck you like” ethos displayed by the Irish immigrants below deck.

The Titanic, incidentally, does not horrify in the way 9/11 does; and this is because people retained agency on the Titanic right up to the end. I love aeroplanes more than ships, but I fear an air crash much more than a holed ship; although, in fact, especially in Arctic waters, your survival chances from a mid-air crash and a mid-Atlantic shipwreck are probably very similar from a statistical viewpoint—remember that in the Atlantic at the time of year when the Titanic sunk you froze to death in three minutes, long before you drowned. I feel utter panic when it comes to an air crash but feel fairly sanguine about a shipwreck. This is because in a shipwreck you have agency and options, although, as noted, in a really rough sea or even a cold millpond-like sea (the sea was utterly still the night the Titanic went down, another romantic touch) your survival chances are lower than you might think—yet there is still a notion that you might fashion a raft.

The idea that you might drown is terrible, but it does not have the same inevitability that comes with the sensation that you are in a metal tube thousands of feet in the air and it is going down; and there is absolutely nothing, nothing you can do about it—i.e. if an aircraft goes really wrong survival becomes miracle territory. Hence a shipwreck never terrifies in the same way; essentially we came from the sea and although alienated from it we have, at minimum, a relation to the medium—even if it is just the ability to doggy paddle. We have no relation to the air; if everything goes wrong in the air we are utterly bereft and hopeless—and this claustrophobic sensation is what makes people panic when it comes to air travel, whatever statistics are quoted as regards reliability.

Consequently, it is more difficult to romanticise 9/11 because it involved among the worst ways to die. This goes for both the people in the towers and the people in the aircraft, for both were in the air. The Titanic sunk and the towers fell in about the same timeframe, but with the towers there were immediate mass casualties—many burned or choked to death—and then for the people on the floors above where the aircraft hit death was as inevitable as if they had been passengers on the actual aircraft; there was no way out. This is genuinely horrifying; even the band on the Titanic, playing to the end, had options: there was a point when they could swim for it.

For the people trapped on the WTC upper floors there was no hope. An iconic image from 9/11 is “the falling man”; someone who took the plunge rather than wait for the inevitable. The image compels, but it is not romantic; the band on the Titanic remains romantic, but we look away quickly from the falling man. Hence the band has cropped up relation to AIDS, an early history about its progression among homosexuals being entitled And the Band Played On; it was appropriate for a slow-motion epidemic that involved individual agency, a slow sensuous decline—just like a ship that dips beneath the waves for the last time, a testament to lost indulgence. “Nobody will have sex as they did from 1966 to 1982 ever again,” and, “Nobody will experience the grandeur found on the Titanic,” are equivalent statements; the Hindenburg disaster fits in here as well, airships being more ship than aircraft—associated with aristocratic luxury and vanished grandeur.

It is possible to speak about “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”, but it is difficult to imagine that a similar metaphor might emerge from 9/11. Again, the deckchair rearrangement joke relies on the implicit idea that there is hope for the people involved; their actions, as with the band, remain humorous—if absurd—because there is still hope. “It’s like changing office layout on 9/11,” remains unfunny, although the sentiment is equally absurd—and I doubt this is about proximity in time, since there are countless sick jokes about 9/11.

So the same metaphorical depth has not developed around 9/11 as the Titanic—our age is generally shallower. True, 9/11 could be seen as the close of the American century and the end of the American project; if America enters a terminal crisis in the next decade then this will certainly be how 9/11 will be viewed—the towers represented global commercial hegemony, global Americanism, and were felled by particularist tribalists. Yet even if this comes to pass, 9/11 happened at a distance from any American collapse; it will not have the proximity the Titanic enjoyed to the First World War. The immediacy is absent, whereas the Titanic and the First World War present an irresistible point for comparison. The attack on the World Trade Center represents the moment where “things just happen”, unexpectedly and with no apparent justification or warning; as such, it cannot have the resonance the Titanic enjoys because it is a metaphor for disjunction itself.

Even the towers themselves lacked the demographic coherence found with the Titanic; America herself (itself?) is a Babel—increasingly so—and has no coherent story to tell. Official American ideology presents the country as a “proposition nation”, the implication being, at a time when narratives have broken down, that America’s narrative can be written or rewritten at will; of course, to jerk in a sudden direction—perhaps a new flag for 2022?—remains in accord with 9/11 as an event. To channel a Terence McKenna video, I suppose this post-9/11 situation could be seen as the moment when computer networks reached a certain critical mass so that the neural network density—if this actually is a thing—allowed certain synchronous and asynchronous events take place; events that are magical. The primary uncanny event brought about by cybernetic magic was the collapse of the second Tower of Babel; and nobody feels any nostalgia for Babel—although they do feel nostalgia for a titanic aristocratic ethos that has settled to the depths; and, of course, for those with the will to go to the depths the Titanic can be recovered—perhaps even, as occurred in one film, raised from the abyss.


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