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Why Titanic’s Story Still Resonates 100 Years Later

April 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
One hundred years after the Titanic sank, the story of the technological triumph-turned-tragedy still captivates many people. Margaret Warner and writer Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the recent New Yorker piece "Unsinkable: Why We Can't Let Go of the Titanic," discuss the story's staying power.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, remembering the Titanic, and exploring why its story resonates in our modern age.

The story of the technological triumph that ended in tragedy still captivates the public mind 100 years after the Titanic sank. This weekend will see scores of events marking the centennial anniversary, from the re-release of the late ’90s blockbuster film, now in 3-D. . .

KATE WINSLET, actress: I will never let go.

MARGARET WARNER: . . . to commemorative cruises along the ship’s original intended course.

When it sets sail from Southampton, England, for New York, on April 10, 1912, the Titanic was hailed as the largest vessel in the world and touted as unsinkable. But just four days into its maiden voyage, the luxury cruise ship hit an iceberg and sank, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew.

With the shipwreck lying on the ocean floor, its tale has spawned countless books and films. And the wreckage itself attracts underwater tourists and scavengers, prompting calls for its preservation.

It's a real-life event that unfolds as if it were basically a work of literature. You know, it's sort of too good to be true.Daniel Mendelsohn

STEVE BLASCO, marine geologist, Survey of Canada: Recovering artifacts, the belongings of people who have died is — is not to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: Whether or not the wreckage survives another 100 years, fascination with its story and fate seem sure to endure.

And for more on why the fascination endures, we turn to writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn. His latest piece in The New Yorker is “Unsinkable: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic.”

And, Daniel Mendelsohn, welcome.

So, what is it about the Titanic tale and its themes that so grips ours imagination and has for 100 years?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN, writer/critic: Well, I think, mostly, it’s that it’s a real-life event that unfolds as if it were basically a work of literature. You know, it’s sort of too good to be true.

It has all the themes. It has the structure. You know, there’s something irresistible about it because it’s too perfect.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, give us an example. What do you mean? What themes?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Well, you know, it’s about the oldest — it’s about the oldest theme of all, which is man vs. nature. That’s one, right?

Hubris, the subject of so many Greek tragedies. They say they build — they’re going to build the ship that can’t sink. Of course it sinks. It’s about class. It’s a perfect parable about class at the end of the 19th century.

If you were a man in first class, you had a better chance of surviving than if you were a small child in third class. It seems to be about technology and overconfidence in technology, which is something we’re very interested in still, obviously, and the limits of technology.

So all of these things seem to be sort of overdetermined. You know, in one story, you get class, you get overweening arrogance, you get technological overconfidence. And it all comes together and you put it in the most beautiful, biggest ship ever built, and it sinks on a piece of ice in the middle of the ocean.

MARGARET WARNER: On its maiden voyage.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: On its maiden voyage.

MARGARET WARNER: You write in this piece. You begin with the fact that your uncle when you were age 12 enrolled you in a club called Titanic Enthusiasts of America.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: And I won’t try to speculate on what your age may be, but what. . .

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Have the themes that resonate changed over time, at least here in the U.S.?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: I don’t think so.

Well, I mean, it could be. I think, at the very beginning, there was a tremendous amount of anguish about the class issue. You know, it was very shocking when this first came out that the scales were tipped so greatly and so obviously in favor of people who were first-class passengers. And I think, today, the sort of technological theme predominates. And, also, there’s this irresistible idea. . .

MARGARET WARNER: You mean the limits of our technology?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: The limits of technology.

It’s like the Challenger disaster. You know, many of the kinds of things that were said after the Challenger disaster were said after the Titanic sank, how here we thought we had it all figured out and we were getting so accustomed to these fantastic technological accomplishments, and it turns out we didn’t get it all right.

So that’s — as long as we have technology, that’s going to be a theme that interests us.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, of course, as you pointed out, it really taps into classical myth. It is a myth and it taps into them.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Yes.

Yeah, I think there’s an idea that the Titanic itself is a kind — in a funny way, you know, a hero of this mythic story. You know, we go to Greek plays to watch great heroes like Oedipus, you know, who everyone thinks has all the answers, powerful, strong, accomplished, fall apart.

That’s why we go to see these dramas. It is still we why we go to see “Death of a Salesman” or whatever. And the Titanic itself looks like one of these heroes. It’s a wonderful, impregnable, unsinkable. It seems to have it all. And then we get a certain kind of funny pleasure from watching a drama in which something beautiful disintegrates.

MARGARET WARNER: And we know it’s going to happen before it happens.

Well, thank you, Daniel Mendelsohn.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: And we still watch.

MARGARET WARNER: And we still watch.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks so much.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Thanks a lot.