”It’s a mathematical certainty, sir. In two hours, Titanic will founder.”
These were the most famous, and some of the last, words that 39-year old Thomas Andrews ever said on planet Earth.
The fact that I know that sentence verbatim tells you a lot about the psychology of human beings.
Mr. Andrews was a man of much greater talents than myself and later proved himself to be a selfless, brave hero on the night that he lost his life. His accomplishments were stunning – designing some of the largest moving objects ever made by man at the time, and overseeing three of the most luxurious ships ever built, along with dozens of smaller ships – he also had a family, and a reputation as a studious, generous man.
Yet, all we remember of Thomas Andrews is the last two hours of his life. His almost forty years on this world has been condensed by the public and historians alike into the time it takes to watch a movie, or play a game of football. His entire existence has been boiled down the most succinct of summaries; Thomas Andrews died on Titanic.
Thomas Andrews and his daughter c.1909
What Mr. Andrews did not know that night was that the creation he heroically died on would still be lodged in the public’s consciousness over one hundred years later. Titanic was once upon a time the most perfect of human creations, described, as her builder himself said, to ”be as perfect as human brains could make her”. Instead, the doomed liner became the perfect tragedy, one whose story was too calamitous for human brains to ever write. Nowadays, the once-proud liner sits all alone in complete and perpetual darkness – the debris, the boilers, the cargo – and the shoes of its passengers lie exactly where they fell in 1912. The sight of the rusted steel, crushed decks, and vacated shoes appeal to our most morbid of fascinations – we are, and always have been, completely obsessed with catastrophe.
Disasters like the sinking of the RMS Titanic present a palpable question – what is it about these morbid events that continue to resonate with us, year after year, century after century? Are we just bad people? Do we all just have a dark side?
Human beings have been enamored with wreckage ever since time began. There’s a reason why the Titanic is the most famous ship of all time, just like there’s a reason Pompeii is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions – and why 9/11 footage continues to rack up millions of views on YouTube. Our genetic propensity for disaster has always been a volatile, yet irresistible, human character trait that we all have a complex relationship with. Carl Jung would have called this our ‘shadow’ – the sinister side we all live with, and whose presence we must embrace if we are able to reach any level of self-awareness. Eric Wilson, the author of the book Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck, notes that ”“our attraction to the macabre is, on some level, a desire to experience someone else’s suffering.” In other words, our desire to consume macabre content comes not from the fact we’re ”twisted”, but because of our innate desire to connect with others.
Human beings like to think of themselves and their lives as a story. A story in which we are the main protagonists on a linear path. The world is the setting in which those stories are played out, and we all have a desire to be involved in events of gargantuan size and circumstance. When we see those on board the Titanic running for their lives, we imagine what we would do in that situation. When we see pictures of the Twin Towers falling down, we recoil at the horror – and imagine if we were in those offices that morning. Our dopamine receptors go into overdrive, and we both wish we could help those people, try to imagine what we would do, and/or go back in time and try to stop the event entirely. We know how tragic it is, despite how many times we view it, yet we are stunned by the surreal sights of ruin.
There’s nothing wrong with that, either. We don’t have a fascination with tragedy out of lack of respect for those who perished, and (most) of us do not have any inclination to inflict such hurt on others. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – we are an intrinsically empathetic species, and we thrive on the safety and security of our fellow humans. To see others in such wretched circumstances makes us not only want to help, but also inspires gratitude in us that our lives aren’t as bad as we think. If you’ve had a bad day at the office, at least be thankful that you came back home – because remembering 9/11 will remind you that thousands didn’t. Bad neighbors? At least be glad you have a home, as a trip to Pompeii will remind you that everything can be taken away from you at a moment’s notice.
This is the yin/yang of beauty – there can’t be any light without darkness in the background. There’s a reason why Enlightment-era philosophers kept skulls on their desks – as it reminded them of the fragility of life. It may have been a morbid display piece, but it was sure an effective one.
So next time you see a car wrecked on the side of the road or catch sight of a burning house, just remember, you’re not the only one watching.