April 15th

The Convergence of the Twain

by Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Of course you know Jack and Rose. Maybe you went to the movie theater in 1997 and saw a naked woman for the first time. You may have wondered about the “real Jack and Rose,” only to be let down by their fictionality. Maybe you sang Celine Dion’s theme song in the shower or fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio or found yourself at the bow of a ferry boat between Lewes, Delaware and Cape May, New Jersey proclaiming yourself the King/Queen of the World. Titanic could be Millennials’ Film of a Generation, or at least our youth. And while it is a good movie and does contain some historic truths, the real sinking of the Titanic has some striking albeit microcosmic parallels with the situation we are in today.

On April 12th, but in 1912, the Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, departing Southampton, England on the 10th, stopping in France and Ireland and then heading for New York City on the 12th. At 175 feet in height, four city blocks in length, and with as many elevators on board, she was state-of-the-art. Among the passengers were dignitaries, celebrities, industrialists, and other powerful people eager to sail on such a lauded ship. About 700 passengers boarded as third class, some paying as little as $20 fare. The first days of the voyage were peaceful for the 2,240 passengers and crew as they enjoyed the ship’s uncommon amenities.

Winter 2020 in the US was touted as a time of economic prosperity–granted not for everyone, likely not for most. But the stock market was hot and DJT (I just do not feel like including his name in this) was rubbing his own back for all of the things he felt like taking credit for. Americans enjoyed, many hesitatingly because of the environmental implications, an unseasonably warm winter. There was the roundedness of 2020, the convenient verbiage of claiming one’s “2020 Vision,” the hopefulness and then tragedy of DJT’s impeachment and failed removal, Harry and Meghan’s departure for Canada, someone other than the Patriots won the Super Bowl, The Academy Awards, primary elections began, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty, and the fun of Leap Day. 

Then, 108 years ago yesterday, at 11:30 p.m. a lookout spotted an iceberg, the ship turned but not without grazing its side and sending ice aboard. The lookouts, however, were convinced the ship had scooted its way to safety noticing no visible destruction from their vantage, ignorant of the fresh 300-foot gash under the waterline.

On February 27th, the Dow Jones (whatever that means) plummeted amid fears of the Novel Coronavirus ravaging China. Putin wrote a constitutional amendment in Russia banning gay marriage–of course. A few more typical things happened as authorities either could not see or chose to ignore our own gash beneath the waterline.

Thomas Andrews, the ship’s builder, was aboard and as he and other authorities became aware that water was rapidly flooding lower compartments of the ship, he estimated they had about an hour and a half to evacuate. The bow was already beginning to pitch downward. The captain then called for help and ordered the lifeboats to begin loading.

On March 12, DJT instituted a travel ban for 26 European countries, as it became clear that COVID-19 was already in the US and being spread through community transmission. On March 13th, DJT declared a national emergency. 

The first lifeboat departed the Titanic with 28 people. Its capacity was 65. In the mayhem that followed, almost every lifeboat departed for safety under-filled. But in addition to the empty seats, there were only enough lifeboats to save roughly one third of the ship’s capacity.

Many school districts across the US closed beginning on March 16. Professional sports begin cancelling or indefinitely postponing their seasons. Gross under-preparedness leads to shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital beds, and healthcare workers.

There are several theories about the Titanic’s “unsinkable” sinkage that led to the deaths of over 1500 people in the early hours of April 15th. The bulk heads were too low which too easily allowed water to pour from one compartment to another if the ship were to rock in any direction. It is also speculated that the ship’s skipper, Captain EJ Smith, was traveling too fast–some say to set a record, others that there was a fire in a lower bunker causing Smith to want to arrive more quickly to handle the situation. There was a potentially ignored warning of icebergs sent to the Titanic from another ship, a cost-cutting measure that affected the integrity of certain rivets, and with a century of hindsight, some historians speculate mirages or hazy conditions that night. Alternatively, second officer David Blair who held the key to the ship’s binoculars was transferred off the ship, neglecting to hand off the key, rendering all those in charge of the direction of the ship, binocular-less. Of all of these possible causes for the ship’s invincibility being so vincible, there are some inarguables. The ship was hardly unsinkable. And there weren’t enough lifeboats.

Many factors have stoked the flames of COVID-19, among them, our global travel patterns, unverifiable stories about bats, pangolins and mistakes in laboratories, and unhelpful rumor-flinging mires the largest nations in the world. We know we have a binocular-less, haughty “captain” who is trying to sail too fast. There have been cost-cutting measures in the past three years to divert funding to the border wall and away from the CDC. With a century of hindsight, what will that generation say about our unsinkable ship, about our idiot captain, about our lack of PPE and ventilators? 

I had to read quite a few pieces of literary criticism on the Thomas Hardy poem in order to even understand it. Hardy argues that humans were too sure of themselves, that they had nothing on nature. He says that all the opulence of the ship’s mirrors and decorations are useless at the bottom of the ocean. It’s as if nature has proven humans wrong, again.

And here we are, on another April 15th. Without getting preachy, we all know what we have to do to keep our proverbial ship afloat. And in this case, I don’t think mother nature is mocking us, I think she’s crying with us.