The media frenzy over the story of a lost tourist submarine and the death of its passengers has framed the loss of the Titan submersible as a tragedy for our times. Surprisingly, this is an appropriate reaction because of not only the connection with the famed lost Titanic ocean liner but the continuing fascination with the ship fueled by James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 film Titanic.
A True Tragedy
The word “tragic” or “tragedy” is too often misused in modern times. Someone’s death in a car accident – while sadly regrettable – is not what is truly considered tragic in terms of how Aristotle defined a tragic hero. At the center of this story is Stockton Rush, an American engineer, pilot, and businessman who was the co-founder and CEO of OceanGate, the company that ran the underwater sightseeing trips to see the wreck of Titanic that sits 2.5 miles down on the ocean floor under the Atlantic Ocean.
By nature of his elevated position, Rush meets the first requirement of the tragic hero. By all accounts he was a person of good nature and virtuous, meeting another requirement. The last thing needed for a tragic hero is “infirmity of judgment” or what can be called a fatal flaw. For example, Hamlet’s fatal flaw is procrastination and for Othello it is jealousy. Despite all their good qualities, the flaw leads them to catastrophe. For Rush it can be said that ego may have been his undoing. On the Titan in 2021 Rush quoted General Douglas MacArthur: “You’re remembered for the rules you break.” Sadly, in this case these words were prophetic.
An Eerie Connection
There is also a rather eerie connection between Rush’s wife Wendy and the lost Titanic. Her great-grandparents were Isidor and Ida Straus, two of the wealthiest people on board. Isidor was the co-owner of Macy’s Department Stores. As the story goes, Ida refused a place in the lifeboat to stay on board with her husband. In Cameron’s film, they memorably hold each other in their bed as the ship fills with water and goes down. Wendy serves as OceanGate’s communications director and has made three trips down to see the final resting place of her ancestors.
The Navy Connection
Officials confirmed that the Titan submersible suffered “an implosion,” which the US Navy detected on Sunday based on “acoustic data” it was gathering. Debris found about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic seemed to be consistent with the theory of an implosion. The obvious implications are that the passengers’ lives ended that close to the ship that they never got to see.
The public fascination with tragedies connects with what the ancient Greeks called catharsis, which gives people witnessing tragic plays or events in the news a sort of emotional relief – the old “better you than me” school of thought. It also gets them thinking there is a sense of justice because tragic heroes deserve their fate due to their tragic flaws.
Cameron’s film certainly stoked the imagination and public fascination with Titanic, which is nothing less than the biggest tragedy of all time. Think of the hubris involved with the White Star Line advertising that the ship was unsinkable, and then on its maiden voyage the ship sinks. Talk about tragic flaws. Think of Captain Smith, who despite iceberg warnings and it being a moonless night, kept the ship full speed ahead to get to New York quickly as possible. This kind of recklessness leads to tragic consequences that provide the ultimate in catharsis.
A Love Story
There are also the many wealthy passengers who met their end on Titanic. These ultra-rich people, like John Jacob Astor IV, would be seen in “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” scenario. The film certainly flirts with this notion when the actual hero – Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson – is a poor, starving artist for whom the audience roots as he navigates the world of the super-wealthy passengers. At the heart of the film is the love story between Dawson and Rose (Kate Winslet) that made the movie a success and has endeared it to audiences worldwide.
Respect for the Dead
There is also another important aspect to the story: the families of people how died in the sinking of the Titanic. Some of them have spoken out and argue that tourist visits like the OceanGate defile what is ostensibly a “graveyard” and that they see these visits as “disgusting and disrespectful to those who perished in the wreck.”
The loss of the Titan is a tragedy for our times. We have reached a point where nothing is sacred and anything can be exploited. Rush’s fascination with Titanic – as well as his passengers’ (Shahzada and Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, and Paul-Henry Nargeolet) – led to this catastrophe. Perhaps it is a harbinger of larger-scale disasters if we continue pursuits that violate things that should be respected and left alone.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the Titanic story. My grandfather told me about when he was a young man and saw the crowds that gathered at the White Star Pier (now Pier 54 in Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan) waiting for news about what happened to their friends and loved ones. He also knew a doctor who was supposed to have a ticket for the voyage back to London. Inspired by Pop’s story, I read all the books about the ship that I could find when I was a boy, and even remained mildly interested as an adult until I saw Cameron’s film, and then I started reading everything I could find again.
Titanic affected people because the true story was a tragedy on a grand scale. The loss of the Titan submersible, Rush, its pilot, and the four innocent passengers, intrigues us because of its dubious connection to the 1912 incident and similar circumstances of trying to defy nature despite the overwhelming odds. In both cases there is human loss that is heartbreaking, and in both cases there is the extremely difficult lesson that all the technology in the world is no match for Mother Nature.
May the families of those lost somehow find closure by knowing what happened, and may those who were lost rest in peace.