Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic
I’ve just reread one of my favorite short stories. It’s about the Titanic and was published in 1955 by Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) in a collection of short stories entitled Rue Deschambault, the name of Gabrielle Roy’s street in Saint-Boniface, a French-language part of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The story’s narrator, young Christine, is huddled with her parents and two visitors, monsieur Élie and his wife, in the family kitchen, next to a large stove. Outdoors, a bitter winter storm rages, but despite the storm, uncle Majorique, a raconteur or story teller, comes knocking at the door. Consequently, Le Titanic has a child narrator, as well as a story teller: innocence and experience!
Uncle Majorique has credibility and loves progress. He owns every volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica and looks forward to the day man will land on Mars and the Moon. So he speaks of the Titanic in a somewhat detached manner, but, as his name suggests, Majorique, he embellishes the prairie storm by telling the story of the Titanic, making the Titanic a rather oversized metaphor.
The story of the Titanic differs substantially from accounts of natural disasters. The sinking of the Titanic is a man-made tragedy and the chief sin is vanity: hubris. The Captain did not decrease the speed at which the ship was travelling. Yet, he knew there were icebergs in the vicinity. Icebergs are mountains of ice only the top of which is visible. They are therefore an invisible danger. Moreover, given the presumed invincibility of the ship; given also that its owners, The White Star Line, had not put the required number of lifeboats on deck, humans had played God. About 1,500 people died during that fateful night, 15 April 1912.
There are very few links between the sinking of the Titanic and the prairie storm except that both are images of humankind’s vulnerability. However, in both cases, we see the hand of a punitive God. Indeed “the poor people were rich.” It was very “wrong”, says Majorique, for them (an all-inclusive “them”) “to believe they were sheltered from God’s anger.”
Earlier in the story Christine mentions that above her mother’s sewing machine there hangs a picture of a severe God hovering above the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph and Jesus, who resemble ordinary people.
In 1955, a French-Canadian family might indeed have seen the hand of a punitive God in the sinking of the Titanic and it might also have seen the hand of God in natural disasters, such as Katrina and Irene. I remember being warned by a priest that if I wore shorts during the summer, I would go to Hell and my thighs would be burnt by Satan. As a result, God was terrifying to me.
However, the reason I am writing this blog is encapsulated in one sentence. When Christine hears that there were rich people on the Titanic, she says, as quoted above: “So the poor people were rich! (Ainsi les pauvres gens étaient riches!).” Sincere compassion for those who suffer is expressed in most of Gabrielle Roy’s works and, in Le Titanic, the compassionate character is the child narrator.
“Hammerstein!… Vanderbilt!…” says one of the friends of the family, monsieur Élie, trivializing the sinking of the Titanic. These names do not appear on the Titanic’s passenger list. However, among the lives reaped by the sinking of the Titanic are those of Benjamin Guggenheim and Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, both of whom were in their mid-forties, 46 and 47. Astor put his pregnant eighteen-year old wife in a lifeboat and Benjamin Guggenheim acted likewise. He made sure his mistress was ensconced in a lifeboat.
Some men may have jumped into the few lifeboats, but, theoretically, only women and children were permitted the relative security of lifeboats. So Benjamin Guggenheim and John Jacob Astor IV both died in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic and their death was as painful, cruel and useless as the death of the poorer passengers, including servants and members of the liner’s staff.
In other words, rich or poor, we are all alike and, if anything is wrong, it is as Majorique put it. It was wrong (mal) of them “to the think they were sheltered from the wrath of God (de se croire à l’abri de la colère de Dieu).”
We are nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Flying airplanes into the towers of the World Trade Centre was a man-made disaster that killed indiscriminately. The terrorists were human beings who debased themselves. But what of the United States’ reaction: two wars, torture and near-bankruptcy.
In the end, Bin Laden was found and killed by commandos, the élite Navy Seals. All that was needed were highly–trained commandos and a dog named Cairo.
And now, just after the debt-ceiling crisis has been temporally resolved, the hurricane season is proving deadly and repairs will be expensive. But, please do not deplete social programs to finance the repairs. It is time for the US to make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes and to promote a sense of “common purpose” (US Army Retired Lt General Russel L Honoré’s wording).
All are at risk. It’s the human condition. However, nothing prevents the US from fixing its problems without prompting anxiety attacks among grandmothers, the disabled, the veterans, the children, and destabilizing an increasingly global economy.
I have empathy for President Obama, and I agree with Lt General Russel L Honoré, (ret). It may not be a bad idea to send to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, those politicians who do not have a sense of responsibility, no more than a sense of nationhood. If Camp Shelby doesn’t suffice, have them roll up their sleeves and help Irene’s, Katrina’s, Rita’s and Katia’s victims.
Make the Titanic unsinkable.
P. S. Gabrielle Roy is the author of the internationally-acclaimed 1945 novel Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute)
“My heart will go on”
from The Titanic
© Micheline Walker
4 September 2011