Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder – and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked upon Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Witness”
This week saw news of the death of Barbara West Dainton, second-to-last remaining survivor of the Titanic. According to the news reports (and long previously to the people at Encyclopedia Titanica), Mrs. Dainton wanted “nothing to do with the Titanic people” and spoke of the disaster only rarely. This is doubly understandable; first of all, it was a personal tragedy for her because it brought about the death of her father, and many people would shrink from defining their lives around an event like that. Second of all, she did not have any first-hand memories of the sinking; she was ten months old at the time. The last remaining survivor, Millvina Dean, was even younger; only ten weeks old.
It was odd how sad hearing of this event made me, though I’m at best casually interested in the Titanic – certainly I’m nowhere near the level of the Encyclopedia Titanica people who could tell you without blinking an eye what passengers were located in Cabin C-32 (or even if there was a Cabin C-32!) and what exact distress codes were sent when. I became interested in the ship in a way that I’m sure many others of our generation did – when Robert Ballard rediscovered the wreck in the 1980s and the National Geographic published photographs of old, rusticle-covered bathtubs and dishes, unbroken first-class lounge windows, a china doll’s head, and pairs of shoes where bodies had once lain. Shortly afterwards my dad bought me a child’s Titanic picture book which had a number of stories about the children on board, noting that fifteen or twenty of them were still alive and active. (The centerpiece story was that of Ruth Becker Blanchard – in retrospect, I would guess that it was chosen because all of her family survived and that was thought to be easier on fascinated eight-year-olds. The ghastly number of steerage passengers who died was noted, but the fact that this meant that entire large families went to the bottom was not).
There’s something about a major event still having living survivors which links it, however thinly, to the present. The Titanic was launched in a world very different from the one we lived in; if any of us were to be transported back to 1912, we’d probably be begging to return to the present within thirty minutes. Yet, the fact that people still lived among us who had been on this quasi-mythical ship helped to make it real. The old black-and-white photos of the unimaginably colossal and beautiful ship were connected to the quite nice and ordinary old people who had once been children aboard it. The fact that several of them – among them the last two survivors – had no memories of it other than what they learned from family members didn’t make a difference. It was just their having been on the ship, having been in its presence – in a way, not to be blasphemous, the survivors seemed often to be treated as sacred relics; tangible, earthly links to a fantastic, quasi-mythical object.
Eventually there won’t be any left, and the Titanic will become an even mistier, legend-crowded object than it already is, especially in a few hundred years when the wreck will almost certainly be disintegrated beyond recognition. A long, long time from now, people will probably think of it and its surrounding eras as being no more “real” than we consider the City of Troy; we doubted for a long time that Troy existed, and now that we know it did – well, what else do we know? Not much. Just that something momentous and tragic happened. The same will probably be true of the Titanic – who knows how much factual information about it will survive? For a few hundred years, undoubtedly – its popularity and the sheer numbers of books published about it will see to that – but longer term? I wonder about that.
And who knows, in sixty or seventy years obituaries might begin noting the countdown to the last few World Trade Center survivors. I can’t really picture it, myself, but probably the very ordinary people whose lives were blighted by the Titanic couldn’t picture that it would happen to them, either.
-posted by sonetka