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  • A century of comparisons that pale in the midnight sea

  • "We're sending gilded egg shells out to sea."
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  • "We're sending gilded egg shells out to sea."
    Thomas Andrews, Harland and Wolff Shipyards, about the maiden voyage of the Titanic
    Even before it sank 100 years ago today in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, the Titanic belonged to symbolism. A century later, Titanic endures as the disaster to which all measure of misfortune is compared.
    It is, perhaps, the oddest legacy of the events of that "Night to Remember." The life and death of the Titanic — its singular, fatal trip encompassing a neatly tied package of legend — has grown larger as the years fade.
    Ocean cruises are no longer the opulent way to cross between continents. You can now fly from Europe to North America in about the same 3 hours that it took Titanic to sink.
    The romantic notion of the tragedy has been told in book and film, in Broadway musical and scientific expeditions. The lives lost, the band playing on, the midnight timing of the disaster, the sheer magnitude of the ship ... these things draw the poet and the populist to use the name itself as a placeholder for spectacular failure.
    Leave it, of course, to the parody news operation The Onion to express it so succinctly — "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg" — in the fake historical newspapers it publishes.
    But, why?
    Why Titanic, say, and not the Lusitania, the sinking of which had more sinister origins? We "Remember the Maine," but what do we remember it for? Go ahead, ask a dozen people if they've ever heard the phrase ... and then ask the ones who have what exactly happened to the Maine.
    Then, for kicks, ask them who was aboard the S.S. Minnow.
    Maritime disasters swept from history as the preferred means of transportation evolved. Most of us couldn't name any that haven't been memorialized in popular culture — "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" comes to mind.
    Yet, Titanic endures.
    The military actions that claim spots in our memory do so for reasons ranging from valor in the face of certain defeat ("Remember the Alamo"), foolhardy bravado ("Custer's Last Stand"), the rallying cry of national unity ("Remember Pearl Harbor"), or for the loss of the last shred of innocence in a terror-filled world ("9/11").
    But none of those crosses the boundaries of metaphorical usage to the degree of Titanic. We may think of this or that lost cause as someone's Waterloo; or a particular awful day as another Pearl Harbor. But those are touchstones of historical connectivity.
    They're not in the league of the failure of a sports team sinking like the Titanic. Or something so invincibly man-made failing so spectacularly. Or attempting to salvage a bad situation by re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
    Once I read a story marking someone's "Titanic undertaking" — meant to imply huge, of course; but without the other shoe of ultimate failure dropping.
    Popular culture has its own Titanics ... New Coke, 8-track tapes, the Edsel, Y2K ... and Hollywood has served up its own disasters ("Heaven's Gate," "Ishtar," "Howard the Duck") even though, with not-so gentle irony, film versions of the Titanic story have tended to be successful with critics and the public.
    That's the mystery of the mythology, certainly. No one knowingly goes looking for a good time to a movie about a shipping disaster that claimed (depending on which source you trust) somewhere between 1,490 and 1,635 souls. Yet there is a draw to the massive ship buried at sea that eludes other such tragedies translated to film.
    Anyone seen "The Hindenburg" movie released in 1975? Can you hum the song used as its love theme? And our modern touchstones seem too immediate to make a cultural impact. Fictional films about 9/11, for instance, have not caught on with mass audiences.
    Part of the allure of the metaphor likely comes from those 100 years. Titanic missed the world wars and all the wars to end all wars since. It couldn't be seen on television in an endless news cycle, or followed minute by minute over the Internet. (Although, if you believe what you read on the Web, there are Twitter and Facebook posts wherein young typists express amazement that Titanic was actually a real ship, and not just a movie.)
    The closest event as omnipresent metaphor might be the moon landing. We can put a man on the moon, but we can't get away from the image of a gluttonous ship crashing to its doom in the middle of the night.
    If we think we know what Titanic symbolizes, it's been left to those who were there — such as survivor Jack Thayer — to interpret its message:
    "It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub its eyes and awake but woke it with a start keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912."
    Maybe we can't put the World's Largest Metaphor to bed because we still haven't learned what it says to us. Titanic can't rest and so it won't let us rest, either.
    Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin is filling in this week for regular Southern Oregon Jounal columnist Sanne Specht. He can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com
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