Titanic Deniers and the Dark Side of Popular Culture

Article excerpt

SAINT JOHN, N.B. -- The sinking of the White Star liner Titanic in 1912 is one of the most powerful impressions in our popular culture.

This marine disaster has resulted in several feature films, many books and articles along with the creation of a number of museums devoted exclusively to this iconic vessel.

Perhaps it is now best remembered via the 1997 film Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Less well-known now are the British movie A Night to Remember (1958) and a full-length feature film produced by the Nazis in 1943.

The sinking was the subject of a lecture recently given by Prof. Leon Litvack of Queen's University, Belfast (where Titanic was built) to an audience at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. The speaker emphasized the great difficulty in sorting out the details of the tragedy, so encrusted has the story become in myth and legend.

Litvack focused a part of his talk on the music played by the band as the ship went down. Lionized as heroes of their profession in the post-disaster era, it is now difficult to figure out what piece these men actually played in the face of almost certain death. The evidence points to the hymn Nearer my God to Thee, but even this is contested ground.

Meanwhile, objects associated with the Titanic have in our culture taken on the status of holy relics. Litvack mentioned a Titanic musician's violin selling at auction recently for US$1.4 million. He could also have pointed to an original Titanic boarding pass that fetched US$149,800 at auction in 1999. For me, this university lecture represented a rational discussion of an important aspect of our popular culture.

At the same time, it reminded me of a personal experience that is at the other end of the investigative spectrum. In 2010, I arrived at Heathrow Airport in England where I was met by a driver who was to take me to my destination.

Along the way, we passed a building where my cabbie indicated he would be attending a lecture later that same evening. Then it began. I suddenly had the feeling of being trapped, of dropping down "a rabbit hole" into a different universe.

My driver knew all about the "so-called Titanic" disaster of 1912. He bombarded me with the "real facts" of the episode. …