A Gordian Knot or a Web of Lies?: Steven Biel and the Meaning of the Titanic


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As we’ve already encountered thus far in the semester, disasters often yield a variety of interpretations. From Father Pernin’s account of the Peshtigo Fire to the “seismic denial” of San Francisco’s leading capitalists, personal motives—whether economic, social, political, or religious—tend to color descriptions and blur otherwise clear observations of human catastrophe. For some, this phenomena would seem a real thorn in one’s side, obscuring the facts of a disaster. But for Steven Biel, it presents an exciting opportunity: the chance to disentangle a web of intersecting, conflicting, and overlapping personal stories, to make sense of a  “diversity of meanings” (118). In Down with the Old Canoe, Biel tackles and interprets this web for himself and—as Dr. Shrout so often encourages us to do in class—”parses out” its various strands to weave a single, intelligible reading.

Well, not really. In reality, the various interpretations of the Titanic were a lot more convoluted and tangled-up than one might think. The disaster itself, Biel writes, was “historically not intrinsically meaningful,” and whatever historical meanings it did offer were “neither simple nor universal” (8). The conventional narrative of chivalric, first-cabin males was nothing but a “myth” in that it “located a disturbing event within routine structures of understanding” (24). The conventional religious interpretation, likewise, owed its existence to the “familiar moral vocabulary” of Protestantism (65). Convenience—whether in the form of a convenient gender or class hierarchy or a convenient religious language—it seemed, determined the Titanic’s various meanings.

But in nearly every instance, ideology also shaped interpretation. Biel notes that just as the conventional narrative reinforced conservative race, gender, and class hierarchies, so too did it undermine ‘traditional values.’ Feminists, for instance, “turned the chivalric myth against itself” (105). Socialists treated the Titanic as  a symbol of Capitalism itself, the iceberg as the imminent threat of Proletarian revolution. African Americans, meanwhile,  stripped the conventional ‘myth’ of its racist connotations to endorse a message of “universal brotherhood” (109). Such a ‘diversity of meanings’ suggested that, despite their advocates claims to timeless truth, interpretations were themselves products of their own time, rooted in an equally tangled social, political, and ideological web. The America of 1912 was “contested terrain” (100). It found itself at the ‘watershed moment’ of a revolutionary, transitional period of American history: the Progressive Era.

As disappointing as it may be to realize that even Harvard’s own Steven Biel can’t find the ultimate strand in this tangled web, the one and only absolutely without-a-doubt true meaning of the Titanic disaster, Biel’s point is an important one. The Titanic was certainly meaningful, but only in that it reflected the social and ideological complexities of a particular historical moment.  As Biel points out, the Titanic really “changed nothing except shipping regulations” (24). Instead, it was the disaster’s role as a sort of blank canvas for American society that created the Titanic‘s meaning.

So, perhaps Nate should consider revising his statement from last week. He claimed that when people attempt to interpret human catastrophes, they tend “to skew their own interpretation of what happened,” thus obscuring the real meaning of the event itself. But what if a disaster, as Biel would suggest, is not ‘intrinsically meaningful’? Well, then it would seem that treating its various ‘meanings’ as a tangled web is futile. Maybe it’s more useful to think of them as a Gordian Knot. Just cut through it all and realize, like Biel did, that ‘meanings’ are historically constructed.

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