We can’t live without disasters – or without remembering them. The first anniversary of Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power station fire is just one date on that dark calendar. The memorialization of these too-recent events is painful; recovery is too far away, and the passage of a dozen months isn’t enough, to show that the terrible wounds are being closed.
Disasters from the distant past are, of course, remembered differently. Old calamities may explain history to us, shape our personal and national identities, and, sometimes, become part of the fabric of our popular culture. As the years pass, Japan, and the rest of the world, will interpret the tsunami in ways that are just now being shaped.
This time of year is the 100th anniversary of two disasters: the April 1912 sinking of the Titanic is the famous one. But as a former English person, I have another date in mind: the March 1912 death of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott in the Antarctic, with all his party. He and his men came second in the great “race to the South Pole,” which Roald Amundsen and his efficient Norwegians won. But who remembers them? They merely succeeded.
Scott and his small band arrived late at the Pole, but then gained immortal fame, in Britain, at least, by dying on the return journey. They perished in their blizzard-stricken tent, too far from their next supply depot. They had previously lost Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates, who – terribly weakened by frostbite – had walked into the frozen wilderness, to his own death, to give his comrades a better chance of returning to base. Oates’s farewell – “I am just going outside and may be some time” – rang down the years.
Scott, the leader, probably survived longest. His letters and journals were found a year later, with the bodies. Some of his sentences have lodged in the British cultural web: “It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.” “These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale . . . . For God’s sake look after our people.”
The imaginative grip of the Titanic’s end is, on the other hand, international. It produced an industry of wreck-searching, sea-mapping, films and books. Using a false teleology, we sometimes see the Titanic’s encounter with the fateful iceberg as the emblem of the First World War. The explanatory cultural narrative goes like this: The plump, self-satisfied, golden age of Edwardian England and of a super-civilized Europe, came to an icy, and deserved, end in the depths of the North Atlantic.
Thomas Hardy’s almost immediate poetic response, “The Convergence of the Twain,” quickly helped to set this tone for later remembrances: “In a solitude of the sea/Deep from human vanity,/ And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.” Cut to 1914, and the real debacle.
More cheerfully, the luxury liner, embedded as it now is in the collective memory, has become a useful vessel for many inconvenient fictional characters. How many novelists have thus disposed of boring or plot-inhibiting people? In Masterpiece Theatre’s old drama “Upstairs Downstairs,” Lady Marjorie Bellamy goes down with the ship. In “Downton Abbey,” a recent example of the same genre, the very valuable male heir to Downton is on the passenger list, only to perhaps reappear as the bandaged and unrecognizably disfigured war veteran. Is he the missing heir, or not?
Julian Fellowes, creator of “Downton Abbey,” will bring British TV audiences a Titanic miniseries this month, mining the gold struck by Cate Winslett, Leonardo de Caprio and many others. Will nothing slake our thirst for this story?
Cosmic mayhem, heroic endurance, self-sacrifice, human error, overconfidence, the stunning suddenness of death, or its slow, sad approach: all characterize our two 1912 disasters.
Similarly, the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and power station fire combine natural and unavoidable terror with man-made problems. Last year, with personal valor and skill, engineers wrangled the crippled nuclear power station amidst the fury of earth, water and fire. Thousands of their compatriots fought these elements and unknown numbers perished. Their story brings together once more the enduring features of 1912’s calamities. And, just as Thomas Hardy helped later generations to interpret the ship’s encounter with the iceberg, so artists and historians, this year and for a long time to come, will shape the Japanese people’s memory, as well as the world’s. The centennial disaster calendar for 2111 already has an entry for March.
Rosemary Haskell, who lives in Chapel Hill, is a professor of English at Elon University.