04/13/2012 05:16 EDT | Updated 06/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Titanic Legacy Buoyed By Potent Forces 100 Years After It Sank

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HALIFAX - Its very name remains a powerful metaphor for the folly of human pride a century after its sinking. The Titanic's legacy abounds in more than 1,100 books, scores of films, 81 million Google hits and, on this anniversary weekend, countless commemorations and souvenir sales.

But why?

It wasn't the worst of nautical disasters — not by far. As tragedies go, it was but a footnote in the prelude to the First World War.

No, the ill-fated story of the Titanic has endured for many other reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it foundered on its maiden voyage, having already won renown for being the largest, most opulent luxury liner ever built.

In short, the pride of the White Star Line died young and beautiful, a fact that helped cement its celebrity status for decades to come.

As well, its first-class passengers were celebrities in their own right. At the turn of the century, when class distinctions were more firmly entrenched, the many millionaires strutting along the Promenade Deck would have been considered the A-list superstars of their time.

For those in second class and steerage, many of whom bought one-way tickets, RMS Titanic was already a symbol of unbridled optimism in the future.

On a more cerebral level, the Titanic's fate has become synonymous with hubris because the epic failure of its state-of-the-art design — described at the time as unsinkable — clearly demonstrated that even the best technology can fail.

"It was touted as being invincible," says Jill Scott, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who has studied the social dynamics of public mourning.

"This belief in the ability of technology to free humans from everyday suffering, that was a reality at the time. It was in full swing at that point. It had the industrial revolution behind it."

These themes resonate to this day, Scott says.

"Every time the story (of the Titanic) is told, it's told differently," she says. "The way that we're telling this story today is really very much about our own anxieties. ... Today, there is a general kind of skepticism of where technology has led us."

Growing concern about global warming, for example, calls to mind the notion that rapid progress is sometimes fraught with unseen danger.

"It speaks to our ability to invent technologies that will eventually lead to our peril," Scott says.

Jim Wellman, a Newfoundland broadcaster and author of several books about shipwrecks, says the Titanic's demise remains a potent reminder of human fallibility.

"No matter how huge we build something, there's still a bigger force out there that's going to give us a slap in the face and remind us that we're only human," he says.

Wellman says the public's fascination with the Titanic has grown over the years because the story continues to be shrouded in mystery.

Recent scientific studies have suggested the Titanic might have shrugged off its encounter with an iceberg had its builders used less brittle but more expensive steel. Another researcher opined this week that the lookouts posted to watch for icebergs may have been fooled by a mirage caused by freak atmospheric conditions.


The point is that the debate over what caused the sinking shows no sign of letting up.

"As long as there are questions being raised, this cloud of mystery that hangs over the word Titanic, it will go on forever," Wellman says.

To be sure, the discovery of the wreck in 1985 helped revive the brand, as did the 1987 release of James Cameron's blockbuster film.

"There's no doubt that James Cameron had a very large hand in re-igniting the public imagination about this incredible story," Wellman says. "In the end, it's those human stories that will keep us interested in this."

As for Cameron, he has said that Titanic's legacy will endure because the tale is as romantic as it is tragic.

"The heart-wrench of literally hundreds of woman being separated from their husbands, having to get into lifeboats and see them on the deck for the last time as they're being lowered away into the darkness — that's one of the enduring images of the real Titanic story," Cameron said in an interview shortly after the film debuted.

"I thought, if I make that the backdrop of a love story ... how much more of a turbocharged experience of passion and heartbreak that might be. That was my gut feeling that drew me to the arena of Titanic."

However, there's another side to the Titanic allegory that gives it great dramatic impact: the iceberg itself.

"Curiously, it is this small fact that seems to lend the greatest enduring metaphorical power to the disaster," author Monica Hall wrote in 2005 for the website Encyclopedia Titanica.

"Since the self-proclaimed great and the good are always running headlong into obstacles they should have known perfectly well were there, it is widely applicable and widely appreciated whenever invoked. The passivity of the iceberg provides the focus for the irony and hubris."

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