An uncanny mystery

John Rosenthal - Titanic Officers Quarters Window

text and photograph by John Rosenthal

A visionary splendor: the Titanic’s grand staircase. A glittering chandelier. Bronze cherubs, carved balustrades, oak paneling, glass domes high above, shedding light. Of course visionary, especially if you were traveling first class. James Cameron re-created every detail of the staircase in Titanic, and you can see the actual staircase in a mural-sized photograph at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. It’s extraordinary.

As I walked through the exhibition, however, I wasn’t thinking of anything quite as spectacular as Kate and Leo falling in love on the grand staircase. I was thinking about the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, about 1960, when I saw the great ballad/blues singer, Dave Van Ronk (then only in his mid-20s) sing Leadbelly’s Titanic.

It was midnight on the sea,

The band was playin’ “Nearer My God to Thee”

Cryin’, Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.

Had I ever heard it before that night? I don’t suppose it matters. No song ever grabbed me faster. I mean, why would a ship’s orchestra play a hymn at midnight?

I also thought of a Thomas Hardy poem, The Convergence of the Twain, Hardy’s response to the news that the Titanic had collided (converged) with an iceberg and 1,500 people had drowned.

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Well, not so “stilly” anymore. Ever since a joint French/American research team discovered the two halves of the Titanic about 2,000 feet from each other, RMS Titanic, Inc. – the exclusive stewards of the Titanic’s legacy – has taken eight expeditions to the wreck site and recovered more than 5,000 artifacts. Two hundred of them are on display at the Natural Sciences museum.

These artifacts – a cargo hook, playing cards, a single shoe, cutlery, a leather satchel, etc. – are not particularly remarkable in themselves, but they become remarkable as one senses the uncanny mystery of their cold, ghostly, underwater survival.  A few perfume bottles. A piece of sheet music of a song called Sugar Moon. As I slowly made my way through the exhibit, these relics took on the solemnity of those tombstones that ask the passerby to pause and consider not only the brevity of life, but the arrogance of pride.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”. . .

The sinking of the Titanic has lived in our imagination for a century, and it has become a metaphor for everything:  chivalry and heroism, shameful cunning, undying love, class warfare, racial bigotry, the supremacy of nature, the hubris of technology, God’s judgment, and the dark impenetrability of fate.

Photographers view the world through portals, so it’s not surprising that I decided to photograph the bronze frame window salvaged from the Titanic’s officers’ quarters. In its bright, transparent display box, with its rectangular fields of color, the cracked window reminded me of a Rothko painting – but only for a moment. Rothko’s floating “transcendence” immediately gave way to its opposite: an earthbound sense of materiality born of devastation. The arresting burnt orange along the left edge, I realized, was just rust; the muted blue colors, corrosion. Still, I stared. I took a photograph. I stared again. What was it? It was more than it was. An artwork of sorts. A collaboration with the sea. Beautiful in its own way. Not merely sad. More than that: grief, still lingering.