TITANIC; The Death and Life of a Legend By Michael Davie Knopf. 245 pp. $19.95
THERE IS something horrible yet satisfactory about the collapse of great schemes from unforeseen causes. We will always stare in awe at the ruins of the Coliseum at Rome, or read in wonder of how Napoleon ignored the dangers of the Russian winter, or underline the pages of history where a germ changed everything by infecting a great leader. The story of the steamship Titanic is one of those pure and perfect dramas of man's presumption.
Nothing in the realm of destruction seems as complete as a sinking at sea. With the land there are always ashes, wreckage, foundations, a chance to visit the precise site where it happened. In the Atlantic, windy silence and the unceasing restless swell erase all; nothing there is different from 1912, or from 12 A.D.
Yet some intangible has kept the Titanic story alive. Perhaps it is the image of the ship's band playing to the end, or the plight of the wealthy passengers, like Col. J.J. Astor, who found their money could not save them. Or perhaps it is simply the word "unsinkable."
The Titanic legend has never been more alive than now, because of technical breakthroughs which enabled scientists for the first time to visit the wreck, undisturbed since the sinking in 1912. Dr. Robert Ballard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution vessel Knorr finally found the Titanic on Sept. 1, 1985 at 1:40 a.m., to discover that even wine bottles and pieces of dinner service lay in apparently perfect condition at a depth of 13,000 feet.
The ship lies nearly upright and, to Ballard's surprise, there was no sign of the long expected gash on the ship's starboard side where most experts had presumed the edge of an iceberg had sliced through the "unsinkable" double hulls. Instead, they saw an apparent failure of the rivets and a long rupture between the iron hull plates.
This book will not be read much for the surprises it brings to the puzzle of the Titanic's sinking. Michael Davie, a smooth, thorough British journalist has no radical theory to present. The real mystery of the sinking lies with her captain, Edward Smith, who chose to steam at 20 to 21 knots when his own wireless officers were relaying reports of floating ice and icebergs ahead.
It was one of the beauties of the era that Smith acknowledged his mistake by going down with the ship and, as a result, became not a scapegoat but a revered figure to whom a statue was erected in his hometown in Staffordshire. It is with that sort of thought -- a pre-World War I chivalry -- that the charm of the Titanic legend endures. This is the theme of Davie's book.
The author argues that the Titanic represented the high-water mark of that tide of invention and expansionism and defiance of limits that led to World War I, a war that, like the ship, dwarfed everything out of human scale.
The huge size of the ship was a direct result of fierce competition between the capitalist giants of sea commerce, Cunard and White Star, competing for immigrants fleeing Europe and the international wealthy fleeing ennui. In a way, civilization was aboard, at least western civilization, and when 1,522 of the 2,227 passengers and crew died, it seemed a judgment.
Davie also shrewdly stresses how thoroughly modern a disaster the Titanic sinking was. Technology, as it advances, always exacts a price -- it solves a specific problem and creates other problems which cannot be solved: thus superhighways create gridlock, not freedom of motion, and the Titanic, by virtue of her very size, speed and theoretical safety, went down in a catastrophe which would have been lesser if the passengers had sailed on smaller ships.
"I have approached the Titanic story as a reporter but have also tried to explain its causes and repercussions; to see how the ship symbolized the shift of power across the Atlantic from Europe to the United States, and why this particular disaster has cast such a long shadow down seven decades," Davie writes. But luckily, the reporter in him triumphs over the sociologist.
Davie's work is a worthy successor to Walter Lord's popular A Night To Remember (1960). With a clear eye for the emotional appeal of the great ship's story, he brings the story up to date, even recording the various schemes that have been put forward to raise the hulk. One poignant detail, typical of Davie's method, is his tender interview with Edward Kamuda, of Indian Orchard, Mass., a man who has devoted his life to the Titanic since 1953 when he saw the film starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, and has become the world's leading scholar on the subject.
Unexpectedly, Kamuda was not thrilled to hear of the finding of the wreck by Ballard and the Oceanographic Institution, though this breakthrough would doubtless lead to huge leaps forward for scholarship. Instead he voiced fears that the "mystery and veneration which have always surrounded the ship . . . will somehow be dissipated . . . "
It is as if the myth had grown more concrete than reality.
Duncan Spencer, the author of "Conversations with the Enemy: The Story of Robert Garwood," writes frequently on maritime topics.