Friday, April 10, 2009

The Ship That Keeps on Sinking

In the mid 1990’s, Franklin, my therapist, suggested that I do a self-portrait of myself as a naked child. The assignment was designed to liberate an innocent, joyful, spontaneous spirit from the anxious, striving, and self-conscious man I had, by age thirty-eight, unfortunately, become.

Like eating vegetables, meditating, and all things meant to do me good, I resisted the exercise. I didn’t want to paint myself as a child. I pictured those cloying, doe-eyed paintings of children that decorated the waiting room of my pediatrician’s office. Every week my therapist would ask, “Have you done the painting yet?” Finally, he stopped asking.

Around the same time, while in Philadelphia on business, I wandered into an antique shop and saw a reverse painting on glass of the sinking Titanic. As a child I’d always been fascinated by ships, and especially by ocean liners, a fascination ignited by my first visit to New York City with my papa when I was five years old, and I saw a group of them, the Queen Mary, the France, the United States, lined up and looking, with their vanilla superstructures and red-cherry funnels, like gargantuan banana splits in their berths.

Around the same time I first saw, on the boxy wooden Magnavox in our living room, the film version of A Night to Remember, Walter Lord’s minute-by-minute account of the sinking of the Titanic. The vision of the liner’s counter stern rising out of the water, looming with its lights still ablaze against a starry sky, made an indelible impression on me; possibly my first experience of awe. On the brown shopping-bag covers of my school textbooks, and in my loose-leaf notebooks, I sketched the sinking Titanic over and over again, as if somehow by sketching it I could bring the events of that incredible night up close and make them personal. And though I included in my sketches tiny bodies plunging into the water, I never thought about those people, I never considered their horror; I never concerned myself with the human tragedy. I only thought about the ship, about funnels and propellers and portholes and that looming, massive hull. The first long paper I ever wrote for a school assignment was about the Titanic, complete with a cutaway illustration of the ship—its details completely improvised, down to the wallpaper on the cabin walls.

The painting in the antique shop was about four-feet wide and a foot and a half tall, with a cheap gold-painted plaster frame. My then-wife and I had just bought our first apartment on the Upper West Side. The apartment featured a sunken living room with a dining alcove above it. We painted one wall of the alcove bright red, and docked our most extravagant and expensive furniture item there: a 1920’s maple English bar unit, with a hinged top that opened to a Busby-Berkley display of blinding light and mirrors etched with droll cocktail shakers and martini glasses. The painting, I thought, would look splendid over it. It was not a realistic depiction. All the details were somehow, spectacularly wrong. The funnels were much too tall and wide, the iceberg a monumental exaggeration, the colors impossible. It was a child’s dream of the Titanic sinking, a work of unfettered naiveté. It reminded me of the sketches I had done in grade school. The antiques dealer wanted $800 for it, too rich by far for my blood, so I let it go.

But the painting wouldn’t let me go. It haunted me, as a matter of fact, so much that tried recreating it from memory. The result fell well short of my aims. So I tried again, and again. Rather than attempt any form of realism, I aimed for what I had seen in the reverse painting: a child’s interpretation of the disaster, with everything somehow perfectly, inevitably, sublimely wrong. Soon, like Monet with his lily pads, Degas with his ballerinas, Morandi with his dusty brown bottles, I’d found not only my perfect subject, but a perfect style to go with it. I was a naive artist.

There followed some 75 paintings of the Titanic. They lined the walls of our Upper West Side apartment (with its appropriate sunken living room), in both sinking and non-sinking poses.
One day I brought one of the paintings to my therapist.

“Congratulations,” he said.

I had done the assignment.

* * *

The sinking of the Titanic has obsessed generations. It is the Belle Epoque’s answer to Noah’s Ark. As legends go, it looms as large. It has all the necessary elements: a drama of disaster unfolding upon a world stage. As with Noah and his ark, it is a tragedy where a select few prevail, while the rest are doomed. And while the story of the Titanic may not take in the entire globe, it takes in quite a big chunk of humanity: rich, poor, heroic, cowardly. The ship’s passenger list represented almost as many specimens of humanity as the beasts aboard Noah’s vessel stood for all species. Indeed, had the Titanic story never happened, sooner or later someone would have had to invent it.

In fact someone did. In 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic went down, a struggling author of seafaring tales named Morgan Robertson penned a novel about a magnificent liner’s fateful encounter with an iceberg in the north Atlantic on a freezing cold April night. As Walter Lord describes it in his chilling forward to what remains by far and away the best book about the Titanic disaster (one that treats the events of that night cubistically, like a still life by Braque or Juan Gris):

The real ship was 882.5 feet long; [Robertson’s] fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were triple screw and could make 24-25 knots. Both could carry 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But then this didn’t seem to matter, because both were labeled “unsinkable.”

On April 10, 1912, the real ship left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. Her cargo included a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and a list of passengers collectively worth $250 million dollars. On her way she too struck and iceberg and went down on a cold April night.

Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic. This is the story of her last night.

The title of Robertson’s novel was Futility, and as Lord points out it was meant to underscore the folly of all human attempts to rise above their limits and rival their gods.

Having finished seventy-five Titanic paintings, I decided to hold a salon. We did it in our apartment. My wife made period hors d’oeuvres to go with the champagne. I hung a trumped up Titanic life preserver (the real ones didn’t say her name) on the apartment door, and hired a solo cellist to play ragtime and Nearer My God to Thee. The event took place on a Saturday. Over a hundred people stopped by throughout the day, coming from as far as Vermont, Washington D.C., and Georgia.

Only one guest disappointed us by not being able to come, a man who lived across town, but who, because of an infirmity, responded with regrets to my faxed invitation. However—his typed letter went on to say—if I gave him a rain check he would do his best to come some other time.

Two Sundays later, in a wheelchair pushed by his attendant, Walter Lord arrived, trembling with Parkinson’s disease, but alert and eager for my offerings. Tea and crumpets were served. One by one as he sat at the dining room table, I took the paintings down from the walls and showed them to him, and he nodded his approval. When I asked him to explain his own obsession with the Titanic, Mr. Lord gave this quite simple answer, “Well,” he said, as if it were perfectly obvious, “if there’s anything better than a great ship, it’s a great ship that sinks!”

* * *

But Mr. Lord (who died in 2002) and I were far from alone. Few are not drawn to the story of the Titanic. The salient feature of all legends and myths is that they need to have happened. Something in our collective unconscious yearns for them. What reality can’t or won’t provide, we concoct (“The Abominable Snowman.” “Elvis lives!”). Even when, as with the story of the Titanic, reality is generous to a fault, providing us with as much awe and horror as we could wish for, still, we feel the need to enlarge, embellish, and to otherwise augment her best efforts.

People need disasters; we need tragedy; we need horror. But we need to enshrine—to protect and preserve and contain—it in myth, like a lion in its cage, where it can fascinate yet do us no harm. The world is a dangerous and often grim place, life itself a treacherous and tragic enterprise, with doom our ultimate destination and no possibility of escape.

We are all passengers on the Titanic.

Hence, despite all attempts by oceanographers and historians including Walter Lord to put to rest any lingering doubts as to what, exactly, happened on that cold April night—thus sinking all Titanic myths once and for all—still, the ship, along with her precious cargo of legend and lore, keeps bobbing up again and refuses to stay sunken. The reason is simple enough: the supply of facts may be limitless, but the imagination knows no limits.

Children are especially susceptible. One day as I was walking through Grand Central Terminal, bringing one of my seventy-five paintings to a downtown gallery, a little girl walking with her dad caught what must have been a very brief glimpse of the canvas. She cried, “Daddy, daddy—the Titanic!”

She couldn’t have been more than four years old. Yet she knew.

She knew.

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