Are We On The Titanic Or The Olympic?

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:14 pm

Are we on the Titanic or the Olympic? That’s the question New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik asks in his piece “Two Ships,” as he looks at the last time Western civilization went from ’13 to ’14.

Gopnik is re-visiting the turn from 1913 to 1914, to think about the turn from 2013 to 2014.

He writes that 1913 was “full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment,” which included achievements for Cubism in art, Proust in literature and Stravinsky in music.

The year 1914 saw the assassination of the Archduke of Franz Ferdinand of Austria, setting in motion The Great War, which “left more than 10 million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins, (and presaged a still worse war to come.)”

Gopnik says another disaster is associated with that time in our collective memory — the sinking of the Titanic just a year and a half before.

But the Titanic had a sister ship, the Olympic, a near-identical luxury ocean liner, which also set sail from Southampton for New York. Both were full of passengers and hubris, sure of themselves and their unsinkability. One made it through the icy waters while the other famously foundered.

Gopnik asks why we have forgotten the success of the Olympic, which came to be called “Old Reliable,” and if we can know which boat we are on as we sail into this new year.


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As we sail into 2014, The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik writes, you don't have to have a very large sense of history to be thinking about the last time civilization turned the corner from '13 to '14, and ran headlong into World War I. Pretty soon, he says, what had been a positive, progressive culture in 1913 was on its way to committing suicide. And there's another disaster associated with that time: the sinking of the Titanic about a year and a half before. Adam asks: Why don't we think more about the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, which had a successful trip? And further, which ship are we on now?

Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker, also author of "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food." We spoke with him about that book, and he joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Adam, welcome back, and happy New Year, we hope.

ADAM GOPNIK: Happy New Year to you, Robin. It's cold as can be, here in New York. But by Canadian standards - and I am Canadian- it is nothing.

YOUNG: It is nothing. Well...

GOPNIK: It is, yeah.

YOUNG: ...and the question is, which ship are we on? You say we have a fatal attraction to fatality, that we have movie about the Titanic, none about the Olympic...

GOPNIK: Right.

YOUNG: ...which made an historic, successful trip. But jump right in. What does that have to do - as you say it does - with our sense of possibility now?

GOPNIK: Well, a couple of things. One is that we are - we have a fatal attraction to fatality. That is, we always - when we're looking back for causality, trying to understand how history happened, we are drawn to the things that didn't go well, and not to the ones that did, so that we obsess about the Titanic. We use it as a metaphor. We talk about rearranging deck chairs in the Titanic. What we mean, there's nothing we can do about the disaster, and so on. And we completely eliminate from our consciousness, we have total amnesia about its sister ship - an exactly identical boat - the Olympic, that went back and forth across the Atlantic so successfully, that it got to be known as Old Faithful.

And I think that that should be a source of some hope. We always see, and we can only often remember how things went wrong. And we are often blind to how things go right, which they very often do. And there's a double danger in that. There's a certain kind of optimism we can take from it. Oh, most of the time, stuff works out. The boat doesn't sink. But there's also a kind of a danger in it, because it makes us unduly paranoid. That is to say, we're constantly looking for the Titanic. We're constantly talking about Munich. We're constantly talking about 1939. We talk ourselves into a panic of impending catastrophe, when no pending catastrophe awaits. And that is one good way to make a catastrophe happen.

YOUNG: Right. Because, as you say, all things enter the equation, like when you have the fear of a catastrophe happening, then suddenly, you have pride and honor and humiliation. I want to just say one thing before we continue, Adam Gopnik. I'm going to let Adam Gopnik correct Adam Gopnik just for a second and avoid all the emails that will come to you. The ship that sailed that was so fantastic, the Olympic, it was actually called Old Reliable, right? Old Faithful, that's a...

GOPNIK: Oh, right. Did say I Old Faithful?

YOUNG: It's an...

GOPNIK: I was thinking...

YOUNG: Old Faithful is the...

GOPNIK: Old Faithful's in Yellowstone, right?


YOUNG: Right. Right.

GOPNIK: That's right.

YOUNG: But this idea that we forget about Old Reliable and we think about the Titanic, how that impacts decisions we make about how to plunge into things that are going on now. Others are looking at this, as well. You point to, I think, something in Time magazine. How are other people now looking at history and applying it now?

GOPNIK: Well, one of the best books on this whole subject in 1914 - not my specifically my little metaphor of the Olympic and the Titanic - is by the Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan, who has a new book out called "1914," in which she points out and trying to review all of the things that had to go wrong for this unimaginable catastrophe of the Great War, the First World War, to happen, is one thing was is that - is that it was a kind of game of chicken that people were playing. That is to say, we dare you to do the next thing. We dare you to do the next thing, in the moment when the sane thing to do was to say, nobody wants a European war. We have to make stopping it our primary goal, rather than showing - each of us showing the other that we're credible, that we won't be intimidated, that we won't back down.

YOUNG: Rather than - as you say - ram the iceberg, full speed ahead.

GOPNIK: Right, because the iceberg can't be allowed to intimidate us.


GOPNIK: How often that we have that kind of reasoning in the past 10 years? If we don't ram the iceberg, then all the other icebergs will think that they can get away with murder.


GOPNIK: That's part of the - that, I think, is part of the problem. You know, I did a series of lectures. This little comment that we're talking about derived from a series of lectures I did at the Metropolitan Museum here in New York last fall just about the 1913 problem, because 1913 is an amazing year of artistic activity throughout the world, here in America. It's when the Armory Show, the first great show of modernist art, takes place here.

And you ask yourself again and again: How is it that a society with that much going for it, a civilization with that much going for it, managed to commit suicide so quickly? And if there's one thing you can isolate, one reason that Margaret MacMillan turns to again and again, that historians go to, it's exactly the panic of the loss of face, panic of the idea that we will lose credibility, which starts more bad wars than any other single thing.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, Margaret MacMillan expounded on that in a piece in The New York Times in December, talking to echoes of the era that she studied, and applying them now, for instance, Russia, perhaps the U.S. and Syria.

GOPNIK: Mm-hmm. Well, those are all good examples of it. She's making the point that Russia is messing around in Syria, as Russia messed around in Serbia exactly 100 years ago. And it was their inability to play the Serbian game well that helped trigger the war. But similarly, I think, Robin, if you think about it, how many times did you hear when we were messing around in Syria, that if we don't act, we will lose all credibility in the future?

And if there's one thing, I think, that historians have learned over and over again, it's that that whole notion of credibility, if you don't - you have to act now, in some violent way, or when something crucial is at stake, you won't be believed, that that never really is the case. We failed. We lost the Vietnam War, but the 25 years that followed, our credibility, destroying loss in Vietnam, were, of course, the moment of the greatest ascent of American political and cultural and geo-strategic power that we've ever had. So that's almost always a bad argument.

YOUNG: So, Adam Gopnik, you start by asking: Is there way to know whether we're sailing on the Titanic or the Olympic now? And you write so beautifully that to be a passenger in history is to be unsure, until you get to port or into the lifeboat, and look back up and see. But it sounds as if - in just the seconds we have - you're making the case that it's worth just - it's more important just to ask the question.

GOPNIK: It's most important to look out for the icebergs, to steer around the icebergs, rather than show the icebergs that you're boss. But ultimately, yes, I think it's true. We never know. The ultimate lesson of 1913-1914, 2013-2014, is that we can never be sure.

YOUNG: Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food." We'll post his piece in The New Yorker and learn more about the ship that sailed successfully at Adam, thanks so much, as always.

GOPNIK: Pleasure, Robin, as always.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.