We make the turn toward the new year this January with trepidation. Well, we make the turn toward every new year with trepidation, but added to the anticipatory jumps this year are what might be called the retrospective willies. You don’t have to have a very enlarged sense of history to remember what happened last time Western Civilization sped around the corner from ’13 to ’14. Not so good. The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment—Proust kicking off, the Cubists kicking back, Stravinsky kicking out—and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide. The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins (and presaged a still worse war to come). Naturally, a lot of people, staring at this year’s tea leaves—at rising new powers and frightened old ones—are searching for parallels between that ’14 and this one, and finding them. In the Times recently, the historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out a few, clustering around the folly of “toxic nationalisms” that draw big powers into smaller local disputes, with the Russians trying to play a better hand today in Syria than they played in Serbia a century ago.
Lodged somewhere in our collective memory of that catastrophe is an image, a metaphor of hubris, from just a year or so before: a great four-funnelled ocean liner, the biggest and most luxurious ever built, whose passengers, rich and poor, crowd on board, the whole watched over by a bearded man named Edward John Smith, with the chief designer, Thomas Andrews, along for the maiden voyage, too. Then the ship sets off from Southampton, sure of itself, unsinkable, until it comes to the ice fields of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland—and speeds right on through them to its anchorage, here in New York. Because this ship isn’t the Titanic but its nearly identical twin sister, the Olympic, made at the same time, by the same people, to do the same job in the same way. (A single memorable image exists of the two ships in dock together.) The Olympic not only successfully completed its maiden voyage but became known as Old Reliable, serving as a troop carrier in the First World War, and sailing on for twenty years more. (A third, late-released liner in the same class, the Britannic, hit a mine in the Aegean, in 1916, while serving as a hospital ship, and sank, a true casualty of war.)
The story of the two ships is one to keep in mind as we peer ahead into the new year. It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic. We have a fatal attraction to fatality. We don’t have one movie called “Titanic,” starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, about a tragic love and a doomed adventure, and another called “Olympic,” a musical comedy starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, about a happy voyage over. We have only one movie, and remember only one sad tale. If our history leads us to the First World War, then we imagine that we were always bound on that collision course, and we cannot imagine that, with a bit of luck and another set of contingencies, we might have been on the Olympic, not the Titanic. We search for parallels of disaster, and miss parallels of hope. False positives are the great curse of diagnostics, in historical parallels and prostate screenings alike.
Is it all chance and contingency, though? Do we not know what boat we’re on until the iceberg informs us? Leafing through recent books on the last encounter with ’14, you find one thing that does seem to have the chill of ice about it. Even open societies, sailing, so to speak, on the open seas of history, are not immune to the appeal to honor and the fear of humiliation. The relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak sounds an icy note through the rhetoric of 1914—from the moment Franz Ferdinand is shot to the moment the troops are sent to the Western Front. The prospect of being discredited, “reduced to a second-rate power,” was what drove the war forward. The German Kaiser kept saying that he would never again allow himself to be embarrassed by the British. Lloyd George, in London, felt that Britain had to go to war or it would never be “taken seriously” in the councils of Europe. Needless wars are rushed along, it seems, by an overcharge of the language of honor and credibility, when the language of common sense and compromise would be a lot more helpful. When someone says, “Ram the iceberg! We can’t afford to let it make us look weak,” it’s time to run for the deck. Sanity lurks in sailing around the ice.
But, then, sanity doesn’t necessarily guarantee safe passage. Two boats set sail in those prewar years a century ago: the boat that sailed on and the boat that sank. Olympic or Titanic? Which is ours? It is, perhaps, essential to life to think that we know where we’re going when we set out—our politics and plans alike depend on the illusion that someone knows where we’re going. The cold-water truth that the past provides, though, may be that we can’t. To be a passenger in history is to be unsure until we get to port—or the lifeboats—and, looking back at the prow of our ship, discover the name, invisible to our deck-bound eyes, that it possessed all along.