Thursday, August 23, 2012

My good friends GBS and ACD argue about the Titanic

George Bernard Shaw
Arthur Conan Doyle
You didn't know they were my friends, did you?

I am an English major, with Higher Degrees in English, too.  And I studied 19th c. British Lit. So of course they are my dear friends.

Anyway, they were arguing about the Titanic through a series of letters to the editor in the Daily News and Leader in May 1912. I'm guessing it was a London Newspaper, because that's where these two gentlemen lived at the time.

I'm not sure who put up the lovely webpage with the full text of both men's letters and some good background information, but you can find it here.

Basically, they were arguing about the way the Titanic disaster was being portrayed and "read" by the public.  This was right after the American investigation was over and the British one was just about over. People were hearing stories of not enough lifeboats, "women and children first" except for the many children in 3rd class, and the captain's death.

Mr. Shaw started it, with his letter that scolds the English public about their "romantic" read on the Titanic.
Why is it that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not of sympathy with the bereaved nor congratulation of the rescued, not of poetic expression of the soul purified by pity and terror, but of a wild defiance of inexorable Fate and undeniable Fact by an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?  
The romanticism Shaw deplores is the idea that men should be heroes, officers should be calm, and everyone should "face death without a tremor."

What's wrong with all this romanticism?  Well, this is what Shaw says:
I ask, what is the use of all this ghastly, blasphemous, inhuman, braggartly lying?  Here is a calamity which might well make the proudest man humble, and the wildest joker serious.  It makes us vainglorious, insolent and mendacious.  
Arthur Conan Doyle disagreed with Shaw, and he wrote a letter to the editor in answer.  Here's the main gist of his letter:

As to the general accusation that the occasion has been used for the glorification of British qualities, we should indeed be a lost people if we did not honor courage and discipline when we see it in its highest form. 
In other words: romanticize away!  This event deserves to be glorified!  Why?
That our sympathies extend beyond ourselves is shown by the fact that the conduct of the American male millionaires has been warmly eulogized as any single feature in the whole wonderful epic.   

Um . . . "whole wonderful epic"?

Doyle seemed to already be planning the movie!

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