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The Titanic's Humanist Paradox.

The tragic story of the sinking of the Titanic is firmly etched in our popular culture. The subject of numerous books and articles, a big-budget movie of that name also won the Academy Award for best picture in 1998. Typically Titanic stories emphasize individual heroism or ill-fated romance, but a secondary theme is sometimes present. There is a persistent belief that the great vessel's story was predicted in a novel written by a little-known American author more than a decade before the actual sinking.

During his life Morgan Robertson wrote some 200 adventurous seafaring tales, but he would otherwise be forgotten without the Titanic disaster of 1912. In 1898 he wrote a short novel about a great ocean liner named the Titan that goes down in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. The many similarities between his work of fiction and the actual events of the Titanic sinking have prompted some to view his work as proof of a prophetic power or paranormal quality.

This matter is dealt with in Martin Gardner's 1998 book The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? which reprints Robertson's 1898 novel, The Wreck of the Titan: or, Futility, in its entirety. Gardner offers more prosaic explanations than supernatural intervention.

Gardner argues that Robertson's specifications for the size and speed of the fictional Titan--which are so close to those of the real Titanic--are projections from his knowledge of turn-of-the-century marine engineering. Robertson's description of the iceberg slicing a great ocean liner is also a very logical conjecture. A shearing side collision with an obstacle is one of the few ways such a large vessel could suffer enough damage to its compartments to cause it to sink.

The similarity of the names Titan and Titanic--which strikes so many believers in the paranormal as singular proof--is also easily explainable by the grandiose pattern of nomenclature used by the White Star line of passenger ships. The company already had ships called Oceanic, Baltic, Celtic, Britannic, Adriatic, and Olympic and had announced plans to build one named the Gigantic. It didn't take a great intellectual feat to guess the next vessel in the series might be the Titanic. Indeed, that's exactly what William Young Winthrop did in his 1902 novel A Twentieth-Century Cinderella or $20,000 Reward. The striking singularity of the similar names for passenger vessels fades away once we see there was a fictional Titan (1898), a fictional Titanic (1902), an actual Titanic (1912), and a serial pattern to the White Star names for its vessels.

In our enthusiasm to put to rest the apparent mystery of the Titan-Titanic connection, another aspect of Robertson's novel has been passed over with little or no comment. Inside The Wreck of the Titan, in both 1898 and 1912 versions, there is a short dramatic episode I shall refer to as Robertson's humanist paradox.

The protagonist in this fictional account of an ocean liner sinking in the North Atlantic is a hard-drinking atheist, John Rowland. He is a sailor given to Darwinian cosmological musings about life, his failed romantic efforts, and the balancing of moral forces of the universe. "The survival of the fittest ... cause and effect," he says in the book. "It explains the Universe--and me."

In the chaos following the Titan's collision with the ice, Rowland finds himself on an iceberg doing battle with a polar bear. Our hero loses an arm but manages to kill the attacking beast. His situation is very desperate, since he is exposed to the elements and severely wounded. To complicate matters further he has rescued a small child from the ship and must care for her needs. It is in these dire circumstances that Rowland begins to think about the meaning of life, the possibility of a deity, and the moral nature of the universe.

What Robertson tried to do in this fictional work was to take us inside the mind of an honest atheist in peril. His fictional hero, the survivor of a dreadful marine disaster, sees no evidence of divine moral purpose in the death of innocent passengers, including children. In Rowland's view:

No good, merciful God created this world or its conditions. Whatever may be the nature of the causes at work behind our mental vision, one fact is indubitably proven--that the qualities of mercy, goodness, justice, play no part in the governing scheme.

He goes on to speculate as to whether the notion of a moral universe really is "the core of all religions on earth" or just "the cowardly human fear of the unknown."

As might be expected of an atheist, Rowland has nothing but contempt for revealed religion. He refers ironically to the Christian deity as "their good God whom they borrowed from the savage, bloodthirsty race that invented him." The origin and longevity of religion lies in "a class of soothsayers, medicinemen, priests, and clergymen, all living on the hopes and fears excited by themselves." All of the alleged revealed texts, "the Bibles, and Korans, and Vedas, are misleading and unreliable" for this seafaring man.

With his credentials as an infidel and unbeliever firmly established, our hero moves on to the essentials of the humanist paradox. Suppose, he thinks, there might still be a deity, "an unseen, unknown Being, who knows my heart--who is watching me now?" This is not the creator-deity of any known established religion; it is something else, possibly some entirely unknowable entity. Rowland muses that "this Being gave me my reason, which doubts Him, and on Him is the responsibility." So the rational thought processes used to deny the existence of the creator-deity paradoxically might be the creation of that same deity.

Our unbeliever further entertains the possibility that he "might be mistaken" about the unknowable deity's existence. That being the case, our desperate hero turns to the matter of prayer, the effectiveness of which he seriously doubts. He is aware of the historical tendency to "pray for health and success and both are but natural in the marching of events." Does prayer work? "Who knows?" is his answer.

Still, on the off chance there is an unknown deity somewhere out there who might answer a prayer, shall the infidel send off a petition to the divine one or ones? Rowland thinks so, as he figures it is not his fault he is endowed with such reasoning powers as to deny the creator's existence. Rather, any blame attaches to the creator-deity: "Can an unbeliever, in full strength of his reasoning powers, come to such trouble that he can no longer stand alone, but must cry for help from an imagined power?"

So Rowland, the unhypocritical infidel, prays in a highly religious fashion. Robertson writes, "Sinking to his knees the atheist lifted his eyes to the heavens, and with his feeble voice and the fervor born of helplessness, prayed to the God that he denied." Moreover he prays, not for himself, but for the child in his care and for her mother, another passenger and his love interest on the ill-fated Titan. It is too superficial to see this paradox as a simple case of an atheist who "gets religion" when his life is in peril. This is a rational exercise more than or as much as a spiritual one. However, the context makes the whole episode ambiguous as to Rowland's beliefs.

The terrible adventure on the iceberg ends as a rescue vessel rounds "the corner of ice" to save both Rowland and the child. Keeping with the ambiguous theme, Robertson doesn't let the reader accept the situation as a divine answer to a petitionary prayer. The doubting hero soon calculates that the rescue vessel must have been headed out in the right direction on its mission of mercy before he uttered his desperate prayer. So the clear evidence for a providential response to the self-contradictory atheist's prayer is still lacking in the story. And the author doesn't entertain us with the further possibility that an omniscient deity would know to start the rescue vessel on its way having full precognition of the petitionary prayer to follow.

The source or inspiration for Robertson's puzzling secularist tale remains a mystery, mainly because so little is known about him. Born in Oswego, New York, the son of a Great Lakes sea captain, he received a public school education before becoming a merchant sailor from 1877 to 1886. He later tried to make a living as a diamond setter, inventor, and writer in New York City. Although quite prolific in the latter regard, all his various endeavors failed to lift him from poverty. He died of a drug overdose in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1915.

Writing was difficult for him and he lacked the university education of other authors. He read Rudyard Kipling's stories for inspiration and once corresponded with the novelist Joseph Conrad, but he was no match for these gifted writers in producing literary works of greater complexity. In a short magazine autobiography in the March 28, 1914, Saturday Evening Post, Robertson declared himself "a close student of psychology and mental phenomena." He claimed to have been helped in his own mental difficulties by a professor's use of hypnotic suggestion and tells a personal anecdote about how this phenomenon worked over "a great distance."

In spite of his lifelong interest in obscure psychological topics, including telepathy, he puzzlingly made no claim in his 1914 autobiography to be the man who predicted the Titanic disaster. Meanwhile, the source of the humanist paradox inside his 1898 adventure novel is unknown. All that can be said is that he lived in a time of great intellectual turmoil during which spiritualism, socialism, Darwinism, agnosticism, imperialism, and conventional religions contested for the loyalties of humanity.

Perhaps Robertson's objective was to set before the reader an alternative to the deity of the theists while not submitting to the conclusions of an atheistic perspective. In any event, the divine creator-being he hypothesizes is singularly unattractive: unknowable, remote, ambiguous, and completely mysterious as to both her, his, or its actions and nature. As such, this imagined deity is unacceptable to all theists and, of course, all atheists, but the notion might provide some comfort to agnostics. The idea of a deity unknowable to humankind and not discernible from the cosmic order that possibly answers the prayers of unbelievers is an interesting contradiction of the strong theistic notions so prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Born in Montreal, Fred Donnelly teaches history at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. A department chair and former associate dean of graduate studies, he also writes a monthly newspaper column.
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Title Annotation:author who seemed to predict the Titanic disaster some 14 years before the event
Author:Donnelly, Fred
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Words:1770
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