Titanic Belfast and the Kantian Sublime.
Recently we arranged with friends of our to visit Belfast for the day to take boys to the Titanic Belfast Exhibit.
Ever cynical bone in my body prepared myself to steel myself for the commodification of tragedy. Belfast has proved remarkably good at that. In what’s called the “post-conflict” phase of Northern Ireland’s history, a “peace dividend” seems to consist of making a ton of cash out of Titanic and Game of Thrones tourism. Tragedy and Extreme Violence.
The Titanic herself must surely have made more money that the White Star owners could possibly have imagined. If she had sailed the Atlantic back and forth carrying full loads of passengers for decades, she could never have made as much profit. Take the Queen Mary. Significantly bigger than The Titanic, she crossed the Atlantic over and over again, a majestic ocean liner who now lives in Long Beach and looks as well as she ever has. But she can’t compete with The Titanic. Real presence cannot compete with haunting absence.
The Titanic Experience in Belfast is managed phenomenally well because, in the most detailed Burkeian and Kantian sense, it is sublime. It is a museum that is missing its principle exhibit. It is devoted to to the imagining, the extrapolation, of something that isn’t there. When we went, much of the credit for achieving this went to someone called “Rob” who guided our little party. If Rob is representative, then the Titanic Experience employs people who know every rivet on that ship, and probably every rivet on the Olympic and the Britannic as well.
Everything about the very strange and striking building that now dominates the ship-building quarter of Belfast is devoted to stimulating an effort of imaginative extrapolation. Rob informed us of its symbolism, its minute geometric affinities with the detailed life and death of The Titanic, its builders, crew and passengers. The building is aligned so as to showcase a variety of carefully calculated views of the “footprints” of the Olympic and the Titanic (The Britannic was built on the precise site of the Olympic’s construction – yes I asked.) In front of the building is the very last surviving White Star vessel of any kind – the shuttle craft Nomadic, which conveyed posh people from Cherbourg to The Titanic. This vessel has been “rescued” from the not unpleasant fate of being a Parisian restaurant to “tow” the museum (and the invisible Titanic behind it).
What Rob did with all this material was create a sublime based on absence, a looming presence which loomed larger for having only an ideal presence. The architecture and Rob, working together created an introspective sublime, in which the thing we ended up applauding was not a big old ship, but rather our own imaginations. Ours became an auto-luxuriant sublime – the spectacle was all in our minds – the museum was just an oversized guide book to an interior space.
Mind you, I felt odd in the restaurant ordering drinks and being asked if I wanted ice.