February 11, 2006
Two Disasters at Sea

By James Piereson

Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, was the first and certainly one of the most influential of twentieth-century attacks on Victorian morality. His portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon were meant to reveal the hypocrisy of these representative figures of the era. Under the guises of virtue, rectitude, and service to others, these Victorians were (according to Strachey) in fact seekers after influence, position, and public approbation. Strachey's portraits shaped the modern understanding of the Victorians as moral hypocrites and gave to the word "Victorian" a decisively negative interpretation.

World War I is thought by many to have been the last gasp of the Victorian era and the event that demonstrated the hollowness its claims to moral virtue. It was perhaps the disillusion with the war that prepared the way for the acceptance of Strachey's interpretation of the Victorians.

Others have pointed to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as the event that both closed the door on the Victorian era and represented its moral aspirations. After the Titanic's fateful collision with the iceberg, Captain Smith and his crew, knowing the ship would go down within hours, set about placing women and children aboard the available lifeboats while the band played the hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee." Of the 2200 passengers, 1500 or so went down with the ship due to the inadequate supply of lifeboats on board. The captain and nearly all crew members went down with them. One of the executives of the White Star Line managed to save himself by sneaking on a lifeboat, and was afterwards denounced as a coward for having done so. Winston Churchill is said to have remarked that the conduct of the captain and crew, and of many of the men on board, affirmed his faith in Christian honor -- a pair of virtues that Strachey would later dismiss as features of the Victorian moral apparatus.

These ruminations are occasioned by the awful news of last week's sinking of the cruise ship Al Salam 98 on the Red Sea which cost the lives of perhaps 1,000 of the 1,500 passengers on board -- a disaster comparable in loss of life to the sinking of the Titanic. What is particularly worth noting about this disaster, however, is that according to survivors the captain and members of the crew adopted a "to hell with the passengers" attitude, and took off aboard scarce lifeboats as soon as it appeared that their ship was in danger of going down. The passengers were left to fend for themselves and, in the event, many drowned. The contrast with the Titanic's captain and crew could not be clearer.

This brings us back to Strachey and his condemnation of the Victorians as hypocrites. The attack of hypocrisy in modern times is not intended to encourage people to redouble their efforts to live up to high moral standards, but rather to dissolve the distinction altogether between virtue and vice. It seems hard to believe that this campaign, so successful in overturning moral categories in the West, has penetrated the Arab world. Still, one wonders, after contemplating these two sea disasters nearly 100 years apart in time, if in fact there might not be something to be said in favor of hypocrisy.

James Piereson is an occasional contributor to The New Criterion.

James Piereson

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