Mar 22, 2013

My Harp Will Go On (Sorry)

There were several stories in the news this week about the auctioning of a violin reported to be the one band leader Wallace Hartley played on the deck of the sinking Titanic. I’m not that interested in whether or not the instrument turns out to be Hartley’s, but I am a bit curious as to why I know the man’s story at all. And why you do too, probably, and a whole bunch of other people as well. Even before he was portrayed in James Cameron’s film, Titanic, Hartley was probably the second or third most famous person aboard that ship, though maybe not by name. There was the Captain, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, and the violinist who continued to play as everyone boarded the lifeboats. Then a bunch of other jerks.

But why? Why do we know the violinist and not the Boatswain, who likely also did things we would approve of in those final moments– in other words, what turns someone's story into a “good story," and how is it working here?

A “good story” resonates with us on a cultural level. It somehow reflects our values or beliefs, or it portrays the world as we think it should be. It makes sense to us on a primal level. Because true stories are no different than myths and fables; they have to push the right set of narrative and archetypal buttons if they want to stay alive.

Mr. Hartley is not the first musician to persevere in the face of a watery death. When the Maenads threw rocks at Orpheus to punish him for spurning Dionysus, his music was said to be so beautiful that the rocks refused to strike him. Angered, the Maenads tore him to pieces and threw his body parts in the Hebrus, where his head continued to sing and his lyre continued to play. Similarly, English folklore features a number of “singing bone” stories, such as “Binnorie,” about a princess who is drowned by her jealous sister. The princess’s body floats downstream to a dam, where an enterprising (and one assumes not particularly squeamish) miller makes a harp from her hair and sternum. The harp then begins to play of its own accord, singing out the details of the princess’s murder for all to hear. This image of the self-playing (or wind-played) harp was a favorite of the Romantic poets as well, and it comes from the idea of music as the voice of nature, or the divine. It is the medium of truth, and it will always win out over our plots and jealousies*. For a modern take, I recommend reading “The Fluted Girl,” from Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story collection, Pump Six.

There is something of this type of story in the death of Wallace Hartley. He continued to play as the ship sank, providing succor for the doomed men and women around him, because as the conduit of the divine voice, that was his duty. But there are also elements of class in this story, and troubling implications about how it determines the value of a life.

One of the peculiarities of sinking ship scenarios is that, unlike other dangerous situations (say, a burning building) there are a fixed number of lifeboats on a ship, so there is a quantifiable amount of salvation to go around, and it gets doled out in discrete, seat-shaped pieces. The result is that the order in which people board the lifeboat reflects the value we place on their lives. Wealthy women and children first, followed by the wealthy men, then the not-so-wealthy women and children, and lastly the not-so-wealthy men. The hired help have to stay behind and continue to work until they die of socioeconomic disadvantage. (Except for the waiters on the Titanic, who could not work because they were locked in their quarters to prevent them from even trying to board the lifeboats. Ever.) Death, it seems, is not the great leveler he’s made out to be.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the story of Wallace Hartley took root in the public imagination of socially stratified Edwardian England, or that it has since bloomed in the country of Paul Ryan. Nor is it unique in modern folklore; the next time you’re looking for something to do on a Saturday night, go take a ghost tour of your hometown. For every weepy shade of a mayor’s daughter who gets to spend eternity pining for a rich fiancé, you will find a legion of ghostly bellhops, lighthouse keepers, and blacksmiths doomed to an afterlife of menial labor, as if no one who works for a living could have a truly meaningful life off the clock.

I don’t know about you, but I am sure not coming back to haunt my job. And if it ever hits an iceberg, those women and children can expect some elbows.

*Unlike harps, we tend to associate fiddles and violins with the diabolical, which makes Hartley’s story something of an anomaly. Think Nero playing the fiddle as Rome burns, Adrian Leverkühn infecting himself with syphilis to perfect his violin playing, or The Charlie Daniels Band’s Devil going down to Georgia.

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