Mise en abyme

The disappearance of the OceanGate Expeditions submarine, a small capsule housing five people on an adventure to observe the wreck of the Titanic, 4,000 meters underwater, sounds like a reminder of history, a bis repetita from the depths.


In her day, the Titanic represented luxury and progress, carrying over 2,000 passengers: Irish immigrants to America, middle-class people and the cream of the bourgeoisie: billionaire Benjamin Guggenheim, copper magnate, Margaret Brown, writer and human rights activist, wife of mining magnate John Brown, Isidor Straus, owner of Macy's stores, and John Jacob Astor, wealthy American businessman. Today, the Titan, this small 6.5-meter-long submersible, carries 5 people: Stockton Rush, head of the OceanGate Expeditions company, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, director of the underwater research program on the wreck of the Titanic, nicknamed 'Monsieur Titanic' by the newspaper Le Monde last year, and three passengers who paid 250,000 euros for their expedition: Hamish Harding, a billionaire adventurer, Shahzada Dawood, a Pakistani businessman and his 19-year-old son, Suleman.

At the time of writing, we can only hope that the passengers are still alive and that they will be rescued; noises that could be coming from the submersible were picked up by sonar last night, boats are being dispatched to the site of the wreck, and Ifremer's Victor 6000 robot is due to set off on an expedition next night to find the submarine. This race against time, reminiscent of other high-profile rescue operations such as that of little Rayan trapped in a well in Morocco, has us on tenterhooks, and this news item, 111 years after the first Titanic tragedy, sheds a disturbing light on our times.

From the very large to the very small - technological progress and the earth's limits

In 1912, the Titanic was the largest ship ever built: 269 meters long, 28 meters wide (by way of comparison, the largest liner in existence today, Wonder of the Seas, is 360 meters long, and the Queen Mary II of the famous Cunard company is 345). While the gigantism of equipment, like the size of buildings, has progressed throughout the century that separates us from the wreck, technology has also moved in another direction, that of miniaturization. In the 1960s, Moore's empirical law, named after one of the founders of the Intel engineering company, stated that a system's computing power doubled every two years: as a result, electronic machines became smaller, faster and more powerful, and cheaper. The image presented by OceanGate today, that of a mini submersible barely 7 meters long, set out to meet a beached mastodon, illustrates the meeting of two ideals of technology: gigantism and ultra-precision. From the depths of the ocean, these two machines reflect both man's genius and his limitations, with the death of humans paradoxically inscribed in the reign of the living or 'terrestrial', in all its forms: mineral - iceberg, seawater - plant - the algae growing on the wreck of the Titanic - or animal - coral, plankton and other aquatic species.

The symbolic force of an event exceeds its reality

The legend of the Titanic, popularized by James Cameron's 1997 film, uses the sinking of the ship as a representation of human hubris, highlighting the conflict between Bruce Ismay, the boss of the White Star Line, who wanted to make headlines with the speed of the Titanic, and the wiser Captain Edward Smith, who reluctantly obeyed. The reality is more complex, less caricatured: many elements aligned for the catastrophe to take place, speed - which was not really sought by Ismay, the Titanic being above all a ship embodying solidity and luxury - being only one of the parameters that contributed to the accident.

In a similar vein, history records that the Titanic's orchestra played until the very last moment, and that this impromptu concert ended with the hymn 'Nearer, My God, to Thee', which was denied by several survivors. Nevertheless, because this tune is more dramatic than Archibald Joyce's Songe d'Automne waltz, which would therefore be the real last piece, we prefer to keep the image of a tune known to all still today, and which symbolizes the coming end and hope.

So perhaps what counts is not so much the historical truth of a shipwreck as the force of an event and what it says about a society. In 1912, it was the Belle Epoque, faith in technological progress and the future, that sank with the Titanic, an event that takes on even greater significance when seen in the context of the First World War, which broke out two years later.

Climate change and social justice at the heart of contemporary readings of renewed drama

Different times, different customs, but still the same evocative power: James Cameron's film, 85 years after the fact, can be read today as a metaphor for climate change, as proposed by The Economist in 2022:

  • Before the shock, the fact that warnings of icebergs in the Titanic's path were ignored precipitated the accident, making the sinking more of a tragedy than a drama.
  • From the collision :
    • The passengers' attitudes, ranging from resistance (3rd class passengers struggling to get out of the lower decks, Rose going to rescue Jack), to denial, resignation or finally selfish 'sauve-qui-peut' ;
    • Differences in treatment according to social class, with the poor having much lower survival rates, being further away from the main bridges (note, however, that here, the difference in male/female mortality was in favor of women, whereas for climate change it's women who are most affected).

The stakes are not the same for the Titan submarine: there will be no difference between the 5 passengers because of their social background or behavior, heroism or selfishness having no meaning here, the cardinal value being oxygen-preserving calm. However, a question posed in certain media closely resembles a major issue in climate change adaptation: who will pay? With salvage operations costing several million euros, and involving very wealthy individuals who, in the eyes of some, may have indulged in a form of dangerous whim at their own risk and peril - the contract specifies the mortal risks on the front page - it might seem delicate to make the taxpayer foot the bill. Shouldn't the money deployed here be deployed elsewhere, to help other people, also in mortal danger, for simpler, more modest reasons - lack of water, food or medicine? While it may seem premature to address this question while research is underway, and also because the lives of these people are embodied - by the fact that we know their identity - the question of responsibility and funding is a major issue for our societies in the face of the environmental changes at work.

A mise en abyme

In literature, abyss refers to an abyss of unfathomable depth. To abyme is to fit into something, to represent an image within a similar image, a motif that can be repeated ad infinitum, to the point of vertigo, thus rediscovering the original meaning of the abyss, that bottomless pit in which repetition, the image reflected like Narcissus in the water, fascinates and drives mad.

The story of the Titan shipwrecked in the wreck of the Titanic is itself a mise en abyme, with multiple meanings: historical, physical, symbolic - history repeating itself in the abysses of the Atlantic Ocean to illustrate human hubris in the face of the power of life: icebergs yesterday, underwater depths today, the limits of the human machine in both cases.

In 1912, progress was all about connecting people and making fast, safe crossings of the Earth. Over the course of the century, the meaning of exploration has broadened to encompass other dimensions, no longer just horizontal to the surface of the globe, but also vertical, from space to the depths of the sea, extending man's perspectives towards the whole of life, the planet and the universe.

For the Titan's passengers, the exploration was also human and historical: they didn't go on a mission to observe the depths of the ocean, but to see the wreck of a ship symbolic of our modern societies. They knew the risks, perhaps, they ignored them, surely, and plunged into the dark waters to recover a piece of buried history, to salute the dead souls of a vanished era.

While there's still hope that the mise en abyme isn't a complete abyss, and rather than seeing this story as yet another failure of human hubris and technology, let's try to see this accident as a precarious attempt by science to apprehend the living, by mankind to understand its history, and by our societies, finally, to show solidarity, courage and inventiveness in rescuing fellow human beings, whoever they are, whatever they've done, whatever the cost.

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