Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

Certain Aspects Of The Admirable Inquiry Into The
Loss Of The Titanic—1912
I have been taken to task by a friend of mine on the "other side" for my strictures
on Senator Smith's investigation into the loss of the Titanic, in the number of THE
ENGLISH REVIEW for May, 1912. I will admit that the motives of the
investigation may have been excellent, and probably were; my criticism bore
mainly on matters of form and also on the point of efficiency. In that respect I
have nothing to retract. The Senators of the Commission had absolutely no
knowledge and no practice to guide them in the conduct of such an investigation;
and this fact gave an air of unreality to their zealous exertions. I think that even in
the United States there is some regret that this zeal of theirs was not tempered
by a large dose of wisdom. It is fitting that people who rush with such ardour to
the work of putting questions to men yet gasping from a narrow escape should
have, I wouldn't say a tincture of technical information, but enough knowledge of
the subject to direct the trend of their inquiry. The newspapers of two continents
have noted the remarks of the President of the Senatorial Commission with
comments which I will not reproduce here, having a scant respect for the "organs
of public opinion," as they fondly believe themselves to be. The absolute value of
their remarks was about as great as the value of the investigation they either
mocked at or extolled. To the United States Senate I did not intend to be
disrespectful. I have for that body, of which one hears mostly in connection with
tariffs, as much reverence as the best of Americans. To manifest more or less
would be an impertinence in a stranger. I have expressed myself with less
reserve on our Board of Trade. That was done under the influence of warm
feelings. We were all feeling warmly on the matter at that time. But, at any rate,
our Board of Trade Inquiry, conducted by an experienced President, discovered
a very interesting fact on the very second day of its sitting: the fact that the water-
tight doors in the bulkheads of that wonder of naval architecture could be opened
down below by any irresponsible person. Thus the famous closing apparatus on
the bridge, paraded as a device of greater safety, with its attachments of warning
bells, coloured lights, and all these pretty-pretties, was, in the case of this ship,
little better than a technical farce.
It is amusing, if anything connected with this stupid catastrophe can be amusing,
to see the secretly crestfallen attitude of technicians. They are the high priests of
the modern cult of perfected material and of mechanical appliances, and would
fain forbid the profane from inquiring into its mysteries. We are the masters of
progress, they say, and you should remain respectfully silent. And they take
refuge behind their mathematics. I have the greatest regard for mathematics as
an exercise of mind. It is the only manner of thinking which approaches the
Divine. But mere calculations, of which these men make so much, when
unassisted by imagination and when they have gained mastery over common
sense, are the most deceptive exercises of intellect. Two and two are four, and
two are six. That is immutable; you may trust your soul to that; but you must be
certain first of your quantities. I know how the strength of materials can be