Many readers are aware of the heavily metaphoric nature of many posts on this blog. Sometimes staring directly at something can be too troubling to handle, so metaphors come to the rescue. I was about to board a plane in LaGuardia yesterday when the news about the sinking of the Costa Concordia came onto the news. The wrecks of mass transit carriers—whether trains, planes, buses, or cruise ships—are tragic in terms of the potential for harm to many. Perhaps worse, they are reminders of our own anonymity. It is the rare John Jacob Astor who gets remembered as the victim of a specific mass tragedy. And he was already famous to begin with. We hear more about the Buddy Holly crash than we do the individual names of the many thousands wiped out in the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. What were their names?
As of this morning eleven people are reported dead from the Costa Concordia, one of them notably not being Captain Francesco Schettino, the man who would not go down with the ship. Seafaring lore—surely some of the richest and most inventive in the world—has rules about this kind of thing. The captain goes down with the ship. Ships were (are) generally given feminine names since they are the womb-like protectors of those aboard. Nature knows no better protector than a mother. The captain is the dedicated son who, when his mother sinks, accompanies her to Davy Jones. The Italian coast guard had to order Schettino back aboard his sinking ship after he’d abandoned rescue efforts.
We expect much from our leaders. Things are so complicated in this world we’ve constructed that many of us know we simply couldn’t get along without those smarter than we are. When the car won’t start. When I can’t connect to the Internet. When Wikipedia is shut down for a day. When I watch movies about the last person left alive in some post-apocalyptic scenario. At these times I realize just how little I know. I’ve occasionally been privileged to drive a boat—something I have no business doing—by those who trust my judgment more than I do. Even out on a wide lake the world seems out of control. We need a captain who will stay with the ship. And when all of this is over, whose name will be remembered? Is it the eleven (maybe more) who died? No, it will be Captain Francesco Schettino, the man who refused to go down with his ship.