The Spiritual Power of Titanic

“It keeps eternal whisperings around

Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell

Gluts twice ten thousand caverns…”

–John Keats, On the Sea

And you thought it was only a movie.

A five-hankie weeper of a love story, certainly. A tragic historical event for sure, unforgettably re-created by a virtuoso film director. Definitely an Oscar-winning, record-breaking monster of a film, which spawned Leo-mania and a backlash to its extensive emotionalism. And it still seems to have enough potency to inspire another round of obsession as it is re-released in 3D. But all in all, you probably thought, it’s really just a movie.

Oh, my friend, how wrong you are.

Years before his Avatar made explicit use of myth to illuminate important  issues, James Cameron submerged himself in the tragic story of Titanic. In doing so, he created—only half-consciously, I think—a modern scripture of the heart, as spiritually evocative as any holy book to those who have the eyes to see and the heart to feel. Laugh if you will, but I feel this film is a doorway to the heavens.

I saw Titanic on the big screen in early 1998 and returned seven times to the theater to take notes, to make sure that what I was seeing was actually there. As a poet, I know metaphor and imagery can open the heart to transcendental experiences. I saw and felt such things here. I felt cleansed, uplifted at film’s end, not weepy or depressed. Why? I wondered.

The answer: There is a golden spiritual light at the heart of this film, which explains why (besides Leo DiCaprio’s looks and Kate Winslet’s spunk) audiences returned over and over to be bathed in its allure. It eludes those who hate the creaky screenplay, or dislike the sentimentality. This feeling is familiar to us from a thousand religious parables; it is what we as humans hope for, long for, and are willing to pay steep admission prices to experience again and again: the redeeming power of pure, unselfish love.

Certain events evoke collective emotion: they trigger in us a deeply submerged sense of unity and connection. We are later embarrassed and tend to downplay the emotion which naturally upwells at the time. And so it is here—Titanic’s tragic story embodies so many archetypal lessons and images that Cameron, by re-creating it, also re-created its mythic power.

But by framing the sinking in a sacrificial love story, he tapped into something far beyond his intent. And it is this that makes his Titanic spiritual and cathartic, a secular scripture disguised as a special-effects movie. It’s a huge tone-poem, which you cannot comprehend unless you absorb this film on the level of the heart.

Love lost, love found, the independence of the soul; human arrogance, presumption and humility before the great forces of Nature; the ancient fear of death and the primordial power of the sea…these themes and many others chase each other across the screen for nearly three-and-a-half hours. An epic morality tale akin to the great Shakespearean dramas, all else revolves around the movie’s central theme: the transforming power of love.

For epic scale, Titanic has been compared to Gone With The Wind, but the closer analogy is with Romeo and Juliet. The story of star-crossed lovers who meet across class lines is an old one; here it serves as a meditation on different human values. Rose DeWitt Bukater does not belong in spirit to the life of the 1%. To her, as to all spirits awakening, personal independence is all. She has a soul more attuned to abstract values than to materialism.

By contrast, her fiancée seems to revel in his slimy splendor. A man born to privilege will tend to view life in terms of possessions, and Caledon Hockley certainly views Rose in that light. He would feel right at home on modern Wall Street or with the Kardashians. I wonder, in this age of “Real Housewives,” how many women, content to be a trophy wife, would simply say yes to Cal and not put up a fuss?

The subtle spiritual message begins to manifest here: by contrasting Rose’s soul with his, we see someone beginning to wrestle with her destiny, unable to compromise her values because, for a true seeker, to betray your own essence means death. At such times we must sever ourselves from those who hinder our soul-growth. Rose is ready to meet her spiritual teacher because she rebels at shallowness but also has the necessary fire of dedication. She is ready to lose her life to find her truth.

Into this frightful spiritual testing comes Jack Dawson, her mentor and eventual lover. An artist, he sees truth in everything and lives for his vision of beauty. In drawing hands, he gives us a symbol of personal connection. His passions are equally deep, but because he has sought out beauty and truth in the most squalid of settings—does this remind you of a certain wandering carpenter?—he has enough wisdom to advise Rose on her dilemma. In a real sense, Jack becomes Rose’s guru. Later he will become a Christ-figure as well.

Note the similarity between the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and the scene in Titanic where Jack first sees Rose standing above him. At that moment, his soul opens. He sees his Muse, his vision of beauty. Jack lives not to possess but to express. He must share with her his own worldview. And because it coincides with Rose’s inner awakening, she begins falling for him as a natural course of action. Love begins to become her spiritual path.

For Jack is intuitive, wise in an earthy way: “When you got nuthin’, you got nuthin’ to lose.” He gambles literally, and the sly quote from Bob Dylan aside, it says that sometimes we have to take chances with our lives that reason would tell us to forget. He lives by the power of his faith, one that is spiritual without being religious.

The hubris of humans thinking we can subdue Nature is amply represented by the sheer size and luxury of the ship. No expense has been spared for the pleasure and entertainment of the passengers. Cultivation of the inner life, of course, is not our top priority. Real life occasionally breaks in, as it does here, but it often takes that to wake us up again. That’s why this tragic tale still has such power. Real life is scarily unpredictable.

The moment when Cal presents Rose with the jeweled necklace is revealing: he sees it as essentially buying her love, and she knows it. Yet because of her change of values, it’s the one item she wishes to wear when she allows Jack to sketch her in the nude. The purity of true love is symbolized by the use to which this incredible necklace is put.

Its very name, “The Heart of the Ocean,” is significant. From ancient times, the sea has represented man’s conception of the limitless, and the unseen depths of the human soul. Here again we find a parallel in Shakespeare’s Juliet describing her overflowing feelings: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee the more I have, for both are infinite.”

The famous scene of the lovers on the bow of the ship rather resembles, in my mind, Maxfield Parrish’s famous painting Ecstasy. Certainly the meaning is the same: trusting and letting go allows us to fly into a greater form of bliss. Real love is as liberating as it is illogical. It is an epiphany, a merging into something beyond the grasp of the rational mind.

It is this trust that allows the lovers in Titanic to take the symbolic steps toward transcendental union. The physical lovemaking is the symbolic corollary to their coming together in spirit. So when the ship hits the iceberg and all must make their fateful choices, there is but one choice for these lovers to make—they must remain together. Their souls have become one.

And together they remain as the great ship sinks. Rose’s latent courage has been awakened, and she uses it to save Jack when he is manacled in the depths and their roles become reversed. And at the last, as they float upon the freezing water, we know that because of the sea-change in Rose’s heart, Jack will never leave her, even as he sinks beneath the waves into the unseen depths from which, symbolically, he came. He returns to the infinite, his task of saving Rose complete.

One phrase, uttered at this point by the elderly Rose, captures the essence of the film and its perhaps unconscious depiction of the spiritual journey: “He saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.” As a statement of spiritual fact, this is about as clear as it gets. Rose is not saying that she was saved because she joined a particular faith, got involved with the right group or that it just happened by accident.

No, she is saying, as clearly as any character in a movie has ever said it, that love—real, selfless love—is our only salvation. For Rose, it came through a romantic experience, but it is this love, in our own world, that is the essence of all faiths. It gives us character and courage. It enables us to transcend boundaries and do the seemingly impossible. It gives us back our soul. Real love redeems us.

And this is why people leave the theater sniffling but happy after seeing Titanic—it shows us something we know in our hearts is true. It presents to us an essential spiritual fact. God knows, we need our teachers wherever we find them. In the character of Rose DeWitt Bukater, we have a wonderful, if fictional, teacher of the heart.

And what is Rose’s own reward? The cycle complete, her tale told and memory burnished, she gets her wish at last. She ascends (or rather, descends) to the celestial regions where love holds eternal sway. She herself follows her necklace to the depths. And her union with the infinite, in the form of her lover, is complete.

You may think I am reading way too much into a soppy love story framed by special effects. But stories become mythic because they embody deeper truths. Sometimes they become religions. Sometimes they become epic films. Probably James Cameron was just trying to tell a story. But he told it so well that something else came through that perhaps was beyond his ken.

I was uplifted by Titanic’s inner essence. I wish you the same experience.

 Ra Rishikavi Raghudas is a writer and spiritual counselor in Los Angeles. His adopted father’s adopted mother, Rebecca Clarke, had booked passage on Titanic, but her house in England didn’t sell in time. She missed the boat and lived. Raghudas is grateful.



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