The Costa Concordia: An all-purpose symbol of our times

Where other transport accidents might be discussed with muted horror and careful respect, a shipwreck brings out far more primitive and irrepressible responses. Even as divers searched its submerged corridors the image of the doomed ship and its criticised captain became, this week, a symbol for almost anything you want it to be a symbol of.

In Italy it was a theme of national soul-searching, with the vilified Captain Schettino coming to be seen as an image of the country’s economic troubles, and a coast guard who remonstrated with him embodying the new technocratic government’s reforming spirit. Yet even while Italy’s latest T-shirts quoting the coastguard’s words – “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” (“Get on board, for fuck’s sake”) – were going on sale, the image of the stricken ship was finding further metaphorical meanings right across Europe…

The giant cruise ships of today reflect our own society just as exactly as the Titanic reflected the world of 1912. The moral questions that hover over exactly what happened on the Costa Concordia inevitably resonate far wider than the incident itself. If the disaster means nothing else, it reminds us how life at sea is, still, salted with drama, poetry, and a sense of history. And yet these meanings are illusory: they are spurious. Italians should give themselves a break and the rest of us should lay off. A shipwreck is not an expression of the soul of a nation or the fate of a continent, let alone the breakup of Britain.