“The Very Mirror Image of Death

The Titanic and Connie Willis’s Novel Passage

Dr. Joanna Lander does not know it yet, but on page 425 of the book of her life, she is stabbed, bleeds to death, and dies (Willis, 2001). What happens before she dies — and after — is the subject of her 594-page story, and of this paper.

Connie Willis, the author of Passage, is a rarity in the world of science-fiction/fantasy novels. Her books are intensely researched, intricately plotted, and written with extraordinary beauty. So, when Willis takes on one of the most significant crossings of our human odyssey, the death passage, the reader can trust that she is on a journey worth taking.

With that in mind, let’s shake hands with Joanna Lander. When we meet her, she is a cognitive psychologist researching NDEs, Near Death Experiences, at Mercy General Hospital (Willis, 2001, pp.13-14). When a patient enters cardiac arrest, “dies” and returns, Joanna is there to hear his story. But she is not your average NDE enthusiast; she is the healthiest sort of skeptic, a researcher willing to follow the accounts of patients wherever they might lead, whether they fit the standard NDE model, or not. Yes, some see tunnels and light and figures in radiant white. But some see . . . other things.

Joanna’s challenges begin early on. Mercy General is under construction, an attempt to connect two structures that were never built to be connected — much like the worlds of life and death. Hallways are often blocked and staff, when asked for directions, are known to reply, “You can’t get there from here.” (Willis, 2001, p. 182). Joanna’s patient interviews are so often interrupted by her pager that she shuts it off entirely — the first of many instances of messages not getting through. The cafeteria is never open when she is hungry, and Joanna is frequently forced to re-route, ducking into stairwells, in order to avoid her shadow figure, the new-agey NDE researcher, Mr. Mandrake. Images of blocked passages and thwarted communications fill the pages of the novel.

In the initial chapters of the book, Dr. Richard Wright approaches Joanna. He is a neurologist in recent receipt of a grant, also studying NDEs (Willis, 2001, p. 19). Wright has discovered a drug that induces the NDE state in a healthy subject. Under the influence of the drug, along with a sedative, volunteers fall asleep, experience images of the passage between life and death — in most cases, a tunnel, a light, figures in white — and wake refreshed. Would Joanna be willing to interview his patients to help him determine whether the induced state is a true NDE experience? If so, Richard may be able to use his results to create a medical intervention to help others return to life after cardiac arrest, just as traditional NDEers do.

Joanna joins the study and confirms that the visions experienced by participants do, in fact, seem to be true NDEs. All is well enough. But in when Richard’s study loses a critical number of participants, his grant is threatened. Desperate for research subjects to keep the study afloat, Joanna volunteers to take her turn on the table. 

When Joanna descends into her own NDE, she does not find herself in a tunnel; she appears in a corridor lined with numbered doors (Willis, 2001, p. 176). There, the figures dressed in white are not angels or predeceased family members -- they are confused passengers in formal, old-fashioned dress (Willis, 2001, p. 176). This is no stylized heaven Joanna is experiencing. She is aboard the doomed ship Titanic (Willis, 2001, p. 194).

The Titanic, now, will become the central image of the novel, multilayered and serving as the “medium of realization,” and an “intermediate realm of subtle reality” which, in the end, “can adequately be expressed only by the symbol” (Jung, 1983, p. 331).

Sign and symbol

Before we begin to unpack the imagery around the Titanic and what it means for Joanna’s story, let’s pause to consider the nature of images, and of symbols and signs, in particular. 

At the heart of symbols and other living images are archetypes, patterns of psychic energy that “[stand] behind the scenes, as it were, as a kind of author-director or actor-manager, producing the tangible performance that proceeds on the public (and the private) stage” (Stevens, 1982, p. 52). Archetypes can appear as persons, situations and places; virtually any commonly experienced human encounter can be said to have an archetype at its core (Slater, 2021). But, of course, not every experience strikes us as archetypal. It is only when we encounter, in an archetypal moment, the perfect combination of universal and unique, that we have that ineffable experience of being in the grip of something greater, something numinous. Only then do we know the archetype has us in its grasp (Slater, 2021).

Archetypes come to us, not in their pure, universal forms, but clothed in robes that take their cues from personal and cultural life (Jacobi, 1959, p. 68). The classic example is the hero of the monomyth who, as Joseph Campbell writes, wears many faces (1949, p. 30), ranging from Odysseus and Hamlet to Luke Skywalker and Jane Eyre. So clothed, the archetype becomes an archetypal image (Whitmont, 1969, p. 104), an image deeply imbued with meaning (Jacobi, 1959, p. 85). This image, then, partakes of the qualities of the symbol, being “the best description, or formula, of a relatively unknown fact” (Whitmont, 1969, p. 18).

Ideally, a symbol is held carefully, with reverence, so that it may be resonated with, even if it cannot be fully interpreted. But, on the occasion that a symbol is fully understood — if the color red on a roadway marker always and only means alert, beware, stop, for instance — the symbol can turn into a sign (Jacobi, 1959, p. 84) : a thing whose meaning is known, a sort of container for a set of information, none of it particularly mysterious (Jacobi, 1959, p. 80). In this way, Whitmont and Jacobi compare symbols that are alive to ones that are dead (Whitmont, 1969, p. 80; Jacobi, 1959, p. 97). A living image always eludes full understanding; it contains more than we can really know. Dead symbols, on the other hand, may once have contained a mystery, vibrating with numinous power, but have been emptied through interpretation or overuse, of transcendent meaning.

Joanna’s Titanica first layer

With these distinctions — alive and dead, sign and symbol — in mind, let’s consider the Titanic that Joanna experiences in her near-death visions.

As is typical of living symbols, the Titanic is, for Joanna, “a perpetual challenge to [her] thoughts and feelings” (Samuels et al., 1986, p. 144). When she encounters the ship in her first NDE, Joanna has a clear sense that the image is significant. “It’s the Titanic for a reason” (Willis, 2001, p. 202), but what? The symbol of the ship will not let her rest, drawing her down a series of spur trails in her material, waking life. Joanna tracks down Mr. Briarley, her high school history teacher, now struggling with Alzheimer’s, in hopes of recalling an important lecture he once gave about the ship. She even marshals the 9 year-old Maisie — a patient with a penchant for disaster stories (Willis, 2001, p. 20-21), whose weak heart has resulted in a series of her own NDEs – bringing the girl into the search for the significance of the Titanic.

It is not until Joanna interviews another NDE patient, however, one who didn’t see the Titanic, but rather envisioned he was sending smoke signals and calling for aid (Willis, 2001, p. 408), that the first layer of meaning in the Titanic image becomes clear.

The Titanic of Joanna’s visions, like the body as it dies, is a ship going down. The telegraph operator frantically sends messages, SOSs, and related calls for help. When one pathway does not bring an end to the crisis, the figures on her Titanic try another. And other ships do respond, coming as fast as they can, the California, the Carpathian, though neither will arrive in time. Meanwhile, the postmaster drags the on-board mail to higher ground. A passenger dashes off a message in hopes that it might reach his sister. All these efforts — SOS, SOS — are desperate attempts to save as much as can be saved, to get the message through to any source of rescue.

Now Joanna understands (Willis, 2001, pp. 409-410). She has been seeing the Titanic because it reflects the brain’s attempt to send an SOS to the body’s systems. All those calls for help mirror “what the brain does during an NDE ... Images generated by endorphins and electrical impulses, frantically sending out SOSs” (Willis, 2001, p. 414) to one somatic resource after another. For Joanna, the symbol of the Titanic may have ‘died’ — she believes, after all, that its meaning has become utterly clear. But if she and Dr. Wright move quickly, they can use the content of the symbol, the message received, to create the treatment they hope will trigger the revival process for patients who ‘code,’ perhaps finding a way to save young Maisie before one of her increasingly frequent cardiac episodes finally kills her.

Joanna is elated! She races through the corridors of Mercy General, encountering more obstructions, more dead ends –  images suggesting, perhaps, that the symbol of the Titanic is not quite as ‘understood’ as Joanna believes — all in her desperate search to give Richard this key to everything.

Finally, Joanna’s hunt brings her to the emergency room. But the words die on her lips. Without preamble, without apparent malice, she is stabbed by a confused addict and bleeds out before she can fully convey the critical information. “Tell Richard it’s ... SOS” Joanna tells her friend, the ER nurse, as she dies (Willis, 2001, p. 447).

Then she finds herself aboard the Titanic again.

The Titan of living symbols — a second layer

In one sense, the Titanic of Joanna’s NDEs has “degenerate[d]” from symbol to sign (Jacobi, 1959, p. 84). We understand that the components of the doomed ship image directly reflect biological processes, and with this ‘translated’ information, the sign of the Titanic might — and eventually does — transform into a medical cure for a sick child. The symbol, once “pregnant with meaning” (Jacobi, 1959, p. 97) has birthed a realization. In theory, now, the image should be dead — but this vessel has further to travel. The Titanic is serving a new psychic function in the novel now, symbolizing the mysteries of the passage of dying. Unlike the Titanic as sign, this symbol will not be emptied or resolved.

While we can absorb the features of a symbol like this one — the vast and curiously placid ocean, the slow descent into the depths below, the singing of “Nearer My God, To Thee” — the Titanic in this form, allied as it is with the archetypal death passage, is impenetrable at its core. The dying Joanna has to take this passage one moment at a time, riding the troughs and crests of fear, uncertainty and sublime understanding. Certainly, she cannot know what will happen when the ship finally sinks. She suspects it will probably be nothing, that when the lights finally go out, she will simply cease to exist. But we are dealing with a mystery here — perhaps The Mystery — and so the symbol, ultimately, must remain incompletely understood.

After, or perhaps during her physical death process, Joanna’s vision includes the preservative efforts of the Titanic’s crew, encounters with strangers and acquaintances, the occasional flash of Mercy General, of her own dying. But, finally, the physical sinking of the ship comes, and with it the mass of objects that rain down upon her as the vessel upends — not the artifacts of the boat itself, but the residue of Joanna’s life, “minirecorders, metaphors, dog tags, heating vents” (Willis, 2001, p. 520) and so much more. Is this it, then? Is the symbol finally emptied? As in a dream, the scene shifts. Joanna finds herself floating on a piece of the Titanic’s flotsam, in the company of a distressed dog who later transforms into a little girl (Willis, 2001, p. 570) – both of them likely symbols of Joanna’s own vulnerability and innocence about what is to come, breathing images of the unblemished child within each of us that we can never fully fathom.

Time passes, perhaps days. Joanna and the little girl are surrounded by darkest night. Emptiness. Loss. Surely this is the end. But, no! In the distance, the sun begins to rise, revealing another ship, distant but approaching. Whoever they are, they are headed straight for her. Her soul call has gone out — SOS! – and has been heard. The psyche, the deity, whatever it is, has responded. There is hope. Yes, the Titanic has gone down, but rescue from another ship is at hand. (More on this second ship, below.) The symbol remains mysterious and alive, even as Joanna has crossed the sea of death.


But why the Titanic, particularly? When NDEs commonly offer up images of white lights and serenity, why did Joanna’s psyche — and Willis’s, for that matter — settle on this particular symbol?

Inevitably, Joanna’s psyche must conjure some image. After all, the experience of death – simulated or, later, real — is a classic instance of “the psyche [attempting] to present us with an awareness ... [for] which there is no precedent,” the natural result of which is to “[express] it in terms of the image of some outer object” (Whitmont, 1969, pp. 29-30). As a skeptic and a scientist, it is not surprising that Joanna’s death passage included no religious imagery. But there might be any number of other images. Why not travel on a train, for instance? Or she could have found herself loading box after box into a truck, preparing to move out of a house.

I will approach the ‘why’ of the Titanic in two parts, first looking at some features of the doomed ocean liner itself, then considering its underlying archetype in the following section.

That sinking sensation

Although it was a favorite topic of Mr. Brinkley’s back when he taught Joanna in high school, it is not easy to pin him down on the subject of the Titanic. Brinkley’s Alzheimer’s makes him irritable and his memory is pocked full of holes. But luck — or providence — intervenes and he spontaneously picks up one of his old lectures where he left off. The Titanic, he explains, is the perfect image of the death passage because (speaking of people haunted by the Titanic image) “They know it when they see it ... They recognize it instantly” (Willis, 2001, p. 374) as an unmistakable metaphor for their own, eventual deaths.

The hubris so central to the Titanic lore (Slater, 1998, p. 107), the belief in its ostensible unsinkability, is our own quotidian hubris, the daily denial we necessarily undertake to continue setting one foot in front of the other. We assume that our lives are a going concern and avoid fretting too much about the status of the lifeboats. We set sail with relative confidence, though so much that happens in our lives swirls beneath our view and beyond our power, massive icebergs lurking below, ready to take the form of random violence, unforeseen disease, car accident.

We are exquisitely vulnerable. Deep down we all know it. If we were not a little inflated by the archetype of the Titan, could we really go on? If we didn’t overlook risk and threat to some degree, would we ever leave the house?

And so we each carry a bit of the invulnerable god within us, just so we can ‘do’ our days. This is a hubris we need — though it is also important that we not be completely fooled by it. In our inner worlds, there should be, must be, the voice who remembers: any ship at sea is vulnerable, the idea of our unsinkability is a chimera. We must carry a passenger who, like Miss Hart’s mother on the material Titanic, recalls that we are daily “flying in the face of god” and so “[sleeps] during the day and [stays] awake in her cabin at night fully dressed” (Slater, 1998, p. 109). Fortunately, in our polytheistic psyches (Hillman, 1975, p. 35), we can contain both Titans and oracles.

This very polycentricity offers another reason why the Titanic is an apt symbol for the death passage. We are, each of us, floating cities, sailing across the ocean of our lives even as we are occupied on many levels — as with the Titanic’s decks – executing variety of functions, superior and inferior, some parts of us privileged first class passengers, others toiling below deck, unseen. With many specialized parts of psyche and brain, we are like ships with a command structure, a crew, and any number of passengers, those memories and introjects we acquire in the world. And until the moment the iceberg tears into our hull, each of these subselves is going about their business, acting on their desires and antipathies, living their dramas in full.

At the same time, the Titanic is our conscious mind floating on the sea of the subconscious while dark and uncontrolled and sacred things linger below. Up top, there is a great deal of activity and willful decision making, while the real power to undermine the ego lurks beneath. Looked at in one light, the sea of the unconscious might be a sinister sort of image, but on another level, this unfathomable body carries us to new destinations, shapes our world view, and provides us with a perpetual source of fascination and wonder.

And, of course, like the Titanic, we are all doomed. As Hillman observes, “To be human is to be reminded of death” (1975, p. 207). As we, readers of Passage, stand outside the story looking in, we cannot help but observe that, no matter what Joanna believes or how she proceeds, her journey aboard the Titanic is slated to end in a sinking.

The depth of the catastrophe, then, becomes terrifyingly clear. Hillman states it baldly: “What is the right action? What do you do while the ship goes down? ... Take to the lifeboats? But there’s no other shore” (1995, p. 36). But if this is really the case, what is the point of the vision, the symbol, the archetype? Dickens’ Scrooge, in a similarly hopeless moment, puts it most aptly: “Why show me this if I am past all hope?” (Dickens, 1984, p. 94).

Charon’s crossing

At the heart of the symbol of the Titanic in Passage, sits the spiritual packet, an archetype that has been with us for millennia: the boat that travels between worlds.

Perhaps the most well-known of these vessels is Charon’s ferry, the “the boat on which embark the dead” (Turpening, 1985, p. 32). But this archetype is common outside the ancient Greek lore, as well — perhaps because, as the ARAS database suggests, by its very nature, the hull of the boat is a literal boundary between safety and danger, life and death (“Boat,” 2021). We see otherworldly boats in the mythology of cultures ranging from the Celtic to the Polynesian (Turpening, 1985, p. 15). Both the Patagonians and the Vikings used sea vessels in their burial rituals (Turpening, 1985, p. 15). And the image plays out in literature, too. Tolkien’s soul-weary Ring-bearers board a ship when they travel “into the West,” and the next life (Tolkien, 1955, p. 1007), while Jim Butcher’s comico-tragic wizard Harry Dresden is shot to death on his boat, falling finally into the dark waters of Lake Michigan (Butcher, 2011, p. 438).

 Clearly the ‘ship of death’ image, and its counterpart the sea journey, can and does take a variety of forms. So, again, let’s return to the question of why, for Joanna, the archetype took the form of the Titanic. Whitmont discusses two means (1969, p. 120) by which archetypes collect the impressions which ultimately form the images we see in myths, dreams — or, in our protagonist’s case, NDEs. One of these is similarity — that the image is in some way similar to the essence of the archetype. The death journey is a form of traveling, and so might manifest as car, as ship, as belly of the whale, all essentially similar forms. But archetypal images can also associate by contiguity, qualities which “[happen] to coincide” with that “archetypal pattern or situation” (Whitmont, 1969, p. 120), even when there is no direct link to the archetype’s content. In this way, the novel’s whole situation becomes an archetypal image: Joanna reconnecting with Mr. Briarley, the high school teacher who taught the lessons of Titanic; the fruitlessness of the Titanic’s SOS messages echoed in obstructed hallways and turned off pagers; even a movie night gathering which is designated as a Titanic-free zone (in the sense of the film, starring Winslet and DiCaprio) (Willis, 2001, p. 92). Dozens of the story’s plot elements touch on the Titanic and, by contiguity, the archetype collects all these elements to it, creating a novel that pulls together at every level, one that whispers about the mystery of death on every page.

The Titanic as a ship of death, then, is a fair re-visioning of the ancient boat which carries us from this life to the next — a fitting contemporary version that, because it is destined to sink, suits the archetype perfectly, a reminder that “we are still,” and always “aboard a sinking ship” (Slater, 1998, p. 110). Perhaps if we, as a culture, were less disenchanted, and if our news and entertainment were not so replete with calamity, our collective death ship would not carry such a weight of tragedy about it. But as it stands, we seem to feel less-than-than hopeful about this ultimate passage. And so Willis’s Titanic as death vessel reflects that perspective with a powerful and dreadful clarity.

It is interesting to note that, in the non-fictional world, dreams of boats and ships recur among the terminally ill, underscoring the universality of the death-ship archetype. In a presentation at the conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreaming, Hospice worker Jeanne Van Bronkhorst describes the dreams of one of her patients: “She told me she had just that morning come back from a marvelous cruise and was feeling refreshed ... Everyone had their own cruise director who helped them go ashore on the other side, but [she] decided to come back with the crew” (2019). One of Whitmont’s patients, who had found a lump in her breast dreamed of barges on the shore. “You are bound,” Whitmont wrote, speaking in the voice of the dream, “for the journey of the dead” (1969, pp. 53-54).

Bukleley and Bulkley, in their work with the dreams of the dying, address the expanded version of the archetypal image, encompassing vessel and crossing, both: “The vast, seemingly endless expanse of the sea, combined with the promise of surprising changes and potentials for growth, makes a journey by sea an especially apt metaphor for dying” (2005, p. 57). As with Joanna’s Titanic image, they note that not all death-vehicle dreams are positive ones (Bulkeley et al., 2005, pp. 61-62), but all such dreams do share “a sense of death as a passage or movement from one place to another” (Bulkeley et al., 2005, pp. 62-63). For those like Joanna, whose near-death dreams and visions are heavy with a feeling of doom, it is worth noting that even this frightening element may not signal something all-bad. As Whitmont observes, “awe and fear are common reactions to the confrontation with the transpersonal,” (Whitmont, 1969, p. 93). Both an encounter with the archetype and the personal experience of death, itself, would seem to qualify.

Jung, too, speaks of the importance of the “archetypal image of the night sea journey” (Jacobi, 1959, p. 186). “To sojourn in these depths ... is a journey to hell and ‘death.’” A form of Nekiya, Jacobi suggests, those who return from these journeys “safe and sound” ultimately experience a sense of “greater insight and security” (Jacobi, 1959, pp. 186-187).

What we know, of course, is that Joanna does not return safely from her journey. She continues onward. But let’s recall: Joanna is not the only one traveling on the death ship Titanic. We, the readers, are journeying alongside her. The ship is an image for Joanna, but it is also a message for us.

In fact, the novel tells us so. The Alzheimer’s-wounded Mr. Briarley, the story’s “wise old man” and spiritual gap-filler (Jung, 1983, p. 126) walks the liminal space between life and death, understanding and confusion. His final message is clearly not meant solely for the protagonist, but for the reader, too: “Literature is a message! ... It’s the people who went before us, tapping out messages from the past, trying to tell us about life and death!” (Willis, 2001, p. 413).

Here is the Mystery of death, says Willis. Says the voice of her unconscious. Says the voice of the archetypal cores of her author’s complexes. Says the numinosum vibrating through all of these. The sinking ship of the body, the vast sea of unconsciousness around us, the unfathomable night, the end of everything and the beginning of we-know-not-what. The Titanic is “the very mirror image of death” (Willis, 2001, p. 376). And now that mirror is in our hands, the boon from our own night sea journey as readers. What, Willis seems to ask, will we do with it?

Passage is ultimately a story of hope, and so Willis will not let the Titanic be the final ship, sinking into a bleak, cold darkness. Instead, as described above, Joanna finds herself floating on a piece of debris, wondering what will become of her, when a new ship appears. “Joanna looked up, bracing herself to see the deck stacked with coffins, the embalmer standing ready” (Willis, 2001, p. 593). But this is not the ship that came to collect the corpses of the Titanic, after all. It is another vessel entirely, the deck lined with sailors in “white uniforms blindingly bright” and “[flags] were flying from the tower and the masts ... The sailors were shouting from the railing, waving their white hats in the air. Behind them ... the sun came out” (Willis, 2001, p. 594).

If the Titanic represents the shadowy part of the death passage, this second ship is its brighter counterpart, the lighter face of the archetype. As Kunitz suggests in poetic homage to the archetypal death-vessel, joy is a part of the archetype, too: “Peace! Peace! / To be rocked by the infinite!” (n.d.). One ship may have gone down, but there is a second ship, whole and able, ready to carry the soul forward on its journey. The journey is not over. You are not alone.

A terminal observation

Before I close this paper, I would like to consider a final pair of related questions. My sense is that these points cannot finally be resolved by a reader standing outside Willis’s story, but I’d like to offer them for reflection, nonetheless.

Are all the death and Titanic-related phenomena swirling around Joanna an indication, perhaps, of a constellated death complex? Or, alternatively, might these encounters be the result of the activation of the death journey archetype and so, in actuality, they form an extended series of synchronicities?

On one level, it seems clear that Joanna does have a constellated death complex. As a cognitive psychologist she has settled on the unusual research subject of NDEs. She eventually consents to participate in an NDE simulation, herself. Every person she interacts with has a direct connection to death. In this way, it could be that the details around Joanna — all the metaphoric whisperings about death journeys and SOSs and messages not getting through — are the result of her death complex throwing out projections. One could even argue that her complex ultimately draws her to the ER where she is stabbed to death. She does, in fact, receive plenty of warnings-in-passing that the ER is a dangerous setting that requires vigilance.

On the other hand, because Joanna is going to die soon, it would make sense that the death journey archetype has become powerfully activated around her. Jung noted, after all, that knowledge in the unconscious can be anticipatory (Jacobi, 1959, p. 192). In this way, the novel’s metaphoric whisperings about death could actually be archetypal energy clothed in the stuff of the world: the dropping out of research volunteers creating a need for Joanna’s participation, frequent references to disasters like the Hindenburg, the timing of Joanna’s death resulting in a revival treatment for a little girl who would have died without it. Synchronicities, all, intended to ease the death journey home.

The question of constellated complex versus archetypal activation will have to remain an open one. But I do wonder: is it possible that, because of the archetypal foundation of both complexes and symbols, that both a death complex and an activated death journey archetype are at work in Joanna’s case and if, in some sense, they are a single phenomenon? No matter what the answers, such questions open fresh doors on the book, new ways to approach the novel on subsequent readings. Indeed, if a death complex presides over Joanna’s passage, the work becomes both more peril-laden. If it is seeded with synchronicities, the book becomes dreamier and more magical. But if a constellated complex and activated death archetype swirl together as one, the novel becomes a deep mystery, a frightening, joyful interweaving of forces and powers whose objectives can never be fully gleaned or understood.

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