The Titanic II–Ship of Dreams or Ship of Fools?

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So, here I sit with my Quorum cigar in one hand, Balvenie in the other, perusing the drawings and computer generated graphics in the souvenir booklet produced by the Blue Star Line for the recent gala in New York City which I attended, where it was officially announced that the construction of the Titanic II would begin this month, and the details of the new ship’s design made public in full for the first time. A multiplicity of thoughts are racing through my head about this new ship, which will make her maiden voyage in April 2016, including the debate over the tact–or lack thereof–in attempting to build such a ship, the arguments over just how “authentic” such a “replica” (if that is even the right word) can actually be, and the general wisdom of the entire concept.

For those of you who have been living under a rock or on some deserted island for the last year, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “Lemme ‘splain–no, there is too much: lemme sum up.” For several years, Clive Palmer, a billionaire businessman from Australia, had been tossing around the idea of building a replica of the Titanic, the legendary White Star ship, widely believed to be “unsinkable,” that sank on her maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg in April 1912. Similar projects had been mooted–and abandoned–ever since 1998, in the wake of the runaway commercial success of James Cameron’s soggy sea saga, “Titanic”–or, as it’s known in some circles, “Jack and Rose and the Leaky Love Boat.” The difference between Clive’s idea and those that had earlier been proposed was that, unlike the rest, he had the financial wherewithal to turn his dream into steel.

And so as the centennial of the Titanic disaster approached in 2012, Palmer formed the Blue Star Line, contacted the Finnish design firm of Deltamarin (which had previously designed cruise ships for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines) to create his “replica” of the Titanic. A number of internationally recognized authorities on the Titanic were brought in as advisors to help shape the final design, both in appearance and appointments. On February 26, at a gala dinner aboard the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum in New York City, the details of the finalized design were made public, and while the event was taking place, the agreement with the Chinese shipbuilding firm of CSC Jinling Shipyard, in Nanjing, China, was finalized. The first steel for the Titanic II will be cut this month. (And, yes, for you die-hard John Birchers out there, that’s “China” as in “the People’s Republic of China”–the Chicoms, the Red Chinese, the Commies. Ironic, isn’t it, that these days the communists are better capitalists than western nations?) So it appears that the Titanic II is a done deal, the question not if she will be built, but if she will be completed in time for her scheduled April 2016 maiden voyage.

Palmer’s effort in bringing his dream (I really can’t bring myself to call it a “vision”) to reality has proven to be, perhaps not surprisingly, highly polarizing, particularly within that world-wide conglomeration of fanatics known collectively as “the Titanic community.” Opinions range from paeans of praise for Palmer amid outright expressions of ecstasy that the ship will be built so that something akin to traveling on the original Titanic will be possible, to condemnations of Palmer as an incarnation of the antichrist, and his employees and supporters as hell-bound demons, for “defiling” the legacy of the doomed liner and “profaning” the memory of the 1,502 people who lost their lives when the Titanic sank. (Yes, those words have actually been used in some of the criticisms of the Titanic II published on-line.) There seems to be little, if any, middle ground, or allowance for a reasoned appraisal of what Palmer is – or isn’t – going to accomplish with his latest pet project.

It has to be acknowledged that Clive Palmer has a reputation for concocting and promoting sometimes eccentric (critics would amend that to “erratic”) ideas, and has been known to fail to follow through on some of them after they’ve been put into motion. It was this reputation that was in no small part responsible for much of the criticism, not to say outright derision, which initially greeted the announcement that he intended to have a reproduction of the Titanic built. Yet it is impossible to deny, now that the requisite legal “t’s” have been crossed and “i’s” dotted, that the Titanic II is well on its way to becoming a tangible reality. What remains to be seen, then, is what the new ship will accomplish. It is in this arena that the critics are their most vocal – and savage.

By far and away the loudest carp coming from the ranks of the Titanic II critics is that international maritime safety regulations, in particular the SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) conventions, make it flat out impossible to construct and sail an exact replica of the Titanic. A myriad of details, large and small, from the capacity and placement of the lifeboats, to the internal layout of the ship, to the materials used to build her, forbid it. This is all true. However, many of the nay-sayers then immediately declare that because the Titanic II cannot be an exact copy of the original, it is somehow a sort of fraud, an intellectual scam – because the original cannot be duplicated, the replica cannot possess any merit of its own. This is patently and self-evidently false, a conclusion which would be immediately obvious to these whining wankers if they stopped flapping their lips long enough to think through what they are saying.

History can never be “re-lived.” It can never be vicariously experienced. The most dedicated historical re-enactor will tell you that, no matter how deeply they immerse themselves in their period, they are always conscious on some level that when their “encampment” is over, they go back to the world of smartphones, contact lenses, hybrid cars, fast food, modern suburbia, and the 9-to-5 grind.  They know they are simulating history, not actually living through it. Similarly, no matter how exact the reproduction of the Titanic would be the Titanic II, anyone boarding her would only be surrounding themselves with the trappings, the accoutrements, of the real ship. No one today could actually experience life aboard the Titanic as it truly was, because every incident, every detail, would ultimately be perceived through the prism of the early 21st Century and the life-experience of the individual. No one going aboard the most precise replica could truly “experience” the Titanic, because he or she would lack the knowledge, the mother’s-milk subconscious perspective and perception of the world of 1912. They would lack the mindset, the social consciousness, the prejudices, virtues, and vices of the people who lived in 1912. They might be aware of such things on some level, but not having been born into them, are unable to integrate them into their own lives, and so understand the Titanic and her world the way that those who actually sailed aboard her did.  The people who claim that the Titanic II, by failing to be an exact recreation of the lost liner, is somehow deceptive and misleading simply do not understand that their complaints are based not on their imagined shortcomings of the new ship, but of their own flawed perceptions and expectations. They are asking for the impossible – impossible not because of the limitations imposed on the design and construction of the Titanic II but because of their own failure to understand the limitations imposed in their own desires.

More insidious, in some ways, is that camp of loud-mouthed, self-righteous, self-proclaimed “guardians” of the Titanic’s “legacy” – whatever that means and whatever it is, they never actually get around to defining it – who shrilly declaim that the whole idea of the Titanic II, “name and thing,” is simply one more expression of capitalism as its money-grubbing worst. Building and sailing the ship is nothing more, they declare, than an attempt to “cash in” on the tragedy of the Titanic disaster, to make money at the expense of the original ship’s victims. The entire concept, to them, is, in toto, a massive “cash grab.”

These are, of course, the same people whose homes are laden with every single possible form of Titanica, from artwork (invariably cheap prints) to models (some rendered with amazing fidelity, others the worst of mass-produced knockoffs) to paperweights, pens, key fobs, notepads, t-shirts, sweatshirts, stuffed animals, shot glasses, wall plaques, trinket boxes and cheap costume jewelry fabricated to resemble a key prop (itself a fabrication) from the 1997 film. All of these tchotchkes are, of course, rendered to resemble or recall or represent the Titanic, in some way or form. But never mind that – it’s the Titanic II that is the “cash grab,” not their precious “memorabilia.”

And yet, by the very standard these harpies hold high, if the Titanic II is a “cash grab,” then every book written about the Titanic (including accounts by survivors and their descendants), every movie made about her, every artifact exhibit, ever speaker’s presentation, every model kit manufactured, every souvenir sold at every Titanic-related gift shop and venue, every single item, whatever its individual virtues or vices, being marketed which is Titanic-related, anything involving the Titanic for which cash is exchanged, is equally a “cash grab.”

These are very, very little people who have nothing to offer by their stridency. Their pseudo-self-righteousness, moral posturing, and ethical condescension is as pathetic as it is transparent. They cannot be consistent in their condemnation, lest the rest of us recognize their hypocrisy for what it is – an attempt to be recognized amid the sea of anonymity in which they find themselves and which they so richly deserve. Into the dustbin of irrelevance with them….

But having disposed of the ship of fools, is it inevitable to conclude that the Titanic II must be a ship of dreams? There is no simple answer to that question, for dreams are by definition individual and subjective. Yes, the Titanic II is meant to make money: Clive Palmer didn’t become a billionaire by throwing money away willy-nilly with no plan to make a return on his expenditure. There is a very significant segment of the cruising public who have become so jaded by – or fed up with – the offerings of the majority of the cruise lines, with their endless parties, repetitive ports of call, art and jewelry auctions, loud music and louder Tannoy systems, that they will embrace the Titanic II like a long-lost relative. Palmer has sensed this, and tailored his creation to appeal to that market. More to the point, while the Titanic II will not be an exact recreation of the original ship and her times, she will be a distinctive experience in her own right, one that will deserve to judged on her own merits. If given the opportunity to present them to the world, the Titanic II has the potential to become as distinctive – and well-regarded – as any ship afloat today. While she will never rival the legend of the original Titanic – and what ship possibly could? – she has the potential to carve out her own niche on the North Atlantic by offering a unique experience; if that experience satisfies the dreams of those aboard her, then she will have served her purpose. While it would be folly to ask, let alone demand, that the Titanic II take her passengers wholly back to 1912, it may be possible for her to capture the echoes of those last golden years of the Edwardian Era — before civilization committed suicide in 1914.

But that’s another story, for another time….

I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and that’s the way it is.