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Titanic Fantasies

“Just count on the life boats.”

-Billy Zane, People Magazine, Mar 7, 2013

Evidently, losing a hold on the Australian National Party has rattled the man, but one of Australia’s richest figures feels that history ought to repeat itself, expressing his desire to build another Titanic with that same hubristic pointlessness that doomed the first project.  There are reasons why certain catastrophes find their place in lore, but mining magnate Clive Palmer will have none of that.  One human’s disaster is another’s opportunity, and he is keen to imitate everything.  Well, almost everything.

Palmer wishes to build an exact replica of the liner that sank in April 1912, and most probably capturing the exact atmos – first, second and third class, the grand staircase, the gastronomy, the dancing, and, if his culturally informed advisors are at hand, much Bermet to consume before the sinking.  The fact that Palmer wishes to not merely fund the construction of the monster but take the very same route from Southampton to New York suggests his sheer desperation to leave something to posterity. Making money renting and extracting the earth must batter the conscience after a while.  Time for some flair and acts of sheer madness.

Australian comedians found the stuff of dreams in the announcement.  Shaun Micallef, in his snappy news comedy Mad as Hell, suggested that Palmer was a larger than recommended medical character.  Palmer himself came out to the press to make the trite observation that anything with a hole in it will sink.  “I think you’d be very cavalier to say something like that.”  Besides, chances of being struck by an iceberg will be minimal – climate change, fed in part by Palmer’s mining enterprises, has reduced the number of icebergs.  In his own words, “One of the benefits of global warming is there hasn’t been as many icebergs in the North Atlantic these days” (Wall Street Journal, Feb 26).

Palmer has been very quick to let his social vision of Titanic II out of the advertising bag.  At a press conference last July, Palmer admitted that there would “be some sort of screening (process)” for applicants (Herald Sun, Jul 27, 2012).  For one thing, he has it in for those pensioners.  Access to the casino would be restricted to first class passengers – after all, they can afford it, and Palmer is one of those responsible ones who doesn’t want people to fritter away what they don’t have.  But if you are a third classer, you might “share a bathroom, sit down at a long table for dinner every night, have some Irish stew and a jig in the night.”

Such concerns on the tycoon’s part will also come with a few tweaks to the original design, if only to cope with modern health and safety requirements.  There will be a “safety deck” and “proper life boats”.  The ship will be a metre wide for reasons of “stability”. “New escape stairs, service elevators, air conditioning room and similar functions have also been added.”  Markku Kanerva, director of sales for the marine design company Deltamarin, has courted fate, insisting that “from a safety perspective”, Titanic II will be peerless (Daily Mail, Feb 28).

With all of this fuss, it is appropriate to consult Joseph Conrad, who considered the calamity of this rich person’s sinkable toy box.  The monsters that were taking to the sea in the form of ocean liners were not servants of “progress in any sense.”  In his essay “Some reflections, Seaman-like and otherwise, on the loss of the Titanic” (1912) Conrad could only see the rich prostrate before Mammon, at a loss as to where to spend their wealth.  Two thousand rich but confused individuals aboard a 45,000 ton “hotel of thin steel plates to secure [their] patronage”, “a perfect exhibition of the modern blind trust in mere material and appliances.”

Pat Lacey, the great-great niece of the captain of the Titanic Cmdr Edward John Smith, has found the entire venture to build Titanic II in poor taste and pointless.  Helen Benziger, great grand daughter of survivor Margaret “Molly” Brown, suggests otherwise.  None of that matters – the very fact that the original was in poor taste suggests that every remake of the ship, on screen or off, will be distasteful.  The Titanic is the graveyard of egomania.  There is no need to dip into a bit of Sigmund Freud to realise that technological terrors are not something people ever want to abandon.  That is the difference between mourning and melancholia.

Even after Titanic II is built, Palmer will have to convince customers to get on, or rather, the types of customers he wants.  True, actor Billy Zane is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even he was nervous at the prospect of another ship being built in honour of the long sunk liner.  “I’m sure I’ll get an invitation though.  Although it’s funny, I can’t get a charter to save my life – I don’t know if people really want me on board.”  How droll Mr Zane.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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