This April it will be 100 years since the Titanic's one and only sailing. And the centennial of the unsinkable ship's sinking, which took the lives of some 1,500 people, is already a bloated extravaganza of dubious taste and obtuse cultural history. If only there were lifeboats in which to escape it all.
At the end of March, Belfast, Northern Ireland, will open "The World's Largest Titanic Visitor Attraction," a glittering behemoth at the old shipyard where the Titanic was built. In size and sheer expense (north of $145 million), the building is equal to the original ship, at least in hubris. Once all the centennial festivities are done, this enormous white elephant will be available for weddings, which is only slightly less awful than using the wreck itself as a venue (as one couple did back in 2001, taking their vows crouched in a little submarine above the ruined prow).
April will also see a raft of Titanic cruises, including an excursion from New York to the site of the catastrophe, and a voyage retracing the ship's route from Southampton (though the plan is for the vessel to make it all the way to New York this time). And as one might have expected, "Titanic," James Cameron's maudlin megahit movie, is being rereleased—in 3-D, of course.
Not every Titanic commemoration is on a mammoth scale. This weekend in seaside Penarth, Wales, a restaurant will be throwing a Titanic party touted in the local press as "an evening of music, dinner and life jackets."
If you can't make it to Wales, there's always Orlando, Fla., where on Saturday nights one can enjoy "fun" and "merriment" at the "Titanic Dinner Event." The show is staged at "The Titanic Experience," a strip-mall "attraction" about a dozen miles down the road from Disney. Not only is there dining and singing, but for $64.95 you get to "Be a part of the splendor and surprises at one of the most famous dinner parties in history." What a surprise it would be if, after a sumptuous meal, two-thirds of the patrons were tossed in a tank of icy water and left to drown. But that might scuttle the merriment.
The Orlando enterprise is owned by Premier Exhibitions, the parent of RMS Titanic Inc., the outfit with international salvage rights to what's left of the ship. Much of the haul has been out and about in traveling shows. But, appropriately, the permanent displays are in Las Vegas and Orlando.
There is also something fitting in the fact that the Titanic tchotchkes are displayed by a company otherwise known for turning cadavers into entertainment. Premier Exhibition's bread and butter has been "Bodies: The Exhibition," a show of semidissected corpses preserved in plastic.
Premier Exhibitions is cashing in on the centennial of the Titanic disaster with an April auction to offload some 5,500 artifacts raised from the wreck, everything from chunks of the ship's hull to White Star Line teacups and passengers' possessions. The goods will be sold in one gigantic lot, appraised at $189 million.
At the other end of the market, the company has licensed a $19.95 "100th Anniversary Collector's Edition Necklace" almost surreal in its schlock value. On a silver-plated chain dangles an "ocean blue" heart pendant made of glass and reminiscent of the fictional jewel used as a plot device in Mr. Cameron's movie. Embedded in the glass is a crumb of coal hauled up from the wreck. This bauble is "destined to become a conversation piece and a valued collectible you'll want to pass down for generations to come."
Thanks to the success of the 1997 movie, an unfortunate number of people now think of the sinking of the Titanic primarily as the setting for a romance. And that ahistorical misunderstanding is behind much of the creepy centennial sentimentality.
A hundred years after the disaster, it's worth remembering why the Titanic loomed so large for so long in the public mind—what made it, according to Walter Lord, "The greatest news story of modern times." Lord, whose 1955 book "A Night to Remember" remains the essential Titanic account, wrote: "Here was the 'unsinkable ship'—perhaps man's greatest engineering achievement—going down the first time it sailed," and taking with it many of the most notable people of the day. "If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else?" Lord asked. "People have never been sure of anything since." The Titanic century soon devolved into world wars, atomic anxiety and an angst rooted in the worry that our machines may not be entirely within our control.
This year, instead of sinking into a celebration of catastrophic kitsch, it's worth restoring the Titanic to its rightful place as a most modern memento mori. What should we remember? Steven Biel, in his cultural history of the Titanic, aptly highlighted Henry Adams's response to the tragedy: "Nature jeers at us for our folly."