"Why build the Titanic? Why go to the moon? Why do the Yankees play the Red Sox? Why did Christopher Columbus discover the Americas? Because they could, and they can, and we can build the Titanic."
This is how Australian mining magnate Clive Palmer began his speech unveiling the details of Titanic II, the near-exact replica he is building in a Chinese shipyard. I recommend you listen to his comments themselves, because they're both magnificently heartfelt and untouched by the hand of the PR men.
"Titanic," he says, "represents the spirit of man. The spirit of love. The hope that all men have for peace on earth in our time and goodwill to all men ... The Titanic II will be a ship of peace ... linking three continents, carrying the hopes and dreams of people everywhere. It represents the reconciliation of man, the hopes of many for a better life, and for a better future. That's what the original Titanic was all about."
If he says so: personally, I thought it was about ferrying the rich over the Atlantic in consummate style, while the plebs rotted in the bilges. But then, Palmer doesn't actually want to recreate the Titanic: he wants to recreate Titanic. He comes over like a man with My Heart Will Go On playing on a constant loop inside his head, referring to "the spirit of Rose and Jack, Romeo and Juliet" that "lives in all of us"; he plans to go steerage rather than first-class, so "I can sit down there, have some Irish stew, talk to somebody and at night I can get up and do the Irish jig".
However bizarre, Palmer's project is utterly appropriate, because the spirit of our times is eerily similar to that of the Titanic era. Its sinking marked the end of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age: the first wave of globalisation, which concentrated amazing wealth in the hands of a tiny elite, who embraced an ultra-extravagant aesthetic that left their mansions looking like they'd been sandblasted with gold leaf.
Today, we're living through a second Gilded Age, but where the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers played at being aristocrats, marrying into European nobility and looting the continent's treasures to furnish their many homes, their successors simply play.
Extreme wealth has become an opportunity for self-fulfilment – often revolving around a return to childhood, or simply childishness.
John Travolta builds a runway outside his mansion, so he can play pilot with his five private jets. Oil baron William Koch constructs a complete Wild West town, so he can play cowboy. Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist, funds "seasteads", floating cities where Ayn Rand nuts like himself can free themselves from the tyranny of government and taxes and little people - essentially, hi-tech treehouses complete with crayoned signs saying "No Girls Allowed".
Indeed, it is in Silicon Valley, where Thiel made his mint, that this phenomenon is most glaringly apparent. The hot trend is space travel: Jeff Bezos of Amazon has his own rocket company; Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google plan to mine the asteroid belt; Elon Musk, founder of the electric car company Tesla, wants to visit (and eventually colonise) Mars. All cite pious motives, or convincing business cases. But given the infinite number of things they could have funded instead, it's obvious they also really, really want to play spaceman.
Some may disapprove, but if they're not going to give it to good causes, I'd far rather such people spent their money on crazily ambitious schemes than on grandiose yet ultimately conventional purchases such as private zoos in the back garden, or hiring Beyonce for the kids' birthday party. True, Palmer risks becoming a latter-day Ozymandias, his monument a 50,000-tonne liner rather than a crumbling statue. Yet at least he has the courage to dream his impossible dream, and help make the world a slightly weirder, and slightly more wonderful place.