Summer's end, and we are having an outbreak of warm and clammy sentiment. How else to explain the preoccupation of otherwise busy American congressmen with the sanctity of a wreck at the bottom of the North Atlantic? It seems that the French, who should be on vacation in August, are trying to raise the Titanic, or, rather, pieces of it. Worse, they plan to open one of its fabled strongboxes in Monte Carlo on television. Telly Savalas will officiate. Americans, who three years ago opened the safe of the Andrea Doria on camera, are shocked at the sacrilege.

It is one thing for the American oceanographers at Woods Hole, Mass., to be upset. They found the Titanic and respect it too much to disturb, let alone exploit it. But it is American politicians, not known for either their delicacy or their diving, who are demanding Titanic conservation in the name of the nation.

Rep. Walter Jones, chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, is offended that "the tomb of so many who died so tragically will have been violated." Bounty hunters are now similarly violating the S.S. Central America, which went down off the Carolina coast in 1857 with 428 souls and $600 million in gold. Jones is not similarly offended.

"The French," Jones complains, "have ignored our government's requests to negotiate an agreement governing exploration of the wreck." But the RMS Titanic was British, and its grave is in international waters. Why the French should be negotiating with a country that has no claim either to the ship or to its resting place is a mystery.

Except that when Americans feel strongly enough about something, they get expansive and begin to believe that they have a claim to it. Feeling confers rights, ownership of sorts. The Titanic exists in American song, film, idiom and imagination. We shall not permit foreign frogmen to disturb our memories.

It is odd how sentiment attaches itself so arbitrarily to things. Sen. Lowell Weicker, a man whose career is dedicated to turning sentiment into law, prevailed upon the Senate to pass a bill prohibiting the importation of Titanic artifacts. Why is it sacrilegious to disturb the ruins of the Titanic, and not of the Andrea Doria or of King Tut's Tomb?

What exactly is the source of the peculiar sacredness of the Titanic? Well, some of the survivors are living, and those who went down are remembered still. But we have permitted the exploration of much more recent wrecks. The Andrea Doria went down in 1956. And if one must not disturb the final resting place of the unfortunate, then Weicker and Jones should be outlawing archaeology. Treasure hunting too. When people dive for Spanish galleons and bring up coins and silver from what is surely a sailors' grave, they are hailed as adventurers. When they go down for the Titanic's dishes, they are plunderers.

But the Titanic is different, insist the sentimentalists. The difference is in the imagination. The Titanic remains the symbol of an age whose spirit of grandeur, progress, and confidence, indeed hubris, we envy and whose passing we still mourn.

Granted, the Titanic is more than a ship. It is an icon. But why is this icon (and its associated sentiments) best served by leaving it in frigid waters 2 1/2 miles deep in the North Atlantic rather than raising its pieces and displaying them for the living? Washington is a city of reconstructed wrecks. Its museums burst with pieces of everything dead from dinosaurs to biplanes to mummies. We have quite cheerfully had them all disinterred -- disturbed, if you will -- and brought to the capital for assembly and display.

Ah, but it is the Monte Carlo extravaganza ("docutainment," explains the producer) that grates. Really? There is something ridiculous about Americans, who turn everything into cash from the Statue of Liberty to a pope's visit, claiming to be scandalized by Titanic exploitation. True, a few French souls and some Hollywood types stand to make money off the Titanic. But the Titanic is so fabled in the first place precisely because of the wealth and the power of those who went down with her. This was not a ship of nuns. It was a vehicle of conveyance for the plutocracy. It is an irony to be savored that the U.S. Congress should feel impelled to protect the gaudiest ship in history from the ambition and avarice of fortune seekers. The bejeweled who went down with the ship would hardly object to the exertions of their spiritual heirs.