Elon Musk tweets that he wants us to read the end notes for T. S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Waste-Land.” He quotes from a brief section of the poem called “Death by Water,” which considers the drowning of a merchant sailor and concludes:
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Musk, the serial entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, has been a little bit erratic of late. He is a man of big ideas: He came up with a rough plan for the hyperloop, a kind of train that runs at high speed in a depressurized tube, but then left it to someone else to build it — he had too much on his plate already, though he did later found the Boring Company, a tunnel-and-infrastructure concern that presumably would be of help in building a hyperloop system.
Big ideas are fun, but Musk’s main activity these days is running an automobile company, one that he started from scratch. For the moment, that isn’t much fun at all. He says he has spent days on end inside his factory, not venturing outdoors, as the company works to ramp up production for the Model 3, its first truly mass-market project. He is to some extent a victim of his own success: Tesla received a half-million or so pre-orders for the Model 3, and filling those orders in a timely fashion was always going to be, to put it charitably, challenging. Musk acknowledged as much going in to the project, predicting “six months of manufacturing hell.” That was optimistic.
He has called the past year “excruciating” and says it was “the most difficult and painful year of my career.” Some of that pain has come from Tesla shareholders, not all of whom are thrilled with Musk’s performance. He tweeted that he had a plan to take the firm private and the financing to do it. He didn’t, and he is being investigated by the SEC, which believes that tweet may have amounted to a criminal offense.
Apparently, he is seeking solace in poetry.
That’s an excellent instinct.
“The Waste-Land” is a famously obscure and recondite poem. It is part Grail lore, part social reportage, and part library. The poem, which was originally published with its end notes, is full of references to diverse works of literature, music, and philosophy. Its mood is bleak, and one of its themes is an isolation so deep that “loneliness” doesn’t really capture it — the belief that we are all prisoners inside our own minds (or souls), and that, being unable to pass beyond those walls, we are never able to truly know one another or to be known. It is good reading for the disconsolate and the forlorn, which even billionaires must be from time to time.
And Eliot is good reading for conservatives. (It is fitting that Russell Kirk gave The Conservative Mind the subtitle: “From Burke to Eliot.”) Eliot saw a fundamental divide in the West, “between the secularists — whatever political or moral philosophy they support — and the anti-secularists; between those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth, and those who believe in values realized out of time.” (“Out of time” — no wonder Elon Musk is in an Eliotic mood.) Kirk dedicated an entire volume to the poet: Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. Kirk on Eliot is far better reading than today’s 27th column on Paul Manafort, if you want to get one last light summer read in.
But why recommend the notes? Why not the poem?
The notes do have much to recommend them. In The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot wrote that while his American students collectively enjoyed a very broad education, “it might have been better if they had read fewer, but the same books.” His notes might well be taken as his recommended reading.
I have previously suggested that some innovative college should organize an undergraduate seminar around Eliot’s “Waste-Land” notes, having the students read (over the course of a year, I think, rather than a semester) all of the works referenced therein, either in whole or in part. That would include: From Ritual to Romance, Jessie Weston’s study of Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail tradition; The Golden Bough, an examination of mythology and ancient religious practices by James George Frazer, focusing on the ritual sacrifice of priest-kings (and hence an excellent guide to modern presidential politics); the Biblical books of Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes; a good deal of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry; The Divine Comedy; John Webster’s The White Devil; Edmund Spenser’s “Prothalamion”; Paul Verlaine’s “Parsifal”; the Aeneid; Paradise Lost; Anthony and Cleopatra and The Tempest; Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”; John Day’s Parliament of Bees; Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women; Metamorphoses; Sappho’s fragments (maybe in the form of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter); The Vicar of Wakefield, one of the most popular novels of its time but now largely forgotten; James Anthony Froude’s History of England; Augustine’s Confessions; Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translations; the Upanishads; Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America; Ernest Shackleton’s memoirs (published as South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917); Herman Hesse’s A Glimpse into Chaos; Francis Herbert Bradley’s Appearance and Reality; Gerard de Nerval’s poem “El Desdichado”; Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo Is Mad Again, which is thought to have been an influence on Hamlet, among other plays; and “Pervigilium Veneris,” meaning “The Vigil of Venus,” a Latin poem of unknown authorship. Ideally, this would be followed by a field trip to St. Magnus Martyr Church in London, which Eliot first admired for Christopher Wren’s interior; Eliot said that in his earlier life he had appreciated the church’s splendor, but, after his conversion to Christianity, for its utility. And, then, a Wagner double bill.
Elon Musk is not religious. He has a net worth of around $25 billion, a figure that went up by more than $1 billion after Tesla stock surged following his tweet about taking the firm private. (Hence the SEC probe.) He is a man who has, or who could have, almost any material thing a human being might desire. And yet he has spent a year that he describes as “excruciating.” That’s an interesting word, deriving from the Latin word for crucifixion, a punishment that not even the SEC contemplates. (Excrucior is the word Catullus used to describe being tortured by love.) There is excruciating and there is excruciating: Elon Musk’s worst day (as I am sure he appreciates entirely) is not very much like anybody’s worst day in the tragically misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo. But, as Eliot suggests, it’s impossible to know exactly what someone else’s interior life is like. He did believe that it was possible to finesse that, a bit, through art and literature, believing that the artist could isolate an emotion and assemble “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Read strictly (formula?), that’s a little bit quacky. But reading “The Waste-Land” does produce a unique sensation. It does in me, anyway. Presumably it does in Musk, too, which is what he was hoping to share.
(Or maybe he’s going to start raving about the Fisher King.)
Return to Eliot’s divide “between those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth, and those who believe in values realized out of time.” I was in Silicon Valley earlier this week, and I was struck, as I always am, by the unwritten sumptuary laws that rule the tech world, in which men of almost unimaginable wealth live from day to day in an aggressively modest and casual way. You don’t see a lot of Lamborghinis in Palo Alto, though you do see a lot of Teslas, which I suspect is one part virtue-signaling and one part rooting for the home team. (Also: They are terrifically fun to drive.) At a certain level, wealth becomes an abstraction. At the end of his career at Microsoft, Bill Gates was not working to make himself wealthier, to improve his material standard of living. I do not imagine that Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg is much motivated by the desire to add to their personal balance sheets. Elon Musk didn’t need to start a car company: He made $22 million personally from the sale of his first company (a nice return on the $28,000 initial investment) and then made $180 million from his role in the creation of PayPal. Yes, he has 125 times that much money now, a difference in wealth that in terms of personal consumption comes down to what kind of private jet you have.
The desire to do great things is in and of itself motivating — but why? There is pleasure in the exercise of our creative faculties, and men such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have more than a little of what once would have been recognized as moral fervor around them. Gates would heal the world (“Our Global Health Division aims to reduce inequities in health by developing new tools and strategies to reduce the burden of infectious disease and the leading causes of child mortality”) and lead it out of darkness and misery (“creating and scaling market-based innovations to stimulate inclusive and sustainable economic growth”), and there’s nothing to sneer at in that. Musk believes that electric cars will encourage a transition away from fossil fuels, helping to avoid an apocalyptic climate emergency. Agree or disagree, those are well-intentioned programs. But “those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth” must be, in their own conception, rearranging the deck chairs on an existential Titanic that is ultimately headed for maximum entropy and heat death. And surely none of these men is so abject as to be doing all that work in the hopes of being remembered well. There is very little reason to put any value on the good opinion of the general public in our own time, and no plausible reason to think that the high opinion of future generations will deserve any more weight.
But, still: “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
There is no buying your way out of the human condition, not with money or any other currency. The inevitability of death, disappointment, loneliness, the strange way in which even grand achievements lose their shine in retrospect, that sneaking suspicion that we’ve been kidding ourselves all along — with apologies to Cyndi Lauper, it is not the case that money changes everything. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Musk said: “When I was a child, there’s one thing I said: ‘I never want to be alone.’” Granted, divorced and sleeping at the office probably looks different in Elon Musk’s tax bracket, but there he is, baring his soul on Twitter, hoping to communicate . . . what? I wonder.
I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.