Amid the chaos of Tuesday’s news cycle, it was easy to miss a very peculiar tweet from Elon Musk:
This we know: The lines that Musk tweeted are “Death by Water,” the fourth and by far the shortest of the five sections of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece. But beyond that, everything is extremely murky.
For one thing, Musk’s own exhortation—“Read Eliot’s notes on The Waste Land”—is weird, because “Death by Water” is the only section that Eliot didn’t annotate in his notes on the poem. What’s more, Musk links neither to the poem nor to the notes on the poem, but rather to the Wikipedia entry on the poem, where the excerpt in question is not to be found.
In other words, while Musk clearly tweeted out a screenshot, he wasn’t tweeting out a screenshot of the page he was linking to. Instead, he seems to have tweeted out a cropped part of the full poem, as it looks when viewed on a phone. This is, at the very least, a weird way to use Twitter. Also, is Musk telling us to read Eliot’s notes (which, again, he is not linking to) or is he saying he read Eliot’s notes and just wants us to know?
As for the lines in question, they are pretty easy to understand: Phlebas was once a tall and handsome merchant, but now he’s dead, buried in the sea. Phlebas is a cautionary figure. We all die and get washed away, along with all our profit and loss.
Musk is a handsome merchant, exploring space much as Eliot’s Phoenician explored the sea. Does he identify with the dead sailor? And if so, what does that mean? Has he had some kind of LSD-inspired revelation about how none of us really has any individual meaning or merit and we’re all just part of one vast global organism? Is he asking for sympathy, given the certain tragedy of his future death?
One truly bonkers reading of the tweet—courtesy of, well, Breitbart—is that Musk is referring not to the passage he’s tweeting out, but rather to the bits of “Death by Water” that were ultimately excised on the suggestion of Ezra Pound. On this reading, Musk is identifying more with Ulysses than with Phlebas, and is tweeting about glory, hope, and “daring liberation”:
Musk could feel sympathy for this band-of-brothers path to immortality. He may very well see himself with his hand upon the wheel, sails up and headed seaward. Perhaps he will meet the fate of Phlebas but even in that there is beauty and nobility.
But there’s a much simpler and more elegant explanation, which is that this is all part of the breakup between Musk and his (ex?) girlfriend, Grimes. Here’s a hypothetical yet credible sequence of events: First, Grimes sends Musk the screenshot in question. As a message from Grimes to Musk, the excerpt makes much more sense: She’s telling him to get over himself, that he too will go the way of Phlebas.
Musk, seeing something about “profit and loss,” then decides to tweet out the image, along with a link to the poem’s Wikipedia page, which is probably just the first page that came up when he Googled the poem. He then sends out the tweet, mainly to show Grimes that he can be sophisticated and self-reflective and not at all defensive.
What does “Read Eliot’s notes” mean, in this context? That’s still the most mysterious part of the tweet. Maybe the answer will only be revealed with, or at, 420.