Understanding Elon Musk’s Tweet Quoting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’

Tesla shares tumble after Musk interview sparks fresh fears

Elon Musk returned to Twitter Tuesday with a command and poetry.

The enigmatic ten lines comprise the fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which is simultaneously one of the most famous English language poems in the world and one of the least understood. It has been puzzling undergraduates and perplexing critics for nearly one-hundred years.

The passage Musk quotes in his tweet tells the story of a dead sailor. It is the shortest section of the “The Wasteland” and it actually has some rhymes:” the deep sea swell..he rose and fell…Gentile or Jew…tall as you.” Many critics thought the section was a poetic failure, either something that Eliot should have left out altogether or something that would have been better if Ezra Pound had not convinced him to strip it down from the original 93 lines.

Even Eliot himself had his doubts. In a letter to Pound, Eliot asked if he should cut Phlebas altogether. Pound barked back that Phlebas as “absolootly” needed “where he is.”

Musk’s tweet might be alluding to this doubt. He instructs us not to read “The Wasteland” but to read Eliot’s notes on the poem. Perhaps Musk is acknowledging self-doubt. Perhaps he is expressing a longing for a Pound figure at Tesla, someone to whittle away what is weak and support what is strong. Tesla executives have been trying for years to recruit “a chief operating officer or other No. 2 executive to assume some of Mr. Musk’s day-to-day responsibilities,” the New York Times reported this week.

Musk himself appeared to express a kind of loneliness in heading up Tesla, telling the New York Times “if you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”

The excised portion of “Part IV Death by Water” tells the story of a group of New England fishermen. They set off in high spirits with favorable winds in search of drawing wealth from the sea. The early hopes, however, fade as the sea appears to resist their will and their moods turn dark. Hope is restored, however, when they make a remarkably good catch of cod. Disaster, however, looms. A storm strikes and the boat is wrecked on an iceberg. All onboard drown.

The passage Musk quotes directly follows the report of the drowning. It is Eliot’s demonstration that the dark, even tragic, story of the fisherman is not just a story of greed gone wrong or an indifferent or even malevolent universe. There is a promise of hope and redemption even if failure is the ultimate result. The beauty of the bones of Phlebas beneath the sea is achieved because the men on the boat were willing to voyage out, willing to take a risk, willing to become men of action in pursuit of their dreams.

Eliot in the deleted lines alludes to the most famous sailor of all, Homer’s Odysseus. More specifically, Eliot plays with a tension between two post-Homeric depictions of Ulysses: Dante’s in the Inferno and Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

Dante’s poem is critical of Ulysses final voyage as an act of hubris, one taken for glory and knowledge without regard for his responsibilities at home. It portrays a Ulysses who cannot settle down even after his long voyage home. The lure of adventure into the unknown is too great. But although Dante appears to look on this as a flaw he gives the best lines to Ulysses urging his men onward.

Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
⁠Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
⁠But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.

Tennyson drops the critical stance alotgether and portrays Ulysses’s return to sea as a bold and noble high seas adventure, a quest for greatness. Tennyson concludes with the famous lines:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Eliot plays with both the Dante and Tennyson interpretations to produce an effect that is not a compromise or even a synthesis. Instead, it is a reconciliation of sorts. The quite ordinary and even selfish inspirations of the New England fisherman do not, for Eliot, take away from the importance of their undertaking, from the glory that is the hope that has made them voyagers. Importantly, the men undertake their adventure together. It is not a tale of Ulysses but of all of them. They are not isolated Prufrocks caught up in indecision, unwilling to seek out greatness because of fear that they could be blamed for error and unable to move because they are unable to join a community.

The men give themselves to the voyage, overcoming the obstacles of ego despite their initially base motivations. Giving themselves in this way is an act of daring liberation. They act in concert, in sympathy with one another, a community upon the sea. This is a transcendence from isolated individualism on those left behind on shore. In the end, they achieve a kind of control through acceptance that they can govern only their souls and not the external seas.

Later in “The Wasteland,” the Thunder will make these commands explicit as the path to redemption: give, sympathize, control. In “Death by Water,” however, these remain just hints of the message that is not yet revealed. It is there to be seen only by those who know what is to come.

It is easy to see that 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.

Or maybe he just wants us to talk about something else besides “funding secured.”


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