What is the cause of inspiration?

Elon Musk settled with the SEC yesterday after it alleged that his “thinking of taking Tesla private” tweet improperly influenced the markets this summer. He remains Tesla’s CEO, but the settlement cost $40 million and forced him out as chairman for three years.

I’m sharing all of this to circle back on something that Kevin Williamson wrote on Musk last month:

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…

“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. …

Elon Musk is not religious. He has a net worth of around $25 billion… 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. …

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.” …

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.”

What Williamson is raising about Elon Musk and those like him is something like Bill Buckley’s lingering question, “What is the cause of inspiration?

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.