A long, long time ago, I went out with a man who packed a piece. By which I mean, I went out with a man who wore a toy gun. By which I mean, he strapped a replica gun that fired blanks into a cross-body “gun holster” which he would wear underneath his coat.
As red flags go, this was a pretty big one. Quite apart from the fact that he was basically inviting armed police to shoot him dead in the street — and who would have blamed them? The whole look was deeply unsexy. His relationship with the toy long outlasted our relationship.
I recalled this dark moment in my junior history with a shudder this week while examining the inventory displayed on Elon Musk’s nightstand, a subject presented in a Twitter post earlier this week with the caption “My bedside table”. The tableau revealed four open cans of caffeine-free Diet Coke, an unfinished bottle of water, a Buddhist amulet apparently used as an aid for meditation, a replica Revolutionary war-era pistol in a box decorated with the Emanuel Leutze painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) and a handgun, understood to be a copy of one from the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Now, I’m no Luke Edward Hall, but when it comes to the art of projecting taste and personality into my decorative surroundings, I would argue that abandoning a few unfinished cans beside my pistol of an evening is probably not what interior design gurus have in mind. Commentators were quick to point out that his bedside table featured what seemed to be an even greater offence than the presence of a Diamond Back .357 handgun beside his pillow: the surfacetop was covered in unsightly water stains. Even Musk seemed a little shamefaced about the whole arrangement: “There is no excuse for my lack of coasters,” he wrote in the comments field.
Nevertheless, as a glimpse into the mind of one of the great technological provocateurs of recent times, the tweet offered an unexpected portal. Musk’s nightstand immediately conjured the image of a lonely, very thirsty man-child, suspended in the forever fantasy that he might one day rule the world. Furthermore, for a man who has been three times married and sired 10 children, the table gives off a ferocious smack of “single”. The internet has since been occupied with making tragic nightstand memes.
Rather like the power desk, the bedside table offers its own story for psychological evaluation. But where the power desk is a public tool on which to project status among one’s peer group, the bedside table is more intimate, a tiny vestibule of quiet neuroses, thwarted ambitions and psychic ills. My own, for example, features a towering pile of highly curated books still awaiting my attention, a small porcelain dish in which I collect discarded hairclips, an inhaler, a vat of gummy, full-strength melatonin (for the “jet lag”) and an assortment of adapter plugs.
Unlike other bits of status furnishings — our bookshelves, desk tops or kitchen cabinets — the nightstand exposes our frailer, older, more decrepit selves. My husband stores a lifetime’s supply of ear plugs, as though he were living through the Blitz on our no-through road, while I remember my father’s bedside table featuring a buffet of indigestion tablets which he monitored as closely as those Beefeaters mind the crown jewels.
Musk’s bedside table offers fresh insight into his public image in the world. But does he identify with Washington, championing freedom and democracy with his flintlock pistol, or Page, the villainous protagonist of Deus Ex, in search of immortality and willing to sacrifice the lives of billions in order to achieve that goal? According to Wikipedia, Deus Ex is a role-playing franchise about “the conflict between secretive factions who wish to control the world by proxy, and the effects of transhumanistic attitudes and technologies in a dystopian near-future”. No wonder Musk must guzzle golden cans of Coca-Cola if he’s going to bed with two such extreme totems of progress on his mind. At least both factions can be clearly represented through their choice of weaponry. Nothing helps an American sleep more soundly than the knowledge he’s got a pistol by his head.
“When I became a man, I put away childish things”, says Shakespeare’s Prince Hal as he recognises the weight of responsibility that must come with taking on the crown. But maybe he also had a nightstand where he could pile discarded cans of soda and secrete his treasured toys?
However superhuman we tell ourselves we are, the bedside table is the last repository for all our very human sorrows, our loneliness, addictions, our shifty sinuses, our bloated guts. That they reveal the detritus of human failing turns out to be quite reassuring. Even when that failing is forgetting to put a coaster underneath one’s drinks cans or pretending to be Elon Musket while waving a toy gun.