What’s most intriguing about Pete Buttigieg choosing Ulysses as his favorite novel in several media venues, which caused tiny but very loud eruptions yesterday on the internet, is that it was the “wrong” choice, in a lifetime that seems largely unblemished by those. His CV is immaculate: Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, service in Afghanistan, a few years at McKinsey, resounding success as a blue mayor in a red state. A supernaturally charming husband. Even his name, which might seem like a liability, has become a weird advantage, an icebreaker. You could take a hard look at the McKinsey thing, but listen: I have personally attended three Phish shows. Nobody gets out of white male privilege with clean hands.
And now Ulysses!
The most obvious (and saddest) explanation for the choice is that it’s another blue-chip asset. It’s hard to get into, like Harvard. Reading it is maybe akin to knocking off one of the seven summits, or becoming a member of Baltusrol: “Performative intellectualism,” as Jeet Heer of the New Republic hazarded.
Yet if Buttigieg merely wanted to send us a signal, he chose uncharacteristically poorly. There are dozens of great, substantial, “impressive” books that are, in the first place, not widely considered pretentious to even mention, and second, not about a Jewish cuckold wandering Dublin, buying soap and occasionally masturbating. (Almost the entirety of literature is not about that, as it happens.)
The reaction bore that out. Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, tweeted, “Ulysses is an important book to read if you want to be well versed in the Western Canon. No one is reading Ulysses for fun.” That is ridiculous on its face — people do lots of stuff for fun that is far more inscrutable than reading James Joyce — and Serwer later deleted the tweet. Nevertheless, it seemed to sum up a certain feeling within even literary Twitter, which was that Buttigieg had gone too far in trying to amaze us. He’d already learned Norwegian; he could have left it there.
Was it just a matter of Buttigieg misreading the room, then? He could easily have picked a legendary American modernist — Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck — or something equally relevant but quirkier, like Sula or A Visit From the Goon Squad. He could, like Barack Obama, have cited the influence of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a typically canny move, just honest enough. If I were a highly paid literary coolness consultant (by the way: extremely available) I might have suggested El Señor Presidente by the great magical realist Miguel Asturias, a novel about an insane dictator.
But Ulysses is above anything else just really weird: dark, funny, polyphonic, sexual, incomprehensible. People hate it, and presidential candidates do not generally spend their time endorsing stuff people hate, with the exception of their own campaign autobiographies.
This gives rise to the strangest, most far-fetched explanation for his choice: that he actually means it.
This theory is bolstered by an interview with New York in February, in which Buttigieg offered a lengthier defense of Ulysses. The book, he says, “is very much about daily life, when you get into this other guy’s life and you learn about the things he cares about, and why he cares about them.” He explained the political valence to Esquire: “You’re in this guy’s head … I think that same understanding of the imperative and the primacy of lived experience ought to be how our politics works.”
My response is as follows: God, what if this is real! Did reading Ulysses actually enhance Mayor Pete’s faith that other people have internal lives, the form of sensitivity most notoriously absent in the current president? More specifically, could Leopold Bloom’s rueful contemplations — part of Bloom’s tragedy is that besides being Jewish he’s smarter than everyone else, placing him doubly outside of their conversations — have resonated in some oblique way with Buttigieg’s experiences as a gay Midwesterner?
If so, it is, somehow, nicely alienating, a little jut of otherness, offered despite what someone as intelligent as Buttigieg must have known the Serwers of the world would make of it. Donald Trump has been incinerating our norms to amuse himself during executive time, which is quite obviously Bad but has had a few accidentally positive externalities: For instance, it seems hilarious in retrospect how candidates of the recent past, such as John Kerry and Mitt Romney, contorted themselves to fit precise party orthodoxies that turned out not to matter to voters at all. Part of Mayor Pete’s surprising success — recent Iowa polling has him third there — seems to arise from the fact that he just seems happy, serious but happy, relaxed in his own skin. He likes Ulysses. It’s not a big deal if you’re not into it.
In one of those odd historical rhymes, it so happens that there’s another Ulysses on the periphery of this presidential election. It’s the name of Beto O’Rourke’s son, take from the main character of his own favorite book, The Odyssey. (“I didn’t have the balls to call him Odysseus,” Beto reports, having apparently arrogated to himself all parental naming duties.)
I don’t dislike Beto. I desperately wish he were the junior United States senator from Texas. Still, I do find it depressing that, aside from his embrace of The Odyssey, he has also expressed a fondness for Joseph Campbell, who famously tracked the myths of heroism that exist across most human cultures.
The reason is that we don’t need a fucking hero right now. We need an adult. If the presidency is a stage in Beto O’Rourke’s hero’s journey, he should not be president. The more minimal their sense of personal heroism, after all, the better it seems presidents tend to be. John Quincy Adams failed miserably in almost all of his endeavors in office, but was at least trying to achieve things on behalf of other people. FDR (friends with the lawyer who successfully defended Ulysses against obscenity charges, by the way) was similar but more successful, warring with his own class because he somehow reached the understanding — was it dealing with polio at the age of 39? — that he was not the only person who was real, or could experience pain.
Reagan, meanwhile, knew Campbell’s template from the movies, and acted it out exquisitely and catastrophically. Is Beto merely a more sophisticated avatar of that heroized brand of politics, compassionate but ultimately self-directed? And if so, is Buttigieg the opposite, more novelistic in his view of the world, more finally inclusive?
I have no idea, but I will say this. If we are assessing him on the basis of whether he actually likes Ulysses (which is no stupider than some of the other forms of prognostication at play in our feeds right now), the other books he told Vulture about vouch for his sincerity. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz is a dull, rewarding masterpiece that forces the reader to consider how very different people might feel about the same situation. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a direct anti-idealization of political valor, indeed an argument that politics is essentially tragic. These are minor but telling facts, and when it comes to the men and women who want to be president, now more than ever, the very finest calibrations seem worth considering.
As for ourselves, the picture is less flattering. Why are we fighting about Mayor Pete’s favorite books? Perhaps because, for all that many of us in the culturati deplore Donald Trump, the majority of us remain entirely unaffected by his depredations. We all hate the right people, but we’re doing it on the same kind of phones they hate us on. Usually on the same apps.
Meanwhile — not to bum anyone out — the ice caps are melting. Parts of Alabama are flowing with raw sewage. Children are separated from their families. And Elizabeth Warren, a tough, empathetic, intensely serious human being, producing almost daily detailed ideas for structural change to our society, can barely scratch the top five in polling, in part because some racist idiot keeps calling her Pocahontas. I gave her money last week. But maybe it’s time to ask what she likes to read.