In the fall of 2003 essayist and cultural critic Richard Rodriguez appeared on the Lewis University campus. His appearance was made possible by a Title III grant that assisted the university in a variety of ways to globalize the curriculum. Rodriguez’s address to an overflowing crowd in the Sancta Alberta Chapel focused mostly on the ideas in Brown: The Last Discovery of America, which was published in the spring of that year. Brown is Rodriguez’s third book (following the very popular Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father). While the first two books examined his early years in Sacramento, California, Brown was a more extensive meditation on the complicated matters of race and identity in America. In his address Rodriguez urged the Lewis audience to think in more complicated ways about race in America and move beyond the simplifications of white and black. He offered then and continues to offer his own life as an object lesson in the complexity of human personality and the interplay of cultural forces that influence personality development.
A conservative-leaning, gay, Catholic, Hispanic journalist, Rodriguez defies easy classification and he delights in how he and others foil our inclinations to easy reductionism. He also called attention to the changing demographics in the United States (before we began talking seriously about the growing Hispanic vote and the efforts of the political parties to court it). These changes, most manifest in Rodriguez polyglot California, would create a “browning” of America. The inexplicable forces of love which powers the increase in marriages across ethnic and racial lines could only lead happily to a weakening of tribal affiliations and to the rise of the solitary individual proud of not ashamed by his or her “brown” nature. Impurity should be celebrated and mongrel could no longer be used as a term of contempt. The 2008 election of a mixed-race president and the recent election of a white New York mayor with an African-American wife and bi-racial teenage children are small proofs of Rodriquez’s prophetic powers.
And now, after a decade, Rodriquez has come out with his fourth book, Darling: A Spiritual Biography. It’s a book that tries to account for the change in the national zeitgeist after 9/11 and to document how his increasing knowledge of the Arab world and Islam have informed his quest to understand his Catholic faith better and to explain the reasons why he chooses to remain a Catholic amidst the rise of fashionable atheism and the Church’s sorry record of child abuse and in-hospitality toward homosexuals. He attributes the endurance of his faith to his readings of the founders of the three Abrahamic religions. But prior to his formal studies, others shaped his faith: immediate contacts (his parents, the Sisters of Mercy who taught him in elementary school, the brothers of the LaSallian Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, various priest friends-confessors) and to artists (the Catholic Flannery O’Connor and, curiously, Andy Warhol).
A number of the 10 essays in this collection have been previously published. There is an insightful examination of the life and impact of the flawed hero-saint of the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez. There is a length meditation on how the most optimistic of American states, California, has dealt with the widening gap between the dream and the reality, though the undertow of disappointment has been there from the beginning. He draws many of his conclusions from his reading of past and present literature set in and about the Golden State. And there is a deep lament about the decline of the American newspaper and print culture that is more than just nostalgia for the good old days when columnists like Herb Caen, who Rodriguez read in his youth, defined San Francisco.
Most of the original material in the book involves his efforts to understand how the desert environment in which Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam were established accounts for their overlapping worldviews, ethics, symbols and metaphors.
“Darling,” the essay that provides the title to the collection, is an exception. It’s an extended etymological study of the various uses of this now outmoded term of affection. It’s an opportunity to talk about his special relationship with his younger and now dead sister Helen, to examine the campy movies of the 30’s and 40’s, and even to talk about the nature of male relationships in the gender-segregated Arab world.
In Darling, Rodriguez’s distinctive essay style is most clearly present. Rodriguez is not a writer who believes that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. To enter a Rodriguez essay is to join a flanneur – the French term for the aimless but curious urban walker. His essays are a series of mini-essays, some of no more than a page, that are loosely held together by topic and tone. They are reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay-probes which have been labelled lapidarian: turning the gem to examine its many luminescent surfaces. His reading of Biblical-Christian literature (and recently the Koran), canonical Western literature (he was once a Ph.D. candidate studying the English Renaissance), and American popular culture (he came of age in the 50’s and 60’s) enables him to sprinkle his essays with references to Moses and Augustine and Dickens and Cary Grant. Some readers may find his highly allusive style pretentious, but even they will have to admit that his range of references is astonishingly wide.
The shifts from section to section are marked by the spirit of playful free-association and the invitation to make the connections that Rodriguez does not explicitly make. Here’s one such string, the first section of the three-part last chapter “The Three Ecologies of the Holy Desert”: an apparition of the Virgin in an oak tree by a Watson, California woman in 1993; the alleged Satanic face in a photograph of the collapsing second twin tower; a carnivalesque images from a Federico Fellini film; atheist old (Bertrand Russell, James Joyce) and new (Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins); poet W.H. Auden’s rescue of Catholic activist Dorothy Day from a fire code violation in her house for the poor; the radiant smile of a down-on-his-luck resident of San Francisco’s Castro district; the sexual politics of the Right and Left; and King’s “I Have Seen the Mountain Top” sermon. It is Rodriguez’s imagination, compassion, and humility that holds these disparate mini-essays together.
One other feature binds the autobiography; the man writes artful, poeticized prose. The work is filled with arresting sentences like the following which records a moment after his return from the emptiness of the desert. He’s struck by the merchants in the market of the Arab section of Jerusalem:
“Emptiness clings to these young men as well – the mermen of green-lit grottoes piled with cheap treasure – men with nothing to do but fiddle with their cell phones or yawn in their unconscious beauty and only occasionally swim up to someone caught in the unending time of humanity that passes before them.”
Darling is an engaging book that is both a continuation of and break from his previous works. One hopes that there will be yet one more work from this now 70 year old insightful essayist and provocative public intellectual.