November 2013

Chris Beal

nonfiction

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography by Richard Rodriguez

The book jacket of Richard Rodriguez's Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography highlights in large print a sentence from the title essay: "He means us, Darling. You and me in the bar of the Garden of Eden, passing those long-past afternoons." Glancing at this sentence, a potential reader might think that this book is about love. It is not, except incidentally.

The subtitle, likewise, may lead one to expect a single narrative about the author's spiritual development. Maybe the author will examine how his understanding of his religion has changed or matured over the years. Or if a specific religious belief is not the focus, perhaps the author will explore key events in his life to illuminate his spiritual development in general. This book does neither of these.

Darling, then, is neither an autobiography (even while it is autobiographical) nor about love. It does, however, succeed as a group of personal essays centered for the most part on a theme. Three of the great religions were born not only in a desert but in the very same desert. What, Rodriguez wonders, does this say about them? How does their birthplace unite them? In "A Note to the Reader" at the beginning, Rodriguez writes, "I write as a Christian, a Roman Catholic. My faith in the desert God makes me kin to the Jew and the Muslim." His insights in this topic are unique, sometimes profound. And it soon becomes apparent that, while the subject is the desert and the religions to which it gave birth, the theme is death.

In most of the essays, death is a kind of touchstone, but some address the subject directly. "Jerusalem and the Desert" is one of these. Rodriguez wanders the city claimed by each of the three "Abrahamic" religions, his eyes and mind open, seeking to understand how the desert formed these faiths. He ponders the deep meaning of desert in the human psyche:

"The glacier knocks in the cupboard. / The desert sighs in the bed," was W.H. Auden's mock-prophetic forecast. He meant the desert is incipient in the human condition. Time melts away from us. Even in luxuriant weather, even in luxuriant wealth, even in luxuriant youth, we know our bodies will fail; our buildings will fall to ruin.

Several of the other essays circle back around to the desert theme while gathering more and more into its sphere. The final essay, "The Three Ecologies of the Holy Desert," is an apology for and explanation of Rodriguez's continuing faith in the Roman Church despite the views of the many intellectuals of our time -- friends, acquaintances, and even kin of Rodriguez -- who cannot abide organized religion.

Other essays touch indirectly on the subject of desert religion: "Ojala" -- the word his Mexican mother uttered each time Rodriguez left the house, beseeching God to return her son safely -- comes, it turns out, from Arabic. "Transit Alexander" is an homage to the desert color, brown. But the best of the essays, "The True Cross," reflects not on the desert of the Holy Land but on the desert that surrounds, and in another sense is, Las Vegas. Rodriguez has gone to Vegas where an old friend is dying. Between vigils, he wanders the town -- and ponders all the ways that the purpose of Vegas is to defy death, even as his dying friend is the constant reminder that death cannot in fact be denied. A paragraph from this section exemplifies what is perhaps the main virtue of the book as a whole: Rodriquez' ability to juxtapose and link that which we may never have thought to compare:

No truer daughter does Las Vegas have than Dubai on the Persian Gulf with its penthouse views of the void, its racetrack, its randy princes, its underwater hotel. Dubai and the oil-rich Arab kingdoms have purchased an architecture of mirage that is incongruous and, therefore, defiant of the desert. Dubai has water slides, an ice palace, an archipelago of artificial islands in the shape of palm trees. The geometry that springs from the desert's plane is an assertion of human inanity in the fact of natural monotony.

There are other topics in this volume, too. "Final Edition" ponders what the death of newspapers means to the city-dweller's sense of place. "Disappointment" argues that, given that both internal immigrants (from elsewhere in the United States) and those from other countries come to California so optimistic that their hopes can never be fulfilled, disappointment must, in the end, be the essential California experience. "Saint Cesar of Delano" portrays Cesar Chavez, the founder of the Farm Workers Union, as an example of Mexican stoicism, in contrast to American optimism. "Tour de France," obviously written before Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, muses on the relationship, or lack thereof, of cancer, sin, and the king of bicycle racing. And "Darling," enumerates the myriad rhetorical uses of this single, variably nuanced word, among friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

Now sixty-nine, Rodriguez has never fit comfortably into any mold, nor wanted to. He made his reputation with the publication of Hunger of Memory (1982), in which he movingly described his life in Sacramento, a young immigrant from Mexico sent to school speaking virtually no English. Two more books followed -- Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992) and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002).

But along the way, Rodriguez earned enemies, especially because of his opposition to bilingual education. Through his own forced immersion into the English language as a child, he learned the language so well that he obtained a PhD in English literature, and he came to believe the path he had had no choice but to take was the best, that it was necessary to sacrifice the old-country language, or to keep it as a private language among family, if one was going to assimilate. Immersion, not straddling identities, held the key to success, he argued.

Yet Rodriguez does not fit into the conservative mold, either. Openly gay, he lives in San Francisco with his partner of more than thirty years, among neighbors with whom he has disagreed on many social issues. But he has also changed his opinion on some of these issues. In the essay "Darling," he talks about "Sister Boom Boom," a transvestite whom he decried at first as mocking religion but came in the end to regard as compassionately caring for those dying of AIDS. Rodriguez, in the last decades of his life, seems to have found common ground with some of those he could not abide in his younger years. The essays in this volume, in a larger sense, then, point not only to the effort to find commonality among the desert religions, one of which Rodriguez calls his own, but his effort to find common ground with reasonable people everywhere.

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography by Richard Rodriguez
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670025305
256 pages