Richard Rodriguez’s “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography” appears at first to have been mistitled; it is neither a book about the spirit, strictly, nor an autobiography in any common sense. Rather, it’s a collection of essays — some of which were originally published in Harper’s, Kenyon Review and the Wilson Quarterly — that approach the larger questions of faith and character through a broad array of filters, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the legacy of Cesar Chavez, the collapse of newspapers to the reimagining of public space in a digital age.
“I did not intend to write a spiritual autobiography,” Rodriguez acknowledges in a brief “Note to the Reader.” And the more we read, the more we understand what he means. For him, spirituality is not some isolated aspect of existence, distinct from secular experience; it is, instead, inextricable from the secular, a way of moving through, of being in, the world.
Rodriguez has been immersed in these sorts of issues from the start of his career: otherness, identity, the line between how people see us and how we see ourselves. His first book, “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez” (1982), was an audacious account of coming to terms with himself as American, even to the point of walking away from the traditions of his immigrant home.
In its aftermath, he was criticized for betraying his heritage, although, in fact, he was after something more complicated, a way of understanding himself as a person in the middle, steeped in his history and yet at the same time a creation of the assimilated culture in which he lives.
It’s a theme to which Rodriguez has returned throughout his writing life; in his 1990 piece “Late Victorians” (my favorite of his essays), he uses the Victorian elegance of San Francisco to reflect on both the decadence of the city’s gay culture and the scourge of AIDS. “I have never looked for utopia on a map,” he writes there. "… If I respond to the metaphor of spring, I nevertheless learned, years ago, from my Mexican father, from my Irish nuns, to count on winter. The point of Eden for me, for us, is not approach but expulsion.”
This idea of expulsion — or, more accurately, separation — resides at the center of “Darling,” although Rodriguez is also drawn to seek out common ground. “The action of the terrorists,” he writes of 9/11, “was a human action, conceived in error — a benighted act. And yet I worship the same God as they, so I stand in some relation to those men.” For him, this is a key point, that the Christian, Jewish and Muslim God (“the desert God,” he calls it) is one and the same, since if “the Muslim claims Abraham as father, as does the Jew, as do I,” then we are all siblings under the skin.
But lest that seem an easy bit of sophistry, Rodriguez has no interest in smoothing over what keeps us apart. To make this explicit, he turns to his childhood, when he worshiped at “two temples”: “Sacred Heart Catholic Church, at 39th and J streets, in Sacramento … [and the] Alhambra Theatre … constructed in 1927 to resemble a tall white Muslim fortress.” It’s a stunning image of duality, not just between the religious and the worldly, the ancient and the American, but also between the Western and the Moorish, a symbol of the culture clash (on every level) that “Darling” means to explore.
The best material in the book pushes this theme provocatively: One piece suggests that Jerusalem is important less as a historical site than as an elaborate construction, “as condensed, as self-referential as Rubik’s Cube.” In the title essay, he uses his friendship with a divorced woman to suggest a link between the feminist and gay rights movements; “it was the brave suffragette,” he insists, "(and not the tragic peacock Oscar Wilde) who rescued my sexuality.”
Rodriguez is especially vivid writing about loss, including a meditation on Las Vegas seen through the filter of a hospice visit to a friend who is dying of AIDS, and a fragmentary set of riffs on time and disappearance, in which he recalls a homeless man named Wayne (“I fear he may be dead”) and one brief instant of transcendence in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. “But here’s the thing,” he writes: “Wayne’s smile. … I have thought about this for twenty years or more. Wayne’s smile said: did you get it? Wayne’s smile said: remember this moment, it contains everything.”
On the one hand, that’s as obvious as it gets, and yet it’s a truth that bears repeating. “All we know,” Rodriguez tells us, “is that one Sunday we will not be here. We know that nothing will change for our absence.” What we are afforded, then, is the most conditional sort of comfort, built from moments that dissipate.
At times Rodriguez makes too much of this. His piece on newspapers, which I admired when I read it in Harper’s, now comes off as something of a Luddite’s lament. The same is true of “Disappointment,” about the failure of the future in California. Nonetheless, the main idea — which is that time passes so we had better try to remain conscious — resonates.
In many ways, that’s been Rodriguez’s message all along. . “The congregation does not believe one thing; we believe a multitude of hazy, crazy things,” he writes in “The Three Ecologies of the Holy Desert,” the final effort here. “Some among us are smart; some serene; some feeble, poor, practical, guilt-ridden; some are lazy; some arrogant, rich, pious, prurient, bitter, injured, sad. We gather in belief of one big thing: that we matter, somehow.”
A Spiritual Autobiography
Viking: 236 pp., $26.95