ABOUT CRITICISM. I’ve written my fair share of it, mostly when I was a staff writer and editor at the LA Weekly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I arrived at the Weekly with a 20-something’s reckless energy, mercurial convictions, and with an intuitive — let’s say embodied — grasp of the identity politics of the era. In other words, I worked it. Ten years after its launch, the Weekly, a rollick through punk music reviews and radical investigative journalism, had yet to hire a nonwhite staffer. I sold myself as an authentic subject: the civil war was raging in El Salvador, and Carolyn Forché had written impressively of the Colonel and his ears — but she was a white lady! Me, I had relatives on both sides of the conflict. The subtext was, Hire me and you’ll practically be getting a guerrilla, or the Colonel himself! I promised entrée across many borders. You want cholos, I got cholos!
For my efforts I was rewarded with a press pass (my first assignments were freelance), and shortly thereafter a coveted staff position. I’ve always thought it something of a measure of the depth of liberal (excuse me, progressive) guilt that I was able to have run of the place almost immediately. There was a dearth of brownness in every section of paper, so I wrote in every section, and that included a lot of “criticism”: movies, books, music, food, and theater, even architecture. You noted the scare quotes. My role models? Fuzzy recollections of grand old critic-queen Rex Reed snarking up the latest entertainments on TV, and various incarnations of the intellectual-as-guerrilla (Huey Newton, et al.). Combined with my heavy stake in authenticity, this made for a tendency toward knife-throwing performances.
By the time I first met Richard Rodriguez in 1992, I’d already had some serious misgivings about my pose. Lurking beneath my passion to tear down (and, much less often, canonize) was tremendous insecurity about my inauthenticity, the sense I was a fraud in every context, since my position was never fixed enough to claim clean title. I was not an immigrant but the son and grandson of immigrants. I had not been raised in the barrio but I had relatives there. I was baptized Catholic but never confirmed. Knew how to play “Malagueña” on the guitar but played country rock much better. No one ever questioned my credentials, not my white colleagues at the paper or brown activists. What my writing lacked in reflexivity I made up for with (self-)righteousness, which always sells in America. All this to say that I understood “criticism” largely as a space to criticize, to tilt swords at all kinds of discursive windmills representing the usual American “isms” of race and class — as well as my scattered subjectivity. Increasingly aware of my projections, I wrote less and less about the work of others. I continued producing a mitigated version of such criticism for years however, slapping an artist for one offense or another before I damned with faint praise. This is as good a place as any to apologize to those I attacked. A few names in particular come to mind: Sylvia Paternostro, Celeste Fremon, Sonia Nazario, Héctor Tobar. Having recently released a new book, I have been reminded of how deep the sting can reach. Among the horrors of the digital age: Amazon customer reviews. I have memorized mine.
Many years ago in Mexico City — a place that has highly refined the critical dagger, where the “presentación” of a book, which usually includes a panel of respondents, can lead to tears, shouts, bloodshed — I met the Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera. He had already achieved notoriety with his stand against the Castro regime’s repression of any artist that didn’t follow the dictates of “revolutionary” aesthetics. (For his efforts to achieve an artistic glasnost, he was banned from publishing and curating on the island.) Mosquera turned the traditional critical model upside down, proposing critical intimacy instead of critical distance, with its sham objectivity. To write, in a manner of speaking, of the work from within: critic as coconspirator. Criticism as context, as inter-text, parallel text: it does not preclude raising questions or pointing out problems, but does preclude critic-as-asshole. You can understand how this model was perfectly suited to Mosquera’s situation: solidarity as survival. (All this doesn’t mean we can’t still love certain instances of critic-as-asshole — Christopher Hitchens, RIP.)
Which brings me to Richard. Yes, after 20 years, I am on a first-name basis with him. We are not intimates, but I am close to some of his intimates, the extended family of writers and thinkers (“eccentrics” as we labeled ourselves) that call the San Francisco–based New America Media (formerly Pacific News Service) their intellectual and literary home. Executive editor Sandy Close (who founded the organization along with her late husband, Franz Schurmann) is among Richard’s closest friends, and I count Sandy among mine. I have broken bread with Richard. I have interviewed him on television, and in front of live audiences. (I will have the pleasure of doing so again shortly, for the ALOUD lecture series at the Los Angeles Central Library). And most importantly: I am very familiar with most all of his literary work. He was also kind enough to provide blurbs for my first two books. Let’s say that we are textual intimates. So: I consider him a friend, and a mentor. I confess that I have sometimes consciously (and more often unconsciously) tried (and largely failed) to imitate his lyric style. (Many times over the years with fellow eccentrics we’ve acknowledged — and sometimes commiserated about — the inevitability, the stunning power of his influence.)
In other words, he’s the perfect person for me to write about under the intimate-criticism model.
Now let me try to get you closer to him with a few clips.
He sits across the table from me in a San Francisco restaurant (French). He wears cream-colored Armani, his hair artfully coiffed with a curl rising ornately above his right eye, very Wildean. I tell him I am headed to Mexico City to write a big book. “Be careful,” he says in his slightly raspy tenor, somewhat melodramatically, with consummate flair. “Mexico is a bitch, and she will betray you.”
I invite him to be part of a lecture series I curated at Claremont McKenna College back in the 1990s, during the season of the reactionary California ballot initiatives (against affirmative action, against bilingual education, against immigration). There is a big protest from the campus ethnic left, a near-riot. The president of CMC has to intervene, and allows the protestors into the auditorium on the condition they refrain from interrupting the lecture. As we begin the Q&A, an activist pops up and accuses Richard of betraying his indigenous Mexican roots. “My dear madam,” he responds, “when you look in the mirror in the morning, are you able to calculate the exact proportions of ethnicity, the origins of every word you speak? Do you say you are 61 percent Mexican, 23 percent white? I certainly don’t!”
I am on fellowship at Harvard in 2002, where I’ve just met my wife-to-be, Angela García, who is studying anthropology. We arrive for Richard’s reading at MIT to find him sitting, in pinstripes, unrecognized, on the marble floor outside the auditorium. I make the introductions. I am trying to impress Angela. She is, by and large, free of the judgments of puritanical Chicanismo (excuse me, Xicanism@!), but still she views Richard with some level of feminist skepticism. Of course I think his presentation masterful and this leads to an argument with Angela later that night, at a Burger King on Harvard Square. Things get so heated — I was probably in my “critical” mode — that Angela stalks out and leaves me there, Whopper in hand. (I’m now a Berkeley Bowl–shopping, quinoa-and-kale-eating organic citizen, I swear).
A couple of years later, I’m teaching in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. During his lecture, Richard speaks about how everything in America is browning, including its tongue — at which point he sticks his tongue out at the audience. In the same talk he declaims against the secular and religious authorities that tell him who he can and cannot love. By that time, he’d been out for more than a decade, though it occurs to me that he’d never really been in the closet.
Richard, in Los Angeles, in the studio of the public television station where I work in the early 1990s. His second book has just been released and I’ve written a review strenuously pushing back against his Chicano critics. He reads the lengthy piece (subtitled “A Defense of the Mexican-American Chicanos Love to Hate”) in the green room, finishing it just as we’re about to go on live TV. He reaches out a hand and cups my cheek. Am I inventing the memory that he then said, “Thank you, my darling boy”? (It’s an important line in his new book.) What I do have a very clear recollection of is how nervous he looked — handkerchief to forehead, eyes darting about — as the stage manager counted down. At that moment, he was the darling boy.
Who is Richard to you? Baby boomers may recall that in Hunger of Memory (1982) he staked out positions against bilingual education and affirmative action. Largely lost with the political notoriety was Hunger’s considerable achievement as a literary autobiography, one that engaged the great American questions of race, class, and religion and that ironizes the rewards of assimilation by pointing to its consequent melancholy and alienation.
Or perhaps you know the Richard of the 1990s, author of Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, which finds him turning toward that which he had seemingly turned away from in Hunger. These were the years of border-ness in California. We proclaimed ourselves “mixed race,” or “mestizo” or “hapa.” In spite of the shadow of AIDS, we crossed all sexual frontiers — wasn’t everyone at least bisexual back then? Richard summed up the moment with the word “brown,” the color of earth and shit and blending, the color of in-between, the color of becoming, of life itself.
Or perhaps you saw him take that multimedia turn, appearing in elegant essay segments on the PBS NewsHour?
Do you have a copy of Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay? Of course you do. Maybe you read the last piece in the collection, “Late Victorians,” set in the Castro, a rumination on AIDS and architecture, community and alienation. I’ve read it and taught it so many times that I long ago committed to memory my favorite sentence in the essay: “It was then I saw that the greater sin against heaven was my unwillingness to embrace life.” It is a recurring portrayal of himself as the reserved Victorian who at some level regrets not indulging the shimmering chaos of the party on the streets, in the clubs.
This is my new mode of criticism. I’m telling you how close I am to the text, to the man inside the words, the words inside the man. Perhaps I should call it narrative criticism? A critical ballad?
It is his fourth. A book a decade: 1982, 1992, 2002, and (a year late) 2013. All of the volumes are, in varying proportions, about race, class, sex, and religion in America (he rarely says “United States,” which sounds too waspy and bureaucratic, preferring the lyrical Latinate). There has been a clear progression thematically and stylistically. Hunger was in the manner of an angry-young-man manifesto, even if its ideological position ran contrary to the times and the color of his skin — Richard rebelling against the schematic of ethnic politics. His early prose was precise and restrained, and his arguments tended toward essentialized binaries — Mexico-America, Catholic-Protestant, Optimist-Fatalist, Public-Private. Over the years the prose expanded into a variegated lyricism, and the ideas explored the interstices. He is ever more a poet. He is ever more elliptical. He is ever more brown. I’m writing, right now, just a bit like him.
Perhaps this mode of criticism is imitation — or emulation?
Each book is a collection of essays, most of which have been previously published and then rewritten and braided under an overarching theme. Hunger = what is won and lost in the process of assimilation. Days of Obligation = the contradiction between American optimism and Mexican (Catholic) skepticism. Brown = on the subjectivity of race, or on becoming post-race (several years before the appearance of Barack Obama) in America.
Darling offers variations on all these themes, at the same time that it takes a leap onto the post-9/11 global stage. It is also a book about the desert. To an extent about place, its more profound preoccupation is the metaphysical and mystical desert, the cradle of the spiritual trinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “My faith in a desert God makes me kin to the Jew and to the Muslim,” he writes at the outset. But to prepare himself and his readers for the journey to Jerusalem, he first makes an inventory of the Orientalist imaginaries of his mid-20th century youth. In Sacramento’s Alhambra Theatre he sees Otto Preminger’s rendition of Palestine (Exodus, 1960) through Paul Newman’s blues: “I became a Zionist at the Alhambra Theatre.” He reads Sir Richard Burton (not the actor but the British explorer), who goes native to smuggle himself into Mecca. In his adolescence there are more substantive encounters. He apprehends the momentous transformation of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali, is moved by Malcolm X’s journey from Harlem to Mecca.
Now, he makes the pilgrimage himself. This is what I most looked forward to reading, because the journey to the mystical desert is one that I’ve been writing about as well, albeit in a very different vein. Here is the heart of the book, and it is empty. That is, everywhere Richard looks for God on the path of the spiritual tourist (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or a Greek Orthodox monastery in the desert), He is nowhere to be found. So it is an apophatic pilgrimage, a necessarily mystical path through absence, elision, destruction. The “Stone of Unction” Richard regards is merely a facsimile of the one upon which Jesus’s body was anointed, dating to 1810. Memories of Hollywood — Omar Sharif — clutter his mind.
At times I sense that the radical apophaticism verges on self-annihilation or even the death of God. Indeed, when I read an earlier version of the essay in Harper’s, I wondered if the emptiness was … empty. But the desert is not empty after all. He returns to his hotel room:
There is a burnt, mineral scent in my clothing. The scent is difficult to wash out in the bathroom basin, as is the stain of the desert, an umber stain.
Standing, scrubbing my T-shirt, is the closest I get to the desert. The water turns yellow.
It is a Place, after all, a destination, a point of origin, the landscape that saw the birth of a good part of the world’s faith. And all the great art and bloodletting that comes with it. But the pilgrimage only confirms the apophatic creed, which is an anti-creed: look and you will not find. Not through text, or song, or landscape. One cannot invoke God through metaphor or representation of any kind. Monotheism sets itself up for blasphemy through the confidence of its representations. “If God is on our side,” he writes, “we must be right. We are right because we believe in God. We must defend God against the godless. Certitude clears a way for violence.” Perhaps it would be fair to ask, then, what exactly is holy about the Holy Land? God is the desert beyond the desert. This mystical koan sets the symbolic structure of the rest of the book.
Nothing can quite prepare you for what is to come, even if you’re familiar with Richard’s work. Since Days of Obligation and especially with Brown, he began to develop a lyrical yet radically digressive style that combines a syntactical elegance with narrative and referential leaps not just between chapters but within them as well. One second we are with the Catholic popes of the mid-20th century, a couple of paragraphs later Mark Twain makes it into the conversation, and in short order so do Fellini, Pasolini, and Bergman. From Jerusalem we head to Las Vegas; both deserts of course, but the initial wipe of the frame induces vertigo before he massages the material into thematic coherence. Or not. Sometimes the digression is just a digression, and sometimes a murky erudition remains just that.
Death is a constant companion throughout. Richard survived renal cancer in the early 2000s, which he unexpectedly narrates in the company of Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow. The trip to Vegas is to hold vigil for a friend of Richard’s and his partner Jimmy who is in hospice care in “The True Cross” (the American desert is contrasted, jarringly and ultimately sublimely, with the Middle East). In the title essay there is an extended reminiscence of his close friendship with a woman friend who dies of ovarian cancer and that becomes a big-hearted ode to Women:
I cannot imagine my freedom as a homosexual man without women in veils. Women in red Chanel. Women in flannel nightgowns. Women in their mirrors. Women saying, Honey-bunny. Women saying, We’ll see. Women saying, If you lay one hand on that child, I swear to God I will kill you.
Does that sound somewhat pre-feminist? It doesn’t read that way in the context of the essay, though excerpting it seems to push it in that direction. Which may partly be due to Richard’s generational positioning. He is very much of the 20th century, a guardian of its iconic moments and style and, yes, the innocence that we so famously say died on 9/11. That peculiar American innocence — an artful, willful screen, the clean lines of modernism, the effervescent testosterone of baby boom Madmen whom women, with no little irony and agency, performed for and against. Late Jim Crow at home and big stick diplomacy abroad mocking American exceptionalism, setting up the imperial nightmare of the new millennium and the reckoning with race that brought Barack Obama to the White House and set George Zimmerman chasing after Trayvon Martin.
The essay “Darling” is also where the second person address that is sprinkled throughout the book becomes focused on a clear subject, the woman friend who is both “you” and “darling.” Elsewhere, the “you” is more diffuse. Sometimes the reader is implicated; at other times it feels like a timeless, placeless existential state, a mirror Richard sees himself in.
Now we are more than halfway through the book, which until now has been thematically anchored with the desert motif — even in “Darling,” where the desert (material or spiritual) is hardly invoked directly, but resonates in the narrative of loss. Now, we veer toward “Saint Cesar of Delano,” a chapter that will remind certain readers of the controversies Richard courted in the 1980s, especially those readers (they are fewer today) for whom any untoward word about César Chávez is heresy. I don’t mind the writing beyond hagiography — largely based on Richard’s reading of Miriam Pawel’s The Union of Their Dreams, which chronicles how the Saint of Delano inspired and then exasperated his closest followers with behavior that ran from the quixotic to the paranoid. What I find unconvincing here is the essentialized critique of Chávez as son of both Mexico and America — an echo of binaries Richard set out in his earlier writings:
This was a struggle between the Mexican Cesar Chavez and the American Cesar Chavez. For it was Mexico that taught Chavez to value a life of suffering. It was America that taught him to fight the causes of suffering.
And just what, then, to make of the Mexico that I’ve been dazzled by all these years, the one that suffers and fights, that fights because it suffers, the Mexico of Zapata (of the revolution a century ago and of the indigenous uprising of the 1990s), today’s Mexico of Javier Sicilia, the Catholic poet who lost his son to cartel violence and now leads a vast civil society movement that calls on all sides of the drug war — on both sides of the border — to regain a moral center? According to the binary, would the optimism of the activist gesture be a gringo affectation? The binary cannot encompass the bigness, the complexity of the history.
Oh dear, am I getting “critical” again? Yes. No. Difference exists, on that we both agree — if not perfect binaries. By and large, your writing is free of the old schisms, Richard. You’ve evolved into a mestizo’s mestizo, so utterly brown-blended that origin myths and essences mostly do not constrain your ideas. In fairness, you do complicate the binary: “[T]he tyranny of American optimism has driven Americans to neurosis and depression, when the dream is elusive or less meaningful than the myth promised.” And the Mexicans? They’re more optimistic than the gringos, or else they wouldn’t have crossed the border.
There follow two essays on the ashes and dust of the California Dream and the publishing industry, the latter (“Final Edition,” originally published in Harper’s) enlivened with an uncharacteristic “rant” (Richard himself announces it that way) about the death of place in the digital age.
You know what the futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.)
Very satisfying as rant — and something of a salve for wounded boomers caught out in the cold where the publishing industry’s “midlist” evaporates into the virtual ether and the Gawker crowd churns out tastemaking “content” 24/7. Fuck Gawker. I will join you in making a stand for writing, for print, for a book-length book, for a Mad Men martini lunch in the City with you anytime, Richard. It is quixotic, it is nostalgic, it is dismissive of the millennials, and we forsake our Twitter accounts at the peril of our book sales. Will place survive virtual space? (I am staring into my computer screen right now, itching to see how many likes my last Facebook post received.)
At this point in the book, I’m wondering if you left us stranded in the desert. But of course you return. The brown desert of “Transit Alexander,” which begins obliquely but then straps us down for a descent into the ultimate Place: the Word of God. The text that makes and unmakes the world: that we imagine wills us to kill in His name, that comforts our pitiable passage across time in the rotting flesh that not even the Affordable Care Act or yoga can save. Here is Richard’s last stand for faith, the irrational, the weird Old Testament consecrations that rattle around in the attic of the American folk catalogue. Here is more of that Rodriguezean referential rollercoaster: John Donne to Kumtag Desert in China to Kathryn Davis’s Hell to chocolate (“one of the densest, brownest, most guilt-ridden substances we have learned to put into our mouths.”). Oh, and there’s sex too! The nakedness of the body that holds the “potency of sacred awe.” And, again, death: the ultimate brown, time as “bacterial progress.”
The radical braiding of “Transit Alexander” perfectly sets up the final meditation, “The Three Ecologies of the Holy Desert.” At the moment Richard’s mother dies, a lamp in his bedroom spontaneously illuminates and in the next breath we are in Watsonville, at the site of a miraculous apparition of the Virgin de Guadalupe, revealed to a Mexican migrant woman named Anita Mendoza Contreras. Richard joins the crowd of the faithful, but stands apart. “I saw what they meant. […] But I could not see what they saw.” Which would seem to complicate his own faith narrative. Isn’t the world of the spirit the world of magic, the world of apparitions (perhaps these survive the death of print with digital avatars)? But God is constantly retreating from your grasp, from the world — Aquinas’s Deus absconditus.
Your text and mine collide in the story of the Watsonville Virgin. I arrived at Pinto Lake a few years after your visit. I sat with Anita in that same grove, stared at the burled tree and the rough design in the bark the faithful fell to their knees to adore. It is a vignette in my book about Mexican migrants. I emphasized a historical materialist context for the magic, underscoring Anita’s years as a wildcat labor organizer at the Watsonville Canning Company. The Virgin appeared to her at a critical moment in the political saga. (She ultimately lost her job, as did most of her coworkers.) In my book, Anita’s faith stands for an activist migrant optimism, and I fold my point of view into hers. During the time I wrote of Anita, I suppose I would have tried to win you over to the cause with a solidarity argument. (You may have complained that blending my subjectivity with hers was a denial of the distance between the immigrant generation and its American progeny.) My confession: I was having trouble convincing myself back then. In those years that I was writing the book, I was lost in the desert of drugs. The innocent faith of my childhood had largely disintegrated. I was hiding from God — or fleeing from His absence. My rendering of Anita said more about my desperation at losing my faith than about her. Perhaps our texts coincide somehow after all. Between yours and mine, the grove empty at midnight.
The final pages of Darling. A Borgesian, Aleph-like moment in the Tenderloin. A call to the political Left to remember a time when the religious moral imagination was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. He argues with Christopher Hitchens over Mother Theresa and atheism. He argues with his own brother, who leans left and agnostic. But Richard would not appear to have many friends on the right, either: he notes America’s imperial overreach, and he’s been celebrating the Migrant without Papers for decades. In the end, he’s just too nuanced, too brown for all sides. Just where does Richard land on the political spectrum? To the left of red, to the right of purple. The gay Catholic who believes in God even as the texts that try to capture Him disappear, sacred invisible ink.
Over the past 15 years I became a desert rat, for most of that time unconscious of the spiritual significance of my pilgrimage. (Too much the materialist, too broken.) Reading you today — in my new critical mode, that is, finally, epistolary — helps me see the dark magic of my own journey. Arguments may arise — I hold out for the perfectible world against the skepticism your father bequeathed you. But in the end, I am following you into the desert, where there is a faint jangling as of glass-shard chimes, and a distant flash, flint struck in the night. God is hiding out there somewhere. He must be.
Rubén Martínez is a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author, most recently, of Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape (Picador, 2013).