Book review: DARLING: A Spiritual Autobiograph

A gay, Hispanic and Catholic man delves into religion and other dimensions of American society

By Leslie Jamison  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Nov 21, 2013 - Page 11

In Hunger of Memory, the 1982 book that made him one of the most prominent Hispanic essayists in America, Richard Rodriguez wrote: “I wanted to forget that I had a body because I had a brown body.” In Darling, his new essay collection, he claims this body in all its difficulties. “Flesh is a complicated medium for grace,” he writes, exploring the importance of physical bodies in a digital era, the importance of brownness (“Brown has always been the sum of our breathing and eating and moving about”) as well as the importance of complication itself — the possibilities embedded in resistance, those experiences of refusal that shape our intimacies and our yearnings.

Darling is both more and less than a “spiritual autobiography,” which is how it has been marketed. It doesn’t offer a continuous personal narrative of spiritual development, but its inquiries range much further than personal experience, exploring hospice care in Las Vegas and drag queen nuns in San Francisco; the crises of Mother Teresa and the emptiness that “clings” to Jerusalem shopkeepers, “mermen of green-lit grottoes piled with cheap treasure.”

Perhaps the book is best framed in terms of Rodriguez’s own definition of the essay as the “biography of an idea.” If Darling is the biography of an idea, this idea is the possibility that deprivation is useful: that barren landscapes offer subtler kinds of fertility, that occupying certain social margins might yield intimacies that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. “The desert creates lovers,” Rodriguez writes, telling the story of a saint who lived in craving: “St. Sabas desired the taste of an apple. The craving was sweeter to him than the thought of God. From that moment Sabas forswore apples. The desire for apples was the taste of God.”

Darling links its illumination of the “desert God” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — a divinity that “demands acknowledgment within emptiness” — to a more personal history: the ways Rodriguez has resisted, and felt himself resisted by, the Roman Catholic Church. The book is anchored by a catechism that appears near the middle of its title essay:

“Q: Why do I stay in the Catholic Church?

“A: I stay in the church because the church is more than its ignorance; the church gives me more than it denies me. I stay in the church because it is mine.”

This search for reconciliation with the church brings Rodriguez to another of the guiding themes of Darling: the commonalities between gay men and straight women, the overlap between their respective struggles.

“I cannot imagine my freedom as a homosexual man without women in veils,” he writes. “Women in red Chanel. Women in flannel nightgowns. Women in their mirrors.”

Rodriguez is interested in what resists our typical taxonomies, our standard systems of emotional or social order. The title essay recalls a conversation with a friend — a divorced straight woman — and searches for a term for their undefinable intimacy. The desert creates lovers, and “darling” is a term of endearment endemic to this kin, a love shaped by craving.

Darling is less the biography of any single idea — or an account of any single spiritual journey — and more the biography of many intersecting ideas: the relationship between gay rights and women’s rights; between cities and their scribes; between a homosexual man and his church. These ideas play out across a wide variety of historical theaters: the tangled legacy of Cesar Chavez, the lost heyday of city newspapers — once “the weight of the world, carried by boys” — the relentless glow of the Vegas strip and the endless traffic jams on California freeways, that Sigalert proof that too many folks showed up for the same dream.

Sometimes these various strands of inquiry resonate in unexpected ways, while at other times they feel cobbled together for the sake of a book-length project, their points of connection forced. But the book is remarkably and consistently willing to confess its fallibilities. It is full of folks who don’t like what Rodriguez is up to or how he’s up to it: a Greek Orthodox monk who questions his umbrella use of the phrase “desert religions,” a woman who tells him he cannot scribble in his notebook at the Western Wall. People challenge Rodriguez’s ideas and his methods; they fail to share his anxieties. The writer E. M. Cioran once made an eloquent case for internal argument — “The reaction against your own thought in itself lends life to thought” — and Rodriguez has effectively outsourced this internal debate, inviting others to vocalize the ways in which he wants to resist his own thinking.

This willingness to embrace disagreement is yet another tribute to the possibilities of resistance. Arguments resist resolution just as the desert resists comfort; refusal doesn’t breed estrangement but its opposite. Which is the search and lesson of this uneasily coherent collection: Wanting isn’t lack but divine taste, the ghost and promise of apples; difficulty and hunger aren’t the absence of connection but its bedfellows.