10 May 2008

Five Favourite Revolutionaries: Richard Rodriguez

St. Augustine writes from his cope of dust that we are restless hearts, for earth is not our true home. Human unhappiness is evidence of our immortality. Intuition tells us we are meant for some other city. Elizabeth Taylor, quoted in a magazine article of twenty years ago, spoke of cerulean Richard Burton days on her yacht, days that were nevertheless undermined by the elemental private reflection: This must end. […] I have never looked for utopia on a map. Of course I believe in human advancement. I believe in medicine, in astrophysics, in washing machines. But my compass takes its cardinal point from tragedy. If I respond to the metaphor of spring, I nevertheless learned, 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.

— Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is a liberal, not a revolutionary of the barricade sort, and as to whether he remains a true favourite is debatable. I feel I have lived within his work so long that I can’t remember a time before. A certain listless ennui has set in: Her again? Which triggers another thought: is there actually anything left to be said about Rodriguez that hasn’t already been played in stereo? But in terms of revolutions of thought, of important shifts in pathway and standpoint, yes, Rodriguez still counts. Rodriguez, of course, is the bĂȘte noire of Chicana/o Studies, the greatest sell-out of all, the face that launched a thousand articles, that still even today attempt to undermine his work, as if picking over the bones of a very old carcass that has been striped clean.

Why Chicana/o intellectuals would still engage so vociferously with Rodriguez speaks to his power as a particular type of avatar. His three autobiomythographies, Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, and Brown, have unevenly traced out the Mexican American condition, but most critics in the academy still focus on his first work, Hunger of Memory, for its advocacy of assimilation and its stances against bilingual education and affirmative action. Because Rodriguez is primarily a journalist (and at the time, a polemicist), his critiques were weakly supported and rather easily dismissed, but the critical reaction to them revealed more about the fears of the Chicana/o professoriate than the work itself, which of course was fascinating to me. What becomes a thought criminal most? Apparently devising a million ways to label him wrong, over and over again.

Hunger of Memory was a standard on course syllabi in the eighties, assigned by liberal white teachers to spark lively discussion on American society, race, and immigration (a cheap trick), or by professors of colour to display inappropriate political thoughts (another cheap trick). But what little of the discussions I remember from my seminars was relatively myopic, both in using any text as evidence of experience and the thoughtless, knee-jerk dismissal of its perceptions. There was little detailed investigation into Rodriguez’s arguments and stylistic presentation, giving way rather to an expulsion through identity politics.

This intellectual deadlock started to ease a bit by the early nineties, when it was clear that Rodriguez was a) not a flash in the pan (with his second, stylish anthology Days of Obligation) and b) with the shift towards cultural studies, which sought to reevaluate his work. The complexities of his political illness, his reasons for alienation from the Mexican American socio-political Left, and especially his sexuality (he was famously closeted upon the publication of Hunger of Memory), began to figure more prominently in the analyses of his work. This was also the time I started to re-read his essays, and uncover some sort of strange lineage for gay Chicanismo, along with some others, many of whom were also gay Chicanos.

The effects of this reappraisal were mixed. On one hand, suddenly it seemed every Chicano Homo was talking at every conference about Rodriguez as our bastard father, as the shame we must live down if we were ever to join the ranks of bright, shiny warriors for Chicanismo. On the other, there was space to begin mining his work for greater meaning, even if that meant a certain professional risk: a peer warned me at the time I would never get a job doing Rodriguez. And indeed, as my study progressed, other graduate students began to use the fact of my work on Rodriguez to dismiss me, transferring Rodriguez’s political stain onto me. All of which taught me much more of the unconscious fears and mobbing effects of the profession than anything else, but was depressing nonetheless.

What I resented most about such criticisms was that they were easy, too lazy, simple. If you want to position someone or some work in opposition, at least know it coherently. Many Chicana/o scholars and graduate students did not, but rather had taken a cursory reading, or worse, a reading of the secondary criticism, and reached conclusions that were as firm as Gibraltar. This is not necessarily surprising, since academics are as vulnerable, ironically enough, to received knowledge as anyone else. But, in this twist of intellectual fate, what drew me to Rodriguez in the nineties was exactly his position as iconoclast, as thought criminal, as sick aunt.

And he is sick, interestingly enough. While I appreciate the beauty of his language, the astuteness of his insights, the cleverness of his writing, he is an ambivalent father figure. If his alienation does determine a particular gay and Mexican American relationship to assimilation, culture, and values, than that is a decidedly mixed legacy. Of course, this is also a problem of reading. While texts are forever, the author is not, and his perspectives have shifted and changed (his most rigorous work remains Days of Obligation; Brown is stylistically lazy and Hunger of Memory too minimalist). But for many of us, we remain stuck in his Ur-text of pain, Hunger of Memory. And one of the reasons, arguably, is that this is the work that speaks to our own experiences of assimilation, of shame, of the electric trauma of becoming an educated person in a white supremacist society.

And this is an aspect of the critical foray that I have found distressing in Rodriguez and the reception of his work. His delineations of those traumas, or as one early critic put it, “difficult to write, difficult to read,” have not triggered sympathetic understanding (or even sympathetic dismissal), but rather a rejection that is Freudian in its vociferousness, the repression of something too close, too personal, too close to the bone. There is little generosity in reading schemes of Rodriguez, and this lack of generosity demonstrates, on the surface, the ideological rigors scholars of colour face in maintaining appropriate socio-political positions in their work and their personal lives. But more deeply, it also uncovers, arguably, our loathing of the faggot, of the vulnerable sissy, as Randy A. Rodriguez so revealing analysed in what is probably the best interpretive piece on Rodriguez’s work.

If it is true that Rodriguez is, in Randy’s analysis, El Malinche, the gay version of the race traitor so integral to Chicana feminist theorising, then how does one embrace this crown of thorns? Here the differences between men and women are instructive, for gay men have no overarching critique of gender, so our male paradigms stand alone, in glorious masculine individuality, instead as avatars of greater consciousness. This is why, among myriad other reasons, Rodriguez is an ambivalent figure for me. There is, to paraphrase Lee Edelman, no future there.

If this strange isolation is indicative of gay Chicanismo I cannot tell for sure, but suffice it to say that Rodriguez has been one of the most important intellectual interlocutors for me, both in his criminality as well as for exposing his neurotic trauma in an almost primal sense, for probing the wound relentlessly. His stylistics speaks to how far we have truly mastered the English language and made it our own, and his work is worth reading for the writing alone, although at times it can become baroque, too precious, too enamoured with itself, especially Brown. (A fond memory: Seeing Teresa de Lauretis doing a close reading of Rodriguez's essay "Late Victorians"— the soaring metaphors, the literary allusions, the deep meanings of Rodriguez's turns of phrase: delicious!)

Desire and identification drive much readerly relationships, and the autobiomythographies of Rodriguez are the most compelling of all, for they trigger both revulsion and desire/identification simultaneously. This combination has taught me quite a lot about not only Chicano gayness but also intellectual iconoclasm, its power and its limitations, as well as figuring ambivalence into reading and interpretation.


GayProf said...

Huh -- This was unexpected. I appreciated reading your notions, though.

cero said...

Historical question: when (before he came out) did it start to be known that Rodriguez was gay?

Why I ask - never having taught him myself (although I am now considering it as a result of reading this post).

In around 1990 I had a gay student who was reading Hunger of Memory for an English class. He came to my office hour to talk about it with someone (me) with a Spanish department / Comp Lit / sympathetic to Chicano Studies / staunch supporter of bilingual ed point of view. Neither he nor I had any gossip on Rodriguez the person. This student said: "I am telling you, this guy is gay and that is what this book is really about, although he cannot or does not say so; it is this which motivates the arguments he makes here. Mark my words, he will either come out or be outed in the near to medium term future."

My question: in 1990 if we had been in the right circles, would we have known already?

Rad Readr said...

In response to Cero, your student was an astute reader. Regardless of whether RR had come out or not, "Hunger" is packed with moments of intense desire for all types of men -- including workers and his father. The pool scene with his family in one of those essays is enough for a detailed queer reading. The title "Mr. Secrets" is practically a coming out party.

Thanks to Oso for the post. I think that RR has been playing everyone who has wanted to racialize him all of these years. The piece "The Prince and I" reveals the brilliance of his performance. It's the ultimate revenge. RR is like a playful cat toying with those who opt for facile race critiques. He is the greatest living essayist working in English now that Susan Sontag has passed. And it's sad -- a part of the tragedy of race in these here United States -- that so many people want to talk about him primarily as a Chicano or a sellout or whatever. And yet, it speaks to his tortured brilliance that he has used that racialization to his advantage. For someone who doesn't think of himself as Chicano (not sure he claims Latino either), he has positioned himself as the most Latino/Hispanic/Chicano of all the writers. Methinks thou dost protest too much, RR. Regardless, "Late Victorians" is the greatest piece since Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son."

Professor Zero said...

OK, I now realize (once again) how behind I am in reading. I've got to read these Rodriguez pieces!!!

Carl said...

Been lurking for a bit and share the general admiration. Have not read RR and I guess now as a white liberal I can't... :-)

Seriously, I wonder how much of the trouble with RR is how he seems to have opted out of strategic essentialism; thereby, of course, revealing it to be optional. He's not helping much with collective leverage, but it's not clear in either an individual or a historical sense why he needs to identify with that collective. Cultures merge and assimilate all the time, often under pressure; that's why there aren't any Scythians or Vandals or Saxons or Normans around.

His story invites for me, cheaply perhaps, the question of how much of our misery is 'self' inflicted, thinking of self both narrowly and broadly, and the ways that identity is both enabling and constraining. Like Obama he's testing to see where the box he's stuck in is being defended, and finding out it's mostly on the inside - a barrier desperately maintained and decried.

I wonder too about the conflation of education and white supremacy. Of course if education is white this is a problem; especially if we think of ourselves as vessels that get filled up from outside with education, perhaps even displacing previous contents. That's a little too passive and inflexible an image; very much the Freire banking model, which fits only a particular variant of euro-style mass education.

But 'white' education at the elite level is actually quite different. Its sin is that it focuses on the organic development of the individual, as if group affiliations were irrelevant. So the supremacy being expressed is not whiteness but individualism. It's not race but deracination that's the poison pill. RR's illness is the modern condition?

This is pretty ramshackle. Sorry, and thanks for the opportunity to think out loud.

momo said...

I remember reading Hunger of Memory when it first came out, and being rather annoyed with it. Later my mother (from an Italian-American working class family who grew up in Greenwich, CT) told me how much she identified with his story, including the shame and ambivalence around assimilation. That really shocked me at first but it explained some things about my mother.
I read Brown a while back, and don't remember it clearly enough to summarize it, but it struck me at the time as a very smart book.

rolodexter said...

I have this one on the Kindle, and it translates well. Footnotes, TOC work fine. But most of all, it's the text and the mechanics. This is a classic in the San Francisco community college arena, where English 101 instructors push the text, through anthologies that have included it, or the book itself. He was a bit more frequent on NPR 5 or so years ago, but not as much. As soon as affirmative action comes into play again, they'll call him back. Some say he's too flowery, something characteristic of minority English students. There are two other books that come to mind when I think of pulling this one up: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and Ilustrado: A Novel. I'll be rereading Hunger of Memory shortly.