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 bête 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.