Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
235 pp., $26.95
The Desert God at the Twin Towers
Richard Rodriguez is a master of the essay. I would even call him one of our most valuable public intellectuals, except, given our culture's studied indifference to things of the intellect, it might not be taken as a compliment. And "intellectual," with its implications of abstraction and theory and élite learning, is not the right word for any true essayist, whose work is embodied, concrete, filled with story and specificity and dirty fingernails. There is much more than intellect at work in a good essay and in Richard Rodriguez.
The essay is an art form for ruminating (as in chewing the cud of human experience), and Rodriguez's ruminations are at the same time chewy and profound. We return to an essayist not for opinions but for a sensibility—a way of seeing things, a idiolectic way with words, a personality or temperament, a constellation of values and experiences that we call character. And that is why we are interested to hear what a favorite essayist has to say about anything.
The anything in this collection ranges widely, though with enough recurring subjects and themes to lend coherence. All of them come to us marinated in the sensibility of Richard Rodriguez and therefore rich and savory. And all of these essays, he says, were written in the shadow of 9/11, hence a circling back throughout them to the question of religious pluralism (all pluralism actually), especially the relationships among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He says that 9/11 awoke him to how little he knew of Islam. He wonders at the terrorists' determination to "kill the people they passed among," but rather than reacting in anger and retribution, he says, "I want to hear their quarrel with me."
These reflections lead to expressions of openness (or leakiness) that some will find enlightened and others obtuse. He insists that the three religions worship a common God and declares, "After September 11, I started describing myself as 'Judeo-Christian-Muslim.' " That reminds me of a ...