Days of Obligation

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez pushes the poetic style of his much-acclaimed memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) to even more ambitious literary and cultural limits. In the earlier book, Rodriguez dramatized how his successful academic education as a “scholarship boy” painfully but inevitably alienated him from his immigrant parents, and he surprisingly argued against affirmative action and bilingual education. In contrast, Days of Obligation presents a much wider range of personal experience and cultural issues: historical, religious, educational, and racial. His title refers to Catholic feast days of such importance that the faithful are obligated to remember and attend them, and his essays at their most powerful focus on days of the past—in his own life and in history—to which he and the reader must attend.

Although he subtitles the book as an “argument,” Rodriguez pursues neither a single consistent argument nor an unbroken autobiographical line. Rather, he plays numerous variations on the contrasts he derives from an argument he had at the age of fourteen with his father:

“Life is harder than you think, boy.”

“You’re thinking of Mexico, Papa.”

“You’ll see.”

For Rodriguez, the contrast between Mexican and Californian sensibilities expresses the tensions in himself and in American life between Catholicism and Protestantism, communalism and individualism, cynicism and optimism, past and future, age and youth—between a tragic and a comic view of life. As Rodriguez uses “tragic” and “comic,” the words take on rather specialized meanings: The tragic view emphasizes the inescapability of sin, limitations, compromise, failure, and death; while the comic view emphasizes the limitless possibilities of new beginnings, new ideas and ideals, and new sorts of people and societies.

Although Rodriguez claims in his introduction that the purpose of his book is to explore the “wisdom” of both perspectives, the weight of his sensibility tends to fall on the tragic Mexican side, and his tone is usually ironic. This tendency toward a Mexican attitude is fortunate for the reader, however, for the prevailing sense of irony and tragedy helps to keep the reader oriented through a book whose structure and style are sometimes bewildering. Although the general progression of chapter topics is from the old to the young (from the first chapter, on the Indians of sixteenth century Mexico, to the closing chapters, on Rodriguez’s youth in Sacramento, California), shifts back and forth in time are common, both from one chapter to the next and within particular chapters. This structure of the book can be accounted for partly by its disparate origins in a number of essays that Rodriguez had previously published in journals, magazines, and other books. But the bold manner in which Rodriguez frequently changes voice, time frame, and focus within individual essays suggests the serendipitous method of his quest for truth, which may appear with surprising immediacy and directness, or with an unexpected paradoxical twist. Although the variety and exhilaration of Rodriguez’s writing can therefore be appreciated fully only from page to page, an overview of the book’s ten chapters may help to clarify the continuities that tie the book together.

“India” begins with Rodriguez looking in the mirror, wondering how he should feel about his conspicuously Indian face. He sardonically considers attitudes in the United States and Mexico that place the Indian in the past or outside history while denying the presence and diverse character of Indians who live in the present day. Rodriguez then reverses this tragically exclusionary view. He seeks to reclaim the honor of contemporary Indians, beginning with an imaginative interpretation of the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to Rodriguez, the appearance in Mexico in 1531 of the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned Indian symbolizes “the absorbent strength of Indian spirituality.” Mexican Indians have not merely passively accepted Europe and Catholicism; they have transformed it and, along with other Latin Americans, are in the process of taking it over through sheer force of numbers. Rodriguez praises Mexico City, the most populous city in the world, as “the capital of modernity” for its fecund miscegenation, which represents the renewal of the European Old World in the spiritual and sexual embrace of the New. Rodriguez’s conceit might be criticized for ignoring the numerous problems caused in Latin America by overpopulation, poverty, and political powerlessness, but it has the charm of a refreshingly original viewpoint.

“Late Victorians” presents a beguiling and poignant portrait of San Francisco, its gay community, and, of all things, its architecture. Rodriguez presents himself as a homosexual who was drawn into San Francisco’s gay community in 1979 and witnessed its blossoming in the gay liberation movement of the early 1980’s. In exploring the implications of the city’s architecture, Rodriguez notes how gays took over the Victorian houses that once had been bastions of the heterosexual family, compares the many-storied richness of these buildings to the many-“storied” richness of the Victorian novel, and contrasts the playful personality of Victorian houses with the chilly soullessness of downtown San Francisco skyscrapers and suburban tract houses. On a more melancholy note, Rodriguez recalls how he was skeptical of the utopian optimism of the gay liberation movement and held himself back from participating in its libertine sexuality. He mourns the fact that the acquired immune...

(The entire section is 2338 words.)