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have their fates. Sometimes the fate is a news story.
In spring 2000, I published The Silence of Sodom, a book
on homosexuality in modern Catholicism. The book had some scandalous
passages, I suppose, but it was neither a chronicle nor an exposé.
Its main effort was to describe theological and institutional
mechanisms for keeping silence around male-male desire in the
Roman church. I was not concerned to narrate who was doing what
to whom and how often, but rather to analyze typical distortions
of speech, regulation, and ritual produced by the need to muffle
homoerotic passion. So I took Walter Benjamin’s Arcades
Project as my model, and I constellated fragments from official
documents and moral manuals with bits of Reformation satire and
anecdotes of the liturgical life.
When the book first appeared, there were reviews here and there,
with opposed judgments by the L.A. Times and the website
of the self-proclaimed “Catholic League.” Still the
book was turned down for review more often than not. A publicist
reported that editors found it “too hard.” How could
I disagree? The book is indeed “hard.” Its argument
twists back and forth as it wriggles past the machines for enforcing
churchly silence. Its range of reference is not only large but
idiosyncratic. In it I give myself the pleasure of citing unusual
Catholic authors in order to make a point about muffled voices—and
to share my own joys in reading. So the reader finds, right alongside
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, such unlikely
religious authorities as the arch-aesthete J.K. Huysmans, the
Nietzschean fabulist Pierre Klossowski, and Chicago’s gay
detective novelist, Mark Zubro. Hardly the sort of stuff to fly
off the shelves at airport news stands. In fact, I felt a little
guilty for abusing my publisher’s generous trust and resolved
to sell out the small first printing. As if I were the main agent
of this particular fate.
Then early this January, the Boston Globe began to publish
its aggressive investigations into Cardinal Law’s handling
of priests accused or convicted of sexually abusing minors. I
couldn’t see much that was news in them or in the trial
of Father John Geoghan, whose pastoral crimes motivated the journalistic
investigations. Well-publicized U.S. cases stretch back to 1985,
and since then there has been a steady flow of the painful reports.
So where was the news? Or, rather, so much for my sense of what
makes news. The Globe stories became the story, and the
story took over nightly television specials, panels of talking
heads, and the covers of every major newsweekly. The story also
retrieved my “hard” book. “I’ve had your
book on my desk for a long time, but I could never get around
to it,” one religion reporter said. “Now it’s
required reading!” Or, rather, required mentioning.
You see the temptation to write the rest of this story in tabloid
style, under a banner headline like “I was Mauled by the
Press!” or “My Desperate Life as a Sound Byte!”
There were indeed incidents that demand retelling with exclamation
marks. Once on a live national news broadcast the segment about
the news from Boston was followed by a rather different story.
“Thank you, Professor Jordan. Up next, new uses for an old
vegetable. Broccoli soup is making a comeback!” And if I
once thought that gay dating at mid-life could be cruel, I had
never met a talk show booker. But what I have learned from my
book’s resuscitation is more interesting than these clichéd
complaints about our media—more interesting and more disconcerting
The first thing I learned is how little I know about the craft
of broadcast and print media. I thought myself media savvy. I
mean, I had appeared in documentaries for educational television.
In fact, and of course, I had precious little idea how to proceed.
The sound byte is as demanding a genre as the haiku. Then there
is the op-ed piece, which, like quicksand under a shimmering inch
of water, misleads by its resemblance to the learned essay. A
blunt editor tutored me in the difference by email over two days.
He had done the same, he assured me, with Murray Kempton. So I
learned enough media-craft to know that I didn’t know it
and to admire those who did.
But did I really want to learn it? Hadn’t I chosen to be
a teaching scholar rather than a documentary film writer (my college
odd job)? Or was I now discovering that being a professor was
boiling and that media rush had been my secret aspiration all
along? Or perhaps (darkest possibility) being a professor was
now the same as being an apprentice newscaster? I had read David
Lodge’s academic novels. I knew a Morris Zap when I imagined
After much brooding and too many hours in No. 3 pancake, I have
come back to the terms of my old decision. There is a choice to
be made between scholarship and media success. Scratch the overtaxed
word “scholarship.” The choice is between the kinds
of thinking or writing possible in a university and the kinds
permitted by the media. My ways are still not their ways. I have—or
am supposed to have—that rarest privilege, leisure. Leisure
lets me construct meanings in time, over time. What
I think I know about silence in the Catholic church takes time
to lay out—not because it is a long series of facts, but
because it can only be seen after a long series of missteps and
reversals, through grudging discoveries and skeptical assents.
My conclusions can’t have their meaning without the “hard,”
the frustrating approach to them. That approach can’t be
fit into news. No leisure is permitted in our news—precisely
because they are “leisure” media (with a nod to Adorno).
This is a disconcerting conclusion for me, because I was raised
to believe in the “public intellectual.” Socrates
in the agora. Hannah Arendt on stage, thinking Eichmann. Murray
Kempton himself, writing up the city beat in the prose of Góngora.
I now wonder whether pining for the “public intellectual”
isn’t pure nostalgia, like recalling seminar rooms scented
by pipe smoke and damp tweed. There may be no public, only publicity,
and “intellectuals” can gain publicity only by becoming
celebrities—of a very minor and expendable species. Intellectual
celebrity is constructed from credentials and book titles, but
chiefly from confident fluency, moderately eccentric dress, gravitas
oscillating with piquancy, and the willingness to talk far beyond
one’s learning. Not the public intellectual, then, but the
publicized intellectual. Supply all sorts of quotation marks.
I confess the undercurrent of jealousy in applying this label,
because I never could dress the part and find forced gravitas
hilarious. At the same time, I contend that the label is not mere
jealously. I criticize the publicized intellectual because I still
believe in another intellectual life—livelier because more
leisurely, cunning in its demands for long preparation and sustained
attention, delighted to keep up pursuit. I find myself still hoping
that universities can provide refuge for intellectual leisure—that
universities can be part of an alternate public not constituted
by publicity and its celebrity. Of course, I do suffer from nostalgia,
that echo of fates.