Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge
Reviewed by Marc A. BernsteinForbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
by Roger Shattuck
New York: St. Martin's Press. 1996
ISBN: 0312146027 paper
Scientific knowledge, humanists believe, liberates us from superstition, quackery and meddling theology. A call to restrain intellectual curiosity assails humanist ideals.
Nevertheless, thoughtful humanists should welcome Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, a book that urges us to temper our intellectual desire with wisdom.
Shattuck poses a simple question: Are there realms of knowledge and experience we should not explore? After examining major Western literary texts and applying their lessons to pressing contemporary problems, he answers with a cautious "yes." The argument, though clearly developed and beautifully expressed, is intellectually demanding; those without some exposure to the Western canon will find this book difficult. Readers with the necessary background, however, will profit from Shattuck's tour of Western myth and literature.
He begins with Greek and Biblical stories, tracing the great number of ways Western thought has warned us against crossing forbidden boundaries. "Carefully considered in their complete versions," he writes, "the ancient stories of Adam and Eve, of Prometheus and Pandora, of Psyche and Cupid, and even of the genie in the jar appear to give more credence to limits than to liberation, to dangers of unauthorized knowledge than to its rewards." Humanists who prefer secular narratives will find Shattuck's discussion of Faust and Frankenstein particularly thoughtful. Goethe's hero hungers for the infinite: no experience or human attachment satisfies him. Faust's journey resonates with modern readers, but raises an unsettling moral question: Can we pursue such a life without dire consequences?
Enter Mary Shelley, writing a cautionary tale about a mind that has overextended itself, that has failed to learn its limits. "It is hard," Shattuck writes, "not to read her novel as a retort to Faust." The practical payoff of such literary analysis comes in the second half of the book. Here, Shattuck applies the morals of these tales to contemporary issues in science and art.
Early in his discussion of science, Shattuck cites Oppenheimer's memorable statement about the bomb, "In some sort of crude sense... the physicists have known sin." Wisdom seems to come to scientists after the fact a problem that occasions Shattuck's long review of other areas of science, from eugenics to DNA research, where early restraint might have been, or is now, wise.
Art also raises moral questions. We have grown so accustomed to unfettered freedom of expression that we rarely consider the effects of particularly depraved works. Shattuck spends a good deal of Part II of the book tracing the history of Marquis de Sade's work, a sobering story of a violent pornographer's rescue by hip intellectuals and their success in winning him canonical status in American universities. Literature, like science, has moral consequences, Shattuck asserts. We ought to see evil for what it is, and not let its gussied up literary expression change our assessment.
In the end, Shattuck urges, not censorship, but cultural awareness of moral boundaries. He calls for discussion, circumspection, and the wisdom to refrain from doing some things just because we can.
Marc Bernstein's essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Newsday and other papers. He is currently writing a biography of Algernon Black, the civil rights activist and Ethical Culture Leader.
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