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    Some information is simply not safe for us--not because there is something wrong with its
    possession in the abstract, but because it is the sort of thing we humans are not well suited to cope
    with. There are various things we simply ought not not to know. If we did not have to live our lives
    amidst a fog of uncertainty about a whole range of matters that are actually of fundamental interest
    and importance to us, it would no longer be a human mode of existence that we would live. Instead
    we would become a being of another sort, perhaps angelic, perhaps machine-like, but certainly not
        -Nicholas Rescher, an essay entitled Forbidden Knowledge

    There is no case where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge -- especially if the knowledge is
        -Edward Teller

When the same warning recurs in myths across many different cultures, it seems like we'd be well advised to take it seriously.  In this fascinating book the great literary critic Roger Shattuck puts a lifetime of learning to the task of answering one extraordinarily difficult question :

    Can we decide if there are any forms of knowledge, true or untrue, that for some reason we should
    not know?

Stories as varied as Adam and Eve, Oedipus, Pandora's Box, Prometheus, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dr. Faust all suggest that we have long understood that there are indeed limits to what Man should inquire into.  Meanwhile,  for the most part, modern man steadfastly refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of such natural limitations.  In the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, and genetics, scientists plumb to the very depths of Creation, denying any responsibility for the byproducts of their research--nuclear weapons, toxic waste, funky new diseases, genetic engineering, etc.  And in the "Arts" it is avowed that any attempt to limit obscene, pornographic, and violent words and images is unacceptable censorship of free expression :

    We believe that the free cultivation and circulation of ideas, opinions, and goods through all society
    (education, scholarship, scientific research, commerce, the arts, and the media) will in the long run
    promote our welfare. We also believe that we can contain the social and political upheavals into
    which these same cultural enterprises have launched us.

In fact, as Shattuck acknowledges :

    Today the principle of open knowledge and the free circulation of all goods and ideas have
    established themselves so firmly in the West that any reservations on that score are usually seen as
    politically and intellectually reactionary.

Now I'm admittedly more comfortable being called a reactionary than most people are; that is reactionary when defined as follows : "One who favors reaction, or seeks to undo political progress or revolution."  As the great novelist Flannery O'Connor said : "You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you."  A reactionary today is merely pushing back against over a century's worth of revolution which has discarded most of the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly its moral component.  I, for one, don't mind saying I'm reacting to that.

But the term reactionary has such pejorative implications that it is understandable that Roger Shattuck feels uncomfortable about it.  He is. or was, after all an academician and an intellectual, and in his milieu the term reactionary is probably a worse epithet than child molester.

In this brilliant book then, Shattuck offers a moderate and carefully reasoned (perhaps too moderate and careful) survey of the great works of literature which touch upon his question, then looks at several specific areas of science and violent pornography to see if the warnings our cultural tradition transmits should be heeded by us moderns.

The section of the book where he interprets various classics of Western literature is just terrific.  It is consistently interesting and mind stretching.  His treatment of Milton's Paradise Lost is worth the price of admission by itself.

In the section where he considers whether the warnings should lead us to restrain ourselves in our pursuit of knowledge, he does an excellent job of showing what the objections are to the unfettered pursuit, but he shies away from the conclusions that his own arguments suggest.  So, for example, even after an extended discussion of how worthless the "literature" of the Marquise de Sade is and how intellectually bankrupt has been the effort to rehabilitate his reputation, even after presenting the argument that such works may tend to lead to violence towards women, he ultimately suggests no more than that we ignore de Sade.

On the one hand, the reluctance to censor extant works and to limit further research on, and applications of, certain types of science is entirely understandable.  No one who loves liberty can take such proposals lightly.  But it is precisely because we take knowledge so seriously that we must be willing to face up to the dangers it may pose.  Nor does there seem to be any coherent reason why knowledge should enjoy an absolute protection from societal limits.  The other rights and liberties that the Constitution recognizes are all subject to at least modest limitations--right to bear arms, right to assemble, right to religion, etc.--and other presumed liberties, like the right to property, are subject to nearly draconian limitations, i.e., taxation.  There appears to be no empirical reason why some modest restrictions on the most violent forms of pornography and the most dangerous forms of science should be so completely unacceptable.  If--in a nation founded on ideas such as that men should be free to worship God as they please and should be free from excessive taxation--we can ban prayer in schools and take 40% or whatever of a person's income, what is the rationale for saying that we have to allow people unlimited access to pornography and must leave scientists free even to practice eugenics or to create clones for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs ?   Is the stigma of a word like reactionary really so powerful that the very possibility of discussing these issues has been placed beyond the Pale?  I don't know what things are like where you live, but here in New Hampshire, given a choice between our gun rights, our hard earned money, and magazines filled with pictures of men having sex with donkeys, I think we'd likely give up the smut first (though, of course, I can't speak for everyone).

Roger Shattuck deserves great credit just for raising the issues in this book, however delicately.  And it is worthwhile just for the literary criticism he provides.  But one wishes he'd had the courage of his convictions and been willing to press the moral case that goes along with the literary evidence he presents.  As he shows, it is a central theme of the Western Canon that, as John Milton put it, Man must be "lowly wise," must be willing to accept certain limitations on what he can know, if for no other reason than that certain kinds of knowledge are fundamentally beyond our ken and may unleash destructive forces which are beyond our ability to control.  Perhaps it's best to end as we began this review and just say that when the same warning emanates from such widely varied sources in our culture, perhaps it would be a good idea to heed it.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Literary Criticism
Roger Shattuck Links:

    -OBIT: Roger Shattuck, Scholar, Is Dead at 82 (DOUGLAS MARTIN, 12/10/05, NY Times)
    -LECTURE: Perplexing Dreams: Is There a Core Tradition in the Humanities? (Roger Shattuck, 1987, American Council of Learned Societies)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Association of Literary Scholars and Critics
    -ESSAY : When Evil Is "Cool" : In both the commercial milieu of popular culture and the serious precincts of higher criticism, the author warns, we must guard against the tendency to see evil as mere "transgression," or even as a kind of greatness. (Roger Shattuck, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Other Faces of Forbidden Knowledge (Roger Shattuck, Hanover College Center for Free Inquiry)
    -EXCERPT : Scenes from Faust : An extract from Forbidden Knowledge.  From Prometheus to Pornography
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Proust's Way: A Field Guide to 'In Search of Lost Time'  by Roger Shattuck
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts by Roger Shattuck
    -PROFILE : of Arthur Miller : HE WHO IS MOST ALONE   ( Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : WHERE WRITING OUTRANKS POLITICS  ( Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Rehabilitating a Monster (Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Roger Shattuck: Decline and Fall?, NY Review of Books
       From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
    -REVIEW : of FLAUBERT-SAND The Correspondence. Translated by Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray (Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW :  Roger Shattuck: Louisiana Story, NY Review of Books
       Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable by Christopher Benfey
       Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon and translated by Wyatt Alexander Mason
    -REVIEW : Roger Shattuck: Confidence Man, NY Review of Books
       Duchamp: A Biography by Calvin Tomkins
       The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp by Jerrold Seigel
       Among The Books Also Discussed in this Essay
       The Popular Culture of Modern Art: Picasso, Duchamp, and Avant-Gardism by Jeffrey Weiss
       The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp edited by Thierry de Duve
       New York Dada 1915-23 by Francis M. Naumann
       Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York edited by Francis M. Naumann
       Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Esthetics by Heather Busch and Burton Silver
    -REVIEW : of CHILDHOOD By Nathalie Sarraute (Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PLEASURE WARS The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Volume 5. By Peter Gay (Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of STRAVINSKY: SELECTED CORRESPONDENCE Volume I. Edited by Robert Craft (Roger Shattuck, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : David Gergen engages Roger Shattuck, professor of literature at Boston University, author of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -ESSAY : "Lolita," My Mother-in-Law,  the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flynt  (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Vox Vulgaris : Social critics are longing for a Victorian renaissance, lamenting the depths to which TV, radio, movies and the Internet have dragged American society. (Stephen Goode, Insight)
    -ARCHIVES : "shattuck" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "Roger Shattuck" (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ARCHIVES : "Roger Shattuck" (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : "Roger Shattuck" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "shattuck" (Atlantic Monthly)
    -ARCHIVES : shattuck (Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : "shattuck" (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge From Prometheus to Pornography By Roger Shattuck (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge From Prometheus to Pornography. By Roger Shattuck (Mary Lefkowitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW :  Andrew Delbanco: The Risk of Freedom, NY Review of Books
       Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck
    -REVIEW :of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. By Roger  Shattuck (Matthew Scully, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck (J. Bottum, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge (Mark Bernstein, Ethical Culture)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge (Dawn Elizabeth Hunt, Journal of Scientific Exploration)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge (Steven E. Alford)
    -REVIEW : of Forbidden Knowledge (Creative Spirit)
    -REVIEW : of  CANDOR and PERVERSION Literature, Education, and the Arts. By Roger Shattuck (1999) (Roger Kimball, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Candor and Perversion by Roger Shattuck (Merle Rubin, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts by Roger Shattuck (Thomas Wright, booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts Roger Shattuck  : A broadside in the humanities debate from a rural cabin plus Napoleon on the Art of War (Steven Poole, March 4, 2000, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time  Roger Shattuck  : In search of Marcel :  Lover or loner? An exploration of the many lives of Proust. Stuart Jeffries begins with Roger Shattuck's Proust's Way as he wades through a litany of Proust biographies  (July 8, 2000, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of PROUST'S WAY   A Field Guide to 'In Search of Lost Time'  By Roger Shattuck (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of PROUST'S WAY A Field Guide to ''In Search of Lost Time.'' By Roger Shattuck (Peter Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Proust's Way by Roger Shattuck (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Innocent Eye : On Modern Literature & the Arts. By Roger Shattuck (Germaine Bree, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE INNOCENT EYE. On Modern Literature & the Arts. By Roger Shattuck (John Gross, NY times)
    -AWARD : 1975 National Book Awards for Marcel Proust
    -INTERVIEW : Principia Mathematica III :  He was a child prodigy, publishing his first paper at 15.  Now Stephen Wolfram says he has created a new kind of science based on simple computer programs rather than equations. It's a bold claim, but it has taken him 20 years--ten of them thinking and working late into the night, and publishing nothing. By a nice irony, that intellectual space was bought by the  millions he made out of Mathematica, a computer program that makes complicated mathematics doable for ordinary mortals. Now, at 41, he's busy gearing himself up for the glare of publicity as he prepares to publish the fruit of all those years. Marcus Chown caught up with Wolfram--at 3 am (New Scientist)