Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
By Roger Shattuck.
St. Martins, 369 pages, $26.95

As the title suggests, this book ventures into some fairly dangerous territory. Author Roger Shattuck has even posted “Warnings to the Reader,” once at the beginning and again when we come to his bracing chapters on pornography and the Marquis de Sade. I confess to hesitating a few moments myself, for just the reasons he analyzes throughout Forbidden Knowledge.

There is, Shattuck argues, an age-old impulse to explore and eyeball things best ignored––an impulse that in our own day has utterly slipped its leash. Our culture, he believes, is given over to unbridled curiosity and a constant hankering for the forbidden. Teams of genetic engineers rush to crack our genetic code, with little thought to practical consequences. Artists and writers are celebrated (and often bankrolled, he might have added) merely for being “original,” “shocking,” or “experimental”––the more shocking the experiment the more original the art. An $8 billion pornography industry operates with no restrictions to speak of, with the occasional Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy turning up to show where this is leading. Little by little, says Shattuck, we have lost any sense of self-restraint, limit, or mystery––with often deadly results.

The book makes the case for “satiable curiosity” (a phrase Shattuck borrows from Kipling’s Just-So Stories ). It’s a call for regaining a sense of our own reach, though like all such calls, it doesn’t really offer much in the way of practical advice. Shattuck, a professor of language and literature at Boston University, seems doubtful himself at the outset. “Are there,” he begins, “things we should not know? Can anyone or any institution, in this culture of unfettered enterprise and growth, seriously propose limits on knowledge? Have we lost the capacity to perceive and honor the moral dimensions of such questions?”

About two-thirds of the book follows this theme in literature, the Bible, and old myths. In Prometheus, says Shattuck, we have the prototype of the modern quest for power, knowledge, experience, and in general things that are not ours to have. But the closer we get to our own day, Shattuck observes, the more noble and heroic Prometheus appears in retellings of the tale such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. The original moral of Hesiod’s story was precisely that we’re all better off bound––else we wind up with the curiosity of Pandora, the temptress sent by Zeus to Prometheus’ brother after the theft of fire. Neglecting that part of the story, we “avoid dealing with the full consequences to mankind of the knowledge Prometheus brings.... We may not like the full myth, but we are distorting it by cutting it in two.”

He makes similar points about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, noting for example that “the Frankenstein monster” is not the monster himself but the doctor who presumed to enact such a project. He examines the character of Dr. Faust, who in successive versions (culminating in Goethe’s Faust ) also becomes a more heroic and sympathetic figure. We’re a little like Faust ourselves, Shattuck writes. In that story of a soul’s deal with the devil we find “one of the great dramatic situations afflicting and driving human beings in the modern world. We strive without knowing adequately what we are striving for and we believe our thirst for knowledge and experience is protected in high places.”

In his discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shattuck dismisses Elaine Pagels’ Adam, Eve & the Serpent and Harold Bloom’s trendy The Book of J, which treat the story of the fall as “archaic” and challenge the very assumption of malevolence in the serpent. Pagels, he writes, “cannot comprehend that, in addition to maintaining individual free choice, we need to attend to what everyday experiences as well as the enduring myths imply about a positive force of evil in history and in ourselves, a force ready to tempt, to corrupt, to infect.”

Shattuck’s treatment of Camus’ The Stranger incorporates comments from students in the author’s course in comparative literature. Meursault, the murderer who is the novel’s protagonist, is, says Shattuck, “self-absorbed rather than self-conscious.” He is the modern anti-hero, feeling misunderstood, apart, defiant to the end against any law or reproach beyond his own desires. Yet in their reactions to the story, Shattuck’s students tended to identify with Meursault, reflecting, Shattuck writes, “a grave misreading leading to moral myopia.” In most of the students’ papers, “the basic fact of the murder is discounted, not mentioned, virtually overlooked.”

Then there’s the Marquis de Sade, our “most extreme case of forbidden writing.” For two centuries, Shattuck writes, Sade lay buried in our cultural consciousness; among scholars his books had the status of “a rare archeological site with an ancient curse to protect it.” Today we find Sade studied in college courses, available in paperback, and even honored on stage in a production of his masterpiece of mayhem, The 120 Days of Sodom.

Shattuck traces each step in the Sade “rehabilitation.” His analysis of the reasons offered for studying Sade (running along the familiar lines of needing to “confront” Sade’s “message,” the better to “understand” him) is devastating. He attributes the rehabilitation of Sade to “an eerie post-Nietzschean death wish in the twentieth century. That death wish seeks absolute liberation, knowing that it will lead to absolute destruction-physical, moral, and spiritual. For some, apocalypse exerts a strong attraction.”

Still more compelling is the chapter in which Shattuck considers how the Sade revival is playing out beyond classrooms and French academies. He examines the cases of Ted Bundy and the English “moors murderers” of the 1960s-both cases revealing the spell of pornography. Such cases, he believes, prove that Sade’s “profusely illustrated moral nihilism has entered our cultural bloodstream at the highest intellectual and at the lowest criminal levels.”

Should we therefore “burn Sade”? Shattuck wonders. He answers no, likening the situation to medical laboratories which “preserve the most virulent strains of fatal diseases for educational or research purposes.” He may be right, though reading his excerpts from Sade one can’t help but reflect that French authorities could have spared us a lot of trouble by handling matters on site. Today we’re stuck with Sade and his influence, Shattuck argues, but this does not absolve the intellectual and artistic classes from throwing the laboratory doors wide open in the name of tolerance or free expression. Shattuck quotes C. S. Lewis on the point: “When poisons become fashionable, they do not cease to kill.” And, Shattuck believes, when the victims of sex crimes start turning up, the academic followers in Sade’s path are not free from blame.

A brief respite from these dark themes comes in a chapter called “The Pleasures of Abstinence.” Shattuck is a great admirer of Emily Dickenson and the lesser known Madame de La Fayette from the late 1600s. They serve here to illuminate what he calls, quoting Milton, being “lowly wise.” The writings of both convey a preference for revelation over revelry, modesty over hubris, “the rewards of temperance and abstinence over those of indulgence and hedonism.” What today would be taken for prudery in both, observes Shattuck, is actually self-abnegation and spiritual imagination. Neither woman “shrinks from the implied paradox: that to acknowledge a limit on experience may extend our freedom to be ourselves.” (Shattuck adds, “I cannot readily cite a novel, poem, or play... that casts a man in the role of exultant abnegation,” leaving the reader to wonder what he would make of Cyrano, Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, or for that matter Quasimodo.)

Shattuck’s meditations on the rush of science today are equally measured and subtle. He mentions that as a soldier in World War II almost certainly headed for an invasion of Japan, he probably would not be around today but for the atom bomb. But he still thinks of the Manhattan Project as the beginning of something sinister (J. Robert Oppenheimer was “our modern Prometheus in a fedora”). The good that comes from technology cannot, he believes, be palmed off as our all-purpose excuse for scientific hubris. We walk along “an increasingly slippery slope little affected by good intentions and individual twinges of conscience.”

Having examined genetic engineering at some length, he settles upon the warning that science “is neither a sin nor a grail.” He urges that we keep a closer eye on such benevolent-sounding endeavors as the Human Genome Project”which are often more interested in genomes and the like than in humans. He tells the story of a group of scientists at work on gene alteration. Attending a conference on the project, they display no doubts, qualms, or hesitation about their work until they hear from a lawyer briefing them on the possibilities of their own legal liability should things go wrong. Suddenly a silence falls over the room.

Nothing else, none of the wicked possibilities involved in “editing our genetic text,” seems to trouble them much, says Shattuck. To his credit he does not shy from comparing this to Nazi experiments in eugenics. And whatever good motives we may find driving these projects won’t matter if they lead––as they already are leading––to such wholesale practices as selective birth.

C. S. Lewis once observed that there is no such thing as “power over technology”: Technology is always a power wielded by some human beings over other human beings––invariably the weak, unwanted, unseen, or unborn. Shattuck is right that ultimately only government can lay down the law on such things as the Genome Project and fetal research. But the problem runs deeper, since “government” here can usually be read as “the courts,” and our courts have not proven very trustworthy. One could hardly describe a typical federal judge as animated by “an attitude of reverence and wonder” in the face of complex ethical questions.

Shattuck mentions John Paul II’s own warnings on these matters once, and maybe a little more was due to the person who has spoken out more than any other against the evils Shattuck fears. The word “abortion” appears just once, though it’s hard to think of anything that bears out his own warnings more vividly. One regrets that in his discussion of eugenics he didn’t bring in Margaret Sanger for a well-deserved thrashing. But perhaps Shattuck thought more on that general score would invite reviewers to brush off the book as a pro-life tract––and perhaps he was right.

In all, Forbidden Knowledge is a powerful book, and its greatest strength is Shattuck’s own mild voice. “Lowly wise” seems a pretty fair description of the author. Despite the sickly and often unsavory subject matter, there is not an overwrought or injudicious sentence in the book. Shattuck has an air of simplicity and good will we don’t find much anymore among academics. I’m not sure such voices still carry very far in the culture he describes. But if over time things slowly turn around, we’ll have people like him, the quiet ones, to thank for it.

Matthew Sculley , a writer living in Virginia, has been a speech writer for former Pennsylvania Gonvernor Robert Casey and Presidential candidate Robert Dole.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift