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Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography Paperback – September 15, 1997

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Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography + The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 + Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
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Product Details

  • Series: Harvest Book
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 15, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156005514
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156005517
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 4.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,261 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An intellectual tour-de-force, Forbidden Knowledge is a study of the ethics of literary and scientific inquiry. Shattuck first approaches his subject indirectly, conducting an engaging tour of Western literature: Adam and Eve, Prometheus, Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He then uses these tales to address the moral questions raised by mankind's tendency to search for dangerous knowledge. He contrasts J. Robert Oppenheimer's acceptance of guilt for the atomic bombings with Edward Teller's dismissal of the same. In his own field of literary criticism he argues against the neutral analysis of immoral works as "pure literature," illustrating his point with a critique of the Marquis de Sade. Forbidden Knowledge is a stimulating and forceful intellectual argument against moral relativism, as well as a practical approach to difficult ethical problems, from genetic engineering to pornography. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this scholarly, provocative and gracefully written study, Shattuck?a distinguished critic (The Banqueting Years) and translator (of Apollinaire)?argues that there are moral taboos (even if they are sometimes unclearly defined) that we dare violate at our peril, that there are indeed limits?both philosophical and physical?to what humankind is meant to know and experience and that from the very beginnings of civilization, a central theme in our thought and literature has been the struggle to understand what those limits are. The book begins in theory and moves to more concrete examples of "forbidden knowledge," from discussions of myths (Prometheus, Orpheus, Adam and Eve), through the Victorians' perplexity over Darwin, to an examination of works of literature (Faust, Paradise Lost, Billy Budd, Frankenstein, Emily Dickinson's poetry, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Stranger) that indicate a fascination or concern with those limits. The second half of this study focuses on what Shattuck calls case histories of what can happen when those limits are pushed and include discussions of the Manhattan Project, DNA research, genetic engineering, serial killers (Ted Bundy; the so-called Moors Murderer) and finally?and at great length?the Marquis de Sade. The book might seem but a thoughtful warning about the destructive power of de Sade and what Shattuck considers sadistic pornography, but a concluding essay makes it clear that his subject is really the history of human curiosity and of the glories and dangers inherent in trying to learn more than one is prepared for. First serial to the New York Times Book Review; Reader's Subscription Book Club main selection; BOMC and History Book Club alternates.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Sadly, I found this book to be a waste of precious natural resources and a waste of time.
matt yarbrough
I recommend this book as it covers many different areas very useful in contributing to the overall question of knowledge in Western civilization.
R. Schwartz
The objective bits were dry and boring and the moralizing was condescending and annoying and insulting to the reader.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Roger Lathbury on July 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
A rare and wonderful argument, written with verve and considerable moral urgency, Forbidden Knowledge frames the question of whether there are some things we should not know. The subtitle "From Prometheus to Pornography" points to the middle ground Shattuck ultimately takes.
The first half of the book sets up the opposition in literary terms. Untrammeled exploration is the taking of what cultural institutions say must not be taken; Shattuck traces this exploration from the myth of the fire stealer Prometheus, through Eve's eating of the interdicted apple in the Bible and Paradise Lost, Ulysses' illicit voyage (Book XXVI, Dante's Inferno), and many other literary representations. The opposing way of approaching prohibitions is found in two instances (both written by women, a point Shattuck could make more of) of liberation that comes through self-limitation: La Princesse de Cleves and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The second half of Forbidden Knowledge applies these oppositions to life, as in the social consequences of violent pornography (e. g., De Sade's influence on Ted Bundy) and scientific exploration (the human genome project) that seems to promise complete control over human existence. Shattuck's range of literary reference is divertingly breathtaking: Socrates and rap, Aeschylus and Woody Allen, Goethe, Ghandi, Melville, Maimonides, Walter Pater, Democritus, Roland Barthes, Perrault--aw, hell, everything: if you've taken Western Literature at any quarter-baked college or university, you'll come upon something you've read. And Shattuck will illuminate it from the alternative perspectives of pleonexia vs. portee.
It would have been simple-minded, easy, and instantly suspect to compose a polemic for intellectual freedom. This Shattuck does not do.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
Beyond the mundane discussions about secrecy versus openness, or privacy versus transparency, there is a much higher level of discussion, one about the nature, limits, and morality of knowledge. As I read this book, originally obtained to put secrecy into perspective, I suddenly grasped and appreciated two of the author's central thoughts: knowing too much too fast can be dangerous; and yes, there are things we should not know or be exposed to. Who decides? Or How do we the people decide? are questions that must be factored into any national knowledge policy or any national information strategy. This book left me with a sense of both the sacred and the scary sides of unfettered knowledge. This is less about morality and more about focus, intention, and social outcomes. It is about the convergence of power, knowledge, and love to achieve an enlightened intelligence network of self-governing moral people who are able to defend themselves against evil knowledge and prosper by sharing good knowledge.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 2, 1998
Format: Paperback
I was intrigued by the title of Shattucks book, the issue of biological engineering bieng in the news at the time, and the ethical questions it brings up being on my mind. What I liked most about it is that it is one of those rare books that make you (or at least made ME) change your mind about what was previously an unquestionable belief: in this case, that censorship is always bad. Two points made by the book stand out in my mind. One is that censorship never blocked creativity but if anything has, throughout history, called forth greater creativity. (The example comes to mind of Rushdie's description of a love scene in the highly censored Indian cinema where men and women can't even touch: the woman sensuously kisses a mango and takes a bite of it, passing it on to her lover. He does the same, with great intensity. The scene is long and extremely sensuous. In our uncensored cinema the two would already be in bed, but the filmmaker would have lost an occasion to put his creative talents to work. Amnother example is that Brecht was able to put on "Threepenny Opera" despite Nazi censorship, kicking the Nazis in the ***'s without them even realizing it. Even the Czech writers and artists that were persecuted by the government have said that then, at least, you knew who was a real artist and who was just in it for the money.) The book, of course, is not in favor of persecution! The point is that even in the most repressive of governments, censorship can't be said to BLOCK the artist. The book also made me reconsider pornography. I had always just gone along with the general opinion of our era that all censorship is bad. But because of this attitude, explicit images of sex, violence, violent sex etc are not hard to find.Read more ›
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Patricia P. Taylor on March 26, 1998
Format: Paperback
Just what IS 'forbidden knowledge'? Roger Shattuck answers brilliantly in this absorbing book: the knowledge of ourselves. And how come we're not supposed to know? As Shattuck traces our views of God, Man, and Nature through literature, you'll find yourself saying "why didn't I think of that?" My book club discussed this work, and we were up til two in the morning arguing about it. Most enjoyable! I rated Forbidden Knowledge a "10" not because it is without flaws, but because it is the only book of its kind I've ever read. It's been months since my last reading, but I still think about it, still ponder Shattuck's assertions, still wonder why I "didn't think of that." Warning Label: you need to be versed in Milton's Paradise Lost, Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, and a host of other Famous Literary Works to get the full benefit of Shattuck's arguments. You can certainly enjoy the reading without an English Major background, and it might inspire you to take a look at some of the old standards by Dead White European (fe)Males. I bought the book in hardback, then wrote ALL over it, but I couldn't help it. You read it, you'll find yourself vandalizing the pages, too.
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