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Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus To Pornography Hardcover – August 15, 1996
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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.
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.
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Six Types of Forbidden Knowledge as outlined in the Appendix:
1. INACCESSIBLE, UNATTAINABLE KNOWLEDGE Many of the mystics have related this, the idea that human knowledge can only point to the ineffable, the nameless, the unexpressible, a continual rediscovery experience that cannot be contained within the mind, and yet this knowledge is real. Some aspects of the cosmos - or "reality" - cannot be reached by human faculties. That inaccessibility springs either from the inadequacy of human powers or from the remoteness of realms presumed to exist in ways inconceivable to us. In this, Socrates goes deeper than Einstein. As Socrates' words prepare the way for Pascal's wager and Huxley's coinage of agnostic. Einstein's words draw a comic paradox out of Pascal's insistence that we know our reach, our portee, between the two infinities that escape us. My third epigraph for this book - Individuum est ineffatible - restricts us even more severely by implying that we cannot know even the particulars that lie closest to us, including ourselves.
2. KNOWLEDGE PROHIBITED BY DIVINE, RELIGIOUS, MORAL, OR SECULAR AUTHORITY Adam and Eve, Prometheus, and Psyche contravened a prohibition. These classic stories relate the consequences of powerful impatience struggling against even more powerful interdiction. Similar motifs recur in modified forms in most quest stories including Dante's Divine Comedy (Peter Damian's warning in the Paradiso's and the tales of King Arthur and his knights (Perceval is too obedient). One of the most compact versions of this form of knowledge emerges from Hawthorne's short story "Ethan Brand." That intrepid figure sets out to seek the unpardonable sin; he discovers that he has already committed it by undertaking such a quest. It is in this category that the Wife of Bath effect (the desire brought on from restrictions and prohibition) comes into play. the second epigraph for this book points with a smile to the perverse human tendency to transform prohibition into temptation.
3. DANGEROUS, DESTRUCTIVE, OR UNWELCOME KNOWLEDGE Nuclear weapons, bio-genetic cloning, stem cell research to name a few. Playing with fire - or firearms - provides the most obvious and urgent example of dangerous knowledge. In Chapter VI, I consider the atomic bomb, recombinant DNA, and the Human Genome Project as representing this category of forbidden knowledge. We have learned to fear the effects that developing technology may have on the Earth's environment. In writing Frankenstein, still close to adolescent fantasy, Mary Shelley aimed not at the environmental but at the human depredations of scientific hubris. In comparison to her insistently cautionary tale, Goethe's Faust floats in ambivalence. Faust's appetite for sheer experience made him into a Frankenstein, in the Gretchen love episode and his technological experiments in draining swamps strew damage and suffering in his wake. Yet despite this, the Lord saves him at the end - the reason: for always striving. How shall we read this immense patchwork of a play? The over indulgent Faustian man properly has as many detractors as admirers in our day.
4. FRAGILE, DELICATE, KNOWLEDGE Words must be used like stepping-stones: lightly and with nimbleness, because if you step on them too heavily, you incur the danger of falling into the intellectual mire of logic and reason. -Balsekar
Like a mirage in the desert, get close and it is no longer there. Look at the stars with peripheral vision and see another aspect of the light, unlike direct vision, which cannot detect this. Sensual desires are said to more intense when the line of physical indulgence is not crossed, as there is this quiet, silent center apart from the physical senses. The story of La Princesse de Cleves and Emily Dickinson's veil poem examines forms of knowledge so sensitive that they may crumble and disappear in the moment of realization. One must approach one's own and other's deepest feelings and yearnings with circumspection for fear of driving them into hiding. The symbolist and decadent aesthetic at the close of the nineteenth century favored withdrawal from full-fledged experience and took refuge in a refined realm of language and imagination. In the poem "Art poetique" Verlaine chooses musicality, nuance, and veiled beauty out of which to compose his chanson grise. For certain men and women, the sexual response falls into the delicate area far removed from conquest and aggressiveness. Some highly responsive men, for whom rape is unthinkable, reach full sexual arousal and circumstances that never exclude the possibility of fiasco. Not violence tenderness serves appetites.
5. KNOWLEDGE DOUBLE BOUND Objective and Subjective Knowledge.
Camus' story of Billy Budd's deadly blow to his superior can be interpreted either from subjectivity or objectivity, from the eyes of Billy Budd, to be pardoned or from Captain Vere, to be executed. Both common sense and the history of philosophy recognize two kinds of tendencies of knowledge. We may approach, enter into, sympathize with, and unite the thing known in order to obtain subjective of knowledge. Or we may stand outside, observe, and anatomize, analyze, and ponder the thing known in order to obtain objective knowledge. Subjective or empathetic knowledge causes us to loose judicious perspective on the object; objective knowledge, in seeking to maintain that perspective, looses the bond sympathy.
We cannot know something by both meetings at the same time. The attempt to reconcile the two or to alternate between them leads to great mental stress. Orestes recoiled from his objective duty to avenge his father, Agammenon, because of the subjective revulsion to killing his mother, Clytemnestra. In explaining how best to comprehend sublime magnitude of the great pyramids in Egypt, Kant wrote with startling simplicity, "We must avoid coming to near just as much as remaining too far away" (Critique of Judgment, 1, 26). Flaubert was less judicious. "The less one feels a thing the more apt one is to express it as it is" (letter to Louise Colet, March. 4th, 1852).
6. AMBIGUOUS KNOWLEDGE - This is when the knowledge hits a reversal, a paradox, as in John Swift's, Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver, who instead of gaining his mind, loses his mind on his fourth voyage to the purely reasonable society of the Houyhnhnms.
Take the end of Milton's Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve have repented of their sin, and in paradox, have been granted 'many days' of mortal life, not in Paradise, but in joy, wonder and blessing, as the angel Michael leads Adam to a hilltop and shows him the future, including the coming of Christ and his redemption of Adam's sin, who states "O goodness infinite, goodness immense! That all this good of evil shall produce, And evil turn to good, what a reversal, a paradox!
The Wife of Bath effect, the Eldorado reaction, as in the utopian of Eldorado, Candide cannot abide the absence of outward conflict and the tranquility of mind that characterizes that sheltered land, what a paradox!
In these cases, respectively, poison or infection turns into remedy; what is forbidden becomes desirable; the ideal becomes intolerable. We come up against a pun or ambiguity in the very nature of things. These forms of double meaning leave us confounded by paradox. Our mind reckons uncomfortably with contradiction affirmed.
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. He argues instead that philosophical and scientific thought--the law of infinite regress, for instance--affirms the impossibility of complete knowledge. Although human nature is such that exploration cannot be stopped, the ways in which knowledge is applied can be controlled. Incompleteness is inevitable--and humanizing. "Be lowly wise" (Paradise Lost, Book VIII).
I summarize shamelessly because I am confident that anyone who reads this will want the book. It is learned, original, many-sided, allusive without crowing, invigorating, earnest yet sophisticated, written with humor and grace. In our age, when science and art have displaced religion, only scientific and aesthetic arguments can hold weight. Forbidden Knowledge is the largest and most valuable contemporary book I have read to address in large, relevant compass the question of moral responsibility. And it is the only one to do so convincingly.