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The Risk of Freedom

Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

by Roger Shattuck
Harvest Books, 370 pp., $14.95 (paper)

When the successful cloning of a Scottish sheep a few months ago raised the specter that human beings might soon be making genetic copies of themselves, a Senate subcommittee on public health and safety convened to consider the matter. “Humans are not God,” Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri declared as the hearings began, “and we should therefore not try to play God.” Banal as it may have been, the Senator’s remark registered a moment of cordiality between religious conservatives and secular liberals, who ordinarily do not agree on much. Both sides seemed to think (and a commission headed by the president of Princeton University has since concurred) that there are some things people ought not to do, perhaps even things we ought not to know how to do.1

In taking seriously this idea, Roger Shattuck is broaching a perilous theme, and he knows it. The author of several honored works, notably an exuberant book about the bohemian artists of fin-de-siècle Paris, The Banquet Years (1958), he has done as much as any other living critic to tell the story of how the French avant-garde broke down longstanding barriers of subject matter and expression. This is a critic with great reserves of sympathy for the irreverent and the new. But now, forty years later, he is concerned that the loss of any meaningful concept of limits or taboo has left us dangerously exposed to our own worst impulses.

Today,” Shattuck writes, “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.” It is the achievement of Forbidden Knowledge, a book of complementary essays on culture and science, that it gives dignity to these reservations. This is no small achievement, since such scruples usually belong not to the merely ignorant, but to people proud of their ignorance—as in the case of the Victorian matron who greeted the theory of evolution with a shriek and a prayer: “Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but that if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

I doubt that this lady would approve of Shattuck’s book. Written in an interrogative mood, it is open, exploratory, built on a series of genuinely difficult questions: “Can we decide if there are any forms of knowledge, true or untrue, that for some reason we should not know?… Must I cease and desist from the very inquiry that beckons me most?… Is there any existing or hypothetical knowledge whose mere possession must be considered evil in and of itself?”

These questions have been on Shattuck’s mind since he served in World War II as a combat pilot. Soon after the incineration of Hiroshima, he flew a B-25 up the Inland Sea of Japan to have an aerial look at the ruined city. The sight still haunts him. And while he does not dwell for more than a few sentences on his subsequent thoughts and feelings, they have evidently accompanied him on a lifetime’s meditation on the meaning of what he had seen. The bomb probably saved his life. Or so, “at least,” he writes, “…I long believed.” Preparing to invade mainland Japan, he and his comrades had been told to expect that at least half of them would be killed or wounded in the assault. But the relief he felt at news of the Japanese surrender was mixed with revulsion at what had saved him. Fifty years later, he has turned this mixed emotion into an inquiry into the question of whether the human “pursuit of curiosity” is exceeding “our lagging capacity to deal with the results.”

Science raises the question, but it is to books that Shattuck turns (after “cohabiting for many years with the corpus of Western literature”) in search of an answer. He is drawn to the classical and Christian theme of libido sciendi, which he traces from Greek myth and Genesis to Melville, Camus, and beyond—the idea that the quest for learning and understanding is, in Thomas Hobbes’s phrase, “a lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of carnal pleasure.” On this view, the accretive thrusts of the mind against ignorance make the sexual spasms of the body seem a fleeting and trivial expression of human desire. But the analogy also has the effect of refusing to absolve curiosity of its complicity with lust.

Echoing Augustine, for whom, as Peter Brown has put it, “physical greed [was] the most sinister inversion of all of Adam’s primal hunger for the Wisdom of God,” Shattuck calls this theme “concupiscence of the mind.” It enters the Western tradition through such stories as those of Prometheus and Pandora, but chiefly through the biblical story of the Fall as elaborated by many theologians and poets, culminating, among English writers, in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Here the archangel Raphael counsels Adam to curb his lust to know too much:

…Heaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition, or degree,
Contented that thus far hath been revealed
Not of Earth only but of highest Heaven.

What are we to make of this injunction? Does the poet stand with, or against, or somewhere to the side of his admonishing angel? Could Milton, who had written a passionate defense (Areopagitica, 1644) of what we now call the free market of ideas as the best means for discovering truth, really believe that there are things “too high” or dangerous for men to dare to seek them?

Savoring the paradox of the Fall as an outrageous act of self-love but also the necessary first step toward self-knowledge, Shattuck belongs to an intellectual tradition that does not have much presence in contemporary criticism: he takes sin seriously. He writes with conviction about “inexpungible human selfishness and malevolence,” and reads “Paradise Lost as a tale about the downward path to wisdom, a path that must lead through the experience of sin.” The figures in Western literature who most engage him, such as Frankenstein and Faust, are simultaneously noble and ruthless—overreachers who are not monsters remote from common experience, but mirrors in which we may contemplate ourselves. Shattuck deems them sinners not because of their ambition, but because they are guilty of “yielding to desire without fully consulting the soul’s scruples.”

According to the moral vision implicit in this excellent phrase, the point of reading in particular and of education in general is to develop a morally informed consciousness that may stand a chance against the rapacity of the unregulated will. Shattuck believes that civilization can exist only if persons think hard about the effects of acting on their wants, and he worries that we may be losing this contest between desire and “the soul’s scruples.” To justify his concern, he cites no surveys of contemporary rates of fidelity or self-taxation in the form of charitable giving, or any such measurable behavior that might give a hint of how the value of self-control is faring in our culture. He relies instead on his impressions as a reader of current literary criticism, and as a teacher in several American universities, where, he is right to notice, language and images once deemed outside the bounds of civilized discourse have lately become faddish. One of the costs—not a minor one—of this wholesale embrace of the outrageous is that we may have lost the very concept of “forbidden knowledge” that makes a true avant-garde possible.

Shattuck’s chief exhibit (presented in Chapter Seven, the longest of the book) is the recent rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade as a significant writer who merits a place in the Western canon. “Anyone who does not register a sense of taboo in reading Sade,” he says flatly, “lacks some element of humanity”—a standard by which the critics he cites are found drastically wanting. The prestigious French writer Georges Bataille, for example,

would have us conclude that Sade’s most depraved scenes of systematic perversion, torture, and murder constitute a new sublime—like the wild beauty of violent storms and terrifying precipices in nature: elevating spectacles.

Shattuck knows that by using words such as “perversion” without irony he marks himself as a fogy who has not given up his old-fashioned sense of norms for postmodern relativism. But, he points out, the case for Sade is usually made—even by proudly postmodern critics—with a disingenuous decorum that hides the revolting descriptions of rape, torture, and mutilation behind “philosophical discussions of crime, passion, nature, freedom, and the like.” Having posted a warning opposite the Contents page of Forbidden Knowledge (“Parents and teachers should be aware that Chapter VII does not make appropriate reading for children and minors”), he prefers to let Sade speak for himself. And so we get an extended quotation from Juliette (1797), a book in which fathers bugger their sons (and vice versa), and in which Juliette’s lover, with her cooperation, rapes her daughter, then throws the girl into a fire from which the mother herself, wielding a poker, prevents the child’s escape. During this scene, which presents the killing of one’s child as the ultimate sexual experience, the two delirious murderers are variously penetrated while having their genitals stroked by servants and friends.

Perhaps the healthy response to this sort of thing is to laugh and close the book. But Shattuck, understandably, has lost his sense of humor in this respect. He concedes that sometimes “one can glimpse moments of incipient situation comedy” in Sade, but if it is all a grotesque joke meant to reveal (as did the bloody revolution through which Sade lived) the inadequacy of the Enlightenment notion of man as a creature of reason, proportion, and decency, it is not funny for long. And Sade’s intellectual champions, who praise his zest as a poet of transgression, are not amusing at all.2 “Let us not be misled,” Shattuck concludes. “The sangfroid Sade advocates in carrying out the most bestial tortures consists in the systematic elimination of all feeling for other people, in favor of infantile egoistic pleasure.” Should the sort of knowledge Sade provides about the possibility of finding pleasure in cruelty be controlled or suppressed? Do such representations incite actual sexual criminals (Shattuck thinks they may), or might they deliver an inoculating effect?

Such questions belong to Shattuck’s recurrent theme, though they hardly exhaust it. He is not for banning books. “No, we must not burn Sade,” he says, but we should certainly keep him and his ilk away from children. “The right question is…Should we rehabilitate Sade? Should we rank him as a major thinker and writer to read along with Machiavelli and Rousseau? George Eliot and Dostoyevsky?” If we do—if we already have done so—what does this say about the state of our culture?

  1. 1

    This kind of coalition has appeared before. Some fifteen years ago, when accelerating biogenetic research raised the possibility that certain diseases might be prevented or cured by altering a patient’s defective genes, a group of fundamentalists (including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) joined more than twenty Roman Catholic bishops, a Nobel laureate in medicine, and several liberal Jewish and Protestant leaders in a public warning against any effort “to engineer specific traits into the germ line of the human species” by making inheritable genetic repairs. These were people whose precursors had divided bitterly between Darwin’s theory and the creation myth, but who now came together in a consensus of fear that human beings were about to tamper with the process of natural selection.

  2. 2

    It should be noted that Shattuck’s tolerance for Sade and his admirers was once larger than it is now. In The Banquet Years, he described one of Apollinaire’s pornographic novels as a “prolonged orgiastic adventure whose narrative shifts easily into deadpan humor,” and remarked that “as in the most outrageous pages of Sade, we can hear in these passages the cool accent of Montaigne.”

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