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.

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 …

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