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?
Against Sade and his champions, Shattuck offers some literary antidotes—not just Prometheus and Pandora, or Adam and Eve in the Garden, but also more recent expressions of what he calls the “aesthetics of discretion.” He devotes an elegant and touching chapter to two artists—Mme. de La Fayette, whose novel La Princesse de Clèves (1678) is about a woman’s voluntary separation from her lover as a means to sustain her passion, and Emily Dickinson, whose “exultant abnegation” Shattuck hears concentrated in the lines, “It was the Distance—/Was Savory.” Here, for Shattuck, is the keynote of culture itself.
Forbidden Knowledge is really a series of linked essays about three distinct categories of knowledge—sexual (which used to be called “carnal”), psychological, and scientific, and the links can be strained. For one thing, Shattuck varies his method. Sometimes, as in the chapter on Sade, he treats the changing reputation of a particular writer as an index to the mood of the culture. At other times, he ranges widely among texts and events. But in the end his book is impressively coherent because in each instance the animating question remains the same: How much knowledge is it safe to possess? In the case of psychological knowledge (one of the prized attainments of modern liberal culture), what Shattuck wants to know is nothing less than whether a complex and refined understanding of human motivation is finally consistent with a sense of personal responsibility.
His conduits into this profound problem are two well-known short novels concerned with the crime of murder—Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (written in the late 1880s, published in 1924) and Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942). Quoting a few critics, but mostly (in a fascinating sampling of undergraduate essays) his own students, Shattuck reports a growing sympathy among contemporary readers for the killers in these tales. Billy and Meursault seem somehow exonerated by their circumstances (Billy’s stammer leaves him explosively frustrated when he cannot answer a slanderous lie made against him, and so he strikes the liar dead with his fist) or by their psychological state (Meursault, ordinarily subject to what Shattuck calls “vacant mental states verging on autism,” comes alive by impulsively killing an Arab man who has irritated him on a hot Algiers beach). Under such conditions, may we pardon or forgive? Melville heightens the question by rendering Billy as beautiful and benign and his victim, Claggart, as vile. As for Camus, Shattuck calls The Stranger “the most convincing version ever written…of the sincerity plea made in exoneration of an incontrovertibly criminal action.”
In an extended meditation on the apposite French proverb, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, he elaborates:
Once we understand another life by entering it, by seeing it from inside, we may both pardon and forgive a criminal action. We may not even recognize it as criminal. We are all guilty in some way. How can we ever judge anyone else, punish anyone else?… [But] is there…a point at which we must beware of such knowledge? Beware of empathy?
There is a contradiction lurking in this articulation of Shattuck’s second type of forbidden knowledge. He construes the vogue of Sade as a clue to a kind of growing savagery in our culture, of which one conspicuous expression is the pervasive celebration of sex without love or even mutual concern. At the same time he is troubled—along with many other contemporary commentators—that through an excess of misplaced compassion we may be forgetting “that no existence can be called human that does not accept a minimum of responsibility for itself, for its actions, and for others.”
This contradiction leads Shattuck, in one of the few disappointing moments of his remarkable book, to take refuge in a quotation. The source is Coleridge: “A sin is an evil which has its ground or origin in the agent, and not in the compulsion of circumstances.” But since everything depends on what we understand by the word “circumstances,” Coleridge’s aphoristic definition does not really help. What it does do is amplify some of the key questions Shattuck has already asked: Do we concede too much to circumstance? By seeking psychological knowledge, do we accord too little respect to what we discover, or too much?
Among recent works that raise these maddening problems of what should be permissible to know or express,3 Forbidden Knowledge stands out because it reaches beyond the usual debates over free speech and censorship to what is surely the core of intellectual energy in our culture: science. Shattuck devotes a good deal of discussion to the moral implications of nuclear physics and biogenetics because he believes that a fundamental shift deep in our culture is not just affecting literary taste and the sense of personal responsibility, but is carrying our whole civilization closer to the point where no forms of knowledge or expression may be subject to regulation or proscription. We had better pay attention, he thinks, to those forms of inquiry and expression where untrammeled freedom entails the biggest risks—because, sooner or later, the knowledge derived from science is transformed into acts.
Just as he declines to decree how far we should tolerate the depiction and advertisement of Sadean practices on, say, the Internet, Shattuck makes no explicit recommendations on such issues as the control of nuclear weapons, or on questions such as whether we should create genes that do not exist in nature. What he does demand is that we consider what intellectual and moral resources we now possess for confronting these questions, which science and technology have made impossible to evade. He even proposes a kind of Hippocratic oath for scientists, since in our age of mass-destructive weapons and genetic engineering, “a life devoted to science has become as much a stewardship as holy orders or knighthood or public office or medicine.”
Presenting his case, he enlists an eloquent witness. J. Robert Oppenheimer did not have the luxury (as literary critics do have) of drawing a scholastic distinction between contemplation and action. (“Remember,” Shattuck quotes from Camille Paglia’s commentary on Sade, “these are ideas not acts.”) Trying to negotiate the “slippery slope between pure knowledge and the likelihood of its application in the real world,” Oppenheimer stood at what Shattuck calls “the frontier between pure and applied…a phantom that appears on many maps yet cannot be located easily on the terrain.” When he crossed this frontier, he became, in Shattuck’s phrase, a “chastened Frankenstein”; and, in a famous address delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he expressed his torment just two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our war-time heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
Did these physicists know sin soon or intimately enough? Aware that he may owe his life to them, Shattuck declines to judge them. But he does insist that in their slide from theoretical to applied knowledge there were possible stopping-points along the way. Could the detonation have been threatened, or demonstrated over a barren island, or the bomb dropped somewhere in Japan other than over populous cities?
Forbidden Knowledge leaves us with the ominous sense that these questions are unfinished business. “In the 1990s, without the Nazis or the Soviets to propel us, we appear eager to reverse the proliferation and development of nuclear weapons. But the danger of future development and use by other countries has probably increased.” We know something about the lives destroyed and mutilated by what Oppenheimer and his colleagues were willing to know and to do, and we can guess about the lives that were saved. Perhaps if the physicists had stopped, the world would have been less stricken than it was. Or perhaps by now it would be a vast concentration camp or a cinder. The one thing certain is that there is no arithmetic for computing these likelihoods retrospectively—much less for doing so in advance.
Oppenheimer’s telegenic rival, Edward Teller, who was apparently unburdened by doubt as he led the American effort to develop the hydrogen bomb, thinks that the very fact that human beings are unable to prophesy the consequences of knowledge means that they should always prefer more to less. “There is no case,” Teller said in an interview a few years ago, “where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge—especially if the knowledge is terrible.” Perhaps he is right. But Shattuck counters with an ancient literary image: Odysseus bound to the mast at his own orders by his crew, so he can hear the Sirens without being seduced by their hellishly beautiful music.
There is a splendid letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in which Adams makes the case that the new American republic must commit itself to scientific progress. We must not return, Adams says, to “the times of Vandalism, when…all advances in science were proscribed as innovations.” Shattuck does not quote this letter, but his book accords with its spirit. It is a sobering work, but not the work of an alarmist. The first frightening surge of research on recombinant DNA, he says with satisfaction, “provoked a public airing of questions not previously raised outside of scientific circles” and thereby increased the chance that good things will come of the work and its prudent application. Shattuck wants more of the same. He is no more committed to prohibiting research than to censoring Sade. But he reminds us that the “science” of eugenics has been heralded before—not just by Hitler and Himmler, but also by the liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, a decade before the Nazis got earnestly to work on race purification, ruled in favor of forced sterilization in the United States for persons deemed “manifestly unfit” to carry on “their kind.” Every fallible generation, certain of its values, runs the risk of repeating such outrages, and with the incalculable growth of science and technology, Shattuck is doubtless right that the risks grow.
What Forbidden Knowledge is ultimately about is the disproportion between scientific progress and the much slower growth (or possibly even the stasis or decline) of moral knowledge. Recognizing this discrepancy in individuals, we know that a genius can be a monster or a moral simpleton. We know that a bright fifteen-year-old can grasp the calculus that only Newton and Leibniz in all the world once knew; but we doubt that this same fifteen-year-old can match, much less exceed, the moral knowledge of Montaigne. Surely the same paradox applies to culture itself.
What, then, to do? Shattuck has no prescriptions. But by insisting on the analogy between curiosity and lust, he recognizes that the glory of our civilization, libido sciendi, is also a moral and even a mortal threat. The very concept of lust, after all, denotes a difference between desire within some consecrated purpose and desire for its own insatiable sake. Shattuck wants to apply this distinction to forms of knowledge other than carnal knowledge—and his effort to do so in the face of the dogma of total freedom is as brave as it is inconclusive. “Who, if anyone,” he asks, with a vivid sense of the difficulty of the question, “could or should bind our scientists to a mast?”
Science, he writes, is “not our child but our invention,” and
as a discipline will never grow up to think for itself and to take responsibility for itself. Only individuals can do those things. We are all the stewards of science, some more than others. The knowledge that our many sciences discover is not forbidden in and of itself. But the human agents who pursue that knowledge have never been able to stand apart from or control or prevent its application to our lives.
In the last analysis, Forbidden Knowledge is a rebuke and challenge to our institutions of education, where no one has solved the perennially lamented problem of the cultural divide between science and the humanities. Written by someone who has bridged that gap, this book confirms that only if we create humane scientists and scientifically informed humanists will we stand a chance.
September 25, 1997
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. ↩
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.” ↩
One thoughtful example is Rochelle Gurstein, The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang, 1996), which Shattuck reviewed favorably in The Wall Street Journal. ↩