Pandora & Co.
Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
by Roger Shattuck
St. Martin’s. 369pp. $26.95
Roger Shattuck has led a distinguished career as a critic of literature and French culture, winning a National Book Award in 1975 with his biography, Marcel Proust, and receiving wide notice in 1980 for The Forbidden Experiment, an account of a feral child discovered in France in 1800. Since 1988 he has taught at Boston University, and he also serves as president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a professional organization recently established as a counter to the highly politicized Modern Language Association. In his latest work, he conducts a tour of the literary and cultural horizon of the sort that can only be undertaken by one who has devoted a lifetime to serious reading and thought.
Forbidden Knowledge opens with a question: “Are there things we should not know?” People once thought so, Shattuck approvingly declares, citing not only such proverbs as “Curiosity killed the cat” but the story of the Garden of Eden, the legend of Oedipus, and the myth of Pandora: warnings, all, against that magpie inquisitiveness St. Augustine called the “lust of the eyes.” In what follows, Shattuck first traces, through literary examples, the destruction of the idea that there are things we ought not know; and then, through artistic and scientific “case studies,” he presents a philosophical justification for reintroducing that idea into contemporary life.
It was John Milton, Shattuck argues, who at the dawn of modernity sounded the clearest warning against testing the limits of curiosity; in Paradise Lost (1667), the story of Satan’s fall lays bare the sinful pride—the conceit that one can usurp God’s place—that lies hidden behind the seeking of knowledge. Very quickly thereafter, however, European literature seems to have lost sight of Milton’s lesson.
In common with many contemporary literary critics, Shattuck reads Goethe’s Faust (1808) as an anti-Paradise Lost, and the self-creating figure of Faust himself as a morally rehabilitated Satan. Although this brand of Enlightenment optimism did not go unchallenged—works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) continued to maintain the old Miltonic view—it was Goethe who at last emerged victorious. By the end of the 19th century, Shattuck writes, the dominant picture of the self had become the Faustian one: man as the knowing and heroic master of a godless universe.
Thus far, which is about halfway through Forbidden Knowledge, Shattuck concentrates on literary history and analysis. It is by far the stronger part of the book. The second half, with its artistic and scientific case studies, and its attempt to refine a set of principles in support of a contemporary proscription of some knowledge, is less successful. Although Shattuck’s philosophical analysis proves devastating when he applies it to pornography, it becomes increasingly less wieldy as he tries to wring from it support for a ban on racial eugenics, the atom bomb, recombinant DNA, and the human genome project.
The Root of the problem lies, I think, in Shattuck’s consistent slighting of religion and his apparent inability to perceive that some theological notion of the sacred is necessary to undergird the idea that there are things we ought not know. The consequences of his religious tone-deafness are discernible even when it comes to literary analysis. His otherwise perceptive reading of Emily Dickinson, for example, is hurt by his failure to notice that her poems praising reticence and abstinence are dominated by religious imagery, just as his reading of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is damaged by a failure to connect the weakening awareness of forbidden knowledge in the 19th century to the weakening purchase of religious language on the reading public.
But the real problems arise when he moves from literary analysis to philosophy. Lacking the theological support his own study of Milton suggests he needs, Shattuck attempts to place limits on knowledge by relying solely on a nonreligious moral intuition that there ought to be such limits. Immanuel Kant went down this road, and it is perhaps not surprising that Shattuck ends up with an analysis very much like Kant’s—arguing that we can discern whether a piece of knowledge is forbidden by examining the will of the person seeking it.
We cross the limits of allowed investigation, Shattuck claims, when we seek knowledge merely for the sake of violating the prohibition against it. This he calls the “Wife of Bath effect,” after the hoydenish character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who declares, “Forbid us a thing, and that is what we desire.” Pandora opening her husband’s box because she has been warned not to, Oedipus seeking the cause of the city’s plague out of irritation with the warnings of Tiresias against trying to do just that, are examples of this syndrome, which Shattuck calls both perverse and self-contradictory. For, as he points out in his demolition of the Marquis de Sade, pornography requires the existence of moral prohibitions in order to achieve the sexual satisfaction of violating them.
So far, perhaps, so good; but the atom bomb and the human genome project offer difficulties of a much more intractable sort. Here, Shattuck posits a second principle, which he calls the “fog of uncertainty” or the “veil of ignorance.” There is, he argues, a perpetual and unbridgeable gap between our pure, unfocused wanting-to-know and what we want to know. (“If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want,” said the poet Randall Jarrell.) Since by definition there must always be things that lie beyond our knowledge, the effort to know them is, once again, both perverse and (by definition) self-contradictory. Therefore, we ought not try.
If things have begun to seem murky by now, that is because they are. The problem is that, to the question, “Are there things we should not know?,” no purely philosophical answer is ever going to suffice. Indeed, the question itself is philosophically incoherent. There are certainly acts we should not perform—on that we can all agree—and sometimes the acquisition of knowledge may require performing those acts. But how can the possession of knowledge itself be called such an act? When the physicist Edward Teller, in irritation with doubts about atomic research, declared, “There is no case where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge, especially if the knowledge is terrible,” he was only putting in a strong way a thought that has considerable truth to it: facts themselves are responsible neither for the use we make of them nor for what we did to find them out.
Behind this problem lurks another, identified long ago by Plato in the Meno: how do we know which things we should not know? Perhaps a careful scientist (or artist) can discern enough about a line of investigation to guess, before it is too late, that only evil will come of knowing the end result; perhaps not. But in either case the moral intuition that some knowledge ought to be forbidden is not easily reconciled with the philosophical intuition that we can never know sufficiently in advance which knowledge that might be. Like the myth of Pandora, the story of Adam and Eve cannot tell us how to avoid unwelcome knowledge; only that such unwelcome knowledge has already entered the world, and why.
If, in asking his question, Shattuck meant merely to ask whether life is better lived with a little modesty about the intellectual, moral, and psychological capacity of human beings in general and oneself in particular, then obviously he would be right to answer yes: in that sense, there are things we should not know. If he meant to ask whether we ought to think long and hard about the probable uses of new understandings before we go out and get them—recognizing that the putative good of abstract knowledge weighs very little against any concrete harm, and that when in doubt we must refrain from acting—then again he would be right to answer yes. But if he meant to ask the truly philosophical question of whether there are things we really should not know, then, on purely philosophical grounds, he would be wrong: the answer is simply no.
Without a notion of the sacred—without, to put it bluntly, some direct reference to God—I see no way past this problem. What, then, apart from urging scientists and artists to cultivate the virtue of prudence, would we have them, or ourselves, do? The beginning of wisdom may lie in taking seriously the fact that every attempt to articulate a concept of forbidden knowledge has eventually been compelled to use a theological vocabulary. Part of what it means to seek a moral understanding of knowledge is to believe, finally, in the unity of truth—which is to say, in an underlying, God-given structure that makes what is intelligible and true also good. But part of what it means is also to acknowledge that we live in a fallen world—which is to say, there is no good we can entirely trust either ourselves or anyone else to refrain from turning to evil. The trick is to hold on to both these understandings at once; it is a pity that Roger Shattuck, out of inability or unwillingness to embrace the first, should be left unequipped to defend the second as forcefully or as persuasively as he surely intended to do.