Forbidden Knowledge
An interview with Roger Shattuck
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly May 1998


Censorship, whether Oklahoma City's recent ban on The Tin Drum, or Florida's desire to outlaw performances by The 2 Live Crew, usually ends in failure or farce. Still, are there things that we should be wary of knowing? It is a question few stop to consider. But according to Roger Shattuck, the University Professor of Languages and Literature at Boston University, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

For many years, Shattuck has been among our leading cultural critics. The Banquet Years, his study of the origins of the French Avant Garde, is required reading for graduate students in literature, music and art; his book on Marcel Proust won the National Book Award. In his latest work, Forbidden Knowledge, Shattuck, beginning with Biblical tales, examines the changing ways that forbidden knowledge is handled and understood by society. For example, the sexually violent writings of the Marquis de Sade (from whose name—and writing—the term Sadism derives) have gone from being banned as pornographic to being assigned and studied in colleges as great literature. Shattuck argues that the moral limits traditionally placed on science and art have been replaced by a culture which prizes unlimited access to information.

What made you decide to write Forbidden Knowledge?

RS: I was on Okinawa when the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. At first I thought it was the gesture that saved my life, because many of us would have died in the invasion. Then about three weeks later, I flew over Hiroshima. It wasn't too visible from a thousand feet in the air; but I knew something terrible had happened. I became a demonstrator against nuclear weapons. Then later I woke up to the fact that ironically the Cold War had remained cold because of the awfulness of the atomic bomb, and that sobered me. I didn't want to make Forbidden Knowledge too personal, and yet I wanted to establish a direct autobiographical and historical link with an event in history: the kinds of complication we get ourselves into through excessive curiosity—St. Augustine calls it mental lust. It marked me a good deal at the time, although I didn't understand it too well then. Forty years later it led to a book.

I began to realize that the whole idea of forbidden knowledge—a big, central idea—would be best illustrated not by the history of ideas but what I wanted to call a "history of stories." The first part seemed to grow out of my literary background and the second part of the book is about various aspects of science. So the first part of the book is one that I wrote, and the second part I guess you could say wrote me. It's a sandwich, but I hope I put it together satisfactorily to make one book.

Let's talk briefly about some of the literary characters you write about. You're very hard on Faust.

Faust is the villain of the book. There are two Fausts. There was the late Medieval puppet play. Faust was a magician and charlatan who led people astray and as a result went to Hell. Of course everyone loved that, because even primitive puppet theaters do marvelous things by lighting fires, making smoke and opening artificial doors. He went to Hell, and that was where he was supposed to go. Then along comes Goethe who decides that Faust is not a charlatan and damned man, but a hero and who simply because of his striving (no matter what that striving was toward) deserved to go to heaven. At the end, Faust, who has been responsible for close to seven homicides is wafted off to heaven by a band of angels. Although German history idolizes Faust, I think we should be savvy to what we now call the Faustian man, who drives onward and presumably upward no matter what the cost. That's why Faust is my villain. I also pair Faust with Frankenstein, because I think Mary Shelley saw through Faust as clearly as anyone ever has. Dr. Frankenstein, a Faust figure, strives to create life out of pieces of cadaver. Mary Shelley takes the opposite attitude from that of Goethe. She condemns him for seeking fame, glory and notoriety. Shelley knew exactly why she didn't like the figure of Dr. Frankenstein, who could not take care of his own creature his own monster.

This leads to another of the books you discuss. In the world of Frankenstein, there's man trying to challenge God; in the world of Faust, it's a man striking a deal with the devil. In The Stranger, you have a world without the divine. And there you also found problems with forbidden knowledge. You write, "Camus has written the equivalent of a moral labyrinth, from which some readers will not escape."

Now, The Stranger is a closely related but different case. The question of forbidden knowledge arises here because through its amazingly successful style the book takes us so far inside the stranger's mind that we empathize with him, and begin to feel that he has committed no crime. Merseault's guilt is almost dispelled because we get so close and identify with him so much. I explain this through a proverb, "To understand is to forgive." If we know too much, we may forgive too much, and be unable to do a very essential act of culture and civilization, namely to judge. We don't like to judge today, we have that awful adjective "judgmental," as if there were something wrong with judging. But if we don't make discriminations, if we can't separate good from evil, we are absolutely locked into a downward path toward our own destruction. So the forbidden knowledge, in the case of Camus' The Stranger, is that we know so much about the hero that we don't understand how criminal he really is. I admire The Stranger very much, but I think it has to be read with a great deal of understanding. I point out how in one of his statements Camus appears to misunderstand his own book. To heroize Merseault is to make an utterly mistaken call on the nature of this man who commits a needless murder and doesn't understand the awfulness of his act, probably until the very end.

I'm struck by how the Marquis de Sade's writing is presented. Your book actually comes with a warning in the front that "parents and teachers should be aware that chapter seven does not make appropriate reading for children and minors." Was that your idea?

Yes. At the end of that chapter, I call for truth in labelling. What I meant was that we have absolutely no justification for calling the Marquis de Sade a good philosopher, or a good writer, or a major cultural figure. I say he should be properly labelled. Then I realized that my own chapter contains some enormously explicit quotations from de Sade, because I thought they were necessary to make my points. They too had to be labelled. So I decided this warning would go both at the front of the book and just before the particular passage in the Marquis de Sade chapter.

You argue against banning books like Marquis de Sade's or Camus' The Stranger, and you call instead for better critics to interpret and present those books. You suggest the problem is not the art, but the critics who are interpreting it.

Exactly. I do not favor the Marquis de Sade, but I'm not for banning him. What I'm against is the rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade as a cultural hero, a great philosopher or a major writer who should be taught even to undergraduates. This to me is just an incapacity to judge what literature is or to understand what the capacities of education are. Yes, a good number of people can read this and it will not have much effect on them. But it is a traumatic experience for some people, which I compare in the book to watching an operation for the first time, or going into combat. To read a book so hideously cruel as the Marquis de Sade is going to have a deleterious effect on some individuals. And we should worry about that.

Do you think this is because of the limits of de Sade's talent, or is there something in the extreme transgressive writing de Sade does that weakens its aesthetic value? Can a major writer or philosopher hold the positions that de Sade holds?

Well, that's a pretty subtle question. I would hope that the kind of monstrosity, violence and cruel sexuality that de Sade preaches would by itself disqualify a person as a writer. But I don't think these are automatically mutually exclusive. So far, I don't think any great writer, not just with style but with a moral vision—that's a part I think of the greatness of a writer—has undertaken to occupy the same ground as the Marquis de Sade.

Unlike most literary scholars, you don't run and hide in the face of science. You look at the human genome project, and you're very critical of it in Forbidden Knowledge.

Yes—this is somewhat rambunctious on my part, it makes me something of an upstart. Although I was a pre-med student in college, I don't have any real scientific background. I have done a lot of reading, and spent a couple of months in a molecular biology lab. But that does not qualify me to make real pronouncements about science. And yet—having done all this work, and put it in the context of forbidden knowledge, I felt I had to come out and make some statements, even some judgmental statements, on a subject that I'd worked so long on. I'm not against science by any means, but I feel that science has no particular privilege to be exempted from the kind of limitations that I feel must be applied to give meaning and real freedom to all forms of human endeavor. I point out that the scientists themselves at one time, in the case of recombinant DNA, did put a moratorium on their own research, voluntarily. It's a great precedent, an important story for us to have in our minds when we think about science today. My book came out just two months before the beginning of cloning as a reality, and I've been asked to do a good deal of talking about genetics and human cloning and all the other subjects that come out of Dolly.

How do you feel about cloning humans?

This is a very large topic. I'm certainly against it for the moment, and in principle I think it is a violation of something very precious to us, which is sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction means that there is no mere copy in the world. Every individual born is a reassortment of two different peoples' genetic material, so that everyone is unique. This is not just a philosophical idea, it is a reality defining each one of us. Cloning steps on that, puts it aside, and produces a copy.

You argue in the book that knowledge shouldn't be banned, but the presentation of it should be honest. The Internet, which you didn't discuss at all, seems to be a way that knowledge is sought out by an increasing number of people.

Here you find that I'm just a little bit behind the times. I'm not on the Internet, and couldn't talk about it because I'm not familiar enough with it. From all that I hear it is the most immediate and perhaps the most dangerous of all ways by which knowledge is available to us now. When Clinton starts asking every school to be connected to the information highway, I wince, because not only is that a bad educational idea, it is a very bad idea when one thinks of the uncontrolled forms of knowledge which will certainly distract young students and perhaps even corrupt them. I do believe that there is corruption through knowledge. Many people argue that just knowing something means nothing. Until one has actually acted on it, the corruption has not taken place. But knowledge through what one sees on a screen or finds on the Internet will in some cases have catastrophic results. To separate that kind of knowledge from the potential acts that may happen from it, is blinding ourselves. Knowledge does lead toward actions; we are the most mimetic animal in the world, more mimetic than parrots or monkeys—the animals that tend to imitate us.

You conclude by associating the origins of modern science and modern art. Could you explain that a little?

In my last chapter I point out that science and art as autonomous, art for art's sake, come into being at about the same time, and they're both based upon disinterestedness—drawing back from phenomenon and observing them in a presumably objective or disinterested way. I think that the pair, science and art, which we think of as opposites, are very close to one another. I say we are accompanied in our strange and enigmatic movement into the future by science and art, which we must recognize contain both enormous promise and enormous threat.