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
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and art have been replaced by a culture which prizes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.
made you decide to write Forbidden Knowledge?
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.
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
talk briefly about some of the literary characters
you write about. You're very hard on 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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
do you feel about cloning humans?
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.
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.
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.
conclude by associating the origins of modern science
and modern art. Could you explain that a little?
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.