Forbidden Knowledge

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

One could hardly accuse Roger Shattuck, University Professor and Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Boston University, of courting fashion. As president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Shattuck leads a countermovement of academic traditionalists against perceived excesses and irresponsibility in the current academic study of literature. In his article “Nineteen Theses on Literature,” published in Essays in Criticism in July of 1995, Shattuck has declared without any trace of doubt or ambiguity his allegiance to such old- fashioned notions as the belief that literature may serve as a mirror of human expression and feelings, providing authentic insights into the human condition. It is doubtful, however, whether Shattuck has ever more directly challenged cultural fashions than in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. The first sentence of the book is a question: “Are there things that we should not know?” Moreover, this is for Shattuck a real question. Against what he would regard as the overwhelming tendency of advanced thinkers in modern and postmodern culture to answer his question in the negative, Shattuck urges readers to reexamine the issue. His strategy in the first part of his book is to trace the theme of forbidden knowledge in myth and literature into the present century; in the second part, he offers “case studies” meant to illuminate the status of the concept, and the implications of that status, in contemporary culture.

In spite of its superficially neat two-part division, the book is by no means rigidly systematic. Although Shattuck offers an enumeration of six categories of forbidden knowledge, he does so only in an appendix; the categories therefore scarcely organize the argument in the mind of the reader. On several occasions, in fact, Shattuck offers what amounts to an apology for his book’s structural looseness. Even a sympathetic reader may find at times that it is only on a second reading that the relevance of a particular passage to the overall design of the book becomes clear. Still, a patient and attentive reading will discern that there is a design after all.

Shattuck first undertakes to establish the antiquity of the concept of forbidden knowledge. He reminds readers of the foregrounding of the theme in some of the founding myths of Western culture. The story of Prometheus, for example, is the story of the theft of fire from the gods; Prometheus takes on a knowledge and power meant for gods alone. In spite of the grim penalty he suffers, Prometheus is usually ranked among our mythic heroes, representing in the customary interpretation a justified rebellion against limits arbitrarily imposed by an unjust authority. Shattuck does not quarrel with this interpretation, but he reminds readers that there is more to the myth. Zeus sends Pandora, the first woman, in retaliation for the insubordination of Prometheus. When Pandora’s unchecked curiosity leads her to open the lid of the fateful box, she unlooses grief, cares, and all evil. As a consequence of Pandora’s failure to accept limits on what she is allowed to know, the benefits bestowed by Prometheus’ defiance are effectively canceled out.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve stands as the archetypal account of the consequences, in this case expulsion from the Garden and the entry of Sin and Death into the world, of the refusal to accept limits to knowledge. Shattuck affirms the cultural importance of the biblical account, but he devotes more sustained attention to the elaboration of that account in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He articulates the full implications of Raphael’s urging Adam to be “lowly wise,” locating in that advice evidence of the continuing vitality of the concept of limits to human knowledge. Shattuck also defines the four stages of the “downward path of wisdom” as delineated by Milton: innocence, fancy, experience, wisdom. As he makes clear in a later chapter, however, Shattuck acknowledges the possibility that wisdom may in certain circumstances be attainable without the necessity of the perilous passage through experience.

Before reaching that stage of his argument, however, Shattuck turns his attention to literary incarnations of the Faust myth, for many the central myth of secular Western culture. He traces the myth from its earliest appearances at the threshold of the Renaissance to its culminating expression in Goethe’s nineteenth century masterpiece. In the course of this development, Shattuck observes, a most revealing change occurs. The Faust whose damnation provides the denouement of the story as dramatized, for example, by Christopher Marlowe in the sixteenth century, has become in the later era the Faust who earns salvation because of his “striving.” The rejection of limits, the refusal to acknowledge that any knowledge is legitimately forbidden, becomes a defining feature of the myth as humans enter the Romantic era, from which, many would argue, they have yet to emerge.


(The entire section is 2069 words.)