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Friday, June 2, 2017

Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

By: Roger Shattuck

Publisher: Harvest Books; 1 edition (September 15, 1997)

Softcover 384 pages

Finished 6/1/2017

Amazon Listing  



          “A contradiction or paradox lies buried in the title of this book, Forbidden Knowledge. If we are familiar enough with any entity or domain to call the result “knowledge” then we already know too much about it to apply the adjective forbidden. The taboo or prohibition has already been broken, the obstacle or risk of knowledge still unlocated, unnamed, unexplored, possibly closed to us. ‘How,’ Meno asked Socrates, ‘will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is?’ These paradoxes do not disqualify the phrase ‘forbidden knowledge’ On the contrary, the phrase remains with us and carries meaning by its long association with particular stories and case histories.”
          Many claim that this book is somewhat overwritten, I disagree. It is a heavy read, but it is easy to see that the author enjoyed crafting aspects of the text very much and was genuinely interested in the intellectual debate. Be that as it may, the first portion of the text does rely heavily on assumed knowledge. The author expects that the reader is familiar with various literary texts. That they have read Faust, Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Billy Budd, The Stranger the poems of Emily Dickenson, the essays of Michel de Montaigne- or at least have a working idea of the thematic elements present in each one. If you do not, you may want to skip the first five chapters and go straight to Part Two, which deals with case histories of the arguments surrounding forbidden knowledge.
          The book begins with a classic examination of the ancient’s attitudes towards man’s pursuit of knowledge and what limitations should be placed upon it. Essentially we have the cautionary tales of man giving into his curiosity, reaching too far, offending the divine, and being slapped down by the Almighty. Stories like Pandora, the Garden of Eden, and the Tower of Babel all warn mankind to curb their inquisitiveness lest it lead them into ruin.  
Author Roger Shattuck
          Until modern times these ideas of forbidden knowledge meant less about scientific discoveries and focused almost exclusively on heretical religious ideas and philosophies. For this the banned registry of the Catholic Church was founded, on which texts were alternately placed on and removed from over the centuries. The common herd must be protected from dangerous ideas and heretical thoughts. It’s why so many of the enlightenment liberals were against the idea. That a free flow of ideas was most important.
          However the idea of forbidden knowledge changes as medical and scientific breakthroughs create physically dangerous concoctions and devices. All of a sudden it becomes important to restrict that information. Should everyone know how to make dynamite, or refine heroin, or modify an assault rifle to become fully automatic?
          The author expressed this notion with two examples, the atomic bomb and the Human Genome Project (which was still being mapped when the text was published). These two present different aspects of the scientific question, one having been finished and many of its creators horrified by the results. The other has many fears swirling around it, about the dangers that might be done in meddling with the fundamental aspects of humanity.
          When it comes to the atomic bomb and all its offspring, the scientists who developed it have put blinkers on their eyes. They knew they were developing a weapon during war time. What did they think was going to be done with the device? As for the Human Genome Project, X-files linking it to an alien invasion aside, it really hasn’t yielded all that much. It has considerably sped up some aspects of cancer research and investigation into various other diseases and physical disorders, plus it added to the development of evolutionary theory. But no monsters or super-viruses have resulted from the project.
          The question of whether knowledge should be sought after becomes a moot point.  Inevitably if the information is within grasp, man, like Eve plucking the apple, will search it out. Time has shown us this. The idea of remaining ignorant is almost universally rejected by anyone who is curious.
          The enquiry becomes more interesting when it is applied to the most extreme examples of literature, namely the books of the Marquis De Sade. These books paradoxically have never been out of print since first being published in the late 18th century, but also very rarely were available to the general public. There have been many attempts over the 20th century to rehabilitate the image of the Divine Marquis, Camille Paglia being the most recent, and cast his evil shadow in a different light. However as the author points out, and I completely agree, all attempts at this fall flat upon a cursory glance at the actual text. The morality of DeSade’s work is immorality. It is sadistic porn, a glorification of cruelty and narcissism, with a half digested attempt at a philosophical reasoning tacked on. After reading all of his work myself I can say, sexual violence and rape is not presented in the work to emphasize a moral, political, or philosophical point. The point of his work is sexual violence and rape which occurs at length on nearly every third page. The rest is just framing.
Only known portrait of De Sade circa1760
          As such do we limit access to the works of De Sade, who essentially was the first and worst murder-porn writer. Do we create a new registry and have the texts locked away for only a chosen few to gaze upon? Or should it be freely available to all at all libraries? If neither option appeals to you, then what is the middle ground? Should there be an age limit? If so, then what is to prevent other age limits being slapped on other works, perhaps for religious or political reasons? The best answer seems to lie in a free market censorship. Publishers are reluctant to put out the book due to bad publicity, book stores are likewise resultant to stock the book, so distribution is limited. Thus reducing the chances of someone who is not looking for the text to accidently stumble across it.

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