Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Liberation and Limits

with 3 comments

So, a couple of days ago I posted what amounted to a half-assed book review, and I said, in doing so, that I’d put it on a list of intelligent conservative books if anybody ever asked me for one–and that on that same list I would include a number of other works, includind Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge:  From Prometheus to Pornography.

Then I had one of those days where I wander around without a book to read wondering what to do next, and I found the Shattuck book sitting on my worktable.

It really is  work table, too, and not a desk–a great, long industrial-strength thing my parents gave me when they gave up their big house in Connecticut and moved to Florida more or less full time.  It was in our basement in one of the storage rooms and used for holding tools, and my brother got its twin.  It’s gone with me literally everywhere since then.  It’s moved continents.  I can’t live without it.

This does mean, however, that it is of such a size that things easily get lost on it.  I must have put the Shattuck on it some time in the past and forgotten about it.  It was then buried under papers, other books, and stray articles of equipment until I came on it yesterday.

And once I found it, I started to read it.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to go looking for it for that purpose, but there it was, and, like I said, I had nothing to read.  So I started to reread it.

Let me say, first, that I have no idea why I had it fixed so firmly in my mind that Shattuck is a “conservative.”  

In any of the ways in which most of us would define that term in contemporary society, he’s anything but.  He is a long time advocate of a unilateral nuclear freeze, for instance. 

I think my confusion might have come with the fact that Shattuck is not a structuralist or a deconstructionist.  He doesn’t seem to think that all truth is just a matter of structures of power.   He knows a lot about Medieval and Renaissance literature and about the literature of the world’s great religions without needing to explain how they were all really racist, sexist, fascist whatever…

In other words, Shattuck was trained as a Humanist in the old-fashioned sense of the term, as a person who has been educated in the Humanities.  Maybe I’m just so used to thinking of “liberal” literary critics as being people who can’t shut up about politics long enough to actually read the books that I’d forgotten that the great liberal tradition in American universities was something very different from that.

If you don’t believe me, read Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination.

 The second thing is this:  if you want to know what people are actually supposed to learn to do with an education in literature, you should read this book and see it at its best.

When I say see it at its best, I don’t mean that I necessarily agree with its conclusions, to the extent that there are conclusions.

What Shattuck does in this book is to carefully trace the existence, in Western literature, of the them of knowledge–of the quest for knowledge, of the triumph of knowledge, and (especially) of knowledge as sometimes bad for us.

In the bad for us category, Shattuck identifies two types:  one is the usual mad-scientist, Faust narrative thing, knowledge we can’t handle that brings us destruction rather than happiness (think atomic bomb); the other is knowledge that, if we had it, would make us no longer human in the way in which we are not defined as human.

In that second category, Shattuck puts things like ESP–the ability to read minds, to know the content of another’s thoughts and intentions. 

The reason for that second category is complicated, and I don’t want to go into it at the moment.  I will admit it wasn’t something I had thought of before.

 What seems more important to me here is that Shattuck traces these ideas through the imaginative literatures of the world and not–except every once in a while, as sidebars of a sort–through actual historical events.

He begins with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden–certainly the most influential Faust narrative of all time–and with Pandora’s box, goes from there to Milton in Paradise Lost and on down through the ages. 

Along the way, in those asides, he points out actual public conflicts and events for which those stories provide the frame for the discussion, even when we aren’t aware that they’re providing that frame.

In a way, this is the essence of the Canon–not just things everybody should have read, but things that shape our lives whether we’ve read them or not, because they’ve become part of the very air we breathe.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the man is in no way restricting his examination to somebody’s Required Reading List.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is there, along with Frankenstein and the Marquis de Sade.

And, of course, so are those asides, which include things like the great debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and the leaders of the Anglican Church over Darwin’s theories and the descent of man,  Francis Bacon’s  radical break in the conception of the purpose and meaning of “science” (the quotes are because Bacon still defined “science” as any systematic attempt to know anything, which of course included theology).

A bit further along than I am now, there’s definitely going to be something on the trial of the Marquis de Sade.

And, of course, since no book writtens since the Enlightenment can do without it, he’s made extensive reference to the Galileo affair.

The Galileo thing is my best argument for why we should study literature–for why we should learn to identify a narrative as a narrative and to be suspicious of its factual basis.

The myth of Galileo as the great scientist persecuted by an anti-intellectual theocratic Church for his pursuit of knowledge is so ingrained in this culture that it doesn’t matter how much evidence you bring out to show that it isn’t true, people not only go on believing it, they go on insisting on its veracity even after they’ve seen the falsity of it.

Galileo, by the way, is the reason I always take the protestation of the New Atheists that they deal in reason while religion deals in myth with a grain of salt.  The story of Galileo Persecuted for His Science is a myth and yet it is trotted out as “proof” of the anti-science nature of religion five or six times a week on any atheist web site or forum.

Shattuck would say that the myth matters more than the reality does, because the myth defines our reality.

And he’s right, but you have to be a Humanist–in the original sense of the world–to k now that.

Written by janeh

March 27th, 2011 at 9:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Liberation and Limits'

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  1. Strongly agree overall. Purely as a side issue, the “bad for us” category may be for particular values of “us.”
    Most of my Larry Noven is in storage, but there’s a story, I think his, in which a “Belter”–a man from a civilization based on the Asteroid Belt–has to deal with Terran officials over knowledge of a wire one molecule thick–invisible, and can slice through anything. Easy to make if you know how. Tie it between two lamp posts and let pedestrians cut themselves in two. Someone would, in a matter of days. But in the Belter’s world, it’s just a very handy tool. They don’t raise people like that, and the freaks of nature don’t last long in such an unforgiving world.

    One uses fiction to sharpen the point, but it’s a valid one without. Think of graffitti “artists” or the inventors of computer viruses. And remember that within living memory it was an unremarkable thing to bring a rifle to school and leave it in one’s locker for a match after classes.

    There’s lots of knowledge which is “bad for us” if we let “us” deteriorate a little.


    27 Mar 11 at 10:22 pm

  2. Ouch! Larry NIVEN, of course–probably in TALES OF KNOWN SPACE, but I’ve got to get some sleep.


    27 Mar 11 at 10:23 pm

  3. I don’t remember that particular story but it might be in Nivens “The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton”.

    I do remember that one of the functions of the world government (UN) was to surpress dangerous inventions.

    Given that both the Moon and Asteroid Belts were independent “countries”, I have my doubts that it could work.

    And I recommend Larry Niven’s Known Space series highly for anyone who enjoys science fiction.


    28 Mar 11 at 10:36 pm

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