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From Prometheus to Pornography

by Roger Shattuck

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-312-14602-7
Publisher: St. Martin's

 An eminent scholar's exploration of a crucial theme in Western literature and culture: forbidden knowledge. Shattuck (Literature/Boston Univ.) has published many books, including a well-known study of modernism (The Banquet Years, 1968) and a biography (Marcel Proust, 1982) that earned its author the National Book Award. His new book embodies his vision of what literary criticism ought to be (as opposed to current academic trends in literary studies). First, its theme is one of importance to people other than professional literary critics. Second, its language is urbane and engaging. Third, Shattuck writes with originality and imagination yet remains loyal to scholarly standards of evidence and argument. The book traces the problem of forbidden knowledge from its origins in myth and folklore (Prometheus, Pandora, Eve, and Faustus) up through the more modern attempt to deal with its meaning for our moral well-being. He has especially strong chapters on Milton's Paradise Lost, which he sees as a turning point in our understanding of the theme, and Melville's Billy Budd, which he praises by damning comparison with Camus's The Stranger. He also writes about Frankenstein, Emily Dickinson, Mme. de Lafayette. The latter two share the theme of renunciation, the obverse side of the forbidden knowledge topos. The second half of Shattuck's book attempts to negotiate the treacherous pass from literature to real life: Forbidden knowledge as literary theme is supposed to shed light on the moral dilemmas of scientists who worked on the atomic bomb and those who remain at work on the Human Genome Project. Here he is less persuasive. But as a consolation prize we get a wonderfully impassioned chapter against the Marquis de Sade who, according to Shattuck, does not deserve the serious attention that scholars have showered on him. A fine, challenging, and timely work of scholarship and criticism. (First serial to the New York Times Book Review; Book- of-the-Month/History Book Club alternate selections)