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Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

3.48  ·  Rating details ·  459 ratings  ·  41 reviews
In his “best achievement to date” (Harold Bloom), National Book Award- winner Roger Shattuck gives us a “deeply learned, highly intelligent, and beautifully written” (New York Times) study of human curiosity versus the taboo, from Adam and Eve to the Marquis de Sade to biotechnology research. Index.
Paperback, 384 pages
Published September 15th 1997 by Mariner Books (first published 1996)
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Jul 31, 2011 rated it did not like it
About a quarter of the way into the book Shattuck quotes Descartes:

"For it seemed to me that I would discover much more truth in the reasonings of men about what they know directly, men who will bear the consequences if they made a bad decision, than in the reasonings of a scholar in his study, who produces speculations without application and without consequence to him, except perhaps the vanity he finds in their remoteness from common sense..."

Shattuck that says it could be about Faust. I say
Jan 20, 2009 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 25, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
It took me a while to get through this due to periodically tossing it aside in exasperation- he’s basically an apologist for censorship. In the interest of full disclosure the title should be: “Forbidden Knowledge - that ‘I’ Think Should Stay That Way!” That’s always the thorny problem - WHO gets to decide. Well, The time of stodgy, priggish white men censoring based on what they personally disapprove of is over.
Dec 14, 2008 rated it liked it
Hmmm...while there was much I thought was intriguing about this book and its premise, at times it seemed a bit more histrionic about some of the worst results of man's quest for knowledge. Though I do have to agree about de Sade's work, it has no particular value to people in general and just celebrates the basest of human drives and revels in the torture and degradation of others in order to achieve sexual fulfillment.

I also have trouble believing that Eichmann set up the Lebensborn program an
Mar 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is, without a doubt, one of the best works I have ever read on epistemology. Shattuck offers a truly comprehensive view of the history of forbidden knowledge and the reasons it has been considered "forbidden."
Chris Pederson
Apr 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
a look at man's quest for knowledge and the taboos against it. He's more conservative than me in that I don't think there is such a thing as too much knowledge but I enjoyed reading it none the less.
Apr 03, 2012 rated it did not like it
I found this book in a box by the side of the road and should have left it there. As a person well versed in the Western canon, I was excited at the prospect of reading an examination of the ideas of forbidden and secret knowledge throughout literature, and was sorely disappointed to find this book little more than a soapbox for Shattuck to moralize on.

Had he kept such moralizing within the bounds of some degree of common sense in relation to the works he was citing, I might have still found it
Chris Craddock
Jul 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Sphinx, the Syrinx, and the Unicorn

There was a warning about chapter VII so I started reading chapter VII about a certain Marquis. Interesting material. The other parts were interesting, too. It covers a lot of writers and philosophers that I haven't read but would like to study. The part I just read was about Thomas Huxley, father of Aldous, who just coined the term "agnostic." Used the word "neologism" to describe new word creation.

I really enjoyed this book but I took my time. Opposite of
Joshua Buhs
This is not the book I expected it to be. And, to be fair, it is the book the author promised early on. Too bad it still sucked so hard.

When I picked it up, I thought of this book as belonging to the tradition of, say, Robert Danrton's Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, a (wider that that) look at different forms of knowledge that have been ruled beyond the pale at various points in Western History. But that's not what this book is at all.

Mostly, it's a reconsideration that certa
Mar 01, 2014 rated it did not like it
This book gets one star from me only because whenever it criticized a publication, it ended up in my reading list. I am a believer in freedom and the distinction of arts and science. I do not believe that the line is too thin. I do believe that there are immensely crooked governments in the world. Some (mostly medical) limitations are fine, if they are proven by science.

In short, this book showed me the other camp, which I should know about if I'm going to have a strong case of my own. It also
Aug 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
There's no way one can do justice to this book in a short review. It is a wide-ranging literary and philosophical argument that some knowledge, mostly for Shattuck the writings of the Marquis de Sade and scientific experimentation with the Human Genome Project, should be carefully controlled. Written in 1996, would he find the knowledge of HGP "dangerous" were he still alive today? At its core it is an ethical treatment of the literature and philosophy of experience vs. "the veil," i.e., that is ...more
Nov 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book, where the author, using literature, philosophy and science to explore the benefits and consequences of mankind's natural inclination to push the boundaries of knowledge in areas considered forbidden throughout the ages. The author's breadth of knowledge is so vast, that I was riveted. Some inquires are outdated as the internet age has has expanded since the release of this book and Shattuck's scientific suppositions toward the Human Genome Project came nowhere near to fruition. ...more
Apr 26, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Erin by: friend
Shelves: non-fiction
I liked this book because it presented an interesting point of view on the subject, but it was a VERY conservative one. Also, I wondered about some of the author's interpretations of the works he cited.
Aug 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book. The author uses literature to question whether there are some things better left unknown. While I think the author is leaning towards the affirmative, he leaves the question open and allows the reader to shape his own views. A good read.
Oct 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Dense and deep, in a way which invigorates the mind. Discusses how Western civilization has allowed & disallowed certain forms of knowledge, a working answer to the question: "Is innocence worth ignorance?", particularly in regards to sexuality and immortality. ...more
M Alan Cox
Apr 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy
Not a bad book, but I couldn't disagree with the stodgy and overly-traditionalist mindset more. It's quite telling that Shattuck much prefers Virgil's Ulysses to Homer's Odysseus.
Jan 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Other reviews have likely said it better so I'll just say that I have this on my shelf and go back to read it fairly often. Always entertaining!
May 19, 2012 rated it liked it
Decent, but definitely not as enlightening as I was hoping for. I enjoyed the sections about Milton and I learned a few interesting tidbits, but overall, mildly disappointing.
Mar 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
Are there things we should not know?

This question is the start and heart of Mr. Shattuck's book. His style makes you feel like you're having a long winding talk with him in his study. There are times of great facetiousness: "Hegel concludes not with an argument but with a saying that is also a miniaturized story and an Irish bull 'To examine this so-called instrument [cognition, knowledge:] is the same thing as to know it. But to seek to know before we know is as absurd as the wise resolution of
Aug 12, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shattuck is the lesser member of a trinity of reactionary Yalie literary critics fond of extensive quotations that gained some notoriety w/ popular publishers in the 90s. However, unlike Harold Bloom or Camille Paglia, Shattuck lacks dynamism or a well thought-out theoretical edifice, however misguided, so he attempts to substitute a reading of the 'western' canon that defines it in terms of his timidity & priggishness. Revisiting this book after 9 years, I couldn't bear to read his fretting abo ...more
Nov 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
A very interesting read. I like the way in which Shattuck tries to divide knowledge into six different categories and his categories feel generally applicable to knowledge, and applicably in various areas.

I did not know much about Sade before reading this, but the chapter about him – alongside the debate about whether or not to censor certain kinds of knowledge – is an enlightening and rewarding one. I was kind of longing for a comparison to American Psycho (which, I was glad to see, made a (too
Candy Wood
Two boxed warnings caution readers that the chapter on the Marquis de Sade contains material not intended for “children and minors,” but the whole book makes clear that Shattuck advocates not banning or forbidding but accurate labeling. Instead of presenting Sade’s works as great literature, as modern editions have, he argues that we should regard them as “potential poison,” and the examples he quotes and describes amply support the argument. Before that, though, chapters on Prometheus, Paradise ...more
Jan 29, 2015 rated it liked it
After finished Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge it was disappointing that the last part of his book descended into an attack on the writing of the Marquis de Sade. Most of Shattuck's book is a fascinating study of how particular forms of knowledge have been wrapped in narrative tales about their merit or danger. He spends a great deal of time discussing knowledge and it's mythological background. The last part of his book however spends a great deal of time making qualitative judgements abou ...more
Nov 30, 2007 is currently reading it
Recommends it for: the well-read hyper intellectual
This book will probably remain on my Currently Reading shelf for awhile. I do enjoy it, but I havent ready Faust, Proust, Dantes Inferno.. nor many of the undoubted literary Classis; therefore getting through it is a little bit slow.
The author does a good job of running through a synopsis of each story before juxtaposing against another, but I think it would be better understood and probably more appreciated by someone who has already read most of these works.

On the otherhand, it gives interes
Sep 16, 2013 rated it liked it
This is a good and informative work on forbidden knowledge in literature, science and society. It covers an expansive field of ideas and thus quite enriching. However, there are two things I found somewhat problematic. Shattuck does not provide the boundaries of the definition of the kind(s) of knowledge he discusses clearly. A theoretical section on such a review would be helpful, especially in the connections between the literary works studied. Consequently, the second issue arises, that the c ...more
Jan 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: own
Ok, no I haven't read the entire book. I ordered it in order to read the section on Sade. I found the argument contained therein to be rather repulsive. Sade's texts shouldn't be available to to everyone simple because of Ian Brady and Ted Bundy???? What kind of argument is that? It's always disappointing when you're looking for literary criticism and instead find disjointed moralizing based on the author's personal reservations.
Jun 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
It is indeed possible to know too much, or to pursue information as its own reward, even at the peril of the human race. Quite convincing and much more than merely moralistic. Just ask A.Q. Khan. He's got plenty of know-how he'd like to share (which he started by sharing with his native Pakistan, Iraq and North Korea.)
Lukas Lovas
Feb 05, 2015 rated it liked it
An interesting reading. Definitely enlightening on the topic of myths and legends, but not very compelling. I still disagree with the author who claims (more or less), that there are some pieces of knowledge, that shouldn't be known...that should be forbidden. I see his point, as there is always a great potential for harm, but the potential isn't enough to justify restricting knowledge.
Aug 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
It took me a while to get through this book. Shattuck presents a thoughtful argument against moral relativism and attempts to solve difficult ethical problems. Still, his argument is relevant in today's society.
Jun 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
The section on de Sade was so thorough it included a disclaimer about the evidence provided. An excellent example of letting the primary sources speak for themselves, and a sobering assessment of the ways in which we engage in literary sin.
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