January 2, 1997
David Gergen engages Roger Shattuck, professor of literature at Boston University, author of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography.
DAVID GERGEN: Mr. Shattuck, much of your argument in your book centers up on the great works of literature and of religion, the stories there. So letís start with the story of Prometheus. What does it tell us?
ROGER SHATTUCK, Author, Forbidden Knowledge: Well, the Prometheus story is one of the most misunderstood and little known stories. Everyone tells the story of Prometheus, the friend of mankind, stealing fire from the gods and then heís heroized for that very reason, forgetting the fact that Prometheus is accompanied by Pandora, the way Adam is accompanied by Eve. That is, Pandora is sent down from the gods as retribution for Prometheusís act, and she opens her box and all kinds of unfortunate things happen to mankind. So Prometheus as a hero is misunderstood because also he causes great grievance.
DAVID GERGEN: By going too far, by stealing the fire.
ROGER SHATTUCK: By going too far, by transgressing all kinds of boundaries. But itís a story that matches almost perfectly for the Greek tradition the Adam and Eve story in the Old Testament tradition.
DAVID GERGEN: Just refresh us on that as well, just--I know most people know--but just so we all know.
ROGER SHATTUCK: Of course, everyone thinks they or he or she knows the Adam and Eve story.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ROGER SHATTUCK: But here itís the one--with one prohibition, which is put up to Adam and Eve, is not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And Eve is tempted by the serpent and eats of the tree because the serpent plants in her mind certain ideas of experience and of becoming divine, and then Adam follows her.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, the objectionable feature, of course, about both of these foundation stories, as you would call them, is the role that women play. I mean, theyíre the vessel that brings--unlooses all the ills of the world. But beyond that, the point of both stories in both traditions is that man can go too far, he can be tempted to go too far, to know too much, in effect.
ROGER SHATTUCK: That man can go too far and that humanity is defined for us by some sense of limits. There is--if you try to become divine, if you try to leave the human condition and achieve another tradition, that you have really betrayed your condition as men. And the--but these two stories lead us, I think, to what for us is a more important set of stories, which I try to emphasize in the book, and that is Faust, which is modern. Faust does not go back to the Greeks or to the Old Testament.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ROGER SHATTUCK: It goes back only to the Middle Ages and then is brought together first by Marlow and then by Goethe, the great German writer. When Faust first grew up in the Middle Ages, it was the story of a magician and a charlatan who tried by his various enchantments to know too much and to pronounce spells. And he makes a pact with the devil. He lives it up for a few years and, as a result, goes to hell.
DAVID GERGEN: In the old tradition.
ROGER SHATTUCK: In the old tradition. And the jaws of hell opened, they loved these things, and the flames come up, and he goes to hell. Goethe, influenced by another German by the name of Schelling, changed the story and instead of Faust going to hell, Faust goes to heaven because he strives and striving is, of course, the modern version of curiosity, curiosity which can become presumption. If thereís too much curiosity, we presume to become something beyond ourselves.
DAVID GERGEN: So in the modern age, Goethe brings us to the notion knowledge is good, and you, in effect, can ascend to heaven with knowledge?
ROGER SHATTUCK: Well, yes.
DAVID GERGEN: But that was answered then by Mary Shelley.
ROGER SHATTUCK: Yeah. The--we have something called the Faustian man.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ROGER SHATTUCK: The Faustian man is generally interpreted as positive. This is modern man moving forward with technology and science to release us to some new form of liberty and understanding. But Mary Shelley, who was 19 years old at the time that she conceived and wrote her book, and knew the Faust tradition and was among Shelley and Byron and the great poets, she was obsessed by the masculine desire for glory. The word "glory" appears about five times in her opening and closing chapters, and this is a presumption again, these men who presumed to know more than they should. And the book she wrote, as I try to describe in my book, a very severe criticism of the Faustian legend, that Faust presumed too much, she doesnít talk about Faust, but she presents the figure of a doctor, Dr. Frankenstein, who creates a monster in a very modern story, and that is too much.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Your sympathies throughout this book are very much with the old tradition, with the Prometheus tradition or the tradition of Adam and Eve, the tradition, indeed, of Dr. Frankenstein because you think there should be restraints, we should show more restraint in our pursuit of knowledge than we do particularly in two areas, science and art. Tell us why you think we should show more restraint and the dangers that we face based on your understanding of this classical literature.
ROGER SHATTUCK: Well, youíre bringing out a fact that really this is two books. This is the book that comes out of the fact that Iím a teacher of literature and have read the main books in the western tradition and the first part which is about those works, then in the book that I wrote things flipped over and somehow the book wrote me when it came to the second part. I think part of the reason that I felt I had to write the science chapter is told in the very beginning. That is, I happened to be on Okinawa at the time of the dropping of the two atomic bombs. And first, I thought and believed and still do believe that probably those two bombs saved my life. I would have gone in in the second wave to set up an air strip and might very well not be here to tell the tale.
Then I became very much an anti-nuclear arms demonstrator at the University of Texas and suffered from those convictions. Then Iíve come back part way and realize that paradoxically that this awful instrument, the atomic bomb, probably established the peace at a time that we might not have had it by other means. Itís a dilemma for me to know exactly what to think about the atomic bomb, but science in the forms of both weapons and then genetic research has at least confronted us with a possibility that we may be outstripping our capacities to know, that if we begin to tamper directly with the process of natural selection; that is, it is no longer natural, it is we who are doing the selection of the kinds of human being that are perpetuated; we may be going too far.
DAVID GERGEN: So in some ways the cautionary tale of both Prometheus and Adam and Eve come back into play here and the kind of knowledge we are now seeking you think goes beyond the bounds or beyond our reach, as you would call it. And we may not be able to deal with the consequences.
ROGER SHATTUCK: Yes. In a way this is a criticism of the entire direction of western civilization. Western civilization is based on progress, on the expansion of knowledge, and I believe in those entities and in those goals. It is a matter of pace and what Milton calls being "lowly wise." That is, being wise not always through great aspiration and presumption but of being lowly and modest in our attempts to deal with these questions, some of which we can solve, and on the other hand, thereís a--well, I have a couple of quotes which I would like to--
DAVID GERGEN: Well, letís finish up. What were those quotes?
ROGER SHATTUCK: Well, Jefferson said, "We shall follow the truth wherever it will take us and deal with the errors as long as we can have" the--"have reason to help us." He felt that there should be no limits on the pursuit of truth, except that you have to be able to use reason. I would say today that itís more than reason. Itís judgment we have to have, some kind of sense of proportion. Thereís a physicist by the name of Sinzeimer, who is very important in the genetic research. And Sinzeimer says we are beginning to understand that the pursuit of truth may be dangerous. And thatís the kind of median position that I would come down on. Iím not purely conservative, but itís that sense of the middle ground.
DAVID GERGEN: Mr. Shattuck, thank you very much.
ROGER SHATTUCK: Glad to be here.