12 Jan

Roger Shattuck

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/12/06

In December of 2005, the literary scholar Roger Shattuck died at the age of 82. Shattuck was best known for his first book, written in 1958, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I. I first read this book in 1989, when I was working on All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. Shattuck helped me see that many of the characteristic attitudes and sensibilities of popular culture were shared with the much more recondite work of epoch-defining artists of the 20th century, such as Henri Rousseau, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire.

In 1996, Roger Shattuck wrote what many have recognized as his most ambitious (and controversial) book, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, which violated the modern spirit of exploration and progress by asking "Are there things we should not know?" In their obituary notice for Roger Shattuck, the editors of The New Criterion commented: "Today, shallow intellectuals bandy about words like 'subversive' and 'transgressive' as terms of endearment. But the age-old uneasiness about the subversive potentialities of unfettered knowledge reveal a recognition that knowledge can bring unhappiness and ruin as well as insight and liberation. This thought is embedded in countless myths and stories, many of which Roger anatomizes in the course of his book." (The entire notice can be read here. The Times of London also carried a very thoughtful obituary, more thorough than that in his long hometown paper, The Boston Globe. It is online here.)

I had the good pleasure of interviewing Roger Shattuck when Forbidden Knowledge was published; that interview appeared on volume 24 of what was then called the MARS HILL TAPES. While much of his early writing was more celebratory of the modern avant-garde, in his book and in subsequent conversations and correspondence with him, Roger Shattuck revealed himself to be a chastened seeker. He was surprisingly supportive of the project of MARS HILL AUDIO, and even wrote a commendation for us to use in our marketing efforts.

In honor and memory of his intellectual brilliance and moral seriousness, we're making available the two parts of my 1996 interview which appeared on volume 24 as a free downloadable mp3 file. It may be obtained by clicking HERE. [Posted January 2006, KAM]