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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The…
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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

by Leonard Shlain

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Dr. Leonard Shlain has an idee fixe (or in more colloquial – and colourful – terms, a “bee in his bonnet”). It is this: alphabet literacy is the cause of misogyny among humanity. He spends 400 pages of the current book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess , trying to convince us of this path-breaking, explosive idea.

Does he succeed? Sadly, no.

Dr. Shlain starts out well enough:

Of all sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse.

In first three chapters, the author traces the development of human beings from “hunted vegetarian to scared scavenger to tentative hunter to accomplished killer in a mere million years”. This remarkable development was achieved by three accidents of natural selection: forelimbs with opposable thumbs, spectacularly powerful eyes and a huge brain. Bigger brains meant more difficult childbirth and extended childhoods – which required the female of the species to specialize in child-bearing and –rearing, leaving the male to hunt for food. It also meant there had to be a strong pair bonding between couples, so that the child can have a stable family to grow up in. This was achieved through perpetual estrus of the female, so that sexual attraction became a permanent bond. Lo! The modern family unit was born.

Even though the above anthropological analysis of evolution may be debated, we can more or less take it as true (though some contentions of Dr.Shlain, that females initially traded sex for food, may be questionable). However, from here the author takes off into uncharted waters. He argues (quite convincingly) that the hunter male needed much more of tunnel vision, so that the cone cells of the central part of the retina developed at the expense of the rod cells, which aid in peripheral vision; also, the analytical left brain developed at the expense of the contemplative right brain. In the females, whose role was nurture rather than killing, it happened exactly the opposite way. So … males=death, females=life.

(…All right, all right! I know you cannot reduce humanity to such a simple equation, but let’s accompany Dr. Shlain a little further on this unusual logical journey.)

The nurturing role of the female in mythology is, of course, well known. Before the patriarchal religions took over, there was the Great Goddess in many forms across the globe: this matriarchal divinity was all-encompassing and nurturing in almost all the cultures. In contrast, the male divinity is aggressive, acquisitive and predatory. As time went by, this male god subjugated the goddess, to extent of removing her totally from existence in the three Levantine religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and reigning supreme as the only true God. In Dr. Shlain’s opinion, this happened because human beings became alphabet literate.

The first form of abstract writing we have is the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia. It is a commonly accepted fact that the original forms of writing were pictorial – in Dr. Shlain’s words, “before there was writing, there were pictures.” In his opinion, in creating an abstract script, human beings moved firmly into the camp of the left brain and the holistic right brain was marginalised. With this, the fall of the Goddess began.

Dr. Shlain cites the myth of the god Marduk, who killed the mother goddess Tiamat and dismembered her corpse to create the universe, as the first male-centric myth, “shocking for its misogynist virulence”. He sees it as the creation of Akkadian priests, who conquered the Sumerians; significantly, they also converted the image-inspired ideograms of the Sumerian cuneiform into phonograms, symbols representing the sounds of words. This is a paradigm shift into the abstract arena of the left brain, where the Goddess and her humanistic and holistic values have no existence.

Starting from this, the author moves through the history of the ancient, classical, medieval and modern civilisation (mostly Western), arguing with examples of how the world slowly adopted patriarchy as they got more literate; to reach its pinnacle in the Abrahamic religions, where images are total anathema, God is a faceless, male entity (even though sexless, God is always He), and the word of God and the Holy Book are the only sacred things.

Here is where the things get a bit woolly. Dr. Shlain does a good job of analysing the growth of misogyny over the years, along with the growth and spread of the Abrahamic religions: however, he does not succeed in proving that literacy itself is the cause. Alphabet literacy grew along with the patriarchal religions, true. But, as the author himself admits, correlation does not immediately prove causation.

There are one or two areas where Dr. Shlain posits a far-fetched theory and later on, builds his arguments on this dubious foundation. Take his analysis of the Cadmus myth, for example. In one of the versions, the Greek hero Cadmus came to Thebes from Phoenicia, slew a terrible serpent which had been terrorising the populace, extracted its fangs, and sowed them in a nearby field. From each tooth sprang a fierce warrior. The grateful Thebans made him king. Dr. Shlain sees the serpent as a feminine symbol (throughout the book: this itself is dubious, as most mythologists and psychologists see the snake as a phallic symbol) – and the teeth as the symbol for the alphabet. So in killing the serpent and sowing the teeth, the myth is talking about the Phoenicians’ feat of bringing the art of writing to Greece, for which there is historical evidence. Ergo: the advent of alphabet literacy killed the Goddess in Greece! I would call this dubious reasoning at best.

Dr. Shlain also makes mistakes while analysing history. For example, even though he says that Israelites’ captivity in Egypt is unproven and the majority of the historians do not subscribe to it: however, one of his chapters is based on the Exodus as a historical event, and he brings in a lot of questionable claims to support his theory, even quoting discredited authors like Immanuel Vellikovsky to support his arguments. Also, his chapter on India is full of erroneous statements. He considers the Aryan invaders to India (an invasion theory which has been largely disproved) to have been alphabet-literate, hence misogynist and aggressive: whereas the Harappan civilisation which existed before that to have been illiterate and hence Goddess-oriented. He also puts in such patently silly statements such as “the Harappans spoke a form of early Sanskrit”, “The Rig Veda is India’s oldest epic poem [it is not an epic poem at all!] and contains glimpses of the culture as it existed before the arrival of the Aryan warriors and alphabet literacy. [the Vedas were written by Aryans – according to some sources, before they reached India-see The Vedic People by Rajesh Kochhar]”

(I could go on quoting, but I think the above examples are sufficient to show why Dr. Shlain’s credibility took a severe beating once I passed this chapter.)

The author makes a lot of definitive statements on things which could only be conjecture. He seems to be hell-bent on splitting things into twos, one part dealing with literacy, the left brain, misogyny and intolerance: and the other dealing with the right brain, image-centric Goddess worship and tolerance.
The book analyses almost all of the religious and cultural history of mankind through this dualistic glass: be it the cult of Dionysus, Buddhism, the Tao or the teachings of Confucius.

As he moves past the medieval age into the history modern religion (especially in the West), however, Dr. Shlain proves to be an entertaining narrator. He has meticulously traced the transformation of Christianity from the unorganised and tolerant religion preached by Jesus into the intolerant and murderous behemoth it became after the Renaissance: also, the story of the metamorphosis of Islam from the frugal desert religion based on surrender to God to an empire spanning half the globe is also enchantingly told. One can only cringe at the excesses of the inquisition and the cruelties of the witch hunts. One fails to understand how such hatred towards believers of another faith, and general intolerance towards women could reach such paranoid heights – but apparently they did. The only caveat I have is that Dr. Shlain relates intolerance and bigotry everywhere to literacy, based on very tenuous evidence.

More of the same arguments follow as the development of the “modern” world, as we know it, is analysed – it would be tedious to give a line-by-line account. Suffice it to say that the monster of alphabet literacy is identified to be behind all modern evils such as the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges: and the re-awakening of the right brain in the twentieth century is seen as the source of positive movements like feminism –although it is never made clear exactly how the connection is made. By now, the book starts reading like a polemic against the alphabet!

However, the last chapter, where Leonard Shlain identifies television as the antidote to the misogyny engendered by the written word takes the cake. His argument that the return of the image on the TV screen to replace the word on the printed page has again started engendering right brain values in human beings is extremely questionable. Does the production of a generation of couch potatoes, addicted to reality shows and mindless soaps, imbibing the lies dished out by the corporate news networks along with chunks of lurid advertisements, help the Goddess come back into our lives?

To be fair to Dr. Shlain, he writes in the epilogue:

I began my inquiry intent on answering the question Who killed the Great Goddess? My conclusion – the thug who mugged the Goddess was alphabet literacy – may seem repugnant to some and counterintuitive to others. I cannot prove that I am right.

I have to say that you are right on that count, Dr. Shlain. For someone who has been taught that

Music and literature and are the twin breasts of Goddess Saraswathi:
One (music) pure sweetness from top to bottom; the other (literature), ambrosia to the mind.


it is very difficult to differentiate art and literature – and to see either of them as not emanating from the Goddess.

Edit to add: Even though I do not agree with Dr. Shlain's premise, the growth of misogyny along with dogmatic religious views merit serious consideration. There is ample reason to believe that the left brain took over from the right brain somewhere along our march to civilisation: even though it helped us in material ways, our spiritual side atrophied. And I personally believe this spiritual side has a lot to do with the Goddess. Hence my two stars. ( )
1 vote Nandakishore_Varma | Sep 28, 2013 |
Note to self: also check out the book - Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain - when reading this one.
  esquetee | Nov 22, 2011 |
Though I found Shlain’s theory compelling and provocative, and his writing style impressively fluid considering the complexity of his subject matter, I ultimately wasn’t able to sit still with the idea that something as simple as the mechanics of how we communicate could exert such profound influence on our attitudes toward complex, all-encompassing topics such as gender and spirituality, not to mention all the other areas which Shlain implicated as effects of our linguistic tools, such as our regard of the natural world and of our bodies, etc.

Shlain's primary assertion that the brain hemispheres are somehow aligned to genders is such an obviously simplistic theory that real-life experience easily trumps it. I consider myself a very left-brained person, with all that that implies – I am rarely grounded in my bodily sensations and physical surroundings, I think in more abstract than concrete terms, etc. – but I by no means disdain females, nor do I regret the fact that I am myself a female. I realize that Shlain includes a disclaimer in the beginning of the book about how gender is a social construct, and how any person, regardless of sex, contains a mixture of what are culturally deemed 'female' and 'male' attributes, but he doesn't seem to include this very weighty consideration in the actual meat of his argument.

Furthermore, I found his attribution of language to the left hemisphere and images to the right hemisphere to be too clean cut to adequately describe real-world uses of words and images. Though the holistic apprehension of images and other visual input is typically the remit of the right hemisphere, images themselves can very easily work for a left-brain agenda by reflecting its fragmented, disembodied vision of the world – as a brief foray into modern and postmodern art will readily attest to. Moving on to the question of language processing: for bureaucratic and scientific purposes, language depends on a linear procession of abstract signs to convey an explicit, literal meaning, left-brain style. But for the expression of anything besides pure, cold information – in other words, the type of situation which arises most frequently in day-to-day social intercourse – language users, even those using the written form, will depend on right-brain faculties such as affect, associative meaning, descriptive imagery, irony, humor and other non-literal devices. We cannot completely disregard the intentions with which we set out to communicate, and we cannot assume that our deeply held attitudes about the world will cede so readily to the structural impositions of our communicative medium. Poets, authors, and even the best of scientists try to find creative ways to somehow transcend the inherent logical framework of language to convey more intuitive understandings, and their intentions don't count for nothing.

The intention with which we set out to communicate surely must have more impact on how we choose to employ our tools, not the other way around. It seems to me that Shlain takes McLuhan’s adage too far, by suggesting that the nature of our tools dictates our uses of them, and not only that, but that it regiments our mindsets so definitively that our thought cannot venture outside of the limitations of the tools themselves. To accept this as true would also be to accept that thought is not possible beyond the constraints of language – and this problem is far from being resolved by current neurolinguistic research. According to Shlain’s explanation, which carries with it a lot of unchecked theoretical baggage, the technical details of language – how it depends on abstract representation, and is ordered in a linear fashion, etc. – will consequently cause us to limit our thought, too, to abstractions and linearity. Such a model of human behavior is evocative of a machine which can act only upon the software with which it has been coded, or of a circuit board whose output depends on a predetermined, linear chain of cause and effect… This is a mechanistic concept of how our minds work, and perhaps it’s how our collective left brain has primed us to think of the world and ourselves. It seems to me, then, that Shlain has himself recurred to a left-brain mode of thought in the very act of trying to warn us of its pernicious effects. We are humans, not machines, and we still have the ability to feel and act however we choose beyond language's 'coding,' because there is much more that goes on in our mind that the 'software' of language cannot even access.

I prefer to think that the causes and effects of our implements of thought don’t work nearly as linearly as left-brain conceptualization would have us believe. Our systems of signs cannot ‘program’ our thoughts about the world, because the world lies beyond those systems of signs, a lot of it too infinitely complex to ever interpret into signs. The world beyond signs must surely have greater influence on how we perceive things, one of those things being signs themselves. Far from lying in a direct, linear chain of causal relationships, I’d argue that our preferential use of one or another expressive outlet, our perceptions of gender differences, our disdain or esteem of the bodily and the concrete, our tendency to think linearly and analytically or holistically and intuitively, etc., are rather interrelated in a network of associations, and all collaborate to reinforce one another. It is impossible to extract just one component from this web of mutually reinforcing elements and name it the primary cause, just as it is impossible to designate the point where a circle begins. We may refer to such groupings of phenomena metonymically, as in "culture of writing," if you will, but that does not mean that writing is the primordial cause. Despite Shlain's skillful detection of patterns and drawing of parallels between aspects of the left brain, language at the end of the day is still just that - one aspect of an inextricably linked unity of perception brought to bear on the world by the left hemisphere.

I believe that what unifies the functions of each hemisphere is a fundamental attitude towards the world that each of the brain hemispheres has. If it’s odd to think of the brain hemispheres as having separate attitudes towards the world, as if they were two different people taking up residence inside our heads, it is certainly no odder than thinking that a computing machine is encased in our skulls, and that all it takes to ‘re-wire’ our way of thinking is to change one bit of the ‘code’ a bit, say, to process images instead of words.

Though I disagree with many premises that Shlain starts out with, he serves as an important starting point for me in the study of the mind, by providing a somewhat detached vantage point on language, with the necessary distance to analyze its often invisible effects on thought. His engaging style and captivating combination of psychology, communication studies, and anthropology has sparked a lifelong interest for me in that particular concoction of disciplines - actually, I'm doing research for my honors thesis right now on a similar concoction. So, after all the intellectual grappling I've done with it, my dog-eared, profusely highlighted and marked copy of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess will always have a special place on my bookshelf. ( )
  selfunreflecting | Jul 28, 2011 |
This book takes a cardiovascular surgeon view point on neurophysiology of the brain psychology, and the use of brain function in culture and its predictable social response.
This book takes theoretical approach similar to educated analysis in physical anthropology with how the human mind functions.
This is an excellent book. ( )
  Archonstone | Feb 8, 2011 |
A real challenge to the idea that human history has been a continuous march upward. Posits that the arrival of language and its linear sensibility served to diminish the role and value of women. Some factual errors, but overall a fascinating theory that you don't need to accept to appreciate. Paired with the new assessments of how agriculture impacted human health (see The Third Chimpanzee for a quick summary,) and you may have a whole new way of thinking about history. ( )
  Oreillynsf | Apr 25, 2010 |
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Belanger, FrancescaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Belenson, GailCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140196013, Paperback)

"Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West," writes Leonard Shlain. "Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word."

That's a pretty audacious claim, one that The Alphabet Versus the Goddess provides extensive historical and cultural correlations to support. Shlain's thesis takes readers from the evolutionary steps that distinguish the human brain from that of the primates to the development of the Internet. The very act of learning written language, he argues, exercises the human brain's left hemisphere--the half that handles linear, abstract thought--and enforces its dominance over the right hemisphere, which thinks holistically and visually. If you accept the idea that linear abstraction is a masculine trait, and that holistic visualization is feminine, the rest of the theory falls into place. The flip side is that as visual orientation returns to prominence within society through film, television, and cyberspace, the status of women increases, soon to return to the equilibrium of the earliest human cultures. Shlain wisely presents this view of history as plausible rather than definite, but whether you agree with his wide-ranging speculations or not, he provides readers eager to "understand it all" with much to consider. --Ron Hogan

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:50:44 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The author "proposes that alphabetic literacy--the process of reading itself--fundamentally rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture, history, and religion. ... Shlain argues that, with the advent of literacy, the very act of reading an alphabet reinforced the brain's left hemisphere--linear, abstract, predominantly masculine--at the expense of the right--holistic, concrete, visual, feminine. ... [This book] tracks the correlations between the rise and fall of literacy and the changing status of women in society, mythology, and religions throughout European history, and in other cultures as well."--Jacket.… (more)

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