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.