The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image
by Leonard Shlain
1998 Viking-Penguin
432 pages

Of all the 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. --Leonard Shlain

Before I begin this review in earnest, I'd like to explain why I feel this book by vascular surgeon Leonard Shlain is so momentous. It is not a new book, but itis my favorite book, one that I would like to see become required study at every college and university on our planet. When I first read it six years ago, I couldn't have been more astonished and thrilled. Please understand that this is a graybeard historian telling you this, one who spent half his life searching for the "Holy Grail" that is contained within the pages of this book.

When I was young I began to read widely in search of root causes of historical events. Like astronomers and physicists in search of the singularity that existed before the Big Bang that gave birth to our universe, which Johnny Carson said was followed by the Big Cigarette, deep historians also tend to seek out singularities, and many of us have converged upon the human brain as a result. Reading and listening to Bob Fitrakis' and Harvey Wasserman's masterful rants over the years, in generic terms and regardless of the party in power, a common theme can be found: "Who do these guys think they are?" "Do they really think they can get away with this?" And, 'What the hell are they thinking?"

Well, we all know that our leaders often aren't thinking... or at least aren't thinking properly. It requires a good balance between the two hemispheres of our brains to think properly. The first chapters of The Alphabet versus the Goddess show how reading and writing strongly stimulate the male dominant left hemisphere of the brain and physically alter it by creating many new neural and glial pathways. Later chapters show how human cultures, created by those altered brains, have become dangerously unbalanced in favor of male dominance. We all know that mothers and grandmothers are the ones who hold families together. But in our global family, worldwide congresses are composed of 95% men and only 5% women. If we pause to consider the 100 million war dead and perhaps another 30 million victims of government- induced famines in the 20th century alone, it just might behoove us to acknowledge that "Uh, Houston... we have a problem."

Let's do a reality check here, my friends. How easy was it for me to write, and for you read, that last sentence? It was all too damned easy, wasn't it? As our eyes rapidly scan from left to right, our awareness relentlessly marches forward in lockstep with the abstract letters of the I-i-n-e-a-r a-I-p-h-a-b-e-t, which only acquire meaning when perceived in a sequential manner. Reading makes us anticipate the next bit of data and does not encourage us to live within the present moment and meditate upon what we just learned. Now, since the left brain of both sexes perceives the world in a linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract manner, do you think it is capable of the holistic empathy that is necessary for us to fully comprehend the reality of the mass murder of 130 million of our dear fellow human beings? Of course it isn't. Of course it isn't!

I can't remember that reading about history has ever made this grizzled old bear cry, but standing in the woods and communing with the ghosts where Pickett's and Pettigrew's men assembled before their suicidal charge at the battle of Gettysburg has.

In fact, I suddenly find myself crying now as I vividly recall that poignant moment in my life, and perceive its deep relevance to what I am saying here. I don't think I've ever written more powerful paragraphs before, and their impact, which was intended for you, just now hit me like a freight train. I guess the unimaginable carnage and grief we goddamned men have caused suddenly became quite imaginable to me.

After exhaling the universe's deepest sigh, which caused all the stars in my field of view to shimmer just now, I'm back on the track. But has anyone seen my boots? I was knocked clean out of them by my right brain train of thought. The right brain, the "feminine side" that we men so desperately need to get in touch with more often, since the very future of our world depends on it, perceives things in a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete manner; or very simply put, a realistic manner.

Perhaps I can illustrate how ancient, universal, and deep the longing for right brain sanity is in our insane left brain world. Historians have long known that dying soldiers on every battlefield, in every era of history, believing in every faith or none, and speaking in every language, call out for their mothers with their last breaths. When these valiant men and women look down at their mangled, irreparably damaged bodies, and then upwards, where there is no god in heaven willing to rescue them, they cry out like newborns for their mothers... the deepest source of comfort and sustenance any of us has ever known.

Our ancestors were wise enough to see that women, or men with strong right-brain qualities, made good leaders. And since most deep thinkers realize that we create gods in our own image and likeness, rather than the other way around, goddesses, reflecting women's exalted status on Earth, were created to populate the heavens. But author Shlain proposes that when the linear alphabet was introduced into cultures worldwide, male storm and war gods rose in power, mirroring men's newly inflated status, and usurped the power of the Great Goddess, "Our Mother, who was in Heaven." We have been theological and political motherless orphans ever since. Looking at our world today, can we doubt that the term Homo sapiens- wise man- is the greatest oxymoron all time, even elbowing aside military intelligence for top honors?

Why is it continually inferred that the age of the "pagan" religions, the time of the worship of the female deities (if mentioned at all) was dark and chaotic, mysterious and evil, without the light of order and reason that supposedly accompanied the later male religions, when it has been archeologically confirmed that the earliest law, government, medicine, agriculture, metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, ceramics, textiles and written languages were initially developed in societies that worshipped the Goddess?
-Merlin Stone, quoted in The Alphabet versus the Goddess

This book is chock-full of such sophisticated arguments in support of its thesis. Shlain provides a bountiful banquet for the intellect as he casually strolls through neurology, sociology, anthropology, media studies, history, religion, philosophy and psychology. His interdisciplinary examination gives us a holographic image of ourselves and the past and present relations between the sexes. Most importantly, in dozens of historical cases it clearly shows the alphabetic worm - a faulty, virus-riddled software program - as it slowly but inexorably re-wires the hard drive in the Apple computer of our brain. The resulting glitches then cascade through the data storage systems of our cultures and are transferred from one generation to the next in our traditions, laws and religious dogma.

This is what convinced me that Shlain's theory is correct: While ancient Egypt wasn't a matriarchal society, few women in history had more personal power and freedom. Family names and wealth passed through the mother's line. Divorce was common and the wife's dowry was restored to her at the relationship's end. Women participated in the secret rites and ceremonies of the power elite. At least three women were full-fledged pharaohs, not just queen consorts. Women could walk bare breasted in public without fear, since the feminine aspects of nature were revered in Egypt since the dawn of time.

Gods and goddesses shared power in the Egyptian pantheon. While the sun god Ra was distant and unapproachable, the goddess Isis was intimately connected with earthly matters and was warmly loved by both women and men. The goddess Ma'at embodied wisdom, truth, and justice, weighing the sinful burdens of Egyptians' souls against the lightness of a feather at the end of their lives. The sky goddess Nut created the Milky Way Galaxy by splashing her mother's milk across the empty night sky. When Egyptians died, Nut warmly welcomed them into her arms and suckled them at her breasts for all of eternity. Surely this is the ancient archetype that is genetically engrained in all humans, since it is still our deepest instinct to call out for Mother at our life's ending.

Well now, I imagine you are wondering why Egyptian writings, which are found everywhere among the ancient ruins, didn't sabotage Egypt’s right brain, female affirmative society, like the dozens of alphabet-insane societies that Shlain illuminates in his book. Well, our good doctor tells us that ancient Egyptians did not use an alphabet at all. Their hieroglyphs are pictographs - pictures- that are both drawn and interpreted by the holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete right brain! Egyptian culture lasted for more than 3000 years, and did not fall into decline until after invaders introduced the linear Greek and Aramaic alphabets! Can you yell eureka as loudly as I did when I learned that? Alas, alas… if we only had the wisdom of the ancients!

Here I must ask you all - especially historians and political scientists - to pause and wrap your minds around the enormity of the accomplishment of any empire lasting for three thousand freaking years! In The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson lists these twelve empires and dynasties that have fallen in less than a hundred years since 1898: Spanish, Romanoff, Manchu, Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, Imperial German, Dutch, French, British, Nazi Germany, Japan, and Soviet. The United States, an empire based solely upon oil, will fall soon after the world runs out of oil and natural gas around 2030.

Before we humans abandon the northern latitudes, trees will disappear and we will bum anything to stay warm, including millions of scholarly tomes written in the accursed linear alphabet that describe in left brain, labyrinthine detail how our empires rose, fell and will fall. As much as I love to read and write, I suggest that that might not be as great a loss as it seems at first. The wise and discerning right brain can easily condense the knowledge contained in those tomes into a single, profound fact: Empires rise and fall because of the left-brain folly of us idiots of the male persuasion!

Well, I guess you can see that I wasn't joking when I said that this was a right-brain rant as well as a book review! Reading the Free Press, I learned how to rant from some true masters of the art! Thankfully, in the final chapters of his book, Leonard Shlain shows how modem multi-media sources are bringing some balance back between the hemispheres of our brains because they stimulate the right brain more. I recently saw an exquisite right brain masterpiece, a new DVD about the holistic "living 'Earth" Gaia Theory by biologist David Suzuki, titled Suzuki Speaks. If you use a big screen TV or get close to a small one and turn up the surround sound, its quite a sweet little trip, oops- I mean journey, into the holistic right brain. And, my dear friends of the enlightened sub species Freepus contemplatus, have you noticed the great job Suzanne Patzer has done with the Free Press' newfangled multi-media web site? Wow! You go, girl! That's what The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image is all about!

I Bid You All Sweet Dreams of Ancient Evenings
In Hopes of Creating a New Dawn!

P.S. This book is such an intellectual tour-de-force that I would like to form a discussion group/think tank around it. Shlain says in his last sentence, "My hope is that this book will initiate a conversation about the issues I have raised and inspire others to examine the thesis further." What say we take him up on that? Please do give me a buzz at (614) 209-3632 or come and chat with me at the BYOB Second Saturday (of each month) Salon at the gorgeous new Free Press offices. . -Brendan Maloney