Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Alphabets and Goddesses

At the risk of having to eat my words as it were, I feel compelled to begin picking apart Leonard Shlain's arguments in his book The Alphabet and the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. I have read through the end of chapter six and have so many page points marking pages and passages I am in danger of running out of page points and not being able to properly close the book. If this was not a library book I would have scrawled all over the pages by this point. The trouble is, where to begin? Perhaps a brief mention of what Shlain's thesis is is in order here. But before that, I have to complain that Shlain must think the reader's of his book are stupid because just in case you might not know he is talking about a important concept, he italicizes it for you. A feminine outlook is holisitc and concrete and a masculine outlook is linear and abstract. We also perceive images in an all-at-once manner; with the advent of abstract thinking came the concepts of us and them; and did you know that lobes of the human brain are functionally different? Shlain's editor should have disabled the man's italics function in his word processing program. Now that I've gotten that out of the way... Shlain argues that one of the "pernicious" effects of literacy that has gone "unnoticed" is that "writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook" and alphabetic writing in particular, "diminishes feminine values and with them women's power in the culture." Of course, this being a book about how writing destroyed the Goddess he quickly turns to religion and boldly declares that the Old Testament "was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages." Really? I'm sure such a statement back in the day would have been quite a surprise to the authors of earlier pieces of writing. I would have gone with him if he had said "one of the most influential." But I can't agree with his statement as it stands. And it is only one of a slew of sweeping statements that he has made thus far. He continues on to say that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are "exemplars" of patriarchy. I'm with him on that one. "Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form." Also true. But then: "Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature of Western culture." Leaving objective science out of it since it is a rather recent invention, the whole thing smacks of a chicken-or-egg argument. Which came first? An abstract deity or dualistic thinking and law codes? Couldn't an abstract deity have risen just as easily from a law ridden dualistic culture rather than the other way around? And didn't we go through Egypt and ancient Greece and Rome before we arrived at Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Neither Plato nor Aristotle were Jewish or Christian but yet they are both abstract dualistic thinkers to the 100th degree. Yes, the three big religions certainly perpetuated patriarchy and yes, the Old Testament has had a huge cultural influence in the west and certainly codified what was already in existence, but stamp out the Goddess? She was already gone before that. But perhaps Shlain will see fit to enlighten me more as I read on through this book I promised tinLizzy I would read. I have more quibbles which I will foist on you poor readers, but at the risk of going on too long, I will stop this one here.