Thursday, November 11, 2004

Alphabets and Goddesses: The Conclusion

I have already spent some time venting and ranting about The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain but I have, at last, finished the book. This will be my final rant. There are so many things wrong with this book it is hard to begin to sum things up. Let's begin, however, with my main complaint, how unsubstantiated Shlain's claims are. But to back up for one moment, the thesis of this book is that the alphabet killed the Goddess. This was accomplished because alphabet literacy is, according to Shlain, almost entirely left brain. The left brain, Shlain informs us, is the masculine side of the brain that's into hunting and killing, linearity, math, abstractions, and violent sports like football and hockey. Alphabet literacy caused the left brain to become so dominant that it oppressed and suppressed the right brain which is feminine and likes things like images, intuition, emotion, gathering, concreteness, and sports like baseball. It is because the alphabet killed the Goddess that women have suffered second class citizenship and even persecution for a couple thousand years. Now that we are all caught up, I return to the main complaint. All Shlain's evidence is purely circumstantial and he even admits it: "In laying out the considerable circumstantial evidence implicating the written word as the agent responsible for the decline of the Goddess, I have sought to convince the reader that when cultures adopt writing, particularly in its alphabetic form, something negative occurs." His book amounts to a detailed summary of religion through history. After he spends a chapter going over, say, the Reformation, in one or two paragraphs near the conclusion he'll toss out something like literacy rates shot up during this period due to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Left brain values ran rampant and women suffered. Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating, but not by much. The book would have been much better and the evidence more convincing if Shlain had narrowed his focus to the time just before and just after the alphabet first appeared. The evidence would also have been better served if he had done more research in linguistics in general as well as examined modern studies in literacy acquisition and behavior. Another problem is Shlain's methodology: "My methods differed from most historical analyses in that I gave little weight to the content of the works of any period, and focused instead on the perceptual changes wrought by the processes used to learn an alphabet." To separate the content of the writing from the act of writing seems just plain wrong to me. The alphabet is a tool just like a spear or a hammer, how the tool is used makes all the difference. We don't declare the extinction of wooly mammoths was due to the spear. But that is precisely what Shlain does. Going back to his chapter on the Reformation he writes:

Numerous tomes have explored the roots of the schism that occurred as a result of Luther's challenge. All, to varying degrees, blame the Church's leaders for abusing power. The newly invented printing press aided the reform movement's spread. Protestants were able to disperse their ideas rapidly through pamphlets and printed sermons, thwarting the Church's efforts to contain the movement. Some historians cite the rise of nationalism and the Humanist credo as playing a role. I propose that while all of the above factors influenced the overthrow of the old order, the process of reading alphabetic writing itself, more than the content of what was read, was the essential factor that precipitated the Reformation.
So in other words, all those scholars who have spent their lives studying history and the Reformation in particular are all wrong. It wasn't about Church corruption or power politics and the content of the printed sermons and pamphlets and Luther's theses, while important weren't that crucial, it was all caused by the process of reading and writing. Because, you know, there were so many people who were reading and writing in those days. You had to be part of the aristocracy, the Church, or the educated merchant class to be literate and you had to have money or know someone who did in order to be able to buy books or publish anything. And if you were a woman, forget about it. According to Olwen Hufton, author of The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800, the literacy rate for women was about 1%. In Shlain's eagerness to document and decry the triumph of the left brain, he has neglected throughout the book to examine Goddess worship in any depth and the lives of women at all. His lack of understanding of women's lives is made abundantly clear over and over again. He cites the Renaissance as a time in which right brain values were on the rise and declares that as a result women were gaining in equality. His evidence? Women could own property. The fact that women did not in general hold power, could not go to university and were pretty much excluded from the whole art scene except as models for male artists does not seem to bother Shlain at all. In fact he has even gone so far as to declare the end of partriachy. You may be asking yourself, especially if you are a woman, when exactly that happened. According to Shlain it occurred when the first atomic bomb was exploded and someone took a picture of it. You see, images are right brain and the image of the mushroom cloud, the most destructive left brain event ever, is so powerful that it has begun to snap us out of our left brain dominance. Then television came along. And computers which Shlain says are right brain because of mousing and using two hands to type. So now we are all in the middle of a shift toward the right brain. We are perceiving more and more information through images and reading and writing less. As a result our left brains and left brain values are becoming more and more moderated and women's rights are blossoming everywhere. Pretty soon we will reach a right brain/left brain balance, the Equal Rights Amendment will finally be passed and women will finally make the same salaries as men instead of a paltry .79 cents to the dollar. Oh, and the rise in domestic violence, don't worry, Shlain says, it's only temporary as men fight to assert themselves against a changing value system ( I have a real left brain urge to beat Shlain about the head and shoulders repeatedly with a hardcover copy of his book). I could go on and on but I am growing tired as I imagine you are of reading about all that is wrong with this book. Don't waste your precious time reading it. I did so you don't have to. And to tinLizzy, whose fault it is that I read the book in the first place, I forgive you because you are my friend. There better not be a next time though or I will have to punish you by making you read a box full of Harlequin Romances or something.