Book Review

by Carolyn Dane

The Alphabet vs. the Goddess:

The Conflict Between Word and Image

by Leonard Shlain
Hardcover - 480 pages (October 1998)
Viking Pr; ISBN: 0670878839

Two generations ago, Marshall McLuhan told us that the medium is the message. He said our world was becoming a global village. We discussed his ideas, laughed at the jokes, and went on about our business; most of us didn't really understand, and our worldview wasn't much affected. McLuhan died years before the internet became a household word, but it is becoming clearer how prescient he was.

Dr. Shlain is a brain surgeon who reinterprets McLuhan's insights in terms of left- vs. right-brain characteristics and their impact on the relationships between men and women. The prolonged infancy evolved in our species has led to a sexual division of labor. In simplistic terms, men hunted, while women gathered and cared for the children. The new electronic brain scans have allowed us to look at the dimorphism of our brains to see the biological basis of "male" and "female" traits and activities.

We all have two brain hemispheres, and each of us is a unique mix of characteristics. However, in general, left-brain traits needed for hunting, such as sharp focus on a goal, sequential planning, rationality, abstraction, and analysis, are dominant in men. Women's brains show dominance in right-brain traits such as soft focus on the whole environment or gestalt ("big picture"), nurturing, emotionality, openness, and sensuality - traits needed for child care, gathering, and bonding with a male to help raise her children. Shlain goes into some technical detail about the differences, including use of visual rods in monochrome for left-brain sharp focus versus cones and color for right-brain gestalt perception, the corpus callosum as mediator, and the various kinds of brain waves associated with typical human activities.

Next Shlain presents a recap of world history which takes up the bulk of the book. He focuses particularly on milestones at the points where he thinks important use of a new medium (primarily an alphabet) disrupted the delicate balance between our two brain hemispheres. This theorized imbalance usually causes a spell of homicidal madness (as he puts it) in the society affected.

Before the invention of writing, every known culture seems to have venerated some sort of earth mother goddess. Most creation myths feature birth, with or without sexual intercourse between the mother goddess and her consort. In preliterate cultures, women often preside over religious rituals and there exists a working balance between men's and women's power. Preliterate people sometimes conduct wars, but they are never over religion or abstract ideas such as "God, England, and St. George" or "making the world safe for democracy."

The alphabet is linear and sequential; it requires sharp visual focus by the left brain to run one's eyes across a line of type to extract the meaning. Reading, especially as a new activity, causes hypertrophy of the left, "male" hemisphere, according to Shlain. He thinks it is particularly noteworthy that Judeo-Christian tradition has God presenting the commandments to Moses in writing. The Jews call themselves the "People of the Book" and their God was the first in history to demand exclusive worship. The Judeo-Christian God is also the first to be presented as a single male Creator, unaccompanied by consort, mate, or mother. The snake, a goddess symbol, plays the villain in the Eden story. Moses angrily banishes the golden calf, another goddess symbol. Graven images and likenesses are forbidden. (Images are right-brain, feminine media; written words are left, male, media.)

After 40 years in the desert, during which Moses wrote down the history of his people (including women?) and commanded them to read it until it was burned into their memory, the Jews conquered previously friendly Canaan and slaughtered its inhabitants, partly as a drive for territory, but also to extirpate the Canaanite worship of images.

Patriarchy arose with literacy around the Mediterranean. Cadmus is the mortal hero in Greek myth who brought the alphabet to Greece. In one version, he slew a dreaded serpent at Thebes and extracted its teeth (allegorically, the letters) and sowed them in a nearby field; from each tooth sprang a fierce warrior. There are many other myths of heroes slaying serpents across the ancient world shortly after writing was accepted: Marduk and Tiamat, El and Yam, Baal and Lotan, Perseus and Medusa.

Pictorial writing does not seem to unbalance the brain hemispheres to the degree that alphabets do, according to Dr. Shlain. The Egyptians, who retained hieroglyphics for many centuries after alphabets were invented, were less bellicose than their neighbors. China retained pictorial writing until very recently, and with it a relatively peaceful and stable civilization. Taoism coexisted with the very different Confucianism, and later welcomed Buddhism to the tranquil mix. Gunpowder was used only for toy rockets and firecrackers. In 1952, Mao Tse-tung decreed alphabetic writing for China. Within a generation, young people carrying Mao's Little Red Book were humiliating and killing their formerly honored elders in the Great Cultural Revolution.

Shortly after Gutenberg printed the first Bible and literacy began spreading across Europe, Martin Luther argued that people should read the Bible for themselves rather than having it interpreted by priests. He and other reformers brought the papacy to its knees, intensifying the long series of bloody wars over religion and ideology that has lasted into our own time. Lutherans wore drab clothes and allowed no images in their churches. Catholicism, with its emphasis on Mary (the goddess in disguise) and gorgeous religious art, represented the feminine, sensual, right-brain side of the Reformation wars.

Shlain has interesting comments to make about the polarities of word vs. image with respect to the Romans, early Christians, Islam, Henry VIII, Russia (which became literate in the 19th century, shortly before adopting the new fundamentalist religion of Marxism), and other cultures.

Shlain claims that women and their status have suffered under patriarchal values wherever literacy has been introduced, and gained in nonliterate times like the Dark Ages. This is the weakest part of his argument, and he proposes no mechanism by which literacy would necessarily contribute to the denigration and suppression of women. In support of his argument, he points out that the ancient Jews, probably the inventors of the phonetic alphabet, were the first to tell their women that they must be subservient to husbands and fathers, but the idea spread as fast as writing, leading to all the patriarchal excesses feminists complain of today. Newly literate patriarchal cultures tend to decree drab costumes, banish music and dancing, and impose severe sexual restrictions on women and men alike.

Dr. Shlain does not propose that we give up literacy, to which we all owe so much. He is hopeful that we can learn to better balance the interaction of our brain hemispheres. The electronic media exert a powerful pull in the direction of the right brain. Indeed, we may be in the throes of an overcompensation in the opposite direction: images triumph over words. Improvements in photography, television and the internet have made us far more visually oriented than our parents were, and the decline of literacy we so often lament may not be all bad if it diminishes the propensity of our species to engage in ideological warfare.

The book raises some interesting questions. Should we insist on literacy? Do books do a better job of transmitting cultural heritage than storytellers did before books? Can we recreate bards on the internet? Have we focused too much on content, and not enough on process? What is our cultural heritage, and should it be the same for all? Is the subjugation of women a necessary part of it? Are Casablanca and the Beatles as much a part of it as Shakespeare and Michelangelo?

We are living through the turmoil of the biggest revolution since movable type, and none of us can yet see the features of the global village clearly. I am of the last generation to reach adolescence before television came into our lives. We were called the "Silent Generation." In an accelerating trend, our younger siblings who grew up with Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club were perceived by educators to be too passive and to learn less well; a bestseller of the Sputnik era was titled Why Johnny Can't Read. Yet the "passivity" of the first TV generation gave us the 60's, possibly the most revolutionary decade in the history of the world. A new infirmity called dyslexia made its appearance. Dr. Shlain tells us that in right-handed people who read well, language centers are concentrated in the left brain by a ratio of 90/10. Dyslexics characteristically show a ratio of 80/20 or 70/30. Is this really a disability, or a movement back toward balanced perception?

There is much in the book that I haven't even touched on: Freud and Jung; Apollo and Dionysis; the intimate medium of radio and how it was used by Hitler, Churchill, and FDR; silent Charlie Chaplin as the first jester to become the most celebrated person in the world; Newton's clockwork vs. the web, that most potent of modern symbols; the typewriter and then the computer, which together changed the primary tool of writing from men's right hands to right and left hands; the fact that the women's movement arose in English-speaking countries, which do not assign gender to all nouns as other European languages do.

In the epilog Dr. Shlain reveals how he has been haunted by questions (especially regarding the Holocaust) about why the most literate and cul tured people on our planet have spent most of the last few bloody centuries killing each other because of religious or indeological intolerance, even though nearly all of them have believed in the same God. The ancient Greeks, exemplars to look back to in so many ways, were quite content to worship their own gods and let their neighbors worship theirs; objecting to a neighbor's religion never even occurred to them.

There are nearly 40 reviews of this work at, and most readers have found it intensely thought-provoking, as I did. I hope to see some lively discussions on the topics raised, and a wide readership for this insightful book.

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