INSIDE Chico State
0 February 17, 2000
Volume 30 Number 13
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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ART AND LECTURES

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

The book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess turns a cherished human concept on its ear -- that literacy has brought us into the light -- and theorizes that, on the contrary, literacy has been used for over 5,000 years to advance patriarchy and misogyny, and devastate the feminine in our culture.

Author Leonard Shlain, a laparoscopic surgeon from San Francisco, is a historical sleuth who presented his book's basic theory Tuesday night in Harlen Adams Theatre, using video images and a story-teller's pace and humor. The Committee on Art and Lectures and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts brought Shlain to campus.

A non-specialist who has appalled some academics with his historical and biological interpretations of human development, Shlain makes a fascinating case for his premise: that once the alphabet revolutionized reading and writing, the sequential left brain dominated society at the expense of the image-oriented right.

Noting that while all humans are a mixture of both masculine and feminine traits, Shlain said feminine nature is predominately non-verbal, feeling, intuitive, and right brained -- while male nature tends to be verbal, linear, concrete, and left brain. This means it's not literacy itself he sees as the culprit, but the way we perceive it, since reading and its subsequent uses in society tend to use the left brain. It's this dominance that, historically, enabled the masculine to overwhelm the feminine in literate societies.

To support his theory, Shlain touched on several examples from his book, mapping the different attitudes toward women in cultures from pre-literate through Classical Greek and Imperial Rome, into the Renaissance and the twentieth century.

In each instance, the author showed how he believed literate societies subjugated women, especially via religious beliefs.

Hunting and war are male domains, Shlain noted, while tending animals and nurturing children are feminine domains. Consider the latter's importance in pre-literate, agricultural societies that honored the feminine as necessary to survival and worshipped goddess images, revering women as givers of life.

With the advent of the alphabet, however, goddess images were supplanted by various gods, constituting what Shlain called "changing the sex of god." With these changes came a change in status for women.

Nowhere was this more apparent than with the advent of Western religion, Shlain noted, which took the spoken words of a gentle Jesus -- who exhibited traits in the feminine domains of love and kindness -- and wrote them into a patriarchal New Testament full of vengeance, guilt, and death.

This left room for women, noted Shlain, to advance only during the so-called worst of times. In the Dark Ages, for example, when only 1 percent of the populace could read and write, women were revered. Troubadours sang their praises, and women mystics were hailed by popes. Images of Mary, the black Madonna, were widespread and had come to symbolize, Shlain believes, those ancient earth goddesses.

But by mid-Renaissance, Shlain noted, when the printing press was invented and the Bible became a best seller, the Protestant Restoration removed or white-washed all Madonna images, and women were no longer holding property, much less priestess status.

According to Shlain, such historical instances shed new light on today's turn away from the written word, encouraged by the development of the photographic image and electromagnetics.

"There's a split right down the middle of the century," Shlain said. "On one side we had two world wars which killed millions of people, and on the other side there was relatively little genocide." He suggested that this split has mimicked the split between hunter and nurturer, between right and left brain dominance.

"Each age is best illustrated by its heroes," Shlain said, "and one of the biggest heroes of the last century was silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin. He was a clown who didn't speak. He made fun of all that linear stuff."

Chaplin marked the beginning of a change in the way we communicate. As Shlain noted, "TV has led us back into image and away from the printed word."

The computer, he added, "is just more grey matter from the brain," and its image-oriented tasking via mouse, keyboard, screen, and Internet requires both hemispheres. This holistic shift, Shlain believes, is helping to return us to a balance between masculine and feminine.

His message, then, is hopeful. "Women are reclaiming much of the power they once had," he said, "and men are reclaiming their feminine form. They're better fathers and, rather than trying to conquer and subdue nature, are leading the environmental movement."

This doesn't mean we should throw away our books, just allow ourselves to "morph," as he put it, from caterpillar to butterfly.

Shlain himself seems to have felt this shift. When asked why a man would write a book about the Goddess, he said, "I wrote it from my feminine side." -- ZV

 

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