The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image

The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image

By Leonard Shlain
New York: Viking, 1998. Hardback, xvi + 464 pages.

History, Henry Ford testified in a libel suit against the Chicago Tribune, is bunk. Historians, both professional and amateur, keep trying to prove that the father of the Model T was wrong, their favorite defense being the discovery of causal patterns in historical events. Leonard Shlain, a professional surgeon and amateur historian, is a counsel for the defense.

His brief, The Alphabet versus the Goddess, was bred by Marshall McLuhan out of Marija Gimbutas. A generation ago, McLuhan proposed that the way we say things is actually more important than what we say: the medium is the message. The "same" information conveyed in different ways is in fact different information, for the manner and style of delivery change the import of the information. Within the past" decade, Gimbutas's work has been invoked in support of a new view of prehistoric Europe as a peaceful society devoted to Mother-Goddess worship before the rowdy Father-God-honoring Indo-Europeans swooped down on them and made a mess of things.

Shlain's take on these two ideas focuses on the effect of the development of writing, especially the alphabet. He sees the alphabet as having a powerful influence on how literate people view the world, specifically in promoting left-brain, male orientation over right-brain, feminine perceptions and responses. Although Shlain tries to give the alphabetical devil its due by acknowledging that literacy has its blessings, the tenor of his work is otherwise: the alphabet, by promoting unbalanced male aggressiveness in human behavior, has been the great villain of history through promoting male chauvinism in Europe and other unfortunately literate lands.

Here are some statements of the thesis: "Every society that has acquired alphabet literacy has become violently self-destructive a short time afterward" (77). "A culture's first contact with the alphabet drives it mad. Hunter-killer values thrust to the fore, and nationalism, imperialism, and bloody religious revolution follow" (419).

This alphabetical thesis is set in the context of a kind of Social Darwinism. The story is that, when our hominid ancestors came down from the trees, a variety of anatomical changes evolved, one of whose consequences was to put females at a disadvantage in getting food and making them dependent on the largesse of predatory males, who used their new dominance to their own advantage in breeding. From there it was all downhill. The eventual development of the alphabet was the nail in the coffin of arboreal Eden.

This thesis depends on a series of correspondences. On the one hand, we have left-brain dominance, masculinity, linearity, aggressiveness, alphabetical writing, and so on. On the other hand, we have right-brain dominance, femininity, spatial relations, cooperation, pictorial representation, and so on. The thesis posits that the development of alphabetical writing changed the structure of the brain and accentuated all the left-brain functions. So the decline of human history and what's wrong with the world are due to males and the alphabet. These correspondences form a neat set for which, however, evidence is either thin or nonexistent.

In addition, there is a little problem. The supposedly masculine feature of linearity that Shlain sees in the alphabet is really secondary in writing, being derived from spoken language, which is distinctly linear as well as hierarchical. Sounds come one after another in time, a feature imitated in writing by having letters come one after another in space. Sounds make lip words, which make up sentences, which make up discourses-a distinctly hierarchical structure, imitated in writing. If there is a villain here, it is speech. In fact, a case can be made for speech being more left-brain and masculine-like than written language. Speech happens in time, whereas writing is located in right-brain space. Speech is more abstract than writing, for it is wave impulses in the air, whereas writing is solid material right-brain stuff. Speech is wholly nonpictorial, whereas writing has right-brain pictorial or design potentials, such as Islamic calligraphy or concrete poetry (in which the words of a poem are arranged in the shape of an object or pattern).

If the brain was modified in a masculine, linear way, that modification must have occurred when language evolved, very long before alphabetical or any other writing developed. Hence in our Eden we would have been not just illiterate, but dumb.

The factual errors in the book would take more space to detail than is worth devoting to their listing. A couple of examples must suffice. Purdah (the segregation of women) is said to be a Hindu practice (159); the word is Hindi, but the practice is primarily Muslim. The Aryan invaders are said to have found Sanskrit in India (161)j Sanskrit was the language of the invading Aryans, being sister to the Iranian languages and first cousin to Greek, Latin, and English. The ranks of the Buddha's disciples are said to have excluded women (174); women are reported in Buddhist writings to have been followers of the Buddha during his lifetime.

This effort at rewriting history to show that our ills are the result of male aggression and the alphabet may be politically correct, but it is doctrinaire rather than factual. It proves that Henry Ford was right. History is bunk. But herstory like this is even greater bunkom.


March/April 1999