The hypothesis of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is that the birth of literacy in a culture fundamentally changes the way in which people of that culture think, in a way that emphasizes masculine patterns of behavior over feminine. Shlain is specific about this being a function of "alphabet" literacy, as opposed to writing systems based on pictograms, syllabaries, or hieroglyphics. He contends that the rise of literacy caused -- caused, not merely coincided with -- the decline of goddess-worship and the subjugation of women in every culture touched by the written word. Beginning with the hunter versus gatherer role of hominids, the book covers the relationship of imagery thinking and culture through the ages. In early civilizations, multiple gods were worshipped, and goddesses were thought to possess considerable powers. Yet with the evolution of the written word, as demonstrated by the recording of the Old Testament, came the emergence of monotheism and an imageless deity. All of this coincided with the rising view of women as the lesser sex.  Though a fair amount of the text discusses Judeo-Christian culture, Dr. Shlain does include chapters on many of the Eastern religions. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confusianism all fit within his hypothesis. The text also covers a variety of topics including the influence of the Chinese alphabet, the consequences from the availability of paper, the return of feminine icons in the Dark Ages, the effect of the printing press, and even the treatment of witches  Each chapter covers a burgeoning of literacy in a place and time, and some of the social changes that happened concurrently or followed closely upon the changes in literacy. This is a juxtaposition I had never seen made before, and the results seem clear: almost invariably an addition in literacy seems intertwined with a decrease in tolerance for other ways, and a distinct shift to oppression in society's general approach. It was an interesting read. On page 126 there is an illustration that perfectly encapsulates the main problem with this book. Shlain is explaining that the bull is associated in several ancient cultures with the feminine goddess, and in support of this he points out that the skull of a bull, when viewed face-on, resembles a uterus and fallopian tubes. To make the comparison even more clear, he provides two pictures, side-by-side: the one on the right, a painting of a cow's skull; the one on the left, a "schematic" of the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The cow's skull, to be fair, looks very much like a cow's skull. It is, in fact, a reproduction of Georgia O'Keeffe's "Cow's Skull - Red, White, and Blue." The uterus, however, is more than a little bizarre side.  It is obviously meant to look like the cow's skull, drawn in outline with the corners rounded off, but the one thing it does not look like is an actual woman's uterus and fallopian tubes. And that is the problem with The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: it tries too darn hard. Shlain definitely has some very interesting and relevant things to say about alphabets, literacy, religion, gender-specific behavior, and the structure of the human brain. Unfortunately, most of it is undermined by his need to stretch the point...and stretch it... again, and then just a little bit more...until the fibers fray and it snaps completely. All throughout the book it is not enough for him to establish correlation; he has to go for causality, too, to the detriment of all credibility.  This is a shame, because the correlations are fascinating in their own right. I am always intrigued with symbols, with parallels and synchronicity, and this book has it in spades. Consider again the comparison of a woman's uterus to a cow's skull.  There is a vague structural resemblance in the curve of the horns to the crescent moon, which itself was often associated with feminine divinity. This, I think, is a more plausible explanation of the bull-goddess connection than the idea that a preliterate culture would have detailed knowledge of a woman's reproductive anatomy. But it's not enough for Shlain to call attention to a vague resemblance; he has to cobble together this ridiculous "schematic" that doesn't look at all like what he's trying to represent, and his whole argument is shot to pieces for no better reason than that he tried too hard. Do I buy the idea that men and women employ fundamentally different -- if in large part overlapping -- modes of thought? Yes, I do. Do I buy the idea that verbal communication and written communication also employ fundamentally different modes of thought? Absolutely. Most of the fights I have had with my spousal units over the years illustrate volumes on that subject. Do I buy the idea that reading and writing emphasize predominantly "male" modes of thinking -- linear, analytical -- over predominantly "female" modes of thinking -- intuitive, holistic? That is plausible. There are a lot of interesting correlations to be drawn, a lot of room for discussion. Do I buy the idea that widespread literacy caused a sudden and massive disenfranchisement of women throughout the world?  Nope. Not that I could tell you what did, but I am certain that Mr. Shlain has not established his case. He is a lot like Jung in some ways: backpedaling, excusing himself over and over again, at one point he even admits that correlation does not imply causality. But in the end that is precisely what he is implying, every time.  I have a hard time believing that the lives of women were ever all that wonderful to begin with. I confess, however, that I am too lazy to go hunting down all of Shlain's references, so I must remain, for the time being, a layman when it comes to women's roles in preliterate cultures. But I can say that I have never heard anyone talk up the idyllic, egalitarian utopia that was the European Dark Ages, quite like Leonard Shlain does. His argument is not helped by his feminist agenda, which gets more and more knee-jerk as the book wears on. Aaaaarrrrgggggh. I am a woman. Every day I am appalled at how criminally women are treated around the world...but when are people going to get it into their heads that knee-jerks do not help? What am I supposed to make, for example, of the contention that the unmatched corruption and hedonism of the Renaissance's Pope Alexander VI was solely the result of him being unmarried, and therefore unable to engage in pillow talk? Given former President Clinton's behavior in public office, Mr. Shlain's contention sounds more like a stand-up routine than a valid historical hypothesis. Okay, okay, I'm done. The bottom line is, in many ways I enjoyed this book. It is a brilliant survey of the evolution of religion -- how it arises from the needs of its culture, why people adhere to it, and how it interacts with other parts of that culture. I liked it for that. It was an eloquent argument for the importance of integrating the opposites -- masculine and feminine, analytical and intuitive, linear and holistic, written and verbal, image and word -- rather than trying to suppress one or the other, a theme that Carl Jung worked toward his whole life.   I just wish he didn't try so hard. ~review by Lisa Mc SherryAuthor: Leonard ShlainCompass Books, 1998,

pp. 464, $14.95

RocketTheme Joomla Templates