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THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS by Leonard Shlain

THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS

The Conflict Between Word and Image

By Leonard Shlain

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-87883-9
Publisher: Viking

Continually engaging, although on the whole quite woolly, this monumentally ambitious tome treats all history as one great struggle between the verbal and the visual. For California surgeon-cum-scientific-storyteller Shlain (Art and Physics, 1991), human history to date amounts to the tale of how a masculine, verbal mode of thinking, the linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract mode controlled by the left side of the brain, has dominated the feminine, visual, and holistic mode that finds its home on the brain’s right side. After a brief preliminary excursion into primatology, Shlain traces logocentrism’s long campaign to squash the sensuous. The Hebrew patriarchs, Buddha, and Confucius; Luther, Marx, and Hitler: all of these historical figures share both writerly wordiness and male chauvinism. Shlain declares again and again that there is something inherently anti-female in the written word that attracts men who traffic in ethereal abstractions of the mind. As literacy spread, Shlain claims, so did patriarchy. Yet Shlain ends this story on a positive note; he argues that in the century since photography and feminism simultaneously emerged (no coincidence, of course), humanity has gotten in touch with its feminine side (thank goodness—or goddess!). Indeed, ours is a new golden age characterized by right-brain values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature (that’s —mother— nature). Shlain’s scheme begs obvious questions, which he occasionally acknowledges but never satisfactorily answers. What about women’s writing? What about the inevitable links between words and the images that words can—t help but evoke? And why, when we think of oppressive regimes, do we think not of books but of visual phenomena like surveillance and public spectacles? (Shlain’s argument that Nazi propaganda was fundamentally a verbal phenomenon, with radio its most important medium, seems particularly tendentious). Still, if Shlain crosses over the line into crankiness (in his preface, he aptly likens himself to a dog worrying a bone), he does nevertheless furnish a fascinatingly elaborate idea for readers to chew over.