December 22, 2008
In his book, The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, Leonard Shlain presents a compelling argument that identifies alphabetic literacy as the chief factor in the transformation of Western civilization from pre-Judaic Goddess-based cultures to today’s masculinized, reason-entrenched world. The introduction of the alphabet, through the Jews and subsequently the Greeks, Romans, Moslems and other forebearers of the modern world, caused a radical shift in values. With a keen eye for detail, Shlain demonstrates how every single culture that has been exposed to alphabetic literacy underwent a period of radical, often violent reorientation at the advent of the new medium. This reorientation has invariably led to the hyper-development of attributes of human consciousness primarily associated with the left brain—logic, linearity, sequential thinking, intellect—at the expense of right-brain aspects—empathy, nurturing, holistic thinking, intuition.
Shlain identifies the former attributes as being those that aid a “hunter-killer” in his task of subduing and killing an animal to provide for his tribe’s physical well-being, and the latter as belonging to the “gatherer-nurturer” modality whose participants rely more on understanding of relationships within a given field to provide for the welfare of the collective. For obvious reasons, these two modalities are associated with masculine and feminine values. For millennia from the advent of modern man until around 1100 BC, a certain balance was struck between these two modes. The introduction of agriculture allowed for nomadic tribes to settle in a single area and focus on expanding the reach of their culture into both the outer world through the development of increasingly sophisticated technology and into the inner reaches of the psyche through ritual, ceremony and worship. Almost all of the world’s preliterate cultures practiced a form of worship of the Divine Mother, an originating and abiding deity who was closely associated with the earth. The fecundity of the harvest, the success of conjugal unions, and the life of the tribe as a whole depended upon this feminine embodiment of the transcendent power of Creation.
In an amazingly brief span, alphabetic literacy—the rendering of speech in phonetic symbols that have no visual relation to the objects they signify—deposed the Goddess and her colorful retinue of spirits, consorts and gods, and placed in her stead a single imageless male deity that occupied a space not on this earth but beyond it. In lockstep with this usurpation throughout history, we witness a denigration of the role of women in society and of the holistic values associated with femininity.
Shlain demonstrates clearly the link between feminine values and images. When we view something, our right brain is activated. We experience it as a field, a collection of parts that relate to one another in multiple ways. Through an ingenious, often instantaneous synthesis, we determine how those parts interrelate in a way that is meaningful. This act is very right-brain. When we read alphabetic text, however, our left brain is activated. Rationality and linear, sequential thought are stressed. We are deeply engaged in the act of interpreting, of converting symbols with no direct relation to the manifest world into intelligible packets of information. This act, in Shlain’s view, generates a profound veneration of left-brain modes of thought at the expense of right-brain modes. The hunter-killer comes to the fore, and the gatherer-nurturer is banished to the distant horizon. As Shlain puts it, “The abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking. People who used an alphabet began to see beyond what was particular in nature and sought out what was universal” (66).
Shlain’s argument is sound. He makes excellent use of his vast historical and scientific knowledge to demonstrate the inextricable link between alphabetic literacy and a marked proclivity toward the rational faculties. I have no doubts that we, as an inchoate global civilization, live in the wake of the traumatic advent of the alphabet. Individuals have lost the ability to experience themselves as integrated parts of a larger whole, and instead go about their lives like amateur mash-up artists, haphazardly pasting meaning onto their voided existences. At this juncture in human evolution, we can no longer afford to assume this viewpoint. The emergence of the field of deep ecology and a revival of interest in indigenous spirituality and archaic forms of worship are beginning to reveal to an ever-widening web of humans that we are embedded in and interconnected with our physical and psychic surroundings in ways that cannot be explained by sequential logic and linear reason. The internet is facilitating this reconciliation of our two hemispheres by creating a space where text and image can flow together in a unified language. No matter what web page one is viewing, there are bound to be pictures distributed amongst the text on that page. The text-saturated page is obsolete. With both hemispheres lighting up simultaneously, the human brain is edging toward the deeper synthesis of holistic and analytical modes of consciousness that is required of every being interested in continuing the human project into this millennium. I believe that this integration, when achieved on a global scale, will lead to the emergence of a new mode of communication as radical and as transformative in its effect on the instant-by-instant experience of being human as alphabetic text. We are headed toward not just a redefinition of our identity and responsibilities as a self-aware species embedded in a rapidly transforming planetary ecology, but a re-imagining of what effects language can have on reality itself.
October 28, 2008
Sometimes, between bouts of lucidity, I am visited by curious beings who mercilessly tease the tip of my pen. I chase after them with whorls and slashes, trying to capture their essence so I might examine it outside the confines of language, but often all I’m left with is the graphic legend of their miraculous escape. This is not such an instance. I hope you enjoy it.
And so from source she strayed The Queen of Marmalade To the broken docks Did her carriage roll Where the frothdogs howl In their offkey way Like a beaten blade Dipped in marmalade
To the docks she swayed In her lofty way Where a ship was built From the blood she’d spilt And the land she split With her hair bouqet’d All in marmalade
When she was yet a maid She was strong and staid And had already set Her will to Never Let The enemy persuade Your love to gently fade Beneath a canopy Of gently fading trees But stand instead against The tide of circumstance And with your diamond spade Devour Marmalade
She wandered wide and far Toward that broken sky That mocks the sparrows cry To draw the honey of The lifeless kind of love She sought but never found In all that broken ground And so to source returned The queen, now wiser learned In all the woeful ways That decorate our days And offer up their shade