by Leonard Shlain (Penguin/Arkana 1998; ISBN 0-670-87883-9)
From time to time, I read a book that really upends my worldview. This is such a book. Leonard Shlain tells the story of human history through a neurologic lens; that is, how the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere over the right over the past five thousand years has predisposed the human race to aggression, mistrust of the female and of images. And the cause of this left hemispheric hijacking is literacy–in particular, alphabetic literacy. Over and over, throughout Western history as well as in Eastern cultures (e.g., India, China, Southeast Asian countries), he shows that once a culture adopts an alphabet and literacy spreads among its population, goddess worship declines (or is done away with completely), art comes under attack, and women’s rights are abrogated.
To the right hemisphere of the brain, Shlain attributes mysticism, emotion, appreciation of music, art, and dance, being, irrationality, intuition, love, faith, gestalts, concreteness, all-at-once perception (like facial recognition), metaphor, and non-verbal aspects of communication. The right hemisphere is most often dominant in women, who are the healers/nurturers of the human race.
To the left hemisphere, he attributes linearity, abstract thought, language, numbers, analysis, action (doing), reason, sequence, science, and a sense of time. It is most often the province of men, the hunters/killers of the human race.
The really original part of Shlain’s hypothesis is to attribute the rise of the left brain to the detriment of the right to the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing, which is not only abstract but forcibly linear and sequential. The process of learning to read (not the content of what is read), he argues, actually changes the human brain over time, rendering it more prone to abstract, linear thought and eventually to bellicosity, aggression, and suppression of images and women’s rights. Again and again across human history, he shows how war, persecutions and massacres (think the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of first peoples in the Americas, the 15th-17th century witch-hunts in Europe and America, the Holocaust) follow increases in literacy.
In the Epilogue, Shlain confesses, “As a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends” as he “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain”. Reading his book, I often felt longstanding assumptions being turned on their heads–for instance, the assumption that monotheism represented some sort of progress (but Shlain points out that the first alphabetic people, the Jews, in recognizing one all-powerful male God, were rejecting the divine feminine principle that had checked the hunter/killer in us for millennia).
Each chapter in the book focuses on a left/right dichotomy:
- Image/Word (an introduction to the book’s thesis)
- Hunters/Gatherers (male and female roles in ancient prehistoric societies; the beginnings of language)
- Right Brain/Left Brain (what each hemisphere is good at)
- Males: Death/Females: Life (prehistoric human societies; the agricultural revolution)
- Nonverbal/Verbal (how the left-right balance shifted to left dominance; how speech differs from written language)
- Cuneiform/Marduk (early Mesopotamian peoples, who created the first written language we know of, and their creation myth–the horrific slaying of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk)
- Hieroglyphs/Isis (ancient Egypt, where writing was pictorial and women enjoyed high status)
- Aleph/Bet (ancient Hebrews and their alphabet, which Shlain speculates was the first in the world)
- Hebrews/Israelites (musings on the Exodus and how Hebrew society was transformed by the Old Testament: “The miracle, I believe, was the reduction of graphic symbols from thousands to two dozen.” The Israelites’ hostility toward images)
- Abraham/Moses (more Jewish history: Abram/Abraham, Yahweh, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the writing down of Yahweh’s commandments)
- Thera/Matzah (the Exodus again; how the eruption of Thera’s volcano could have been the cause of some of the miracles described therein)
- Adam/Eve (musings on who wrote the Old Testament; different versions of Biblical stories; early gods and goddesses)
- Cadmus/Alpha (Prince Cadmus introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks; misogyny among the ancient Greeks; the Old testament and the Iliad)
- Sappho/Ganymede (sexual excess, homosexuality, and bisexuality in ancient Greek culture; as opposed to the rather straitlaced Israelite culture)
- Dionysus/Apollo (the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy in classical Greek mythology)
- Athens/Sparta (Greek myths that illustrate women’s loss of power and prestige; the increasing sexism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
- Lingam/Yoni (ancient Indians’ views of books, images and the divine feminine)
- Birth/Death (the Buddha and the religion he founded; Buddhist views on images and women; comparison with Hinduism)
- Yin/Yang (how to reconcile Chinese patriarchy with the equality of the female principle as evidenced by the yin/yang circle; musings on the Chinese writing system and how it differs from an alphabetic system)
- Taoism/Confucianism (how Lao-tzu resisted writing while Confucius embraced it, eventually winning out–as a religion with a sacred book always wins out over one with only an oral tradition; how the writing down of Lao-tzu’s aphorisms transformed his belief system into something much different)
- B.C./A.D. (Alexander the Great, the early Roman Empire; Judaism in the Roman Empire)
- Jesus/Christ (how the right-brained ideas of Jesus turned into the left-brained, anti-woman ideas of Paul
- Death/Rebirth (how Paul conceived of the new religion that would become Christianity)
- Patriarchs/Heretics (early Christian history: misogynistic Orthodox vs. more egalitarian Gnostics [Shlain: “The Orthodox/Gnostic struggle was at its core a conflict between words and images”]; Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, and how they corrupted Jesus’ original message)
- Reason/Madness (the Jewish revolt against the Romans; why the early Christians accepted and even sought martyrdom; how alphabet literacy was instrumental to the spread of Christianity)
- Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000 (after the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy waned and female rights resurged; the pro-feminine Age of Chivalry; the rise of the cult of Mary; the demonization of the feminine in the devil [a concept original to Christians]; Christian ascetism; Benedict and the invention of all-male monastic communities, which “did more to undermine the position of medieval women than any other social institution”)
- Muslin Veils/Muslim Words (the predictable loss of freedom for Arab women once the Arabs got their own sacred book, the Quran; how the illiterate Prophet’s views of and behavior with women were corrupted by later literate Muslims who wrote the Hadith; how face veiling undermines the right hemisphere; the history and geography of female genital mutilation and how it is tied to literacy rates)
- Mystic/Scholastic, 1000-1300 (the Crusades and the resulting rediscovery of Classical learning; women’s prestige and rights at a high point in Europe; how Pope Gregory VII began to replace medieval feminine values with masculine ones; enforced celibacy and misogyny [along with promoting literacy]; Abelard and Heloise; the mass murder of the Cathars and Albigensians, Christians with a more feminine, tolerant orientation; the beginnings of the Inquisition; Scholasticism [a balanced right/left philosophy]; Hildegard von Bingen vs. Thomas Aquinas)
- Humanist/Egoist, 1300-1500 (how Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for exploding literacy; the Renaissance and its anti-female bias; the difference between male and female advice, and what happens when men lack female advisers; six Popes whose reigns “constitute one of the most dramatic examples of sustained folly in recorded history”; the corruption of the Church which led to the Protestant Reformation)
- Protestant/Catholic (Martin Luther’s revolution; imageless, drab Protestantism versus Catholic images and colors; Protestant views of the female; John Calvin, who was even more misogynistic than Luther)
- Faith/Hate (reigns of terror, religious persecution, the Anabaptists, how reading the Bible for themselves transformed European peasantry, religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the collision between literate Europeans and native Americans after Columbus’ “discovery”; Henry VIII and the Church of England; the repression of the Huguenots in France; the Italian Inquisition; Protestants vs. Catholics in the Netherlands; Africans and slavery. “Taken as a whole, the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 150 years after the printing press had transformed European culture can be viewed as a sort of mass madness.”
- Sorcery/Science (the witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries)
- Positive/Negative, 1648-1899 (Darwin, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electromagnetism, the invention of photography, which “did for images what the printing press had done for written words”)
- Id/Superego, 1900-1945 (Freud, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of images; relativity and quantum mechanics; the resurgence of the right hemisphere; surrealism in art and literature; nationalism and feminism; communism (another religion with a sacred book), Nazism and the holocaust; the power of the spoken word on the radio
- Page/Screen, 1945-2000 (television and the Internet, which are responsible for a return to prestige of images [and not coincidentally, a resurgence of women’s rights])
In this month following the shocking election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I wonder if Trump’s boast that he has never read a whole book, coupled with many of his supporters’ disregard of facts and reason, is a new phase of anti-literate right-brain resurgence (Shlain points out that each time a culture’s means of communication changes, a kind of madness takes over). It’s difficult to see anything positive in this particular change, but as Shlain says, when we are in the washing machine being tossed around, it’s hard to observe that the clothes are getting clean!
I really liked this book for the way it forced me to look at things in a completely new way, but I should mention that Shlain sometimes attributes cause and effect to two events without showing how he arrived at that conclusion.