Editor’s note: Don’t miss the video at the end of this post where Leonard Shlain lectures on his book, “The Alphabet verses the Goddess”. It is the best hour and 15 minutes you can spend to help you view the world in a whole new way. A triumph. Astounding…consider for example the benefits of literacy as obvious, but the hidden costs may surprise you.
A work truly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. Enjoy.
The Bay Area and the world lost a renowned visionary thinker and educator when Leonard Shlain, best-selling author and San Francisco surgeon, died Monday, May 11, 2009 at his home in Mill Valley after a battle with brain cancer. He was 71 years old.
Admired among artists, scientists, philosophers, anthropologists and educators, Leonard Shlain authored three best-selling books: Art & Physics, Alphabet vs. The Goddess and Sex, Time, and Power. He delivered multimedia presentations based upon his books in venues around the world including Harvard, The New York Museum of Modern Art, CERN, Los Alamos, The Florence Academy of Art and the European Council of Ministers. His fans include Al Gore, Norman Lear and singer Bjork who creditedShlain ’s Alphabet vs. The Goddess with inspiring her recent album “Wanderlust”. His fourth book Leonardo’s Brain about Leonardo Da Vinci will be published next spring by Viking. Dr. Shlain was a surgeon for 38 years at California Pacific Medical Center where he headed the Laparascopic Surgery Department and an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF.
Leonard Shlain was a loving and generous man with a larger-than-life intellect and a prodigious curiosity. He was a widely respected surgeon and attentive father and husband. He had an encyclopedic knowledge which he wove with highly creative insights in his books and presentations. A voracious reader, he took pride in finding the perfect metaphor and delighted in making connections between everything from art, physics, to human evolution and sexuality. Dinner conversations spanned from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to politics, literature to a hilarious joke. When his children were young, he brought a human brain in a bucket of formaldehyde during the school show and tell. When he came home after a hard day’s work as a young surgeon, he would excitedly diagram his operation of the day on a napkin. Later, his diagrams became more adventuresome and expanded to thought experiments that included what it would be like to sit astride a beam of light and how that corresponded with Picasso’s rose period, blue period. This eventually led him to write his first book, Art and Physics. (continue reading his obituary here.)
The Alphabet Verses the Goddess
In this groundbreaking book, Leonard Shlain, author of the bestselling Art & Physics, proposes that the process of learning alphabetic literacy rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture. Making remarkable connections across a wide range of subjects including brain function, anthropology, history, and religion, Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one. This shift upset the balance between men and women initiating the disappearance of goddesses, the abhorrence of images, and, in literacy’s early stages, the decline of women’s political status. Patriarchy and misogyny followed.
Shlain contrasts the feminine right-brained oral teachings of Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus with the masculine creeds that evolved when their spoken words were committed to writing. The first book written in an alphabet was the Old Testament and its most important passage was the Ten Commandments. The first two reject of any goddess influence and ban any form of representative art.
The love of Mary, Chivalry, and courtly love arose during the illiterate Dark Ages and plummeted after the invention of the printing press in the Renaissance. The Protestant attack on holy images and Mary followed, as did ferocious religious wars and neurotic witch-hunts. The benefits of literacy are obvious; this gripping narrative explores its dark side, tallying previously unrecognized costs.
Shlain goes on to describe the colossal shift he calls the Iconic Revolution, that began in the 19th century. The invention of photography and the discovery of electromagnetism combined to bring us film, television, computers, and graphic advertising; all of which are based on images. Shlain foresees that increasing reliance on right brain pattern recognition instead of left brain linear sequence will move culture toward equilibrium between the two hemispheres, between masculine and feminine, between word and image. A provocative, disturbing, yet inspiring read, this book is filled with startling historical anecdotes and compelling ideas. It is a paradigm shattering work that will transform your view of history and mind.