Books: Sexism: it's all a matter of a few letters

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The Independent Culture
The Alphabet Versus The Goddess by Leonard Shlain Allen Lane pounds 16.99

This hefty book arguing that literacy, the alphabet and printing form the three-headed monster- root of patriarchal evil has two different subtitles. The front cover gives us Male Words and Female Images, while the title page announces The Conflict between Word and Image. This confusion expresses that of the work as a whole, which, for the purpose of discovering elusive truths, makes poetic myth identical with historical record. But Shlain modestly admits to being a surgeon rather than a historian, a storyteller by nature rather than a scholar. Whether you find his great tome irritatingly barmy or enlightening and healing probably depends on your own already-formed perspective on how we best acquire and use knowledge. Nonetheless it's impossible not to salute a man who comes home from a Greek holiday fired up with enthusiasm for vanished Goddess cultures and who's so bothered by the lost esteem for female values that he assumes they represent that he sits down and writes a long thesis on how and why female power was overthrown by patriarchy. Well, lots of men never think about that, do they? They hang out with each other thinking about anything but. Flower-arranging and Ferraris, maybe, but nothing so farradiddly as feminism. So we should be grateful that Dr Shlain has noticed what a tough time women have had, off and on, throughout history, and that he has exercised his brain pursuing his "teeth-gripping, head-shaking, magnificent obsession" about why this should have been so.

Brains are, indeed, what it's all about. Shlain gives us the current standard view about the right brain being non-verbally intuitive and creative where the left brain likes structure, formulae, linear thought. Shlain believes that each of us, ideally, men and women equally, should balance our right brain with our left, and live out the androgyny praised by Coleridge and Virginia Woolf. But he sees right-brain thinking primarily associated, in human history, with women's traditional roles as nurturers and food- providers, and left-brain thinking as connected to men's activity as hunters and killers. He then asserts: "the plunge in women's status, and the advent of harsh misogyny occurred around the time that people were learning how to read and write. Perhaps there was something in the way that people acquired this new skill that changed the brain's actual structure ... I hypothesised that when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric ones, which manifests as a decline in the status of images, women's rights, and goddess worship." His book then trawls the history of the religious myths of the world to prove this assertion true.

Feminists might have spent the last 300 years debating the origins of misogyny and also whether it is even helpful any more to pursue hypothetical causes as opposed to trying to change things. Levi-Strauss might have muttered about bride-prices and the exchange of women as commodities. Engels might have invoked the rise of private property, marriage coming from men's wishes to pass on their goods to their known heirs and so needing to control women's sexuality. Modern commentators might stress the variety of women's experience as survivors across different cultures. Shlain makes the alphabet itself solely responsible for all the nastiness women-haters can dream up.

His provocative book certainly convinced me that the alphabet and literacy have been crucial tools of law-making and law-enforcing, oppressive regimes throughout history, but not that they are problems in themselves. The problem is the power-hungry people who want to control their use in an exploitative way. Yes, early pre-literate people may have worshipped the Goddess, but that doesn't mean they necessarily believed in women's rights. Yes, the Chinese developed foot-binding even as they invented printing, but the latter method of efficient crushing did not necessarily cause the former. Yes, torturers employ machines to stamp agonising messages on the flesh and elicit (unfree) language, but we must remember, as John Berger put it, that poetry, the body's beautiful language in freedom, is the opposite of torture. Yes, Gnostic heretics believed in the primacy of religious (imagistic) experience over the authority of religious texts, but that doesn't mean they didn't believe in writing; the books of heretics often got destroyed, that's all.

Shlain wants it both ways, in any case. The Greeks had goddesses but these don't really count, since the Greeks were already corrupted by the alphabet. The High Middle Ages in Europe saw a flowering of high culture in which women were heavily involved - oh, so the alphabet wasn't all bad, then. Hitler deployed powerful unconscious reactions to spectacle and to voice - well, the unbridled right brain brings problems too. Some pre-literate cultures also abuse women - oh dear.

The book is littered with historical errors. Shlain believes, for example, that the Italian renaissance contained "a near total absence of female participants" when in fact it was precisely during this period, with its more relaxed view of gender roles, that women were able to emerge across Europe as painters and poets, even if they then had to negotiate identity crises: sculptor or sculptress? He believes that the Gothic script came before the Carolingian rather than after. He believes that convent life always oppressed women when in fact it sometimes offered food and shelter, education, and a retreat from early death in childbirth. He believes that the Benguines' radical religious lifestyle, outside the cloister, was not vigorously combated by the suspicious Church.

He doesn't help his own case by providing a derisory inadequate index and by giving neither date nor provenance to many of the images which illustrate his text. We're told when a picture is by Picasso but not precisely where a Black Madonna comes from or when it was made. So this male author who so distrusts text, yet has to use it to argue his case, devalues his cherished images too, by not allowing them to exist in their specific, historical, geographical location. But then, one of his favourite words is "essential". I did think that sometimes he was confusing the lived experience of real women with some abstract quality he calls the feminine, which seems rather like Jung's anima, part of the male soul.

It's as a woman writer I can't endorse this book. Just as Shlain does not talk about how women have not, anyway, historically, been in control of the images he so reveres (it was harder for women to be painters than writers, very often), so he ignores what writing has meant to rebel women. Feminist scholars, of both genders, have uncovered a marvellous literary tradition in which female writers employed and subverted dominant masculine grammars and patterns to their own joyful and angry ends. The writers I'm thinking of were, and are, poets, heretics, novelists, mystics, pamphleteers, pornographers, cooks, memoir-makers; modernists and mothers and lesbians and difficult. The lot. They testify to how we invent the necessary dance. We don't just sing our lullabies and laments, we write them down too, and we can't do without that writing. It's how we contact our friends.