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The Alphabet Versus The Goddess

Art and physics are a strange coupling. Of the many human disciplines, could there be two that seem more divergent? The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense. Even the stereotypical proponents of each endeavor are polar opposites. In college, the hip avant-garde art students generally do not mingle with their more conventional counterparts in the physics department. By casual juxtaposition, these two fields seem to have little in common: There are few if any references to art in any standard textbook of physics; art historians rarely interpret an artist's work in light of the conceptual framework of physics.

Yet, despite what appear to be irreconcilable differences, there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines. Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality. Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist of the 1960s, declared, "Organized perception is what art is all about." Sir Isaac Newton might have said as much for physics; he, too, was concerned with organizing perceptions. While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.

Paul Gauguin once said, "There are only two kinds of artists -- revolutionaries and plagiarists." The art discussed in this book will be that created primarily by revolutionaries, because theirs is the work that heralds a major change in a civilization's worldview. And in parallel fashion, although the development of physics has always depended upon the incremental contributions of many original and dedicated workers, on a few occasions in history, one physicist has had an insight of such import that it led to a revision in his whole society's concept of reality. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke referred to this sort of transcendent insight as a "conflagration of clarity," allowing certain artists and physicists to see what none before them had ever imagined, and it is they -- the revolutionary artist and the visionary physicist -- who will be paired in the coming pages.

Emile Zola's definition of art: "Nature as seen through a temperament," invokes physics, which is likewise involved with nature. The Greek word, physis, means "nature." Beginning with this common ground as a point of departure, I will describe the connections and differences between these two seemingly disparate ways our perceptions of nature are organized.

The physicist, like any scientist, sets out to break "nature" down into its component parts to analyze the relationship of those parts. This process is principally one of reduction. The artist, on the other hand, often juxtaposes different features of reality and synthesizes them, so that upon completion, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. There is considerable crossover in the technique used by both. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "There is no science without fancy and no art without facts."

While on that bus ride, and perhaps because of my heightened interest in how we communicate, I was struck by the thought that the demise of the Goddess, the plunge in women's status, and the advent of harsh patriarchy and misogyny occurred around the time that people were learning how to read and write. Perhaps there was something in the way people acquired this new skill that changed the brain's actual structure. We know that in the developing brain of a child, differing kinds of learning will strengthen some neuronal pathways and weaken others. Extrapolating the experience of an individual to a culture, I hypothesized 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. The more I turned this idea over in my mind the more correlations appeared. Like a dog worrying a bone, I found this connection compelling and could not let it go until I had superimposed it on many different historical periods and across cultural divides. The book that you now hold in your hand is the result of my teeth-gripping, head-shaking, magnificent obsession.

By profession, I am a surgeon. I head a department at my medical center and I am an associate professor of surgery at a medical school. As a vascular surgeon operating on carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain, I have had the opportunity to observe firsthand the profoundly different functions performed by each of the brain's hemispheres. My unique perspective led me to propose a neuroanatomical hypothesis to explain why goddesses and priestesses disappeared from Western religions. My hypothesis will ask readers to reconsider many closely held beliefs and open themselves up to entirely new ways of looking at familiar events. In an effort to prevent factual errors from detracting from my ideas, I enlisted many experts to help me along the way, and the manuscript continually became smoother and finer as it sifted through the collective sieve of their multiple intelligences.

Because there is patriarchy even in non-alphabetic Eastern cultures, I felt compelled to make a brief detour into their history to see if it would fit within the framework of my thesis. The result is a book covering many centuries and many belief systems, a few of which, unfortunately, received short shrift. My mission was to present my reasoning in a manageable space while providing a panoramic view of the human condition. I am aware that numerous other respected explanations have been given for the dramatic events I recount. I could not in this book present accounts of all other historical theories, and chose to focus on the relationship between literacy and patriarchy.

I am by nature a storyteller. I have tried to make this book a lively read devoid of technical jargon. I had to balance this goal with my love for the luxuriant diversity of English. At times, I could not restrain myself from trying to rescue a few of my favorite words from what I fear may be their impending extinction due to neglect. Therefore, in the following pages the reader may occasionally sight an unfamiliar member of an endangered species of the English language. I ask the reader's indulgence.

As I sit here on a beautiful spring day thumbing through the freshly printed, hefty cube of manuscript that sits upon my desktop, I realize that my part in this engaging, maddening, wonderful, complicated, exciting writing project is complete. Now it is your turn. Have a good read.

Leonard Shlain
Mill Valley, California, 1998
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