Shortly after 1600, Judge Nicholas Remy of Lorraine boasted that he’d sent no less than 800 witches to their death. He’d also sentenced the children of these diabolical sorcerers to be beaten with rods as they watched their mothers burned alive. Over the years, however, he was beset by a nagging doubt: was I too lenient?
In the early modern era the practice of witch burning was all the rage in western Europe. When the king of the Netherlands proclaimed witchcraft the greatest scourge of humanity, the Dutch people howled for the mass incineration of women. How could this happen? How was the world turned upside down? This was a period of great progress. Medieval society had mostly given way to the bourgeois order of town-based trade and manufacture. Technology and education and civil service were on the rise. Even if the Church was falling apart, the State was absolute. Can technological advance and social regimentation trigger mass insanity?
According to Leonard Shlain, late author of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (1998), one technology in particular, alphabetic literacy, has the power to cast a spell over the human mind, replacing contextual perception with simpleminded certainty. As holistic intuitive wisdom – long associated with the feminine – is displaced by the analytical and the literal, the status of women declines precipitously. Since visual art relies on holistic all-at-once perception, this too comes under attack in newly literate societies spellbound by the linear, partitioned, reductionist logic inherent to writing.
Alone among the species of life, humans inhabit not only the world of the senses but a purely symbolic universe mediated by complex language. This makes us uniquely vulnerable to insanity. Unlike a rabid dog, each of us is perfectly capable of going mad without any organic cause. All we have to do is alter our symbolic replication of the world in a way that agrees with our self-serving prejudice instead of reality.
Yet we cannot retreat entirely into our virtual reality. From a biological standpoint we remain animals. Descended from tree-dwelling primates, we rely on vision as our central sensory modality. Seeing is believing. The written word is the symbolic universe of grammatical language made visible. Now that we see it, it must be true, right? Just as an airborne ape relies on the absolute truth of the image of the branch just ahead, the truth of the written word is self-evident. For newly literate societies, truth seems to be contained in the words on the page, and no greater or deeper truth is possible outside them.
Intuition is the ability to know something without knowing how we know it. For the literalist, this cloudy form of knowledge is intolerable. Either you see it and it’s true or you don’t see it and it’s false. Nuance and complexity and ambivalence, rather than characterizing reality, are the enemy of the “rational” mind. To beat back these threats, we must suppress our feminine side and accept the absolute truth of the written word. But the logic can’t stop there. To extend the attack to actual women – not just the universal feminine principle that abides in us all – is simply to draw the battle lines literally.
Beginning around 1700 BC, every spring for a thousand years the proto-alphabetic Seven Tablets of Creation were recited aloud in Babylon. Ordinarily a creation myth centers on a female deity, since after all each of us is born from a woman. But in this creation myth – the first ever to be written down – the feminine principle is represented by a sea monster that must be slain by a heroic male, who then kills her son and from his dismembered parts fashions the human race. Life is given not by woman but by the man who murders her.
The Judaic Bible was the first fully alphabetic book. The triumph of literalism over reason, of blind obedience over conscience, is evident from the first commandment. You are to worship one deity only, and that deity is male. Forget about intuition or contextual thinking. Just read the words and see the light. According to Shlain, the second commandment – to abolish images of all things in heaven and earth – follows immediately from the first because the unquestioned authority of text is undermined by visual art. Only with the sixth commandment does Yahweh get around to forbidding murder, an injunction weakened by his command elsewhere to murder “idolatrous priests,” that is, priests who make use of imagery in worship. Literalists fail to notice the contradiction because the truth is whatever you’re reading at the time, and you can’t read two things at once.
Just as the Bible transforms woman, in the form of Eve, from bringer of life to bringer of death, the Greeks disempowered women as soon as they had an alphabet. Whereas in illiterate Sparta women enjoyed the same rights they’d always had, in Athens Solon placed women under male guardianship, denying them the right to own land or participate in education or government. Meanwhile goddesses were demoted or even replaced altogether by gods. Most notable in this regard was the elimination of Hestia, goddess of hearth and family, in favor of Dionysus, whose claim to fame was bewitching women into murdering their husbands and children. Shlain suggests this myth enabled literalist men to project their mindless unreasoning onto women, the very people victimized by the new order. As the duality of Apollo-Dionysus reveals, the Greeks understood at least unconsciously that the reasoned meditations embodied in their philosophical texts came at the cost of a new kind of madness.
Like Buddhism, which began as an egalitarian oral tradition but degenerated under the spell of the sutras into rigidly patriarchal dogma, Christianity originated in the heartfelt spoken teachings of Rabbi Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus, but was soon co-opted by literary evangelists like Paul who emphasized sin and individual suffering over love and the joyous community. Whereas Jesus attacked the “scribes” for adhering to the letter of the law and forgetting justice, mercy and integrity, Paul was himself a lawyer who rebranded Jesus as Christ, a Greek word meaning the chosen one. Paul advocated a legalistic mechanism by which a simple statement of belief in the chosen one guarantees entry into paradise after death. Yet nowhere in the gospels does Jesus tell his followers they will enjoy a glorious afterlife. What he does say is that if they eat of his bread, they will never die. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” That doesn’t sound like they will die and go to heaven. He’s saying they simply will not die. Period.
Sometimes words need to be taken at face value. By defining literalism as the pathological tendency to treat words as if they contain absolute truth, I don’t mean to imply that figurative readings are always better than literal. In fact either reading is available to the pathological literalist.
As Jesus describes it, far from an otherworldly afterlife the kingdom of heaven is an egalitarian society on the basis of earned mutual respect. But to get to that understanding you have to make an effort and read carefully. If you just pick a few preferred phrases here and there and present them without the whole picture, their meaning easily alters into something unrelated or even opposed to the intention of the speaker.
The Orthodox persecuted the Gnostics in part for trying to make sense of what Jesus meant when he said the truth was he himself. The truth exists solely in the context of a living mind and cannot be spelled out in a document. What is expressed in words is never more than someone’s reasonable (or unreasonable) approximation. Reading requires not only a pair of eyes but intelligence and interpretation. Otherwise truth has no depth, no power, only platitude.
In contrast to the rabbi’s ideal society based on brother-and-sisterhood in God, in Paul’s utopia the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is her husband. Christ, for Paul, is code for obey. Believe whatever the words tell you. Better yet, believe what I tell you the words mean.
For Paul the last day is the day all believers who have died are resurrected from their graves, much as Christ was resurrected from his. For Jesus, on the other hand, the last day is when his Father wipes away the irredeemably corrupt world of emperors and prefects and local sell-outs like pharisees and sadducees. The rabbi and his followers, meanwhile, don’t perish at all but live on in a kingdom called Heaven.
It might be a shock to the average Christian that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus mention a plan to take up the cross so as to die and be resurrected into a spectral afterworld where all his friends are also invited. None of that is in there. It’s all Paul casting his spell. Later Augustine recast it in the fully crystallized form of “original sin.” The insidious magic here is to twist the fall of humanity in Genesis, which tells us we face a hard struggle in this world, into total damnation, not only in life but in death. This is nowhere found in Genesis. Even greater than the power over the visual human mind wielded by the word that’s there – the revelation or revealed truth – is the power of the word that isn’t there but is “seen” nonetheless.
The original magic was cave art, which (according to our best guess) served to capture a desired animal in spirit so as to ease its capture in the flesh. Wired to believe what they saw, our ancestors thought they had already captured, in essence, their prey. But text has far greater power because it places before the eye the grammatical mechanics of human thought itself. Yet even this pales beside the power of text we only imagine we’ve seen. By imprinting on the mind directly, without sensory mediation, it becomes internal to the believer and therefore ineradicable.
Shlain notes that the magic of writing is most powerful when first introduced. Over time the spell wears off, allowing literacy to become a vehicle of enlightenment. Though the status of not only women but art gradually rebounded in Rome in the centuries after the introduction of writing, it plummeted once more with the Christian takeover of the Empire. Only when Rome lay in ruins did light reenter the world in the form of medieval society, a time of relative class and gender equality, though of course class equality was eventually undermined with an increasingly wealthy aristocracy. The rehabilitation of the social status of women, the “age of chivalry,” was signified by the widespread rededication, after AD 600, of former pagan temples to Mother Mary, whose image was widely copied by a people no longer subservient to the written word. Meanwhile in Arabia the status of women and images came under attack by newly literate readers of the Koran.
Even the twin rise of literacy and misogyny in the late medieval period, well documented by Shlain, could not have prepared western European women for what was to come. In China the 9th century technology of the printing press was soon applied to the feet of women. Foot binding followed from book binding. As terrible as this was, what happened in Europe was far worse. The first known incidents of woman burning, a.k.a. witch burning, took place in 1460, only six years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible. In that year 12 women were executed by burning in Arras, France and 12 more in Heidelberg.
Mere coincidence? Though handwritten words can hijack the visual circuit such that any kind of nonsense is taken at face value, with its regularity and “perfection” the printed word takes on even greater authority in the mind of the reader, almost as if written by God’s own hand. Printing exaggerates the human weakness to unreflectively believe whatever is placed before the eye.
The church-commissioned justification and guide for witch hunting, Malleus Maleficarium, was a huge hit because it exploited the unconscious fear that the literalist route to truth is too good to be true. Since the best defense is a good offense, the true believers went on the warpath. To find a witch, a coven of witch hunters would arrive in a village and ask the locals if they’d experienced any recent misfortunes such as crop failure or impotence. If the answer was yes, they would round up local suspects, nearly all of them female and socially marginal, to see if any of them had cast an evil spell. Each suspect was stripped naked before a tribunal to see if she had any telling birthmarks. Meanwhile a “pricker” would surreptitiously poke her with a small needle. Failure to react was taken as evidence of guilt, a method guaranteed to produce results since the victims were already in shock from their maximal vulnerability before the eyes of the tribunal and therefore unlikely to notice such a tiny prick.
Once found guilty the victim was tortured so as to produce the names of other witches. At this point the authorities might show mercy and have her strangled before being staked, but most victims were burned alive. In Shlain’s words, a “tornado of gender terror and sadism… indiscriminately sucked women up into its vortex.”
The return of mass literacy prompted by the printing press helped galvanize the protestant movement and its emphasis on Bible study. Rather than return to the core teachings of Jesus, however, protestants like Luther and Calvin were fixated on the fate of the soul after the death of the body. Like words on a page, each of which must follow from the previous, each soul is predestined by God to either enjoy heavenly afterlife or burn forever in hell. If Protestantism has a central tenet, it’s that material prosperity signifies your status before God. Thus Jesus’ teaching on the impossibility of a rich person entering heaven is twisted into its exact opposite: only the rich will enter.
According to Shlain, not the content of the Bible but the monomaniacal logic of newly awakened literacy drove the major protestant sects. Because Calvin saw no meaning outside the black and white world of the written word, he felt justified in turning Geneva into the world’s first totalitarian state. So as to leave nothing to distract the faithful, every last drop of the water of life was wrung from the sponge. Calvin seized images of Mary and the saints and banned colorful clothes, dancing, singing and even laughter. In his Christian paradise an unmarried woman found to be pregnant was summarily executed by drowning. What God wants is not good works but only a simple-minded faith in him. The absurdity of worshipping a deity so deranged that he would eternally torment his own creations only demonstrates the strength of that faith.
For today’s pathological literalists, known as evangelicals, to follow the example set by Jesus in the gospels can only mean giving away all your possessions and living as a mendicant. Since we cannot be expected to actually do this, clearly we’re not meant to take Jesus at his word and in fact, quite the opposite, we should follow the capitalist path of exploiting others in order to get rich. This was the mindset of the people – with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other – who exterminated Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Yet all the while Jesus loves us because we place into linear linguistic sequence our faith in him. Evangelicals are bound to a legalistic mechanism that expiates original sin in the case of true believers. The core idea, according to former evangelical Adam Kotsko, is that “Christ did not live a perfect life so that we could follow in his footsteps, but precisely so that we wouldn’t have to.”
Given the astounding corruption of the Renaissance popes and the horror of the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1483, only 13 years after the introduction of the printing press in Spain, a protestant reaction was inevitable. Yet the result was a pair of equally fanatical blocs. The only thing each side hated more than witches was the other side. Each bloc could justify decades of war by legitimately pointing to the insanity of the other. The same logic was at work centuries later during the Cold War.
The collective madness of the early modern era took root only in the West and only where printing was established. Not until the 19th century did Russia embrace printing technology. Launched into a world of textual abstraction unmoored from textured reality, by the 1880s many Russians were convinced that the Jews in their midst were plotting against them. But the real kicker came in 1917 with the advent of communism. Inspired by the Communist Manifesto, a text that promises a secular version of salvation, the Bolsheviks destroyed art and tortured confessions out of their enemies in order to justify execution or – if they took mercy on their victims – exile to Siberia. The new protestants, as Shlain calls them, purged society of color and gaiety. Not long after Mao’s 1952 imposition of the alphabet onto China, mobs of chanting youth embarked on their own inquisition while clutching their little Red Book.
Rather than recognize the evil inherent to a system that perpetuates poverty and desperation so as to keep the masses willing to work at any wage, Joe McCarthy demonized those who would question his faith in the invisible hand of the almighty market. Note, however, that with this witch hunt there was no torture and only two executions. After the harassment and false imprisonment of several daycare workers, the Satanic child abuse hysteria of the 80s died down fairly quickly. We could begin to imagine that such hysteria (testeria?) was on its way out altogether.
And then came the internet. Now the masses are exposed not only to print but to pixilated print, a shiny electronic alternative to drab ink on paper. We spend hours each day bathed in the dim light of cellphone screens, texting each other and scrolling Facebook and Twitter feeds. Has a newly spellbound population fallen prey to a new round of literalist fanaticism?
When Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, instead of recognizing that her campaign failed because her policies offered no hope to the working poor, she blamed Russian interference. Despite the fact that the Russian campaign to influence the US election enjoyed a miniscule fraction of the funding of the Clinton campaign and had no measurable effect on the election, the only conceivable explanation of her loss was sabotage from the enemy-other. Never mind that the US, with its “shock therapy” program, tried to destroy any possibility of Russian recovery after the fall of the Soviet Union. Never mind that a squadron of American electoral campaign experts turned the Russian 1996 election from a sure loss for US puppet Yeltsin into a victory. Never mind that hatred of Putin was triggered by his success at restoring prosperity to a country US leaders hoped would remain weak forever. Never mind that the State Department engineered a coup to overthrow the elected president of Ukraine in order to isolate and antagonize Russia. We can ignore all that because it says somewhere in a New York Times article that we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys.
When you glom onto phrases like “Russian aggression” and “undermining our democracy” and treat these words as the absolute truth, no amount of context can change your mind. To claim that Russia has somehow done us wrong, we who have attacked it at every turn and even subverted one of its presidential elections – the very thing we accuse “the Russians” of doing to us – is literally insane.
Why did Nancy Pelosi initiate impeachment proceedings over a half-assed and failed attempt at extortion in Ukraine and not, say, a crime against humanity like imprisoning refugee children fleeing violence? The answer is that she was urged on by former CIA and NSA directors who see Trump as an obstacle in the effort, initiated under Obama, to neutralize Russia as a potential threat to US global hegemony. The only “high crime” the Democratic elite care about is Trump’s insufficient zeal in prosecuting a new Cold War.
Two days before Christmas the neo-McCarthy witch hunt got personal when a friend posted an article on Facebook about the refusal of the left to grant unconditional support to whatever self-serving imperialist hairball the Democratic Party coughs up as its nominee for president. The author referred to these difficult people as the anti-anti-Trump left. I pointed out that principled opposition to servants of Wall Street and the Pentagon – even if they happen to be Democrats – in no way constitutes support for Trump. Within 30 minutes someone chimed in to say “either you’re a Russian bot or merely a tool.”
I might have responded that the anti-Russia narrative serves to keep the rabble voting against their own interests every four years, but then words of reason are no match for words of magic.