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Women's Work

Author Leonard Shlain brings science to the goddess debate

By Chip McAuley

Trying to keep up with bestselling author Leonard Shlain is a lot like trying to understand the mind of God: every time you think you've made some progress, you realize he's still one step ahead of you. Be that as it may, he's seemingly more accessible than God, and, thankfully so are his books, the arrival of which keep devoted fans screaming like Deadheads for their next Leonard Shlain intellectual fix. The chairman of laparoscopic surgery at San Francisco's Pacific Medical Center and a UCSF medical professor, Dr. Shlain is better known as the illuminating author of such tomes as Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image. He takes readers on another mind trip with 2003's Sex, Time and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (Viking Books; $16).

Shlain is a master of connectivity, bringing seemingly disparate concepts together to form a new synthesis and understanding of human nature, history and existence. For example, Alphabet suggests that the rise of the patriarchy and the demise of goddess culture may be related to the advent of written language. Similarly, in Sex, Time and Power, he makes the bold assertion that the concept of time may have been invented by women, tied as they are to the regular clock of the menses. From menstruation to mathematics, Shlain has his own take on things. There's always more to this philosopher than meets the eye, just as he finds new and fascinating ways of riffing on his subjects.

I recently connected with Shlain, who has homes in Mill Valley and Sonoma, and was unsurprised to find that this is a man not afraid to go where many others would fear to tread. He's not just a bestselling author; Shlain is also a family man and philosopher. Both politically and intellectually active, Shlain crosses disciplines and changes minds. He appears at Readers' Books in Sonoma on May 9.

You've tackled an array of issues from the connection of art and physics, women's sexuality, the development of language and more. How did the process of looking for innovative connections begin?

I am a very curious person. Each book began with a simple question for which I could not find a satisfactory answer. Art & Physics began with the question of why modern art and modern physics can be so hard to understand. Alphabet Versus the Goddess began with, “Hmmm, men used to worship women and then they only worshiped a male deity.” What event in culture could have changed the sex of God? My last book, Sex, Time and Power, arose from the mystery of why women menstruate.

You have sometimes been identified as a New Age writer or philosopher. Which label, if any, do you prefer? Or do you see yourself more based in science?

I am first a scientist. But I also consider myself a philosopher. 'New Age' is a label only because I am willing to speculate, because I do not have to worry about what my colleagues might think of my ideas. I cross disciplines because I feel information is so splintered that synthesis is necessary. I came to California in the '60s from Detroit. I found the intellectual climate stimulating. The mixture of Eastern and Western ideas informs my work.

How does your medical practice factor into your writing?

Being a surgeon allows me to bring a very different perspective to my writing than if I were an anthropologist, historian, psychologist or social scientist. I consider myself to be knowledgeable in all these fields, although I am by no means an expert in them. But then, to make connections, one must cross various disciplines.

Your books show a synthesis of ideas, a connection, that many others have not found before. Do you believe we are entering an era where this concept of synthesis will be necessary for civilization to evolve and exist? If so, how do you see this synthesis evolving?

I believe the human species is evolving and that our technology is the factor that is changing us more than any other.

What's percolating in your mind right now?

I am writing a book about Leonardo [da Vinci] and why he was so creative in the fields of both art and science.

What is something about you that our readers would not know?

I was transformed by having a serious illness when I was 37 and having to undergo some extreme medical treatments. The experience transformed my life in many unforeseen ways.

[There's a journalistic and, well, human temptation to delve further here. However, as someone who recently had a tumor removed from his skull, I hold back. Out of respect? Or out of letting some things remain a mystery in a culture where everyone wants to know every bit of trivia, or intense trauma, in another's life? I'd probably make a bad psychologist.] What is the next great leap that needs to be taken philosophically?

One of the most dangerous trends in the world today is religiosity. Extremists in all the organized religions are advancing an agenda of exclusion and otherness which portends ill for our future.


Leonard Shlain reads from and discusses 'Sex, Time and Power' on Monday, May 9, at 7:30pm. Reader's Books, 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Free. 707.939.1779.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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