Death by abalone shells, cont’d.

I find it interesting that my rant on librarian stereotypes, “Better than being flayed to death with abalone shells, but still,” has, to date, received the most number of views on my blog. The title, of course, refers to Hypatia: scholar, philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and — at least according to Carl Sagan — the last caretaker of the Library of Alexandria, whose grisly death at the hands of a Christian mob Sagan recounted in Cosmos.

Well, at long last, it appears that she’s getting her biopic, called Agora:

I’d say it’s about time; other historical figures, even ones from antiquity like Alexander the Great, haven’t had to wait quite this long for their story to make it to the silver screen.

The question of course is: will Hollywood, well, Hollywoodize it? Sagan’s account of Hypatia’s life and death, and his connecting it to the destruction of the Library and the rise of an intolerant Christianity, is an incredibly affecting story, but there are questions as to its historical accuracy, questions that may also pertain to the film.

Blogger and ancient/medieval history buff Tim O’Neill has written a lengthy and balanced post about the myths versus the facts on Hypatia; about Sagan’s version of events, he writes:

Hypatia has long been pressed into service as a martyr for science by those with agendas that have nothing to do with the accurate presentation of history. As Maria Dzielska has detailed in her study of Hypatia in history and myth,Hypatia of Alexandria,virtually every age since her death that has heard her story has appropriated it and forced it to serve some polemical purpose.

Ask who Hypatia was and you will probably be told “She was that beautiful young pagan philosopher who was torn to pieces by monks (or, more generally, by Christians) in Alexandria in 415”. This pat answer would be based not on ancient sources, but on a mass of belletristic and historical literature …. Most of these works represent Hypatia as an innocent victim of the fanaticism of nascent Christianity, and her murder as marking the banishment of freedom of inquiry along with the Greek gods.
(Dzielska, p. 1)

If you had asked me at the age of 15 that’s certainly what I would have told you, since I had heard of Hypatia largely thanks to astronomer Carl Sagan’s TV series and book Cosmos. I still have a soft spot both for Sagan and Cosmos, since – as with a lot of young people of the time – it awakened my love not only of science, but a humanist tradition of science and a historical perspective on the subject that made it far more accessible to me than dry formulae. But popularisations of any subject can create erroneous impressions even when the writer is very sure of his material. And while Sagan was usually on very solid ground with his science, his history could be distinctly shaky. Especially when he had a barrow or two to push.

About the upcoming film version itself, O’Neill expresses some misgivings:

So why am I not delighted? Because [director Alejandro] Amenabar has chosen to write and direct a film about the philosopher Hypatia and perpetuate some hoary Enlightenment myths by turning it into a morality tale about science vs fundamentalism.

As an atheist, I’m clearly no fan of fundamentalism – even the 1500 year old variety (though modern manifestations tend to be the ones to watch out for). And as an amateur historian of science I’m more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo. But Amenabar has taken the (actually, fascinating) story of what was going on in Alexandria in Hypatia’s time and turned it into a cartoon, distorting history in the process.

For all the fascinating historical details, the entire post is worth a read.

I must admit, Sagan’s (and perhaps this film’s) version of Hypatia appeals greatly to me precisely because of its power as a parable — of the virtues of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy, and the need to defend them from the bigotry and intolerance of fundamentalist religion. Perhaps Agora will be a well-told story in itself, and a compelling polemic against fundamentalism today. But if the film distorts history to make its point, as Sagan arguably did, then that introduces a certain amount of intellectual dishonesty, whether intentional or not, that disturbs me. Playing with facts is the prerogative of storytellers, of course, and I have no problem with that; but if a story purports to be true, then an attempt to stick as closely as possible to the truth should be of the highest priority, I think.

I look forward to seeing how well this movie navigates fact and fiction. In any case, it’ll be nice to see a movie shine a spotlight, however flawed, on a historical figure I’ve always thought deserved more attention.

And I’ll bet Rachel Weisz won’t be shushing anyone in the film, either.

(h/t FlickFilosopher)


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