I am a geek. You may have figured this out–I mean, I drop casual references to Cthulu in my posts here, I have detailed literary criticism of both The Lord of the Rings AND the Star Wars prequels prepared to be ranted upon the poor unfortunate who engages me in conversation about either, even if it’s just “Who’s hotter, Aragon or the young Obi-Wan?”
Oh yes, I am geeky, though in that literary-pop science-y-read too much science fiction as a young person of surprising gender way, not the building computers from scratch-having and using a ham radio sort of way. (There are an uncommon number of both, and people who are both, in the trans community for reasons perhaps beyond the ability of science to explain.)
Agora, the new movie by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, is about a geek who was Greek–Hypatia of Alexandria. And it may just be the kind of movie only a geeky feminist can love. But I sure hope not.
Some of you may, of course, have heard about Hypatia before:
Or maybe from here:
Or, you know, even here:
I’m not including that last bit because I grew up watching Cosmos (or because wow, was Carl Sagan sexy or what, in that geeky brainy way I’m susceptible to?), but because it turns out it was the actual inspiration for the movie.
Agora is divided into two parts. First, we meet Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia teaching her class on natural history and astronomy in the midst of a late Roman Empire Alexandria boiling over with religious and social tensions. The daughter of Theon, the head of the famous Library, Hypatia is an astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician in her own right. Her students are besotted with her (she rejects one in a most, um, biological and archaeologically-sourced manner), but also respect her as a teacher and a scientist. Later, after the destruction of the Library, she struggles to continue her research as religious and political forces close in on her and fanaticism takes over the city.
Let me talk a bit about the look of the movie, because I am also a geek about period historical details. It’s sumptuous, and accurate–the movie deftly captures the look of Alexandria, the sun-baked port town that fused all the great traditions of the Classical world together–the bizarre mix of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman architecture, dress, and social customs is beautifully rendered. Rachel Weisz isn’t wearing any makeup, or at least looks like she isn’t, which is just as good. Even the word planet is consistently spoken as Wanderer, the literal Greek (they all would have been speaking Greek) meaning of the word.
More than that, the movie captures the social makeup of the late Roman world in broad but indelible strokes. Hypatia shows concern and compassion for her slave, Davus (who pines after her), but cannot see past their relationship as owner and property; the city’s pagans have been reduced to a comfortable elite completely out of touch with the reality of the city’s populace; and the Christians are depicted as the outsiders, the non-Greeks, the slaves and poor and downtrodden suddenly awakening to power under the influence of the first religion to tell them that a slave could be as good as a rich man in the eyes of God–as well as the new social order where the Christian emperors have suddenly turned the old ways upside down.
It’s a story with few heroes, where no one comes out pure. The pagans stand for a repressive, elitist regime; the Christians move to overturn that order but lash out at learning and culture in their zeal to eradicate the old ways; the Jews of Alexandria, it sadly goes without saying, get the worst of it from both sides. But most of all, the movie is about the battle of certainty versus skepticism, of radical faith against radical questioning.
So of course it’s a feminist movie.
And I don’t mean in the way that any movie about a woman that doesn’t make her merely an adjunct for the lives of men is “feminist”; and not even because it shows a woman utterly unconcerned about the men in her life and who could move at the highest ranks of society. Agora is a feminist movie because it reminds us that questioning things, of always doubting The Way Things Are, of even doubting what you have been told is what must be, is a feminist act. Rejecting conversion to Christianity (and the subsequent suppression of her teaching and research), Hypatia tells her former student, now the Roman prefect, “I must always question my beliefs,” and nothing is more feminist than constantly examining your own preconceptions.
Agora does all this basically by spending two hours looking for an ellipse.
Maybe that’s why the reviews have been so mixed, even though I’ll admit the movie is not without flaws–the dialog can be a bit ponderous at times, and the central action boils down to Hypatia trying to figure the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. (The answer is that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, not the perfect circle her philosophy told her to expect.) The Ptolemaic Earth-centered model, needlessly complicated and not truly examining the observable evidence becomes a metaphor for the social and religious conflicts of the movie.
But Agora is also a movie about being smart, about being delighted to be wrong if it means you’ve learned something you hadn’t expected, of being able to be engrossed in the search for knowledge even in the most extreme conditions–Hypatia, besieged with her students in the Library by the Christians, ponders not death or starvation, but starts a conversation about the heliocentric model of the universe.
Agora is also secular myth-making, of course, a parable for secularists and rationalists. There’s no evidence that Hypatia ever examined the heliocentric model–she was the editor of the standard edition of Ptolemy’s works, for goodness’ sake–although she was a brilliant mathematician and had the theory to be able to figure it out. The whole story of the destruction of the library itself (Sagan’s summary is pretty wrong in most details) is complicated and shrouded in myth and distortion. (This Straight Dope column does a good job of laying out the few facts as we know them.) Even so, it doesn’t deserve the level of mansplaining shown below (and please excuse the length of the quote, but it has to be read to be believed):
I do sometimes wish the poor woman’s memory could be left in peace. She’s been the victim of such sordidly sentimental nonsense over the past few centuries that it’s almost impossible to appreciate her for what she was, or to disentangle the tragedy of her death from the ideological rants that typically surround its telling.
She was, all the evidence suggests, a brilliant lecturer in Platonic thought, a trained scientist, and the author of a few mathematical commentaries. Despite the extravagant claims often made on her behalf, however, there is no reason to believe she made any particularly significant contributions to any of her fields of expertise.
She was not, for instance—as she has often been said to have been—the inventor of either the astrolabe or the hydrometer. It is true that the first extant mention of a hydrometer appears in a letter written to Hypatia by her devoted friend, Synesius of Cyrene, the Christian Platonist and bishop of Ptolemais; but that is because Synesius, in that letter, is explaining to her how the device is made, so that she can arrange to have one assembled for him
At the time of her death, she was probably not even the beautiful young woman of lore; she was in all likelihood over sixty.
She was, however, brutally murdered—and then dismembered—by a gang of Christian parabalani (a fraternity originally founded to care for the city’s poor); that much is true. This was not, however, because she was a woman (female intellectuals were not at all uncommon in the Eastern Empire, among either pagans or Christians), or because she was a scientist and philosopher (the scientific and philosophical class of Alexandria comprised pagans, Jews, and Christians, and there was no popular Christian prejudice against science or philosophy).
And it was certainly not because she was perceived as an enemy of the Christian faith; she got on quite well with the educated Christians of Alexandria, numbered many among her friends and students, and was intellectually far closer to them than to the temple cultists of the lower city; and the frankest account of her murder was written by the Christian historian Socrates, who obviously admired her immensely. It seems likely that she died simply because she became inadvertently involved in a vicious political squabble between the city’s imperial prefect and the city’s patriarch, and some of the savages of the lower city decided to take matters into their own hands.
That is why Agora is a feminist movie. Because even seventeen centuries after her death, she must still be the subject of all the standard, well-worn attacks on any woman, ever, anywhere in the world: what she did wasn’t really important. She was old. She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t killed/silenced/raped/brutalized/overlooked/ignored/mocked/forgotten because she was a woman, but because of the men she hung out with. Or something. And it wasn’t us, the good men, the smart men, the cosmopolitan men who are in charge, who killed her–it was those brutes, the exceptions, the wrong ones. It wasn’t our repressive philosophy/religion/social order/scriptures (just ignore the fact that the movie directly quotes the Apostle Paul’s brutally misogynistic letter to Timothy [1 Timothy 2:9-14]); it was always just the actions of a few. We would never do such a thing.
We would just defend the social order that allows it to happen.
Hypatia of Alexandria is long-gone; she belongs to the ages, and we know so little about her that anything we say will be spoiled by myth and our own preconceptions. But in this day of backlash, of retrenchment, when all too often the answers to any kind of social freedom–for gays, for trans people, for women, for the poor, the downtrodden, the bombed, the wretched–is that things are the Way They Should Be, that the universe is governed by a Just-So story, then we could do worse to make a myth of our own, of a shining light of reason, of the possibility that things can be changed and understood. And you could do a lot worse than to adopt Agora as that myth.