“Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos
One of the things I’ve come to love about Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is the sheer effrontery of the way it re-writes the end of World War II. All movies about history are fiction, Tarantino seems to be (truthfully) saying, so let’s wallow in that freedom. Anyone who watches movies for history lessons deserves what they get. Or to quote another film by another filmmaker, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Myth of Hypatia–and Carl Sagan relates a myth, not historical fact–is a kind of Rorschach test. Are you a bibliophile? Then this is a horror story. Are you a feminist? Then this is a portrait of the patriarchy at one of its lowest moments. Are you a scientist? Then this is a parable about academic freedom. Are you an atheist? Then this is your worst fears about religion made flesh. What you take from this is in large part what you bring to it. The atheist in me has a few problems with this, because one of the core questions an atheist needs to ask herself is this one: do you care that what you believe is true? As it turns out, this particular atheist does care, so The Myth of Hypatia is a bit of a disappointment to me. No matter how much I may want this story to arm me against the religious and the superstitious, it’s bullshit and I can’t in good conscience use bullshit as ammunition against bullshit.
This disappointment does not extend to Alejandro Amenabar’s recounting of the myth in Agora (2009), however. Because, you know, it’s a movie, and just like Tarantino, Amenabar is rewriting history for his own ends (though he rewrites considerably less than Sagan even as he adds romantic subplots). I don’t have to care if a movie is true. I only care if it’s good theater. Continue reading →