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Athena Andreadis, Ph.D. Headshot

Ashes From Burning Libraries

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...like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, Artemis

In the last few weeks, I've been watching the circus show of the (now postponed) Quran burning with disbelief. Christians and Muslims have been playing variants of "If you don't pay attention to my tantrums, I will shoot this dog" that was done far better by the National Lampoon. Government officials and media pundits are seriously suggesting that burning of a book that exists in millions of copies by a sad clown will touch off jihads. Yes, symbols are powerful -- but fundamentalists will use any excuse for mayhem and bloodshed, whether they are white supremacists or the Taliban.

The real reason that many Muslims hate the US is because it has bombed two Muslim nations back into the Stone Age, is poised to do so to a third, and continues to pile up civilian casualties at a 100-fold ratio to US soldier deaths, while calling them "collateral damage". Furthermore, to feed its petroleum addiction the US continues to staunchly support the primary source of militant Islamism: Saudi Arabia, whose deep pockets fund the madrassas that turn discontented, disillusioned Muslims into radical fundamentalists. However, it is equally true that imams and mullahs have issued death fatwas against books and their authors (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist who depicted Muhammad, to list just a few).

A favorite pastime of such militant religious thugs is destruction of knowledge. Islamists, like the self-labeled "man of God" Terry Jones and the medieval Catholics, burn books, burn schools, burn girls who try to attend school. They smash artworks -- sculptures and paintings in the Kabul museum, the Bamiyan Buddha statues -- following the example of the 9th-century Christian iconoclasts. People of this ilk burned the libraries of Alexandria. In those days of inscribing by hand, many works existed as single-number copies. As a result of this destruction, most ancient writers, scientists and philosophers are known to us only as names or sentence-long fragments.

This loss, in all its enormity and poignancy, has been portrayed only three times in contemporary popular media. It is the center of Fahrenheit 451 and of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, a thinking person's mystery-cum-novel of ideas. It is also depicted in the recent film Agora, a romanticized version of the life of the legendary mathematician and philosopher Hypatia.

Catholic apologists took Agora to task for inaccuracy and "inciting to hatred against Christians". This advocacy is odd on its face, given that there was no "Catholic" church at the time, and the Alexandrian Patriarchate went into the Orthodox fold after the schism. Nevertheless, the circling of wagons is understandable, especially since Agora came out at the same time that Belgian authorities finally decided to investigate child abuse cases despite the Catholic church's attempts to stonewall them. Their hodgepodge "arguments" (italicized) include:

  • Hypatia's death was "purely" political; it had NOTHING to do with her gender, religion or occupation -- which makes you wonder what their definition of political is.
  • Alexandrian mobs routinely rampaged and she just got caught in the crossfire. This is followed by the directly contradictory She was killed as a reprisal for the execution of the monk Ammonius (who had stoned the prefect Orestes, as shown in the film). In other words, Hypatia's murder was not random and had everything to do with what she was and represented.
  • The loss was small in any case, since Hypatia wasn't THAT great a scientist/philosopher, she just rode on great men's toga tails. This "reasoning" is very common (read Watson's original depiction of Rosalind Franklin or Joanna Russ' How to Suppress Women's Writing). Conveniently, none of Hypatia's own writings survived the various burnings. From my side, I could use this argument to point out that her loss far outweighed that of the monk.
  • The REAL Alexandria library had been burned earlier by Caesar's troops. The Serapeum library, whose destruction is shown in Agora, was unimportant. This shows interesting value judgments. Furthermore, Theodoros Vrettos, in his book Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, presents convincing evidence that the fire in Caesar's time happened at the harbor, nowhere near where the main library stood.

There are more of these, but you get the gist. Make no mistake, Agora has its share of stiffness and clunk. As far as I'm concerned, its major error is to show Hypatia young at the time of her death. In fact, she was somewhere between fifty and sixty when Christian fanatics flayed her alive. Although the death of someone beautiful and young may pluck harder at heartstrings, the choice served to render older women once again invisible. Also, Rachel Weisz, radiant though she may be, is single-note chirpy whether she's teaching upper-class youths, figuring out the truth behind the arbitrary Ptolemaic epicycles, or proclaiming her adherence to philosophy. Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling or Lena Olin would have made far more nuanced, haunting Hypatias.

Conversely, I applaud Amenábar's choice to show Hypatia focused on her work, and not willing to be deflected from it by pretty faces and the security they promise. The fact that all men in full possession of their faculties are shown in love with her is fine with me. It's a welcome reversal of the usual setting; at least Hypatia deserves such adoration, unlike most male film "heroes".

However, the film's title names its true core. Agora means "marketplace", but it had a more specific meaning in older Greek: it was the place where people met to discuss ideas. The film celebrates love of learning, the beautiful workings of the mind, and laments the fragility of reason at the face of close-minded fanaticism. Hypatia's death is a coda - as she tells Orestes, the thugs have already won. It is the looting of the library that gives the film its emotional power. It's the burning of all these irreplaceable scrolls that makes you weep.

In conscious homage to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Agora occasionally zooms out to view earth from space. As it does so, the screams and weapon clashes fade. And that may be the film's second powerful point: in the vastness of the universe, we are nothing - except what we make of ourselves and our world. We can choose the way of the Taliban, the Teabaggers, the Hareddim, the Inquisitors. Or we can take the path of Hypatia. Between these two alternatives, there is no conciliation or compromise.

Note: This article is also at the author's blog, with eloquent images.