Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To the well-organised mind.

I'm going through a massive Harry Potter phase right now which makes me wonder about a whole lot of stuff I've never really figured out. I consider myself a part of the Harry Potter generation (as opposed to say the Star Wars generation, or the Flower Power one, or Elvis, or some other cultural marker-related age bracket...) and it seems entirely regular for people to define themselves through something that they feel gives their life more structure and meaning. And often that's a movie, book, musician, celebrity, political figure, artist... But what does that mean, really? These are all such haphazard elements added to our lives through chance encounters and the contributions they make to our states of being are so variable, how can we judge them as so important? Especially considering the gravity of so many other occurrences in our lifetimes and the comparatively lesser attention paid to them. All the while the contemporary culture of the day, or even retrieved relics of bygone eras, are- sometimes solely- invoked to characterise our existence. I relate the feelings I have toward Harry Potter to my childhood, the people around me, and the messages and morals I feel are relevant to my consciousness and lifestyle. But in a hundred years we'll all be dead and what will it mean then? Why is it so important to me to define myself through this thing that's so irrelevant in the Grand Scheme of Things?

This is not a new question. I think most people have wondered about things like this from the time they fully comprehended their own mortality, for some of us it wasn't for a long while and for others like my younger sister it was when they were around six. And there is that ever-lingering question in everything that we do; why else the emphasis on not procrastinating, and being happy, or experiencing love? We are constantly told to spend our time wisely. Nothing is precious unless there is a finite amount of it. So it is curious to me that we choose to spend our time so differently, or even more interestingly, in the same way. If you added together all the hours people my age had spent reading Harry Potter or watching the film adaptations (not to mention talking about it), you could create a lifetime for every character mentioned in the series.

Is it positive or negative that something so superficial- a woman's imaginative narrative- has absorbed so much of our time, captured our attention so much more than fleetingly? Should I be happy or proud of being obsessed with another person's words and mind for years? The inevitable follow-on from worrying about this is; if not a children's story, what is worth spending my thoughts and moments on? If I'm worried about being remembered as part of the group who worshipped tales of a bespectacled wizard, what would I feel more comfortable with?

And I don't have an answer to that. If it comes to leaving this life knowing my contribution was as yet another voice praising J.K. Rowling, even at nineteen or ninety when I should surely have grown out of reading about Harry's antics, I think I'll be satisfied with that. I don't know what the meaning of life is or how I was supposed to spend mine, but the human experience is so complex and the desire, shared by the Bronte sisters and Virginia Woolf and even this far, far less brilliant girl, to define oneself by the writing you adore, feels too comfortable and comforting for me to deny. When thinking about all the great deeds I could be doing with my days, I find motivation to wax poetic about Potter pandemonium far more readily than that to do anything else.

And, mortal or not, who am I to deny nature?

Saturday, December 4, 2010


My discovery that there was a movie of Hypatia's life was something of a surprise.

The film adaptation made by Alejandro Amenabar, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, is simply extraordinary. I was excited and frustrated when I learned of the existence of this film because it was there but I couldn't see it. As is heartbreakingly, unbearably, gutwrenchingly common in Australia, we didn't receive this film until long after other audiences had seen it. Agora is getting a very limited cinematic release in Melbourne a full year after its world premiere. As a pop culture addict and spoilt brat, having to wait for any length of time for... anything to do with the media- is absolute death. Worst of all, when forced to wait long enough, I convince myself to forget about the whole thing and repeat an inner monologue along the lines of "I don't care all that much anyway." And if I had kept with that way of thinking I might have missed out on this mind-blowing film. Luckily my mother wanted to see it and also desired company. I was more than happy to oblige.

The movie is extraordinary. I was captivated by Rachel Weisz as I always am but there is always an air about her that there is something she's not telling you and that was absolutely essential to a character as inherently inscrutable as Hypatia. The script and direction perfectly mirrored her focus on something bigger, broader and more mystical than potential suitors and religions nitpicking each other's shortcomings. I love that Hypatia was imagining things so beautiful in the sky and in the mind that obsessed and enchanted her but she was accused of being too rational, too questioning, and incapable of believing in anything. Truly, though, there is nothing more fantastic than the theories she put her faith in. And she knew that every step of the way which is why she told one of her former students, now a bishop: "You don't question what you believe. I must."

There are so many messages in this narrative. A discussion of the persecution of intellectuals and what a society loses when it cuts down those who seem to know so much more than us. The fear demonstrated in that action and the uselessness of taking a person from the world for the small reason that they disagree with us. Which bleeds into the other warning about the dangers of fundamentalism of any kind and of religious intolerance leading to the damaging or eradication of other cultures and people.

The film demonstrates how passion of any kind is stunning and essential to a satisfying life. And, therefore, beauty is what we make it. Hypatia's love affair with the stars, the "wandering" planets, the sun and the earth's relation to it all is startling in its vivid invocation of emotion and an irrepressible desire to be closer to her beloved, only ever glimpsed at a distance; the answer to her mind's endless queries. Her good-natured struggle with her intellect's own shortcomings and final victory over her own close-mindedness is a lesson she is not the first to teach us. We can all make the choice to better ourselves, pursue a larger story than our own.

But, similarly, we are shown that obsession and fear and ambition can also turn us into larger entities, but not ones we can be proud of. Especially when we ignore the reverence for life that defines people like Hypatia, we are truly lost. The movie depicts weak or disadvantaged individuals who are susceptible to the mob mentality, who find peace in the deindividuation that religious or other groups can allow them, and are convinced of the validity of their destruction of others. Being part of the majority does not prove that you are right, especially if you are doing things you would consider evil if done by others- like they may once have done to you.

Which is another thing I respect about the film. It does not singularly demonise the Christians; it is as equally unimpressed with the initially smug and arrogant Pagans when they are in power. Whoever is in government sees it as their duty to punish or kill others for their perceived ignorance and only when they are thrown from their previously comfortable positions do they acknowledge that the needless violence and exaggerated sense of pride and honour was wrong. Even Hypatia herself is not perfect; a product of her time, she is prone to undervaluing and mistreating slaves. Her affection for her personal slave, Davus, does not stop her from insulting him or taking advantage of him. The director and actor's depiction of Davus' unrequited love for his mistress makes the audience feel more keenly the cutting nature of her bigoted remarks.

Aside from her personal shortcomings though, Hypatia is something bigger than either her beauty or her worship of knowledge. She is a symbol of feminine defiance, in many ways. The most obvious manifestation of that is her refusal to marry or take a lover, though in the film she is given at least one very suitable match in Orestes. Rachel Weisz imbues her character with a sensuality and conflicted nature, invoked especially in her interactions with Orestes. The dialogue allows her to muse on her choosing learning above love and where that has lead her- although, fittingly, she interrupts herself to continue researching and inadvertently answers her own question. Her independence as a woman in Alexandria hinges on being unmarried and allowed to teach and speak as she pleases without a husband present to clap a hand over her mouth, and her independence as a thinker hinges on her being free to imagine rather than entertain or have children or keep a home.

More than just her sexual identity though, Hypatia exhibits typically feminine traits in other dissident acts. Her sometimes lone hatred of war, violence and cruelty in the film could be characterised as a woman's hysteria but, in fact, it is what makes her the most human of any of the other characters. Her consistent pleas that mercy and reason be used to resolve arguments are what are now considered key elements to a civilised and fair society but were- then and even now- dismissed as soft, maternal ideas that inhibit progress and even justice. Hypatia's ideals of peace and tolerance are her most rational.

The destruction of the Alexandria library, then the largest in the world, was harrowing. The most depressing realisation of the scene, with scrolls being torn and burned, was that the event has taken place a thousand times since then. A pre-existing love of knowledge is still perhaps the first thing to be outlawed in reborn societies and the use of force to overthrow passive institutions continues to be one of the most distressing and repetitious tactics used by humans. This scene was, next to Hypatia's death scene, the film's single most disturbing moment if only because of its epitomising the overall theme of a film focussed on the tragedies of intolerance, violence and war: waste.

This blog has gone on ridiculously long but I needed to write it. I just needed to. After seeing the film this afternoon, I felt like I needed to talk about it all. If only to myself. I was impressed by the writing, the cinematography, every single one of the actors, the epic scope of some scenes matched with the heart wrenchingly small details of others. The moment where Davus disobeys everything he's ever been taught just to touch Hypatia- her foot, actually- as he has probably wanted to forever. The theories being formulated by curious students and teachers in bare feet and Roman dress compared with the realities we "know" now- although to follow Hypatia's lead, we should always question that. The overwhelming violence of the battle scenes overshadowed by the fervor of religious extremism.

I love that this movie was made. I love that this was made by a man about a woman so impressive and complex that after another millennium has gone by a schoolgirl like me will fall in love with her and want to know more about her and for everyone else to just know her- she will want all of this just as desperately as I did.