Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This woman should need no introduction, she’s been in the media in most Western countries I’m sure. I thought this was a really good interview (Tue. 21 Dec. 2010) because it gives an insight into her background as well as a candid exposition of her political and philosophical views.

I haven’t read either of her biographies, but I’ve read second-hand criticism which led me to believe she was anti-Islamic. This is not entirely true, depending on how one defines Islam. To quote her own words: “I have no problem with the religious dimension of Islam.” She’s not the first Muslim I’ve come across to differentiate between religious and political Islam. Most Westerners, especially since 9/11, believe that any such distinction is artificial. I beg to differ.

She makes it very clear that she’s against the imposition of Sharia law, the subjugation of women and any form of totalitarianism premised on religious-based scripture (irrespective of the religion). In short, she’s a feminist. She decries the trivial arguments over dress when there are other issues of far greater import, like arranged marriages, so-called circumcision of women and honour killings. (For an intelligent debate on whether the burqua should be ‘outlawed’ I refer you to this.)

What I found remarkable, and almost unimaginable, was how violent her childhood and upbringing were. There was violence in the school, violence in the home, violence in politics. As she points out it was so pervasive that a peaceful environment was considered unthinkable. One of the most poignant stories she tells was when she went to Holland to seek asylum, and on going to a Police Station to register, the policeman asked her if she would like a cup of coffee or tea. This was a revelation to her: that a man in uniform should offer a woman, a stranger and a foreigner, a cup of coffee or tea was simply mind-blowing.

It is beyond most of us to imagine a childhood where violence is the principal form of interrogation and negotiation between people in all walks of life: home, education and work; yet that was her life. That she can now talk of falling in love and of writing a letter to her unborn child for a hopeful future is close to miraculous.

What resonated with me was her argument that it doesn’t take 600 years to reconcile Islam with the modern secular world, but only 4 generations. I have Muslim friends, both in America and in Australia, and they belie the belief, held by many in Western societies, that Muslims can’t assimilate and yet keep their cultural and spiritual beliefs. They demonstrate to me that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is correct in her fundamental assumptions and philosophical approach.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

On-line interview for Elvene

This is a blatant promotion. Obviously the interview is totally contrived by the publisher, and if you press TOP at the end of my piece, you will get an overview of the current state of play in Oz publishing and distribution, from the perspective of one of the (minor) players.

Having said that, the questions were not vetted by me and the answers are all my own.

The term 'jack-of-all-trades' is a complete misnomer. Anyone who actually knows me, knows that I'm totally useless at all trades involving genuine dexterous skill. The rest is mostly true, though I've only written one screenplay and one novel that I'm willing to own up to.

The interview contains some of my philosophy on writing in 'nutshell' form, with the added relevance of referencing something that I've written.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Hypatia


Last week I saw a movie by Alejandro Amenabar called Agora, which is effectively the story of Hypatia and her death at the hands of Christian zealots in Alexandria towards the end of the Roman Empire in AD 414. So the film is based on a real event and a real person, though it is a fictional account.

Amenabar also made the excellent film, The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem, which was also based on a real person’s life. In this case, a fictionalised account of a quadriplegic’s battle with the Church and government in Spain to take his own life through euthanasia.

I first came across Hypatia in Clifford A. Pickover’s encyclopedic tome, The Math Book, subtitled, From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics.  He allots one double page (a page of brief exposition juxtaposed with a graphic or a photo) to each milestone he’s selected. He presents Hypatia as the first historically recognised woman mathematician. In fact she was a philosopher and teacher at the famous Library of Alexandria, even though she was a Greek, and like her father, practiced philosophy, science, mathematics and astronomy in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle. By accounts, she was attractive, but never married, and, according to Pickover, once said she was ‘wedded to the truth’. The film gives a plausible account of her celibacy, when her father explains to a suitor that, in order to marry, she would have to give up her pursuit of knowledge and that would be like a slow death for her.

The film stars Rachel Weisz in the role of Hypatia and it’s a convincing portrayal of an independent, highly intelligent woman, respected by men of political power and persuasion. The complex political scene is also well depicted with the rise of Christianity creating an escalating conflict with Jews that the waning Roman military government seems incapable of controlling.

It’s a time when the Christians are beginning to exert their newly-found political power, and their Biblical-derived authority justifies their intention to convert everyone to their cause or destroy those who oppose them. There is a scene where they drive all the Jews out of Alexandria, which they justify by citing Biblical text. The film, of course, resonates with 20th Century examples of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the role of religious fundamentalism in justifying human atrocities. Hypatia’s own slave (a fictionalised character, no doubt) is persuaded to join the Christians where he can turn his built-up resentment into justified slaughter.

Hypatia would have been influenced by Pythagoras’s quadrivium, upon which Plato’s Academy was based: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. In the movie she is depicted as a ‘truth-seeker’, who questions Ptolemy’s version of the solar system and performs an experiment to prove to herself, if no one else, that the Earth could move without us being aware of its motion. I suspect this is poetic licence on the part of Amenabar, along with the inference that she may have foreseen that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical rather than circular. What matters, though, is that she took her philosophy very seriously, and she appreciated the role of mathematics in discerning truth in the natural world. There is a scene where she rejects Christianity on the basis that she can’t accept knowledge without questioning it. It would have gone against her very being.

There is also a scene in which the Church’s hierarchy reads the well-known text from Timothy: “I suffer not a woman to teach or to control a man”, which is directed at the Roman Prefect, who holds Hypatia in high regard. The priest claims this is the word of God, when, in fact, it’s the word of Paul. Paul, arguably, influenced the direction of Christianity even more than Jesus. After all, Jesus never wrote anything down, yet Paul’s ‘letters’ are predominant in the New Testament.

Hypatia’s death, in the film, is sanitised, but history records it as brutal in the extreme. One account is that she was dragged through the streets behind a chariot and the other is that she had her flesh scraped from her by shards of pottery or sharp shells. History also records that the Bishop, Cyril, held responsible for her death, was canonised as a saint. The film gives a credible political reason for her death: that she had too much influence over the Prefect, and while they couldn’t touch him in such a malicious way, they could her.

But I can’t help but wonder at the extent of their hatred, to so mutilate her body and exact such a brutal end to an educated woman. I can only conclude that she represented such a threat to their power for two reasons: one, she was a woman who refused to acknowledge their superiority both in terms of gender and in terms of religious authority; and two, she represented a search for knowledge beyond the scriptures that could ultimately challenge their authority. I think it was this last reason that motivated their hatred so strongly. As a philosopher, whose role it was to seek knowledge and question dogma, she represented a real threat, especially when she taught ‘disciples’, some of whom became political leaders. A woman who thinks was the most dangerous enemy they knew.


Addendum: I've since read a book called Hypatia of Alexandria by Michael Deakin, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Mathematical Sciences of Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). In the appendix, Deakin includes letters written to Hypatia by another Bishop, Synesius of Cyrene, who clearly respected, even adored her, as a former student.