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September 4, 2010

Agora: Yet Another Brother

Agora, says the Dresser, is a chick flick that crosses the line. Alejandro Amenábar's film, an historical drama, about the Greek mathematician-philosopher-astronomer Hypatia (she died 415 AD), depicts a woman scholar (played by the stunningly beautiful and skillful actor Rachel Weisz) who determined, well before Galileo, that the earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. 84145-agora_341x182.jpgHer main mistake, in this cinematic interpretation, was she loved her dog and work more than the men who loved her beyond reason.


In our time of religious strife and anti-intellectualism, this film makes it viscerally clear that the scientific mind of this pagan was far superior to the tidy Jews and the unwashed Christian militia (lots of talk about baptism but nobody except a few of the high priests looked reasonably bathed). Why? Because both Christians and Jews dirtied themselves as rock throwers. The Dresser won't bother you, Dear Reader, with the blood and guts produced by other kinds of weapons in this movie.

In Hypatia, we meet a woman who does not fear criticism from the public. No agoraphobia for her, she makes her stand in the Agora. This is a woman who loves no man sexually, disdains her own menstrual blood--to dissuade an ardent suitor she hands him a handkerchief stained with her blood, and considers herself part of the brotherhood who she teaches about the universe and planet Earth. agora04handkerchief.jpgThe heaviest emotional load is the sacking of her library, which is the Library of Serpeum in Alexandria Egypt. Amenábar makes the Christian rabble look like vermin as they destroy the scholarly property. The Dresser's heart could hardly bear the loss of the neatly stored scrolls written with irrecoverable wisdom. Oh, shades of book-burning Nazi Germany and the Chinese Cultural Revolution!


The Dresser thinks Agora is the perfect antithesis of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are Alright. Both films, neither of which are flawless, made the Dresser think about women's issues but in very different ways. The Dresser recommends checking out what Scene4 columnist Kathi Wolfe had to say about The Kids Are Alright to more fully appreciate the Dresser's comparison. Cholodenko's film focuses on the family world of a lesbian couple--Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore)--invaded by one man--Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who threatens their union. How? Mainly through their kids who are the product of his donated sperm. The kids find him secretly to satisfy their curiosity about themselves.

Two catchy urban phrases stand out in Cholodenko's film: "brother from another mother" and "shut the front door." For the Dresser, both phrases bring Agora to mind in very literal ways. The expression "brother from another mother," which Paul uses in a high five with Nic to say he feels like family with her (despite the fact that he has been shtupping Nic's partner Jules), rings true when Hypatia refers to herself and her students as a brotherhood. And by the way, Hypatia has no women around her. Even her slaves are men.

Used in Kids by Paul, the expression "shut the front door" means he can hardly believe what he is hearing. Applied to Agora where Hypatia's people literally have to slam shut the huge doors of their scholarly citadel to stop the Christians from killing them (without realizing how large the population of Christians had become, the scholarly pagans decided they had to defend aggressively the statues of their gods which the Christians were assaulting), the term "shut the front door" is a caution about keeping one's mouth shut.

Because Hypatia is an A plus scholar, the Dresser turns to Kathy Fagan's poem "Portrait of a Girl as the Letter A" to cap off this mini film review. The poem is lush with imagery evocative of Agora.


As in -line or -frame.
As in alpha, angel,
Arms of a merciful Jesus

Extended. As in clockhands
Signing 7:25, compass
On point, cloak rounding

A corner. It's summer
Where she is and she's angry
There. As in feet spread

Apart and planted for the camera,
Sleeveless skin peeling
Like eucalyptus bark

In light the color of eucalyptus:
Time dried to a powder.
She is the angular thing

On the planet. Her body,
A brand on it: scissor, wedge,
Tent opened on

A hill's ascent; the horizon,
Her bar horizontal.
The beauty of architecture is

In the standing. As in ox
In its yoke, as in
Ace played, lancet

Arch, little bird
With folded wings
Waiting. Look at her there

So like herself! The sky
Is a room behind her, and she,
The article in it, the letter of

The name she stands for.

by Kathy Fagan from
Kathy Fagan Greatest Hits 1983-2003

Copyright © 2003 Kathy Fagan

Photos: Copyright © Newmarket Films

September 30, 2010

Striking a Chinese Conversation

SzeBookCvr.jpgIt takes a long time to read and digest a book like Chinese Writers on Writing. The Dresser encountered news of this writerly anthology edited and compiled by Arthur Sze at a Split This Rock panel, which took place in March 2010. Chinese Writers on Writing contains essays, poems, fiction, and interview excerpts from 41 Chinese writers. These works span from 1917 to present time. The work says a lot about politics on every level from personal to worldwide. It comments on the Cultural Revolution, the May Fourth Movement, the tension between mainland China and Taiwan, and many other events of importance. In many ways, this book is more an historical reference offering a barebones skeleton of contemporary Chinese writing than the usual anthology skimming the cream of the writing crop.


Important to know is that this anthology belongs to the series The Writer's World edited by the poet and critic Edward Hirsch. Other books in this series include Hebrew Writers on Writing (2008: edited by Peter Cole), Irish Writers on Writing (2007: edited by Eavan Boland), Mexican Writers on Writing (2007: edited by Margaret Sayers Peden), and Polish Writers on Writing (2007: edited by Adam Zagajewski). On September 29, 2010 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Dresser heard Hirsch read from his work and later speak with the audience. This gave the Dresser an opportunity to ask Hirsch to talk about The Writer's World. He said each anthology presents "a national conversation on writing" that often reveals the inside story about what writers of a particular nation are/were thinking.


While the Dresser is neophyte to the world of contemporary Chinese literature, she has probably read books (in English translation) by more Chinese authors than the average American reader. While this is not saying much, it does put in context a base from which the Dresser writes this essay. Her list includes books by such authors as Anchee Min (Red Azalea), Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), Bi Feiyu (The Moon Opera), and Jung Chang (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China). Authors of Chinese ancestry possibly more familiar to American readers are novelist Amy Tan and poet Li-Young Lee.

In Chinese Writers on Writing, probably the only familiar name to most English-speaking readers is Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Mao's contribution is an excerpt from "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art" in which Mao states that literature and art must be for the people and not an elevated expression for the elite. While literature for the people matches Mao's politics, one might also think about what Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) achieved by choosing to write such works as The Decameron in Italian vernacular versus the scholarly language of Latin. Periodically throughout history, writers--including Chinese writers as Sze points out--spurned elite audiences in favor of a broader base. It strikes the Dresser that while Sze's anthology comes from an academic source--Trinity University Press, this collection is reasonably accessible. One meets Chinese writers like Mo Yan (b. 1956) whose novel Red Sorgham was rendered into film by Zhang Yimou as was Yu Hua's (b. 1960) To Live. The main problem is that it is hard to hold onto an author for whom the reader gets a page of biography and then maybe only one piece of writing. This is precisely why the Dresser thinks this book could serve as an anchor for exploring some of the authors presented.


Sze has done a good job at capturing the modern Chinese ars poetica that involves a debate about whether contemporary writing should build or divorce from the literature of the past and whether it should take inspiration from Western literature. The Dresser might add that all good writing begins with the poetic impulse. This is what distinguishes literature from technical writing.

Sze begins the anthology with Hu Shi (1891-1962) and Lu Xun (1881-1936) who were both critics of old literature. In "Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature," Hu Shi lays out eight tenets for his reform. Tenet 2 states, "do not imitate the ancients." Tenets 5, 6, and 7 prohibit hackneyed and formal language, allusions, and parallelisms. Lu Xun, who is considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese writing, broke with the tradition of the omniscient author as well as writing in vernacular Chinese. According to the literary critics, Lu Xun's story "The True Story of Ah Q"--the anthology contains an excerpt--is the first modern work to fully use vernacular Chinese [bai hua].


One recurring influence on contemporary Chinese writers in this collection that surprised the Dresser was French literature. This included Mao Dun (1896-1946) who helped promote in translation Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, and Honoré de Balzac; poets Dai Wangshu (1905-1950), Ji Xian (b. 1913), and Bian Zhilin (1910-2000) who were influenced by the French symbolists; poet Ai Qing ((1910-1996) who was influenced by modern French poetry; Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gao Xingjian (b. 1940) and Leung Ping-kwan (b. 1949). Of these writers, what sticks in the Dresser's head is what Mao Dun had to say about race:

"Literature and race are closely connected. ...the Oriental races [minzu] have a strong mystical streak, and their literature is thus also supernatural. ... The Teutons are tough and stoic and moreover have the quality of moderation; same is true of their literature. Even if they write a love story, when it reaches a sorrowful ending, the emotional intensity will never be as unbridled as would a Frenchman's. ... " from "Literature and Life"

Continue reading "Striking a Chinese Conversation" »

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