Cassandra, Christa Wolf: The Ones to Get It In the Neck

Cassandra‘s concept is simple and thorough: Cassandra, daughter of Priam, the ruler of Troy until its demise, has been brought back by Agamemnon after the war as something of a trophy, and his wife Clytemnestra kills them both for Agamemnon’s “it was for good luck” murder of her daughter Iphigenia. In her last moments before she becomes a bit of collateral damage, she jumps through her past in the Iliad, the Oresteia, and other assorted bits and pieces. The basic plots are covered here.

Wolf’s book is classically revisionist in that it mostly sticks with the material. It is classically feminist in seeing Cassandra and the additional characters of slaves and women as fundamentally oppositional to the male characters of the original stories, and even Clytemnestra, who is one of those women, unlike Cassandra, who never do “stop wearing themselves out trying to integrate themselves into the prevailing delusional systems.” Its additions are ones of interpretation and of layering: notably, Cassandra has an affair with Aeneas in her youth, and he remains a fixture in the book. This is Wolf’s key addition, and the one that produces the most resonance, about which more later. But Wolf also overlays Cassandra’s interactions with servants and the invisible people of Troy, particularly her servant Marpessa. Marpessa is something of a pagan Sappho stand-in who provides Cassandra with the glimpses of an alternative, less “heroic” world that is clearly meant to be superior. Consequently, the hysteria with which she delivers her prophecies comes out less as insanity or desperation than as a fundamental (and willing) disconnection from the world of Priam, Paris, and Hector.

Aside from the overlays, Wolf plays up the escalation aspects of the Trojan War, taking the view that the abduction of Helen was a tit-for-tat response to Priam’s sister Hesione’s willing “abduction” by a Spartan who she has married. The parallels to the Cold War in the 80’s when the book was written (except for a couple of post-colonial elements that get pushed slightly too hard, there is nothing to suggest it couldn’t have been written a few decades earlier) are entirely implicit, but quite apparent. Wolf was a nuclear disarmament unilateralist living in East Germany, and she had no patience for half-measures.

Of course, it’s all seen through Cassandra’s eyes, through tight but mercurial narration, and Wolf’s attention to her rape by Ajax and her identification with the doomed amazons led by Penthesilia, but Cassandra’s personal persecution and the general horrors of the war, for which she is mostly an observer, aren’t resolved. Maybe they couldn’t be. Wolf comes closest with Cassandra’s relationship with Aeneas, marked out as the only real relationship she has had with one of the “heroes.” To Wolf, she shares with him an unwillingness to be a part of the historical narrative, and at the end of the book she signals her acceptance of Aeneas’s unavoidable fate of going down the dark, violent road of the Aeneid to found another empire. Cassandra’s fate as victim and hysterical prophet, as with Aeneas and Penthesilea, is contextually necessary, and Wolf uses that to endorse the other, overlaid context before it is destroyed by the heroes.

It’s a dogmatic book, executed with great skill. The emphatic cry that lies beneath the flowing surface seems to have gone out of fashion, what with Gunter Grass’s missives against German reunification already seeming dated, or at least mistargeted. Wolf’s academic polemicism actually shares more with Amos Oz and David Grossman, those Israeli writers for whom the solution to war is obvious yet completely out of reach, and for whom the approach is fundamentally emotive. But the sensibility has faded elsewhere. It’s not fair to chalk it up to the end of the Eastern Bloc, and the demise of the passion that some (Sergey Kuryokhin is a good example) claimed only came out of repressive states. Part of me thinks it’s about to make a reappearance.

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