3000 years ago, the ancient Cassandra stood under the stone gate of Mycenae and spoke out what she was seeing before her: Troy would fall if the horse the Greeks had left behind was brought into the walls of the city. Precisely what she saw coming happened. The unteachables paid with their lives as did Cassandra. This too, her death, she had foreseen.
In her changing appearances in Homer, Aeschylus and Virgil, Cassandra was always a marginal figure, never the great heroine. She was neither a fierce Jeannne d’Arc, nor a powerful Pythia, neither a revolutionary, nor a romantic. She may not even have been a seer, but simply a ‘close looker.’ And one who puts her exact observations into language, proclaims them, shouts them out – no matter whether you want to hear what she says or not. And she imposes her „How dare you!?“ on each and every one, the powerful and the powerless. That’s why she was called an alarmist, a destroyer of the permitted truth, a whistle blower. Thus, she was usually silenced. But still Cassandra, who foresees disaster, has remained one of the most important narrative figures in European literature to this day as the type of a scandalous questions posing and self-doubting person.
Cassandra, as the original principle of resistance, is much more. She embodies a central concern of literature: foreseeing and foretelling perilous events, creating other perspectives on the world than taboos, zeitgeist and mainstream, greed for profit or laziness allow. In many masterpieces of literary history over thousands of years the constantly changing figure of Cassandra has voiced herself with ever new warnings, calling for a turn, a pause or a more humane path. Also, she has paved the way for a continuous reinvention of literature. Whether in ancient drama or epic of the modern age, modern novel or contemporary essay: as a structure of narrative, the Cassandrian heroic figures transcend genres and go beyond them. They are both inner voices and loud antagonists at the same time, equally at home in the Odyssey as in contemporary dystopia and science fiction.
Where does Cassandra stand today? At the forefront of
climate change movement? Can we imagine her as a happier Cassandra? – since
Cassandra‘s curse is broken and everybody is listening to her or, at least, seems
to be listening?
Where should she stand? – what is the Trojan horse today? Is it artificial intelligence, which all are determined to “bring in” no matter what?
Today, she is the strongest counterpart to the lunatic belief in a seemingly perfect world, in which one day artificial ‘intelligence’ and infallible machines will rule. This nightmare, hailed as a new paradise, is controlled by transhumanist thinkers and driven forward by internet companies as the steepest project of the future – and many follow them blindly in euphoric expectation of salvation. They all want to finally complete the project of the ‘weak human being’ by expanding their physical and psychological possibilities to infinity. Mega corporations and technoid do-gooders want to dominate the markets of the future by gaining power over the predictability of social and economic developments. Driven by a mania for superiority.
The power of providence? It never paid off for Cassandra, because doubters and warners are always unwelcome. She is an ambivalent personality of nightmarish modernity, perishing clairvoyantly. The first of her kind. Certainly not the last. Her bale: To be right, but not heard.
And what role does fictional literature play in such a world of tomorrow? Could it at least be heard – even when it warns and expresses doubts?
Its role and obligation are gigantic: for in the stories of despondent and repeatedly stirring Cassandra figures, the power – of vulnerability! – is revealed in all facets. Only literature is unconditionally capable of giving the weak ego and its reassurance about itself and its world, pervaded again and again by doubts, a protected space. Only Cassandrian literature, whose weapons are word and imagination alone, can destroy the fatal myth of a perfectly perfect world before it becomes reality – by countering this very myth with the myth of literature’s gift of foresight and with its vulnerability. For we still live in a world in which those who see must almost apologize to the powerful. Just as Hölderlin – whom everyone is now celebrating to the skies without letting him get close – had to apologize 200 years ago:
“I please you to read this paper only with kindness. Thus, it surely will not be beyond comprehension, much less offensive. If, however, some people find such language too unconventional, I must confess to them: I cannot help it. On a fine day, you can hear almost any kind of song, and nature, from where it came from, will take it back again.”Friedrich Hölderlin