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Christa Wolf’s Cassandra: Different Times, Different Views

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. Jan van Heurck) was published in 1983 as a novel and four essays. In it, Wolf takes up the figure of Cassandra, the paradigmatic prophet who sees but is not believed. Wolf makes Cassandra the focalizing voice of her text, placing her before the gates of Mycenae, about to be killed. Through her, Wolf reevaluates epic narrative. In the lectures and diaries that make up the essays, she for the most part quotes the Oresteia (Cassandra appears only briefly in the Iliad), but she also meditates on the power of Homer and his texts.

Wolf asserts and demonstrates that the writing of epic is male writing while everyday life and women’s lives must be sought in the gaps of that writing (232-3). Because epic as a genre bolsters the patriarchy and the hero is a model for youth to follow, she believes that there is no one of the great canonical writers with whom a woman writer could identify (295). Her protagonist is, therefore, Cassandra, a woman intellectual before her time who does not want to perform the tasks expected of a woman in her time and place. For Wolf, Cassandra prefigures the fate of woman: to become an object (227).

The treatment of women is related to Wolf’s question of the relationship between myth and fact, and the complicity of writers in the confusion of the two. She wonders whether “Homer and the others who handed down the cycle of legends suspect that in following the myth they were helping to conceal the actual facts” (155). But she is conflicted because, even if “western literature begins with the glorification of a war of piracy,” she does not think that anyone can “wish that Homer had not existed, or would want him changed into a historiographer who stuck to the facts” (155).

She questions the Trojan War and the motives for it because she sees the similarity between Greece and Troy [237]). Troy lost its way and was defeated by Greece because it became indistinguishable from its enemy. Her argument is that cultures (and individuals as well) are destroyed from within as well as through wars with external enemies (239). Like Cassandra, Wolf sees much to criticize in her own East Germany, which increasingly seems indistinguishable from the capitalist west. In the essays, it is clear that the ancient situation is also relevant to the time when she is writing - - during the Iran-Iraq War, when the world seemed to be on the brink of another disaster, poised for an imminent nuclear holocaust.

Wolf ends her essay with the question: What is Cassandra’s message today? In this paper I ask further how this message relates to the questions of war and women that Wolf has raised. As classicists, we must also consider the effect of Wolf’s use of “Homer” to convey her message.