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  christa wolf
From Cassandra to Medea

Frequently -- it happens a lot in connection with my last book, Medea -- people ask me to provide interpretations of my own work. Usually they're literary scholars (of both sexes), and they enjoy few things so much as receiving material of this type. They fling themselves upon it, filled with enthusiasm and determined, after a rather inscrutable process of assimilation, to reinterpret the interpretations in their own way. This is a sort of parlor game -- one of the more innocuous ones, as far as I can tell -- but it could be much more fun to play if we players wouldn't keep forgetting that it's a game. In Germany, to be sure, such games easily become questions of honor. An old proverb says that life should be serious and art should be merry, but this saying has slipped out of our memory, the terms seem to have gotten reversed, the wide-open field of art, particularly of fiction, of storytelling, has become a battlefield, slash and stab is the order of the day. It's as though the value of individuals and even of entire groups were being decided on this very field. And if one group succeeds in diminishing the value of another, then, remarkably enough, the former group gains precisely as much value as the latter loses. Vergangenheitsbewältigung ["the process of getting over the past" -- Trans.] is a German word; I don't know whether it can be translated into another language.

Sometimes it helps to venture far away in space and time, to travel into a past known only through myths and legends and see what you can find there. You know full well that you're carrying baggage you'll never get rid of: your own individual self. You enter what looks like an open market of materials and motives, but you contemplate only what touches you, you reach out only for what fits your hand. When I first discovered myth -- this was in the early 1980's, the myth was the story of Cassandra -- I realized the advantages of what I had found: myth presents you with a character and a framework to which you must adhere, but within that framework, if you only let yourself go deep enough, undreamt-of vistas open before you, and you're free to discover, to select, to interpret, to invent, to look at the ancient story with a contemporary eye, to let yourself be stared at and touched by figures from the depths of the past.

Goethe says that no one unfamiliar with the past two thousand years can really do justice to his own time. But the questions Goethe asked of classical antiquity differ somewhat from those whose answers we seek in prehistoric times. For both Cassandra and Medea are female characters from a time when writing was unknown; their stories were passed on as part of an oral tradition of cyclic narratives. Eventually these were written down, assimilated, and variously reinterpreted and changed in the great classical literatures of Greece and Rome.

The prospect of discovering what lay behind these traditions (insofar as such a discovery might be possible at all) fascinated me. My methods -- fantasy and imagination -- were literary rather than scientific, but they were informed by as much knowledge as I could gain about the circumstances of my characters' lives. Many people believe that the less you know, the "freer" you are to invent, but that isn't the case. I find the multitude of sources in this prehistoric field especially stimulating, even exciting, instructive, delightful, but it's indicative of the multitude of a story's possible variants. The sources themselves, albeit spontaneously, play on these variants, and they confront you with the agony of making a choice restricted and qualified by the intention, I'd even say the necessity, of being spontaneous too, of finding something that never existed and perhaps was never even imagined or desired, but something that appears -- if you're lucky enough to ask the right, the productive questions -- as though of itself out of the depths of time, an object both natural and artificial (yes, sometimes these two apparently contradictory words go together) that arranges itself in a transparent structure around the central question like iron filings around a magnet.

In the space of a thousand years, the awe-inspiring earth and fertility goddesses were superseded by male gods and eventually by the Greeks' heaven of divinities on Mount Olympus; but this often violent dispossession continued to appear like a ghost in the background of mythic stories. When you draw aside the veil of rationalization, you can get a profound glimpse into the actual circumstances. The abduction of women, an early method of ensuring the survival of one's own tribe, provides the background of Homer's heroic epics and of the Trojan War itself. For a long time, the first slaves were women; Cassandra and her Trojan sisters who were carried off to Mycenae, to the castle of the victorious Agamemnon, fit this pattern. The motives of the Achaean warriors who besieged Troy didn't seem to me to be fundamentally different from those of our missile-worshipers. I could, I thought, uncover something about these motives -- which all revolved around the preservation of power -- if I could manage to penetrate the structure of a city such as Troy and, using my own experience, trace the road to realization taken by a woman like Cassandra, who gradually comprehends the destructive nature of her city.

Myth provides a model that's open enough to incorporate our own present experiences while giving us a distance from our subject that usually only time can make possible; mythic narratives are attractive, almost like fairytales, and yet so saturated with reality that we can examine the behavior of these ancient figures and recognize ourselves, people of the modern world. In this sense -- as a kind of model -- myth seems to me a useful tool for any fiction-writer today. It can help us to gain new insight into our own times, it highlights characteristics we'd rather not notice, and it lifts us out of the banality of every day. It forces us, in a particular way, to ask what I believe is the paramount question of all fiction: what is humanity?

Medea's name means "She who knows good counsel." Apparently because of this, many sources believe that she was originally a divinity, but that in the course of the degradation of the goddesses she was demoted to mortal rank as a healer and sorceress. As for me, I find her a particularly impressive example of the reassessment of values that took place during the development of our civilization out of pre-civilized societies. This upheaval in the system of values has not moved life -- that is, the unfolding of human possibilities -- to the center of our culture; that place has been occupied instead by a fascination with death and dead things, naturally accompanied by the goal of reproduction without any roundabout recourse to the womb. This has been a male fantasy for a very long time. Euripides has Jason say, "Were there another way of birth, without women,/ How happy life would be!"

In its early stages, this culture was becoming ever more strongly defined by male needs and values and was, moreover, developing a fear of the female, of women, so it needed the image of the savage, evil woman dominated by uncontrolled urges: the sorceress of black magic, the witch. We're familiar with quite current examples of the extraordinary media interest that's aroused whenever a woman is under suspicion of having killed her children. Still considered the most unnatural of all crimes, child-murder fails to awaken any abhorrence of the conditions that can drive contemporary women to this most unnatural deed.

From the beginning, Medea stood before my eyes as a woman on the boundary between two value-systems, embodied respectively by her homeland, Colchis, and by the land she flees to, Corinth. Such a boundary can easily become an abyss if the person in question isn't ready or able to conform to her new circumstances, which her hosts think of as superior to and more advanced than her old ones; though this doesn't necessarily mean they're more humane. The question of the extent of this quality -- human, humane -- steadily gained importance as the main theme for my character and my narrative. Rich, golden Corinth can't abide the arrogant, self-assured, capable healer who tracks down the crime the city is grounded on: human sacrifice. People have been sacrificed to the idol of Power, to the Golden Calf. The woman must be slandered, humiliated, broken down, driven out, annihilated. Her children's murderers commemorate their victims in a hypocritical cult. An attempt to deal with the murderous circumstances through reasoning, information, changes in behavior is dismissed. The story takes its course.

Literature must play through its various possibilities. It's up to the players to decide which ones shine most clearly for them. Shall the Minotaur reign unchallenged in the empty center of the labyrinth? Will there always be an Ariadne to place the thread of life in the hands of the mortal man who vanquishes the monster -- the one in himself not least -- so that he can grope his way out of the darkness? Don't we find this scenario, in comparison with many contemporary stories, both more and less banal? The happy ending has degenerated into schmaltz, but it seems to me that myth and the literature that springs from it harbor, comfortably lodged, the non-banal longing we all have to seek together, and perhaps to find, a way out of the labyrinth, even if the spirit of the times we live in says something different.

Translated by John Cullen
 
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Copyright © 1998 Christa Wolf.

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