Christa Wolf is an East German novelist who delivered several lectures at the West German University of Frankfurt on a work-in-progress focusing on the Trojan seeress, Cassandra. Cassandra survived the sack of Troy to be taken back to Greece by Agamemnon, only to be slain with him by his wife, Clytemnestra. Her novella on this theme and four essays were published separately in West Germany and are here reunited, translated by Jan Van Heurck. Cassandra is the story, based on Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and books on Greek mythology and religion, of a young girl who sees her country embark on a suicidal war. Her vocation as Prophetess helps keep her sane, even as she sees her people destroying themselves. In the end she too must die, but she knows that her lover, Aeneas, will save the remnant of her people. The significance of all this for a creative German woman who lived through the 30’s and 40’s and beyond under Nazism and Communism seems fairly clear.

But puzzlement follows in reading the essays included in the book. Two are parts of a travelogue of a trip to Greece, where the figure of Cassandra begins to haunt Wolf; then comes a diary and a letter to a friend. There is much conventional chatter here about nuclear war, oppression of women, and the fear that science is man-created and therefore inaccessible to any woman not willing to desex herself Wolf tells us that Cassandra is to be a feminist fable. Since Cassandra is thrown into prison for foretelling the fall of Troy and so opposing the Trojan War and not for any distinctively feminine traits, only two conclusions suggest themselves: either the Intentional Fallacy is alive and well in East Germany, or Wolf is purposely disguising her real intention in a protective leftist haze.

At the heart of the essays lies a profound nostalgia for a past that never existed, a nostalgia of the sort usually thought of as a conservative malady. Wolf visits the island of Crete with two American feminists, and there they discover the land of heart’s desire, prehistoric Minoan Crete: “So, once upon a time there really was a country where women were free and equal to men. Where women produced the goddesses. (Many male archaeologists and classical scholars find it remarkably difficult to recognize, and then to acknowledge, that all early divinities are female; often, I think, they prefer not to read Engels or Bachofen or Thompson or Robert Graves.)” Prefer may be the mot juste. The only scholar on this list is Bachofen, whose brilliant speculations on Mutterrecht or “matriarchy” have been conclusively refuted by a century of scholarship, conducted by both men and women. Of course, Wolf’s favorites are the pious Marxist fundamentalist George Thompson and the fun but absurd Graves. She, a German, prefers to quote and paraphrase these loony Englishmen (along with Velikowsky), instead of the great German scholars of the ancient world.

There is no reference to Eduard Meyer, whose masterful History of Antiquity is available in paperback in German. Nor is there any mention of the greatest living student of Greek religion, the brilliant classicist Walter Burkert, whose important books on Greek religion are only now being translated into English. Fritz Schachermeyr is cited but once. Does the literary mind prefer silly nonsense to sound research? Tolkien and Housman did not. Does the political conservatism of Meyer and Burkert make them unpalatable? Or is it but one more of the crooked paths the creative imagination must tread in the darkness on the other side of the Berlin Wall?


[Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, by Christa Wolf; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York]