Mary Lefkowitz, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College, is the author of ''Heroines and Hysterics'' and the coeditor of ''Women's Life in Greece and Rome.'' CASSANDRA
A Novel and Four Essays. By Christa Wolf. Translated by Jan van Heurck. 305 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $17.95.
By Mary Lefkowitz
OF the many painful scenes in surviving Greek tragedy, perhaps the most poignant is Aeschylus' portrayal of Cassandra in ''Agamemnon.'' She sees that in a few minutes she will be murdered, but the chorus cannot understand her visions, although she describes them all too clearly. Only after her death do the people realize she is yet another innocent victim not only of the war at Troy but of a family curse that will now claim her murderers as its next victims.
To the East German novelist Christa Wolf, Cassandra is the symbolic representative of women in the Western world, whose talents and intelligence have been suppressed in order to serve the interests of men, power and destruction. Mrs. Wolf arrives at this ambitious equation by a series of imaginative leaps. She sets the familiar and unfamiliar characters of Trojan legend in a world she reconstructs not from ancient myth but from the speculations of archeologists and historians - and even more, from her own perceptions of the modern world, especially the capitalist West.
Formed of such diverse components, Mrs. Wolf's Troy becomes, especially in the eyes of the sensitive Cassandra, a society whose original innocence is repeatedly violated by corruption, deception and violence. Cassandra is raped by a fellow priest of Apollo, becomes the lover of Aeneas by whom she has twins, is imprisoned and released and goes into exile in the mountains with other women; men taunt and assail her because she sees through their posturings and recognizes immediately that Helen, stolen by Paris and thus the cause of the war with the Greeks, is only a phantom. After the misery of her previous life, the death of her family and friends and even her death at Mycenae come as anticlimaxes. What matters is her realization of truth, especially about the characters of the people around her.
Mrs. Wolf gives a vivid impression of life in the preindustrial age when days are marked by sunrise and sunset and one butchers and disembowels the animals one sacrifices and then eats. But in no other respect does ''Cassandra'' resemble a historical novel, since Mrs. Wolf has selected only those facts about the ancient world that suit her political purposes. She believes in the myth of an egalitarian matriarchy usurped by a male hierarchy - a utopian fantasy without historical basis. Her research methods, as she frankly tells us in the accompanying essays and diaries, are eclectic, unsystematic and intuitive; modern Greece suggests to her the character of the ancient Greeks, especially in its superstition, bureaucracy, corruption and repression of women. She seems able to recapture her own innocence only at home, behind the Iron Curtain, where she can see the West as a kind of Greece writ large. If Mrs. Wolf had looked more closely at Aeschylus instead of relying on a 19th-century handbook's recasting of the myth, she would have seen that in the original story Cassandra chose her own fate. Apollo offered her, the most beautiful of Priam's daughters, whatever she wanted if she would have intercourse with him. She asked for the gift of prophecy but then refused to keep her part of the bargain, so the god punished her by keeping her from being believed. If she had slept with him, she would have been able to prophesy and to bear a son who would have become a famous hero - not a bad deal considering what the gods were capable of doing to men and women if they felt like it. The ancient Greeks, whatever their limitations, believed in freedom of choice; their women were no more victimized by the world around them than their men;Continue reading the main story
Christa Wolf was one of the best-known writers of former East Germany, but her star perhaps shone less brightly when it emerged that she had been, briefly, a Stasi informer (though also informed against) who came out against reunification in 1989. Now Cassandra, an intense, difficult work of high seriousness first published in 1983, is being reissued by Daunt. Cassandra looks back over her life as she awaits death, having fallen prisoner to the Greeks at the fall of Troy. Wolf's searing identification with her protagonist is made explicit in the novel's opening passage where the reader witnesses the merging of the author's voice with Cassandra's. The book was written from within a repressive regime, and its allegorical function tends to suffocate its simple existence as fiction: as a visionary whose visions were doomed to be disregarded, Cassandra stands for the female writer who struggles to be heard. Further, her guilt at her part in Troy's crimes and betrayals stands for Wolf's lifelong sense of implication in Germany's errors and delusions.