Cassandra and Her Complex: NATO’s New Literary Project

Photograph Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões – CC BY 2.0

“Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi”

– Dante, Inferno XXXI:67

A curious news item has been making the rounds recently: the military is now employing novelists and literary types to predict the future. The ground zero of this initiative—looks like a NATO initiative—is Tübingen, Germany, and it is headed by a septuagenarian man of letters, Jürgen Wertheimer, joined by the Bundeswehr and other interested armed parties. The idea is that wars of words start wars real, that novels especially should be put into, quoth Dr Wertheimer, “practical use in the framework of the German military’s foreign deployments”. It’s a good thing Germany has wised up, as its elite failed to read any of the old stories that accurately predicted the descent into fascism and catastrophe under the Fourth Reich. Forget Döblin, the generals said back then. Listen to Wagner and trust in Herren Jünger und Krupp!

Unsurprisingly, it is post-colonial conflict that fascinates the profs and generals. Neo-fascists at home are merely embarrassing and Deutsche Bank’s double entries read dry as dust. The Cassandra Project’s pen and sword corps prefer the Gothic and the pornographic, those rebellious creations of Karl May and Hanns Heinz Ewers become flesh in darkest Third World. According to Doc Wertheimer, the rise of Boko Haram could have been predicted by reading lots of novels. Decorated German heads nod in agreement (and that cool €1.1bn should shut up pesky Namibia, goddamit). Not in clandestine funding, client regimes, structural readjustment and strip mining, nor indeed any real political act, can the reason for the rise of wildly seductive and unusually well-funded terror groupuscules be found. It’s all there, in cheap bestsellers or hypersensitive memoir—which is a strange admission of these plastic armies’ essentially fictitious nature, made real by the moves of grand chess players aiming at the soft underbellies of geopolitical rivals, the shades of Operation Gladio and the World Bank.

‘Predicting’ atrocities is easy for those who broker them: as clairvoyance looks into the future, erasing the past becomes its most profound ability. Bosnia and Rwanda are disconnected from the neoliberal looting and mass bombing campaigns of the West, as if massacre was just another magical act, avoidable if only we could see into the Other’s savage soul. But the rise of Boko Haram reflects Sani Abachi’s old offshore accounts on Jersey isle, a novelistic webwork of fraud, history, and embezzlement as transparent as a tear. Perhaps you could have figured it all out from reading Achebe or peering into that greatest of recent creative nonfictions, The Panama Papers, but NATO doesn’t go to libraries without an F-22. As one famous author put it, “We make reality”.

For the Cassandra Project—its name was appropriated from Christa Wolf by Wertheimer, who may misread her warnings to the GDR she refused to abandon—the catastrophic invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are disasters for their poor architects, those ‘well-meaning’ men who should have studied a few books before they blundered into genocide. Blundered? It was all planned years before and then executed according to plan, ‘mistakes’ and all—as the literary record plainly shows. Blind aggression needs mystic destiny to sell its actions to the people and the promise of foreign assets for the bankers guarding the war chest. It found its base in those bizarre soothsayers who promised invaders flowers and chocolate, the collaborator journalists that pleaded ignorance and innocence after the fact, and the liberators whose crude justification for slaughter is schoolyard hypocrisy and mistaken identity.

It is a prime law of Prophecy that the prophetic predicts itself, that it speaks of the present using the estranged poetry of a world to come. John the Revelator hid in a cave, far from beastly Diocletian; he saw in the emperor’s bloody suppression of his sect a Final Conflict in the heavens. His divine utterance was not so much futurist as parodic—Prophecy neither saves nor warns but giggles at universal despair from a stylite’s post. But while Buddha and Zoroaster were born laughing, Tiresias was struck impotent in old age. When its daggers aim upward, prophecy can also give hope to the wretched of the earth. Ezekiel shaved himself with a sharp rock to show that primping will not save a sleepwalking society from its own bad habits. The I Ching adapts with the player, moving centuries ahead of Heisenberg and Planck. China’s reward for complex divination was twelve million junkies and the mass murder of the Boxers, who were felled not by trusting magic but by the taciturn and unimaginative .30-.40 Krag, and the total war of the Eight Nation Alliance. Read all about it.

For decades, millions of people in Eastern Europe had predicted the end of the USSR (though they were wrong to predict that their own socialist states would be allowed to rise from its ruins). When the Soviet Union finally imploded, the only people surprised were the drab prophets of Langley. They were also stunned back in 1974, when India detonated its atom bomb, Pokhran-II. Nobody and India and Pakistan was particularly surprised—for what use is a great weapon if it is kept secret for too long? The intelligence professionals are really surprised when one of their programs actually works. Or—and this is important—when they can make it appear to have worked in hindsight. The best way to predict conflicts is still to generate countless conflicts. To create a climate where the orgiastic is the inevitable end, just like any other product of a chaotic entertainment industry which has taken the place of tragic songs.

Novels are a bulky, irritating baggage on language. The best ones are outright jokes, which might give the generals and tweed elbows pause if they read a little more carefully. Job is a comedy—so is The Unnamable, Shandy, Quixote, Leg Over Leg and The Golden Ass. And perhaps, without their authors’ cognizance—we must remember that prophets speak, but interpretation is never the job of the solitary seer—systems of collusion, failure, deception, and collapse await the moony thinktank bots who will find in the mythic turns of the military’s new criticism only what they are looking for. These hallucinations will not produce exactly what was predicted, but a stream of variations so brutal and unpredictable that they will seem like grotesque mockeries to a future these academics tried so desperately to control.

The problem is Copernican: the self remains at the center, around which all the universe moves as if in adoration (this is the ‘reality’ of Google Earth, for example). And writers are dishonest weasels who talk only of themselves, write only about themselves, and are fascinated purely by themselves. Will the Cassandra Corp recognize its own work as a latecoming symptom of today’s neo-feudal world order, civil air raids and climbing infant mortality rates? No way. Far easier to point the finger at the scruffy foot soldiers of, say, the Algerian AIG, while ignoring any deep connections such groups have with French intelligence services or international arms traders issuing credits from Delaware. Such a conspiratorial narrative is far too pedestrian for bourgeois literature, reads more like a subplot of the 87th Precinct or the space opera of Perry Rhodan. The danger for NATO is that a true Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome will infect them as they pour, mystified, over the works of Bataille, Kluge and Jelinek. What’s next? Performance art? Will Sec. Gen. Stoltenberg use old films of the Vienna Aktionists to interpret Vladimir Putin’s eeevil intentions? And music? Stockhausen indeed serves imperialism. The possibilities are endless when the avant garde enters through the ivory gates of Cassandra, LLC.

Cassandra, who rejected the favors of the fiery All Father, Apollo, was given second sight by snakes spitting in her ear. She did not read (see) the future, but rather heard it. Since she first sang, every haunted land proclaims itself a potential Troy, which shows only the morbid obsessions of its national strategists and the pomposity of its writers. Cassandra’s prophesy was indistinguishable from her madness; she recited missing words and clipped syllables, babble and neologism, pun and analogy—all adrift in strange pictures made word. In language is where Apollo finally possessed her, making her speak aloud that which everybody already knows. Her revenge on him was a matriarchal curse—for she also desired the annihilation of masculine Troy and played the unhinged rapist god like a spinning top. Cassandra was the daughter of Queen Hecuba, the black she-dog who become HekabeHecate, ‘pale Hecate’ of prediction and spell, patroness of witchcraft and Persephone’s prime minister in Hell. Deaf to what was all around them, King Priam and his men tried to hide their dazed indifference in the images and allure of war. Their ears needed to be pricked open, just like another bloody soldier in future days, that this ruling class might hear at least in the afterlife. Call it the Custer Project.

If Tübingen was once home for Hegel, it now hosts a mini–Silicon Valley clone right out of Ira Levin. Tübingen was also where Hölderlin lived, composing alone in his tower. Do the generals and professors recall the great mad poet’s wise words: Nemlich es hemmen der Donnergang nie die Welten des Schöpfers? Which Richard Sieburth renders in English, namely that no created world ever hindered the course of thunder.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.