Our own situation, fortunately or not, differs greatly from Cassandra's. In Cassandra's case, the enemies were clear: the Greeks were invading, and they would extinguish the goddess Vesta's light forever. In our own, the enemy is anything but clear. Although many of those who appear to threaten are Muslim, Islam is hardly the enemy. Some believe that Al Qaeda is the enemy, even though its leader is a shadowy figure we seem unable to kill. Lately, some would have us substitute Saddam Hussein, who is not shadowy, but who is not exactly storming our gates like the Numidians or Greeks. Some even see the true enemy right here at home, using global events to mimic the bogus Clone Wars from Star Wars: strategems for the Dark Lord to centralize power and curtail liberties. Perhaps faced with our own powerlessness we are forced to dramatise and act out our protest on our own body like Cassandra, but surely not at the loss of our Vestal lore.
The problematic need for clear enemies animates Part Two of Les Troyens. Part Two opens with a vision of a peaceful, happy land where Dido, despite being recently widowed, is presiding over a number of public works, lavishing time and attention on each separate (special-interest) group. She subsequently falls in love with the warlike Aeneas, a recent refugee from Troy. When Aeneas leaves to pursue his destiny, Dido - a woman whose love has been scorned - curses Aeneas, his descendants and the entire civilization that will proceed from him. She arouses our horrified awe at her rapid descent from enlightened leader to malevolent priestess preaching hatred over a pyre of Aeneas' belongings.
In the current production, Dido's affection is hard to understand: Aeneas, played by Ben Heppner as a talismanic soldier rather than charismatic leader, is a flat character who is barely worthy of her attention. Despite his symbolic importance, he is a pathetic tool of the fates. This feature of Aeneas may be a way to understand Dido's motivations, however. Aeneas, in and of himself, is not actually important to Dido: her vast anger, although eventually focused on Aeneas, actually stems from the loss of her first husband, from Carthaginian military impotence, and from her total lack of ability to thwart fate and maintain the affections of Aeneas. Dido's rage is at Aeneas' betrayal of their love but, as misdirected as it may be, it re-enacts the importance of Aeneas's symbolic value by replacing his recent absence with a presence (a pyre of his gifts) on which she proceeds to wreak her revenge. The love that she once had for him, as he fought her battles, has turned to hatred as he flees her influence. In both cases, the facts of Aeneas' own personality seem a distant second to his symbolic importance to Dido.
Dido, unlike Cassandra but exactly like us, needs a tangible enemy. And she finds/invents one in Aeneas. Do we have to look far for analogues? As constant 'military interventions' (Grenada, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) by both empires during the Cold War proved, it is infinitely preferable to fight against a visible, physical enemy than to chase shadows diplomatically across the geopolitical stage as we find ourselves doing today. And here we go again.
Readings and Misreadings
Zeek live, March 20 at Makor
the reason for
war and not-peace
josh goes to prague