Alexandria "Cassandra" Cortez
There’s one heroine of Greek literature, more pitiful and beautiful than the rest, of whom I’m perpetually enamored. That woman—if one can say with certitude that she garnered enough years even to be designated a woman—is Cassandra. Not a goddess but a princess, she was arguably the most ill-fated of the many ill-fated children born of Hecuba by Priam.
Neither Hector nor Polyxena, Troilus nor Paris (of whom all were the unhappy progeny of that virile father Priam) suffered through so wretched and unfortunate a life as did she. Of all the children by whom that royal first family of Troy was numbered, and of all those dozens of innocents and militants who were murdered in the course of the Trojan War, Cassandra’s claim on our sympathy is always strongest. Her tragedy is eminently compelling and she’s the woman, or girl, I admit shamelessly to loving best.
Assuming even a peripheral familiarity with her story, I think you’ll understand why my poetic regard for her is so high. What began as a divine gift (bestowed upon her by the uncharacteristically amorous god Apollo) ended as a most frustrating and ultimately fatal curse. Tempting the deity with the nectar of mortal virginity, Cassandra was given by him a fantastically useful gift. She was endowed with the super-human power of prescience—to see into the future what others could not. As readily and as lucidly as we perceive the very moment before which we stand, Cassandra could see the future through unfailing eyes. With startling acuity and unprecedented clairvoyance, she was able accurately to predict all that might come to pass—and very little of it was good. She foresaw her own death, that of her captor, and the fall of her own city walls.
But that’s getting slightly too far in advance of her story. That which is bestowed by the gods is rarely done so without an expectation of something sacrificed or given in return. Deities, as we know them, tend to requite themselves with a slightly unbalanced manner of trade, and Apollo’s agreement with her was no exception to this burdensome rule. But, alas, the gods craft the tablets by which we humans live—the rules to which we must submit. For having acquired this formidable and supernatural gift of prophecy, Cassandra was to disencumber herself of that which made her “pure”. I speak, of course, of her fundamentally earned and jealously maintained virginity. She was to be an innocent maiden no more, but rather an accommodating, if not a fully willing nubile receptacle of this particular god’s earth-bound lust.
Fickle and sexually exasperating as only a female could be, Cassandra had other plans in mind. What’s more, she implemented them without so much as a second thought. She decided to withhold from her godly admirer the gift she’d promised him in return for her own. Needless to say, Apollo—god of poetry, sobriety, and truth—was overcome with an unusual feeling of rage. Never had so sacrosanct an idol been so flippantly spurned and this once temperate god was uncontrollably vexed. His affection unrequited with his honest transaction abused, Apollo decided in light of this to modify her gift. Still she’d retain the ability to prophesy the future—having granted this power, he as a god could not so easily rescind it. What he could do, however, was shroud in a cloak of incredibility everything that Cassandra said. While what she prophesized might still be true, her publication of it wouldn’t be believed.
Hence, unheeded went all her desperate exhortations. Having made his eponymous and, if I dare say, venal judgment (as forced to do so by the three goddesses: Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena—a veritable trinity of vanity from which a man might choose) Paris was warned by Cassandra of the consequences of seeking and taking a foreign bride. Though a brother detached from her in their recent youth, Paris was Cassandra’s sibling, but that mattered not. Not even Paris would take stock of his sister’s forebodings and her honest pleas. His abduction of Helen, as myth knows and history cautiously agrees, was the beginning of that decade-long war for whose origination we have him, and for whose depiction we have Homer to thank.
Later, Cassandra warned her countrymen—now a bunch of war-hardened and tired Trojans nearing the war’s end—of the truth that lay within that ponderous wooden horse. She foresaw in its welcome embrace the destruction of the city that she and they called home. Again, thanks to Apollo (and to her own infidelity to what any impartial observer might consider an arguably reasonable pact), she wasn’t to be believed. The same would be said of the tragically brief time she spent at the court of her captor—the king of Mycenae and son of Atreus, the promiscuous and filicidal Agamemnon. Astride her old life and her new—the Asia of her yesterday and the Greek of her end—Cassandra foresaw the fury of a woman scorned. Ultimately, it was a fury that would take not only her life, but that of the man by whom she was abducted and swept away.
Alas, Cassandra, while foreseeing everything with absolute accuracy, was never to be believed. The most sapient of us all, she was ultimately the least free—being, as she was, chained to this Apollonian curse. She was shackled to the catastrophes of the future that were evident only to her. Yet one must imagine the decimation and the slaughter that might’ve been avoided had she been taken only a bit more seriously. One must consider the troubles that would’ve been obviated if her distant and discerning vision were welcomed as though legitimate and indubitable fact.
Cassandra—though ancient in conception in fable and art—seems to me a recurrent theme. Again and again, ridiculed prophets like her have arisen throughout history whenever men become too complacent and the masses too myopic. Such a time might be at hand as we speak.
While I can’t rightly proclaim myself an alarmist when it comes to matters regarding this delicate environment in and upon which we live, I can’t help but think that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the young congresswoman from the state of New York—might be our own modern-day iteration of a Cassandra. Granted, the association is a perhaps immoderate leap. She seems to have morphed in the course of a single year from a bartender, to a socialist, to puissant force in Washington, to an outright Grecian myth. One can only imagine what next she’ll become—to what liberal apotheosis she’ll soon aspire.
As it pertains to the future of the climate, however, she might be divining secrets in the here and now. And, true to the narrative of our beloved Cassandra, they’re secrets that we stubbornly refuse to hear. We—the incredulous United States—might be playing the role of Cassandra’s elder brother Paris or her unconvinced Trojan countrymen. We, like them, might stand and gaze at the immense symbol before us in a state of celebratory stupor, incautious of what it all might really mean.
That said, both Cassandra and Cortez struggle to disseminate their respective messages. Both, in the attempted promulgation of their vision, employ a celerity that verges on the peremptory. As far as one’s aim is to acquire a devoted audience that might be stirred eventually to action, this is not good. To those listeners and voters of which her audience is composed, and those to whom her message desperately needs to spread, this is simply off-putting. This is made clear to me after watching her iridescently-crafted video entitled, “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”.
Having watched it, my immediate impression was quite mute. I was elevated to no sentiment beyond that of derision. In the course of the film, she dances between the hortatory, the peremptory, and the imaginary (she continues to push the idea that the world as we know it will end in twelve years—a reason, one might argue, to stop making videos and instead to say your goodbyes). She envisions herself as a venerable socialist sage whose now risible, now practicable “Green New Deal” succeeded in pulling the country from the brink of disaster and to the verdant fields of a utopian dream. Beyond the issue of the environment—putatively the whole reason behind this proposal about which we’ve been made to talk so much—she speaks of Medicare for all and federal job programs with guaranteed and high wages and security.
On the proposed implementation of a fully socialist society, as she does many others, Ocasio-Cortez loses me. Yet on matters regarding the environment, I can’t shake the feeling that she might be right. She might be our Cassandra. Sadly, never do the stories in which she’s featured end well.