Woman's Heterosexual Experience in Christa Wolf's Kassandra: A Critique of GDR Feminism

By Cormican, Muriel | Philological Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Woman's Heterosexual Experience in Christa Wolf's Kassandra: A Critique of GDR Feminism


Cormican, Muriel, Philological Quarterly


Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Christa Wolf was relentlessly attacked in the West German media for her publication of Was Bleibt (What Remains, 1990), a novella recounting an author's sense of persecution when spied on by the Stasi, the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic. (1) German journalists castigated Wolf for her decision to remain in East Germany, accusing her of supporting an oppressive regime--something they had long imputed to the East German intelligentsia in general--and of being too weak to criticize that regime until it no longer entailed any personal risk. (2) Needless to say, her disclosure in 1993 that she had in fact collaborated with the Stasi between 1959 and 1962 added grist to the mill, and Wolf once more became the subject of intense criticism. She has been variously defended by prominent German intellectuals such as Gunter Grass, Heiner Muller, and Wolf Biermann (her former compatriot expelled from the GDR during a West German concert tour in 1976) and by literary critics who emphasized Wolf's regular, albeit implicit, criticism of the GDR and of herself in her later (post-1976) literary texts. Gail Finney, for example, compares the genesis of the novella Was Bleibt to that of Sommerstuck (Scenes of Summer, 1989) and argues convincingly that the latter is critical of "the privileges and self-indulgences of the East German intelligentsia" and that it "is thus an indirect comment on the guilt Wolf felt for not publishing Was Bleibt"(108). (3) Written at about the same time as the initial drafts of both Was Bleibt and Sommerstuck, the novel Kassandra (1983) was rarely invoked in the early debates about Wolf's complicity in problematic power structures. (4) Recently, however, Karen Jacobs has underscored its relevance to such debates, arguing that Wolf "uses Cassandra's mythic utterance to mediate and construct her relationship to the political regime of the former German Democratic Republic in its final years, the collusions and resistances of which have made Wolf a broadly controversial figure" (285). (5) The essay at hand joins this ongoing dialogue about Wolf's relationship to the former GDR by focusing on a hithertofore overlooked ambivalence on the part of Kassandra to women's heterosexual experiences in both pre-war and warring Troy. (6) This pervasive ambivalence points to Wolf's unease with the official version of the GDR's relationship to women and feminism.

While Kassandra has long been read in tandem with the Frankfurt poetic lectures as an experiment in feminist poetics (or anti-poetics), as a kind of ecriture feminine that might challenge patriarchy, and thus as a work with an unmistakable feminist bent, some of the more concrete aspects of its feminist critique have gone unnoticed. (7) In the novel, women are victims of a variety of sexual abuses, ranging from ritual deflowering to rape and necrophilia. Secondary literature to date has invoked one or more of these as symptoms or reflections of the increasing political oppression of women in Troy. In general, critics postulate a significant discontinuity between the status of women in pre-war Troy and their status in warring Troy. (8) Jenkinson, for instance, speaks of pre-war Troy in utopian terms, as a place where women "have no need to fear sexual harassment from men" (245). (9) To emphasize the discontinuity between pre-war and warring Troy, between Greek and Trojan males, ignores, however, a marked instance of continuity vis-a-vis woman's position before and during the war, namely a continuity of sexual oppression that, in pre-war Troy, is veiled by woman's relative political freedom. Wolf's critique of the sexual oppression of women in this novel extends beyond the spatial and temporal limitations of warring Troy to "utopian" pre-war Troy, as well as to Wolf's then-contemporary GDR. (10)

To be sure, the early parts of Kassandra's retrospective narration involve clear binary distinctions that suggest the accuracy of readings strongly distinguishing between past and present Troy. …

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