– Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi
– Dante, Inferno XXXI: 67
A CURIOUS news item has been around recently: the military now employs novelists and literary types to predict the future. The zero point of this initiative – which looks like a NATO initiative – is Tübingen, Germany, and it is led by a man of letters in his seventies, Jürgen Wertheimer, joined by the Bundeswehr and other interested armed parties. The idea is that wars of words start real wars, that novels in particular should be used, according to Dr Wertheimer, “of practical use in the context of deployments of the German army abroad”. It is a good thing that Germany was advised, because its elite did not read any of the old stories that accurately predicted the descent into fascism and catastrophe under the Fourth Reich. Forget Döblin, the generals said at the time. Listen to Wagner and trust Herren Jünger und Krupp!
Unsurprisingly, it is the post-colonial conflict that fascinates teachers and generals. The neo-fascists at home are just embarrassing, and Deutsche Bank’s double entries read like dust. The feather and sword body of Project Cassandra prefers gothic and pornographic, these rebellious creations of Karl May and Hanns Heinz Ewers become flesh in the darkest third world. According to Doc Wertheimer, the rise of Boko Haram could have been predicted by reading a lot of novels. The decorated German heads nod (and that cool 1.1 billion euros should shut up the damn Namibia, damn). It is not in clandestine finance, client regimes, structural readjustment and surface mining, or even in any real political act, the reason for the rise of insanely attractive and exceptionally well-funded terrorist groups. It’s all there, in cheap bestsellers or hypersensitive memoirs – which is a strange admission of the essentially fictitious nature of these plastic armies, made real by the movements of great chess players aiming at the low bellies of rivals. geopolitics, the nuances of Operation Gladio and the World Bank.
“Predicting” atrocities is easy for those negotiating them: as clairvoyance looks to the future, erasing the past becomes its deepest ability. Bosnia and Rwanda are disconnected from the West’s neoliberal mass looting and bombardment campaigns, as if the slaughter was just another magical act, preventable if only we could see into the savage soul of the West. Other. But the rise of Boko Haram mirrors Sani Abachi’s former offshore accounts on the island of Jersey, a romance of fraud, history and embezzlement as transparent as a tear. You might have gotten it all reading Achebe or scrutinizing the greatest of recent creative novels, the Panama Papers, but NATO doesn’t go to libraries without an F-22. As one famous author said, “We make it happen”.
For Project Cassandra – her name was borrowed from Christa Wolf by Wertheimer, who may have misread her warnings to the GDR that she refused to give up – the catastrophic invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are disasters for their poor architects, these “well-meaning” men who should have studied a few books before sinking into genocide. Goofed? Everything was planned years ago, then executed according to plan, “mistakes” and all – as the literary records clearly show. Indiscriminate aggression needs a mystical fate to sell its shares to the people and the promise of foreign assets for the bankers who guard the war chest. It found its base in those bizarre diviners who promised flowers and chocolate to the invaders, the collaborating journalists who pleaded ignorance and innocence after the fact, and the liberators whose crude justification for the massacre is the hypocrisy of the schoolyard and the mistaken identity.
It is a primordial law of prophecy that the prophetic predicts himself, that he speaks of the present using the alien poetry of a world to come. John the Revealer hid in a cave, far from being a bestial Diocletian; he saw in the bloody suppression of his sect by the emperor a final conflict in the heavens. His divine utterance was not so futuristic as it was parody – the prophecy neither saves nor warns, but sneers at the universal desperation of a stylite position. But while Buddha and Zoroaster were born laughing, Tiresias was helpless in old age. When its daggers point upward, prophecy can also give hope to the poor of the earth. Ezekiel shaved himself with a sharp stone to show that the toilet will not save a sleepwalking society from its own bad habits. The I Ching adapts to the player, beating Heisenberg and Planck centuries ahead. China’s reward for the complex divination was twelve million junkies and the mass murder of the Boxers, who were brought down not by trusting magic but by the taciturn, unimaginative .30-.40 Krag, and the all-out war of the Eight Nations Alliance.
For decades, millions of people in Eastern Europe predicted the end of the USSR (although they were wrong to predict that their own socialist states would be allowed to emerge from its ruins). When the Soviet Union finally imploded, the only people surprised were Langley’s drab prophets. They were also stunned in 1974, when India detonated its atomic bomb, Pokhran-II. No one, India and Pakistan, was particularly surprised – what good is a large weapon if it is kept secret for too long? Intelligence professionals are really surprised when one of their programs actually works. Or – and this is important – when they can give the impression that it worked in hindsight. The best way to predict conflict is still to generate countless conflicts. Create a climate where the orgiastic is the inevitable end, like any other product of a chaotic entertainment industry that has taken the place of tragic songs.
Novels are a bulky and irritating linguistic baggage. The best are outright jokes, which might make generals and tweed elbows think if they read a little more carefully. Job is a comedy, as are The Unnamable, Shandy, Quixote, Leg Over Leg, and The Golden Ass. And perhaps, unbeknownst to their authors – we must remember that the prophets speak, but interpretation is never the work of the lone seer – systems of collusion, failure, deception and collapse await thinktanks lunar robots who will find in the mythical bends of the new criticisms of the military do only what they seek. These hallucinations won’t produce exactly what was predicted, but a flood of variations so brutal and unpredictable that they will look like grotesque mockery for a future these academics have so desperately tried to control.
The problem is Copernican: the ego remains at the center, around which the whole universe moves as if in adoration (this is the “reality” of Google Earth, for example). And writers are dishonest weasels who speak only for themselves, write only about themselves, and are purely fascinated by themselves. Will Cassandra Corp recognize its own work as a late symptom of today’s neo-feudal world order, civilian air raids and rising infant mortality rates? Certainly not. Much easier to point the finger at the scruffy infantrymen of, say, the Algerian AIG, while ignoring the deep ties these groups have with the French intelligence services or international arms dealers issuing credits from Delaware. Such a conspiracy tale is far too commonplace for bourgeois literature, reads more like a subplot of the 87th Quarter or Perry Rhodan’s space opera. The danger for NATO is that a veritable Munchausen syndrome by proxy infects them as they spill out, mystified, on the works of Bataille, Kluge and Jelinek. And after? Performance art? Will Secretary General Stoltenberg use old Viennese Aktionist films to interpret Vladimir Putin’s bad intentions? And the music ? Stockhausen indeed serves imperialism. The possibilities are endless when the avant-garde enters through the ivory doors of Cassandra, LLC.
Cassandra, who rejected the favors of the fiery All Father, Apollo, had a second sight by snakes spitting in her ear. She did not read (see) the future, but rather heard it. Since it first sang, each haunted land proclaims itself a potential Troy, which only shows the morbid obsessions of its national strategists and the pomp of its writers. Cassandra’s prophecy was indistinguishable from her folly; she was reciting the missing words and the severed syllables, the babbling and neologism, the pun and the analogy – all adrift in weird images made of words. It was in the language that Apollo finally possessed her, making her speak aloud what everyone already knows. Her revenge on him was a matriarchal curse – for she also desired the annihilation of male Troy and played the deranged rapist god like a spinning top. Cassandra was the daughter of Queen Hecube, the black bitch who becomes Hekabe – Hecate, the “pale Hecate” of prediction and spell, patron saint of witchcraft and Prime Minister of Persephone in hell. Deaf to their surroundings, King Priam and his men tried to hide their dazed indifference in the images and the lure of war. Their ears had to be pricked up, just like another bloody soldier in the days to come that this ruling class could hear at least in the afterlife. Call it the Custer Project.
If Tübingen was once Hegel’s home, it’s now home to a mini Silicon Valley clone straight out of Ira Levin. Tübingen was also where Hölderlin lived, composing alone in his tower. Do generals and professors remember the wise words of the great mad poet: Nemlich es hemmen der Donnergang nie die Welten des Schöpfers? What Richard Sieburth renders in English, namely that no created world has ever stood in the way of thunder.
CounterPunch.org, July 13. Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.