Wednesday 4 July 2018

Cassandra Complex

By Jonathan Taylor

My new poetry collection, published in June 2018 by Shoestring Press, is entitled Cassandra Complex, and is full of prophets, prophecies, and apocalyptic visions of the future. Some of these prophecies are personal to me – moments in my life where I or people close to me seemed to glimpse the future; some of the prophecies are based on myths, or historical dreams of the future; and some of the poems about the ways in which our modern culture binds us to the future – through threats or promises. Despite our apparent rationalism, our society, it seems to me, is full of Cassandras – politicians, economists, CEOs – spouting possible and impossible futures.   

Cassandra, as you may well know, was an Ancient Greek prophet who was cursed by Apollo always to be right, but never to be believed. Likewise, the term ‘Cassandra Complex’ (or Syndrome) has been used in various contexts, including modern psychology, often to refer to someone who has a gift for prediction – or believes they have a gift for prediction – but is condemned to be disbelieved. When I was growing up, my father certainly felt he had a gift for predicting the worst, and rather enjoyed being proved right. Like many fathers, he enjoyed saying “I told you so,” when things went wrong – even if he hadn’t. 

On a miniature scale, this is what is known as ‘retroactive clairvoyance’ (or sometimes ‘hindsight bias’): where prophecies are retrospectively invented, so someone can say “I told you so,” or, more generally, where prophecies are reinterpreted in light of subsequent events. There are various poems in my collection which fall into this category – where, for example, historical prophecies are read and interpreted differently because of intervening events. They are proved true, as it were, in hindsight. Maybe this is sometimes the fate of poetry in general: to be proved true retrospectively. It was certainly the fate of that greatest of all poet-prophets, William Blake. 

As Blake knew, poetry’s association with prophecy is ancient – back at least as far as the Ancient Babylonians – and, for all our irony, rationalism, cynicism, bathos, the association still haunts modern poetry. In his famous essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821), Percy Shelley draws on the association, when he writes that poets are ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; … the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Clearly, this is grand, Romantic language – Shelley is making big claims for the prophetic role of poets in society. But he also qualifies this language: poets are ‘unacknowledged legislators,’ ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.’ Poets are, in effect, Cassandras, whose prophecies are unacknowledged, and whose poems are expressions of an underlying Cassandra Complex. Poets are often the kind of people who want to say “I told you so” to the future. 

Here are two linked poems from the collection. 'Teleology II' was first published in I Am Not A Silent Poet

Teleology I

It is no very good symptom either of nations or individuals that they deal much in vaticination.

 – Thomas Carlyle  

You might catch a glimpse of toga
like a slip beneath the manager’s 
pressed suit, doctor’s white coat,
economist’s titillating bar-charts

for the prophets are everywhere
spouting a cacophony of futures
on screens, stages, street corners
in Medieval Latin, Ancient Greek. 

There is a wind-up Nostradamus 
in your head. Just for tonight 
let him wind down, shut curtains
on Cassandras crowding like triffids,

like refugees from an Apocalypse
yet to happen, and do something 

Teleology II

The refugees from an Apocalypse yet to happen 
are flooding through the time-gate in bloodied rags, 

marked by the Antichrist, trembling from earthquakes,
scorched by stars and planets crashing to earth, 
chewed and spat out by dragons with various heads, 
nibbled by locusts. 

Tens of thousands have already perished en route 
and most who reach their past are denied sanctuary:
after all, it’s their fault they weren’t among the Elect. 
The future can hardly be blamed on us, can it? 

A select few we save, those who bring with them 
knowledge of soon-to-be-discovered technologies,
oh, and the plumbers. 

The others – the godless, hairdressers, poets – 
are shoved back, 
whingeing they can’t win on either side of history.  

Afterwards, if you press your ear against the door
and listen carefully, I have heard it said, 

you can hear trumpets, distantly, from the other side.

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