Cassandra and the curse of prophecy

2 Jan

On seeing the Metropolitan Opera epic production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz last night (one of their best designed and directed productions, in my opinion, by the way), I was struck by a scene in the first act when Cassandra speaks about the curse of prophecy. If I understand the original libretto, by Berlioz himself, correctly (“Tu ne m’écoutes pas, tu ne veux rien comprendre/ Malheureux peuple, à l’horreur qui me suit!“), Cassandra laments that she has the gift of prophecy, of seeing the future, only no one believes her or wants to listen. This is the result of the curse of Apollo.

In Catholic social teaching, “prophetic” has come to refer to those who speak out against injustice, who are part of a tradition that is trying to build a better future by denouncing unjust practices rather than enduring them. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are considered to be leading lights in this prophetic intellectual tradition.

But what is made explicit in the Greek, and not in the Catholic, is that true prophets are ignored – at best – sometimes reviled or mocked. Cassandra’s curse is a case in point. She sees the bad that is going to happen, but no one believes her, no one wants to hear her, and they only realize she is right when it’s too late.

This too is the side of the prophetic tradition that we forget. We rally around prophets, especially in death, but when they are alive, there are few who want to listen and take what they say to heart. No one would want to hire them. If I am trying to develop a prophetic social science, for example, it is little wonder I will be unemployed – unless I am super-productive in ways that are valued in the industry. Are people willing to listen to – and hire – the prophetic voice in the classroom and the lecture hall, especially if it rallies against inaction?

Prophecy is a curse in all economic systems and educational environments. Nonetheless, it must be kept nourished.

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