In Greek Mythology, the God Apollo punished Princess Cassandra for his unrequited love with both a gift and a curse.
She was promised the art of prophecy and constant awareness of the truth, even though no living soul ever should believe in her.
Like a figure of epic tragedy, Cassandra was condemned to a life of rejection and doubt, imprisoned by the truth in her head.
The Cassandra effect
As history, like mythology, repeats and repeats and repeats itself, innumerable artists and scientists were forced to carry the heavy cross of their life’s work’s rejection.
Their ars vivendi, the art of failure, found their catharsis only in the form of posthumous praise. However, the power of death and time allowed their inventive ideas to leak through society eventually. And even though all the Van Goghs, Poes, Spinozas and Galileos were never to be fully appreciated by their contemporary men and women, it seems to be a comforting thought to the human mind that in the end they were respected by all these generations they would never met.
The heartbreaking stories of all the artists and scientists ignored and ridiculed by their community due to their genius show how big truths have been sacrificed on the altar of the abrogation of freedom of speech, of deeply rooted and manifested cultural patterns of taste and most of all, the fear of the unknown.
Vincent Van Gogh
Beloved and worshipped nowadays, van Gogh is to be considered as one of the most important cultural export of the Netherlands. His masterpieces, like the Starry Night, have been admired and analyzed for centuries.
Yet during the 47 years his life did last, high was the prevalent public ignorance of the bizarre artists with the poor health condition. Throughout his lifetime, van Gogh’s family, friends and few fellow artists remained his work’s only enthusiasts. Simultaneously, he most probably suffered from a toxic psychosis known as acute intermittent porphyria, reinforced by his long exposure to turpentine, fasting and alcohol.
$82.5 Millions were spent for the artwork Portrait of Doctor Gachet, created by a man who’s last words were “This sadness will last forever”.
Edgar Allan Poe
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once questioned: “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” Still the question remains, why Poe needed first to breathe life out of him in order to prove that his poems of failure were masterpieces eventually.
Little did society want to know about the peculiar Poe with his strong affinity to death and horror, married by the age of 27 to his only 13 year old cousin, infamous for his alcohol and drug abuse problem.
His strange figure did not fit into 19th century North America, hence his financial struggles until the very end.
So Poe left, and while his last words were “Lord, help my poor soul” his greatest masterpiece, the Raven, was being sold for 9$.
Benedikt von Spinoza
Expelled from his family and from Judaism because of his scientific and philosophical interest, Spinoza was one of humanity’s great men meant to wander poor and underappreciated through life.
The man whose papers about the Ethical and the Political are being taught at this very moment at the world’s most prestigious Universities was producing binoculars and magnifying glasses for a living.
From country to country he was hunted, accused for sacrificing Judaism for Christianism, even though Spinoza had given up the idea of God long ago.
After decades of human and intellectual rejection, he finally passed away at the age of 44, possessing only a handful of books and some glasses.
Being the father of the art of failure, Galileo’s life’s work is more than merit to mention. His correct heliocentric theory about our solar system was perceived as failed, and it was the truth that condemned him on house arrest until death.
Similar to the mythological Cassandra, Galileo had to face a lifetime of mocking and exclusion.
Over the centuries, his persona has risen to a symbol of freedom of speech and the power of scientific knowledge.
His last words “And still it moves“, have been engraved into human consciousness and remind the public of a brilliant mind, willing to sacrifice his most precious possession, his own life, for the sake of science.
The art of remembering
Yet maybe the time has come that Galileo, Spinoza, Poe, van Gogh and all the men and women praised posthumously bring to our mind the cruelty that science, religion and society in total were able to show in each and every epoch throughout history.
Torture, loneliness and the feeling of being trapped by a society –often willingly- ignoring one’s work: How humiliating and terribly painful must it have been for those, who never savoured the experience of their own fame and glory…
Worshipping their extraordinary contributions cannot be enough. Work requires acknowledgement, critique and healthy respect, regardless its fit into society. Stories have to be told if lessons want to be learned, and in case you want to start from today, here is Dave Isay Ted Blog lovely article about The 10 most fascinating people of 2014.
All the Cassandras that ever lived and are yet to be born, all these outstanding minds forces to stand outside of society, all these people forced to learn to live with the art of failure: let their suffering and pain not be forgotten and buried in the name of their success.
Picture1:Edvard Munch – Life and Death (Woll.194b) In: John Szoke
Picture2:Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) – Alamy- telegraph.co.uk
Picture3:Edgar Allan Poe (Authors Series) – Ryan Sheffield
Picture4:Baruch de Spinoza – From a Franz Wulfhagen portrait. In: Tartuffel
Picture5: Galileo Galilei in front of the Inquisition in the Vatican 1632 – Joseph Nicolas Robert, Fleury
Header Image credits royalty free