Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell

By Daniel Flynn
December 20, 2011

The curtain came down on the amazing life of the playwright-president this weekend. Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who helped oust the political leaders who imprisoned him, died at 75 in his country home in Bohemia on Sunday.

Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. What he didn’t do in both offices far outweighs anything that he did do.

Born into privilege in 1936, Václav Havel lived under persecution for the better part of his years. The Communists expropriated his family’s property in the ’40s, blocked his education in the ’50s, banned his writings in the ’60s, and imprisoned him in the ’70s and ’80s. If ever a man had cause for retribution, Havel did. Yet, when he took power he treated his oppressors the way he wished to be treated—“in a cultured, legal, and civilized manner”—and not in the thuggish manner that they had treated him. “We are not like them,” Havel once told fellow democrats gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. He proved it.

He proved it again upon the breaking up of the multi-ethnic Czechoslovakian state. With the bloody backdrop of the Balkans, Havel wished to preserve national unity and avoid disaster. He succeeded in the latter but not in the former. The idea of war, the first impulse of other national leaders placed in this difficult spot, was not even on the table for Havel. He neither wished to attack his countrymen for seceding nor to preside over his country’s break up. So he resigned his position, becoming Czechoslovakia’s final president. Rather than descend into a second Yugoslavia, Czechs and Slovaks parted as friends. Europe has the peacemaker Havel to thank for this.

Havel shouting “the emperor has no clothes” does much to explain how his rule replaced his oppressors’ rule. “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth,” Havel wrote in 1978’s “The Power of the Powerless.” “This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” Havel “living the truth” proved so contagious to others living behind the Iron Curtain and so threatening to the Czechoslovakian government that they confined him from 1979 until 1984. The example set by one man saying publicly what he believed privately led others to follow suit.

When Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” it could be read only in samizdat form. In the winter of 2006, I freely picked it up, along with other of Havel’s bound essays, in a thriving little bookshop on the Prague Castle side of the Vltava River. At the same shop, I also bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto, which had escaped a samizdat fate in post-Communist Prague thanks to the city’s new live-and-let-live spirit and Penguin Books.

It was in one of Havel’s former jail cells that I first encountered him—not the man himself but this volume of his letters, speeches, and essays. The cell had originally been part of a convent. The mission of the nuns who occupied it, according to the hoteliers now occupying it, “was to serve the poor, ill, maltreated.” The mission of the Communist secret police who evicted them was to make people poor, ill, and maltreated. They certainly did this to Havel.

The room, on the corner of a dark basement hall, proved cozier for me than it had for Havel. The quarters were Spartan but clean. A fresh coat of baby-blue paint, the thermostat overcompensating for the Czech winter, and a plaque noting its most famous guest were all that distinguished the hostel from its previous incarnation. Writing such essays is what landed Havel in the cell; reading them is what drew me there. That he penned his heretical thoughts to paper brought both of us to the same place but under very different circumstances.

Marx and Engel’s manifesto seemed more curio than current. Often it was only by placing the polemicists’ lines in the past tense that they made sense, e.g., “A spectre was haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” If the trust-fund revolutionaries felt subversive writing their manifesto, I felt subversive reading it where their followers had turned a house of God into a house of horrors.

Havel, on the other hand, spoke eerily of the present from the past. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” he noted in one timeless passage. “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.” Considering the freewheeling nature of present-day Prague, “The Power of the Powerless” reads at times as prophecy. “The specific nature of post-totalitarian conditions—with their absence of a normal political life and the fact that any far-reaching political change is utterly unforeseeable—has one positive aspect: it compels us to examine our situation in terms of deeper coherences and to consider our future in the context of global, long-range prospects of the world of which we are a part,” Havel wrote in 1978. “The fact that the most intrinsic and fundamental confrontation between human beings and the system takes place at a level incomparably more profound than that of traditional politics would seem, at the same time, to determine as well the direction such considerations will take.” Such confrontations toppled the regime in the next decade. “For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant,” he concluded. “What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?” Havel daring to dream a different reality helped to bring it about.

How liberating to study the game plan for the powerless defeating the powerful from a decommissioned Communist clink!

A prison is a place so terrible that its inhabitants will do anything to get out. A hotel is a place so inviting that people pay to stay there. The transformation of the room I read from symbolized the transformation affected by the transformative personality who once stayed as its unwilling guest. What had been a dreary nation caricatured as the epitome of Eastern Bloc backwardness on a famous Saturday Night Live skit is now a tourist magnet for sophisticated Europeans who marvel at all that architecture, history, culture, and commerce. Havel, among so much else, alchemized a Communist dungeon into a cash-cow tourist trap. Somewhere Marx is frowning at this irony just as Havel had smiled at it.

Václav Havel is dead. One need only visit a free and vibrant Prague to appreciate his life.

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