Vaclav Havel (1936-2011): a Sketch in Seven Scenes
Let it be known – I took the departure of President Havel very personally as he was my favorite politician. If you wonder why, I will answer that question in the form of several scenes – like in a stage theatre – after all Havel was not only a politician, but an excellent drama writer as well.
Scene One – Prague, May 1989
In the famous theatre known as „The Magic Lantern” (Laterna Magika), a concert is taking place that features western artists who want to support the Czechoslovakian aspiration of broadening civic liberties by means of their performances. A “political thaw” has begun in Poland and in Hungary, whereas on the Vltava River, Husak’s regime ruthlessly suppresses any attempts to democratize public life. Before the concert, a gang of militiamen and secret police members create a tight cordon in order to make sure that none of the Czech and Slovakian dissidents are able to get into the building. Vaclav Havel, a veteran in confrontations with militia (he spent five years in prison), manages to get across the barrier and to sneak inside. During the show, Joan Baez notices Havel in the audience, invites him on stage, and dedicates him a Bob Dylan song, “Forever Young.” The spectators rewarded the two with a standing ovation.
Half a year later, that very same theatre became the headquarters of the Havel-organized Civic Forum. It coordinated the Velvet Revolution, which became responsible for the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Scene Two – Palo Alto, California, September 1994
I spent the fall of 1994 at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. Thanks to that experience; I had the honor of participating in the ceremony of awarding the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, with the Jackson H. Ralston Prize in International Law. All of the participants and I were anxious to see the distinguished guest. To our amazement, the first person we saw was Joan Baez, with the President coming afterward carrying her guitar (a true gentleman, as always). The second surprise came from the speech that he then delivered. Instead of the expected appeal to the American businessmen, asking them to invest in the Czech Republic, we heard a philosopher, who alluded to the famous words of Immanuel Kant’s The Starry Sky Above Me and the Moral Law Within Me. He talked about the need for moral renewal in the world, the danger caused by the increasing materialism, and the inevitability of the clash of civilizations; a scenario in which democratic structures of the West would cease their self-analysis and ability to grow. He ended his lecture with the following words:
“Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God”. (Havel, 1994, p.17).
Joan Baez completed the ceremony by serenading the president, once again with the song “Forever Young”.
Scene Three – The meaning of good taste
Let us take a look at the ending of the famous poem “The Power of Taste” by deceased Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. In it, he explains why he was impregnable for seductive attempts of the communist ideology and did not write poem about Stalin’s wisdom, or about the glorious effort of the female tractor driver of a collective farm:
It did not require great character at all
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste
that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer
even if for this the precious capital of the body the head
(Herbert, 2000, p.147, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter)
What is the common denominator between Vaclav Havel and this Polish poet? In 1992, Vaclav Havel, in sharing his experiences from involvement in a politics as the head of a state had much to say:
“Of course in politics, as elsewhere in life, it is impossible and pointless to say everything, all at once, to just anyone. But that does not mean having to lie. What you need is tact, the proper instincts, and good taste (highlighted by JW). One surprising experience from “high politics” is this: I have discovered that good taste is more important than a postgraduate degree in political science. It is essentially a matter of form: knowing how long to speak, when to begin and when to finish, how to say something politely that your opposite number might not want to hear, how to say, always, what is most essential in a given moment, and not to speak of what is not essential or uninteresting, how to insist on your own position without offending, how to create the kind of friendly atmosphere that makes complex negotiations easier, how to keep a conversation going without prying or, on the contrary, without being aloof, how to balance serious political themes with lighter, more relaxing topics, how to plan one’s journeys judiciously and how to know when it is more appropriate not to go somewhere, when to be open and reticent, and to what degree”. (Havel, 1992, p. 7-8).
We have all kinds of associations with politicians and politics; the reality is that more often than not, we are quite disgusted with politics and with those involved in it. On the contrary, in the case of Havel, there was a different story – a story where you could learn to be classy and tactful from a politician.
Scene Four – Lustration
President Havel was against a radical lustration, but the Czech Parliament voted for one, against his recommendation. He did not support the use of rule of collective responsibility, believing that former members of the Communist Party should not be automatically excluded from the right to fulfill the role of a public servant. According to Havel, each candidate for such a post would have the right for his or her situation to be examined individually. He wrote:
“[This regulation] runs counter to the basic principles of democratic law. The files kept by the now abolished secret police are made the highest, the final, the one and only criterion of eligibility. It is a necessary law, an extraordinary law, a rigorous law. Yet at the same time, from the view-point of fundamental human rights, it is a highly questionable law”. (Havel, 1992, p. 8).
Scene Five – Czechoslovakian broken spirit
The Czechs and Slovaks did not have an opportunity to experience the „political thaw” of 1956. Klement Gottwald died the same year as Stalin, the man who put him in power in Prague. He was replaced by Antonin Nowotny, who continued the oppressive regime of his predecessor until 1968, when in January of that year his forced resignation quickly led to the spasmodic eruption of the democratic aspirations known as “The Prague Spring”. These were effectively crushed by the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in August of that year. Czechoslovakian communism marked both nations with collectivization and ruthless despotism; going to church on Sunday was equal to losing one’s job.
Brzezinski (1990, p.111) quotes Havel’s article published in 1987, in which the author indicates the essential psychological oppressive feature of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia where, “the violence is spiritual rather than physical,” and where one can observe “the gradual destruction of the human spirit, of basic dignity. People live their lives in a state of permanent humiliation,” yet at the same time, “you can see people walking the streets, chatting happily, going shopping – superficially nothing seems wrong, and there are no signs of massacres.” Twenty-four years later, Haruki Murakami (2011, p. 242) in his “1Q84” described this cruel phenomenon in the following way, “[…] the body is not the only target of rape. Violence does not always take visible form, and not all wounds gush blood”.
Scene Six – The bitter taste of freedom
The aforementioned quoted analysis by Havel indicates his unique ability to touch the essence of the seemingly not-observable fact. The communist authorities did not have to resort to spectacular massacres, because they were able to slaughter citizens’ souls. As the result of this, the people did not have to be watched – fear was so effective that they watched themselves.
Finally, in 1989, Czechoslovakia obtained her freedom. She liberated herself from the communist oppression, but not from communism’s legacy, still in people’s hearts and minds. Those “habits of the heart,” clearly resurfaced ten years later when in the poll, only fifty-five percent of the Czechs answered “yes” to the question, “Was it worthwhile to change a political system in 1989?” (Wroblewski, 2000).
To help understand this described phenomenon, let us a look at an interesting takes by Havel, who observed the overnight collapse of communism:
“The ‘time of certainties’ – certainties that were, to be sure, small-minded, banal, and suicidal for society, but certainties none the less- gave way to a time of freedom. To many, given their previous experience, this freedom must have seemed boundless and therefore utterly seductive. With it, completely new demands were placed in individual responsibility, and many found this responsibility unbearable. I sometimes compare this odd state to the psychosis that follows imprisonment, when a prisoner used to living for years in a narrow corridor of carefully devised rules suddenly finds himself in the strange landscape of freedom, where he must feel that everything is permitted, and at the same time is overwhelmed by the immense need to make decisions each day and responsibility for them.” (Havel, 1998, p.42).
Scene Seven – The Acton Law
The (unfortunately) isolated case of Vaclav Havel proved that a politician can be honest, tactful, and can have good taste. That one can be extremely courageous, exceptionally modest, and very decent man – and by that same token be a man of letter, drama, and philosophy. That even after becoming a three term President, one can continue to remain himself, and present himself as unimportant, subtle, and compassionate to his neighbor.
He not only preached to us about leading a decent life – he tried living respectably. Vaclav Havel proved that John Emerich Acton’s statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” does not always apply. In fact, he showed that sometimes the opposite is true.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1990), “The Grand Failure”, New York: Collier Books.
Havel, Vaclav (1992), “Paradise Lost”, New York Review of Books, v. 39, no. 7, April 9, pp. 6-8.
Havel, Vaclav (1994), “Democracy’s Forgotten Dimension”, Stanford Lawyer, v. 29, no. 1, pp. 15-17.
Havel, Vaclav (1998), “The State of the Republic,” New York Review of Books, vol. 45, no. 4, March 5, 1998, p.42-46.
Herbert, Zbigniew (2000), “Selected Poems”, Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Murakami, Haruki (2011), „1Q84”, New York: Knopf.
Wroblewski, Andrzej K. “Płacę, płacze”. [I pay and I cry], Polityka, nr 2 (2000): 2-9.