And now Vaclav Havel is dead. Absurdist playwright, passionate essayist, beer connoisseur, deep thinker about humankind’s place in the cosmos, non-violent fighter for human freedom and dignity, political prisoner of his country’s totalitarian communist regime, and then the post-Velvet Revolution president of Czechoslovakia (and, after the nation split, president of the Czech Republic). What do his writings have to offer us, here in the U.S. of States, on this December day in 2011? Does a disheveled anti-authoritarian haunter-of-theaters-and-pubs have anything to teach us in Earth’s Most Exceptional Country? Let us see.
The remarkable thing about Havel wasn’t just that he was a writer and an intellectual who ended up president of his country. It was that he was so thoughtful a writer, one who couldn’t assume a political position without thinking through its moral and spiritual implications. He was the opposite of glib and shallow, which in practice means he was about as far away from most American journalists and bloggers (librul and konservative) as one can be.
It’s interesting to compare him to American writers and journalists who are routinely called “brave” for any number of things (writing blog posts about Newt Gingrich, writing about their difficult relationship with their mother, writing about their wacky online dating experiences) and like to see themselves as outspoken risk takers. Havel was an actual dissident who put himself in physical danger to voice his beliefs, and willingly went to jail for them.
Havel on what led him to form Charter 77, the human rights movement launched following the arrest of a Czech rock band, Plastic People of the Universe:
What was happening here was not a settling of accounts with political enemies, who to a certain extent were prepared for the risks they were taking. This case has nothing whatsoever to do with a struggle between two competing political cliques. It was something far worse: an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity. The objects of this attack were not veterans of old political battles; they had no political past, or even any well-defined political positions. They were simply young people who wanted to live in their own way, to make music they liked, to sing what they wanted to sing, to live in harmony with themselves, and to express themselves in a truthful way.
Two decades after the Velvet Revolution was cheered by Washington, American citizens can be locked in military cages forever if the President, in a fit of fraternal assistance, decides we are thinking dangerous thoughts. Is this a blessed place or is it not?
Havel on “a more meaningful way of organizing the world”:
Man must in some way come to his senses. He must extricate himself from this terrible involvement in both the obvious and the hidden mechanisms of totality, from consumption to repression, from advertising through manipulation through television. He must rebel against his role as a helpless cog in the gigantic and enormous machinery hurtling God knows where.
Havel on economic arrangements, capitalist and socialist and otherwise:
The most important thing is not to lose sight of personal relationships — i.e., the relationships between man and his co-workers, between subordinates and their superiors, between man and his work, between this work and its consequences, and so on.
An economy that is totally nationalized and centralized…has a catastrophic effect on all such relationships. An ever-deepening chasm opens up between man and the economic system, which is why this type of economy works so badly.
IBM certainly works better than the Skoda plant, but that doesn’t alter the fact that both companies have long since lost their human dimension and have turned man into a little cog in their machinery, utterly separated from what, and for whom, their machinery is working, and what the impact of its product is on the world.
Havel on advertising in sports:
Yesterday at the embassy, together with many of the local Czechs, we watched the final match in the World Hockey Championship, which the Czech Republic won. As usual, it seems the whole nation was caught up in it. I shared in the general excitement, the admiration of the players’ skills, and the joy of victory but I couldn’t help thinking again about something that has bothered me for a long time: these marvelous players are like billboards on skates. Anyone who didn’t know what the Czech coat of arms looked like, which probably means most of the people in the world, would have no idea these boys were playing for the Czech Republic. It looked more as though they were playing for the Skoda automobile works and a cooking pot called Zepter.
Take that, Jaromir Jagr, you MULLETED WHORE.
You can find Havel’s essays, diaries and interviews in Open Letters, Disturbing the Peace, Summer Meditations, and To the Castle and Back. All of these are rich, expansive books. The next time someone tells you that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet empire through his folksy witticisms and gigantic military build-up (which we’re still paying for), remind them that, perhaps, some brave Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, Hungarians and East Germans had something to do it.