The Moral Politician
March 26, 2012
“A specter is haunting Eastern Europe,” the Czech playwright Václav Havel wrote in 1978, “the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.’” In echoing the opening salvo of the Communist Manifesto, Havel was thumbing his nose at the regime he lived under, but his words had an earnest intent as well as a satirical one. Like Marx and Engels, he was trying to call an intellectual force to arms. He hoped to convoke a new kind of human organization, ad hoc and by design temporary, accruing no power in itself, and led not by designated authorities but by individuals who happened to have charisma.
Timely writing often grows stale, especially if it’s about politics. Havel knew this. Many politicians “play a key role at a particular moment,” he wrote in his memoir To the Castle and Back (2007); “a long, dull life can sometimes erase the memory.” Yet Havel’s judgment has been contradicted by his early protest writings, which have gained new relevance as the specter of dissent has returned to haunt much of the planet, from the Chinese town of Wukan to Wall Street, Cairo and Moscow. In addition to being a playwright and a politician, Havel, who died in December, was a philosopher, and his insight into how humans in groups understand themselves still speaks to the way we live in the world.
Havel was born in 1936 into one of the grandest bourgeois families in Czechoslovakia. One of his grandfathers built a movie theater that was to become the first in the country to screen talkies; his other grandfather was ambassador to Austria and Hungary. His father was a Prague real estate magnate, and a gay uncle was a pioneer in the nation’s film industry. The family owned a six-story mansion in downtown Prague on the bank of the Vltava River, as well as a country estate. After World War II, Václav attended prep school, where his dorm’s resident adviser was the future director Milos Forman. After Communists came to power, in 1948, the government appropriated the Havel family’s country estate, cinema, film studio and all but two rooms on the top floor of the urban mansion. Václav was expelled from school because of his class background. Eventually even the family china was nationalized.
At a writers’ conference in 1956, Havel, at the time a floundering economics student and a literary unknown, caused a small stir by accusing establishment writers of failing to read poets outside the Stalinist-era canon. Over the next couple of years, during his military service, he entertained himself and friends by writing plays, and after leaving the army he took jobs as a stagehand and eventually as a playwright in small Prague theaters that were experimenting with literary absurdism. His break came in 1963, when Communist censors were so demoralized by the Cuban missile crisis that they permitted a production ofThe Garden Party, his first full-length play, which satirized bureaucracy. In 1965 he again set a writers’ conference on edge, this time with a bold defense of a literary magazine he was editing, which had sidestepped state ideology and dodged the literary establishment’s control. The political thaw known as the Prague Spring was under way. In April 1968 an essay of Havel’s appealed for the creation of an opposition party, and Moscow put his name on a blacklist. Soviet tanks rolled into the country in August, and in March 1969 Havel found in his home a bug planted by State Security (StB), Czechoslovakia’s Communist-era secret police. His long internal exile had begun.
A few years later, Havel and other banned Czech writers felt they had little to lose. They took culture into their own hands, publishing books by typing up carbon copies and smuggling manuscripts to West German printers, and staging plays in living rooms and pubs. In April 1975 Havel addressed an open letter of protest to Gustav Husák, then the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, decrying the national climate of existential fear and “basically fraudulent social consciousness.” In January 1976 he met Ivan Martin Jirous, manager of the loud, foul-mouthed, hard-partying, long-haired rock musicians known as the Plastic People of the Universe. When the Plastics were arrested several weeks later, Havel recognized that the arrests were, as he later put it, “an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality.” The solidarity he forged between the dissident intellectuals in his circle and the outsider rock musicians in Jirous’s became the basis of Charter 77, a leaderless group organized around a text that called on the Czechoslovak government to live up to a recent pledge to honor human rights, including the right to free public expression. On January 5, 1977, the police chased down Havel and a friend as they tried to mail copies of the charter to its 243 signatories. Havel, a Charter 77 spokesman, was soon arrested. When he was released in May, the Communists scored a propaganda victory by publishing a letter in which he had asked to be freed, having signaled to the authorities that he intended to resign from Charter 77. Havel regretted the letter bitterly. “I had undeniably written something that ‘met them halfway,’” he later admitted, and as if in atonement, he threw himself into dissident activity even more fervidly.
It was during this agonizing interlude, while waiting for what he was to call “my ‘definitive’ imprisonment,” that he wrote his greatest political essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Definitive imprisonment came at last in 1979, when he was charged with subversion of the republic for his participation in an advocacy group for people prosecuted or jailed for their dissident beliefs. Over the next few years, in unromantic letters written from prison to his first wife, Olga, Havel elaborated his ideas about freedom, responsibility and the ways meaning attaches itself to life. Havel was by this time famous worldwide for his dissident activity as well as his plays, and in February 1983, when a lung infection threatened to kill him, the authorities thought it prudent to release him. At liberty, he continued to write plays and irritate the regime, and by the end of the decade he was yo-yoing in and out of prison. When the Czechoslovak Communist government collapsed, in November 1989, he emerged as the natural leader of Civic Forum, a citizens’ group that convened in a few of Prague’s theaters as it handled the bloodless transition of power that became known as the Velvet Revolution—named after either the rock band The Velvet Underground or the ad slogan of an underwear manufacturer, depending on whom you ask. After Communist leaders abdicated, Czechoslovakia’s Parliament elected Havel president on December 29, 1989, a position in which he served for thirteen of the next eighteen years—first of Czechoslovakia and then, after the country split at the end of 1992, of the Czech Republic alone.
“I approach philosophy somewhat the way we approach art,” Havel once confessed. Despite his lack of method, he took a reading of Heidegger and a handful of homegrown metaphors and set forth in his writing powerful ideas about politics, truth and human nature. Havel believed that under communism and capitalism, people are threatened by what he described in his 1984 essay “Politics and Conscience” as “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power—the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.” He coined a word for this power, samopohyb, which his graceful and sensitive longtime translator, Paul Wilson, believes is derived from samopohybný (“self-propelled”). Wilson has rendered the word variously as “self-momentum” and “automatism.” In the plays, which continue Havel’s philosophy by other means, automatism appears on stage through the dramatic technique of having characters repeat one another’s lines. “I hate phrase-mongering and I resolutely reject all sterile cant,” the office worker Maxy Falk declares in The Garden Party, in which managers engage in small talk while trying to destroy one another’s careers. “But of course I hate phrase-mongering and I resolutely reject all cant,” the anti-hero Hugo Pludek in turn tells Falk, a bit later in the same scene. No one breaks the mood of fake bureaucratic chumminess by noticing the repetition. Everyone is long past the point of taking questions of originality and authenticity seriously.
The absurdity of Havel’s early plays speaks as much to the managerial nonsense and social blackmailing of capitalism as to those of late socialism. The obvious thing to say about Ptydepe, the artificial language that ruins life for the office workers of Havel’s play The Memorandum (1965), is that it’s a satire of Marxist-Leninist dogma. But it would be equally effective as a satire of American businessmen who inflict upon their subordinates Who Moved My Cheese? or any other manual of obedience packaged as managerial analysis. When, in The Garden Party, Falk proudly announces, “Main thing, I’ve managed to establish this friendly, informal atmosphere among you. That’s the way I am. Wherever I come there’s lots of fun,” it is hard not to think of the character played by Ricky Gervais in the BBC series The Office. One wonders if in early years the existence of the Iron Curtain enabled audiences in Western Europe and the United States to set a false and comforting limit to the pertinence of Havel’s plays…