Living in Truth
I spent ten years living with Vaclav Havel. It’s true we only met once, at his farmhouse near the Giant Mountains, but from the time of my mid-forties until long past the crises of middle age I thought about him just about every day. I lived through the 1948 communist takeover with him, the loss of his family property, his early success as a playwright, his years as a banned writer, his jail sentences, depression, bouts of hemorrhoids, and, finally, his fairy tale promotion from political prisoner to becoming the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia since 1948. Ours was not an easy relationship. Havel died shortly after I began researching my biography of him. My job was to sift through the ashes of his life, to live with him vicariously.
In order to understand the life of Mr. Vaclav (as one of his literary friends called him), it’s important to remember that he was born into a wealthy family in the waning days of a small, liberal democracy. Originally known as the Czecho-Slovak State, the nation was headed by Tomas G. Masaryk, a professor of philosophy who taught that democracy was a spiritual system founded on the conscience of individuals. Masaryk understood democracy was a challenge, a tall order. It required an educated citizenry, one capable of seeing through trickery of demagogues. Masaryk’s democracy failed the first time in 1938, when Havel was two years old, after the country was invaded by Nazi Germany. Democracy failed a second time in 1948, when the communists seized power. Much of Havel’s life was spent trying to resurrect the spirit of what had been lost.
Havel first encountered the ideas of democratic humanism in his father’s study. As a child he studied Walt Whitman as well as the principles of American democracy. Then in the 1950s, living as a class enemy under Stalinism, he was schooled in the Slavia Café, where he spent his Saturdays with the last remnants of an underground writing community. With a circle of close friends, including Milos Forman, who would later become a famous film director, he began exploring the literature that had been banned, Franz Kafka being the most influential. As teenagers, Havel and Forman began visiting the underground writers and poets who could no longer be published. They studied under Jiri Kolar, who preached both modernism and the importance of art as truth. The artist, Kolar taught, was a moral visionary. Together Havel and Forman went on long, drunken visits to the Shaman poet Vladimir Holan, a national treasure who wrote about metaphysical themes of life and death.
The first cracks in totalitarianism appeared in the mid-1960s. By that time Havel was a young man, in his early twenties. He had worked briefly as a stagehand before beginning to write experimental plays at a small theater known as the Balustrade, a former warehouse with a stage at one end and an enormous wood-burning stove at the other, belching smoke into the audience. People who didn’t have tickets stood outside, watching through the windows on an upstairs balcony.
The secret police had taken to visiting Havel in those early years, mistaking his sense of courtesy as a sign he might be willing to inform on his colleagues in the theater. After a few sessions the secret police decided Havel himself needed watching, and they set to bugging his apartment. They listened in to his conversations and read his mail for the next 25 years. Havel took the position that he refused to censor his own thoughts, ideas, and opinions, even when they might land him in hot water. As his brother Ivan once told me, “He didn’t imagine that he should change his way of thinking or leave the country. He thought it was the communists who should change their way of thinking or leave.”
For Havel resistance meant finding the poetic truth and then sticking to it at all costs. As he latter put it in a letter he wrote to his wife from prison, it was the writer’s job to affect “the hidden sphere of society” by revealing the absurdity of the world. In 1963, he skewered the communist system with his play The Garden Party, becoming one of the most important absurdist playwrights in Europe. The Garden Party was a phenomenon, unsettling, shocking, unlike anything that had been seen in Prague. People said Havel had created something important and special, like the Americans flying to the moon. The play was attended not only by theater goers but by the most important intellectuals in the country, including Jan Patocka, the legendary philosopher. Young people memorized the best lines, delivering them at pubs to roars of approval.
Much of Havel’s adult life was spent thinking about resistance, contemplating its limits, its costs, considering what exactly should be resisted and why. After the Prague Spring was cut short by the 1968 Soviet invasion, resistance cost Havel his career. He became unpublishable inside his own country. After Havel co-founded a human rights organization known as Charter 77 with Jan Patocka and Jiri Hajek, resistance cost him three terms in prison. What he was resisting, as he wrote at the time, was not only the totalitarian system in the Eastern Bloc but something far larger, the entire catastrophic turn of the Western imagination. As Havel wrote in an essay, Politics and Conscience, communism was but a “convex mirror” that revealed the dark side of modern rationality, including our destruction of nature, our fantasies of total control, our hyper-rationality. Totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia, he wrote, was simply one of the possible “futurologies” of the planet, an experiment in the dark side of reason that was overwhelming the globe.
Havel understood that small acts of resistance may or may not have an immediate, practical effect on the world. Many times our acts of resistance even seem futile. Over and over again Havel came to the conclusion that we must sometimes resist not for the sake of the world but for ourselves. Resistance changes our sense of responsibility. It has a way of strengthening the spine, nurturing the moral centers of the personality. And this has consequences. Resistance may or may not directly change the world but it does effect “the hidden spheres of society.” Havel’s hunch is that real change begins in these hidden spheres.
In his twenties, Havel tried to change the world through art. After he became a banned artist, he turned to petitions, essays, open letters to the government, and starting an underground (and highly illegal) press that gave a voice to the voiceless. Once communism fell, he turned to what he termed “anti-political politics,” serving as president of the nation for 13 years. He thought it was natural for a government to be run by writers, artists, poets, and intellectuals, people who thought about ethics, morality, and culture. He refused to join a political party, imagining politics not as the manipulation of power but as the art of civility.
For dissidents in Eastern Europe, the great existential question was how to face the loss of meaning under communism. For many well-known writers, such as Milan Kundera, the answer was to emigrate, to find a better place to live. Havel rejected that notion. In the face of the massive power of the state, he thought each person should resist by “living in truth.” A dissident, Havel wrote, was simply a citizen who tried to live his or her truth. Havel had seen what dogmatism and demagoguery could do to a person and to a country, and he believed that every citizen had a duty to stand up against it. He believed that it was good for the spirit to do so.
One tragedy in our own nation right now is that we have few leaders who are capable of articulating the common good. In the United States we have now had multiple generations of political leaders who understand success in terms of winning elections. Millennial voters, millions of them, have come to understand politics as the creation of division, wedge issues, the manipulation of public opinion, the production of the best slogans. Imagine a politician who questions the fundamental assumptions of that approach. When Havel became president in 1989, less than a year of leaving prison, he began his term in office with this statement, broadcast on live television:
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations of the same theme: how our country flourished, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.
Sometimes I ask myself what Havel has to offer to the world. What do we still have to learn? I would say that he is a model of a special kind of resistance, a model of the care of the soul. His way is not a heroic resistance, not a resistance of self-satisfied believers but something far more profound, a solidarity of the shaken.
Havel’s anti-heroic tendencies were perhaps his most pronounced character trait. Take, for instance, Day Five of the Velvet Revolution, November 22, 1989. On that afternoon, a crowd of 200,000 demonstrators stood in the cobblestone boulevard that stretches in front of the National Museum. Havel flashed a “V for Victory” sign from a balcony. His hair was windblown, his mustache thin and wispy, giving him the appearance, as Timothy Garton Ash once said, “of nothing so much as a friendly walrus.”
Radim Palous, a philosopher, spoke first to the demonstrators, then Vaclav Maly, an underground priest. When Havel’s turn came, he spoke while gazing downward, observing his feet. From any other speaker, the results would have been disastrous, but Havel’s slow, hesitant voice came across as authentic, even fresh. Having listened to the triumphalism of communist functionaries for forty-one years, Havel’s shy, conflicted, and anti-heroic nature seemed electrifying.
As president, Havel often talked about what the rest of us could learn from dissidents. In dozens of speeches, he also spoke about the absurdity of the “post-modern” world. Havel’s great insight was that communism and capitalism share more in common that we might care to admit. Both systems are obsessed with what can be measured, counted, and quantified. In the Leninist-Stalinist vision of the world, society is a simple machine whose levers can be manipulated by anyone who has undergone the right ideological education. In Havel’s view, communism was simply a “convex mirror” that magnified the crises of modernity, including the tendency to see ourselves and the world as a simple machine.
As president Havel was rarely interested in the machinery of politics as much as the politics of being. It was not just that he was an artist, or that he read Heidegger, or that his presidential speeches addressed philosophical ideas. For Havel, like Masaryk before him, democracy had a spiritual foundation.
When I ask myself what I have learned from Havel, it is that we should not turn away from the darkness in our lives. As a playwright, Havel had been convinced that we can only understand meaning through the experience of living without it. He set out to disturb his audiences, convinced that one had to fully experience the loss of meaning in order to find it again. His life is impossible to understand without seeing the importance of his isolation, years in prison, and post-prison depression.
At crucial turning points in Havel’s life he was given opportunities to leave communist Czechoslovakia, opportunities which meant the chance to live in an open, democratic society where he would have the freedom to write. Each time he refused to emigrate. He was mysteriously bound to understanding totalitarianism –and to struggling against it. Today it is common to hear progressives, young and old, talk about their desire to leave our own country if their own political party should lose an election. It is an understandable human emotion. Havel took the opposite approach, rooting himself in the brokenness of a fallen world and doing his best to fix it.
David Barton is Associate Professor of humanities at Northern New Mexico College. He is the author of Havel: Unfinished Revolution, published by Pittsburgh University Press.
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