Havel’s Specter: On Václav Havel

Havel’s Specter: On Václav Havel

The Czech playwright’s enduring ideas about politics, truth and human nature.


“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 of The 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.

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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.

In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel claimed that he and his fellow dissidents were not rebelling against a classic dictatorship—a small elite, short on ideas, whose hold on power is unstable, sharply limited by its country’s borders and reliant on military and police enforcement. Havel pointed out that, thanks to the Warsaw Pact, the Communists’ grip on power was firm and geographically extensive. Moreover, he credited the Communists with a flexible ideology that even in the 1970s still exerted a “certain hypnotic charm,” because of its powerful insights into the social conflicts between capitalists and proletarians of the nineteenth century. In Havel’s opinion, the line separating ruler from ruled in Czechoslovakia ran not between one social group and another but rather “through each person.” By means of petty hypocrisies, such as a greengrocer’s decision to ritually display a Communist Party slogan in his shop window in order to lubricate his dealings with local authorities, Czechs and Slovaks became complicit in their oppression. “Each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie,” Havel wrote. What prevented rebellion was “the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.”

In Havel’s analysis, in other words, the basis of Communist power was consumerism. The Communist regimes were not different in kind from the West; they were merely, to borrow a phrase, the avant-garde, and Havel thought the West should consider them “a kind of warning.” In hand-to-hand combat, the dissident’s antagonist was banal greed, a force not destined to pass out of the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. A post-totalitarian regime didn’t need to execute rebels. All it had to do was reward conformists who mouthed its empty slogans, the true meaning of which was always, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” When one weighed material comforts against something as ineffable, and unpriceable, as integrity, standing up for one’s beliefs could seem like a utopian gesture—a moral luxury that was “admirable, perhaps, but quite pointless.” As Havel emphasized in his open letter to Husák, “We are all being publicly bribed.”

* * *

Once automatism has permeated a society, it becomes a struggle to conduct oneself with integrity even in aspects of life that have little or nothing to do with politics. Havel once recalled that when he worked at a brewery in the early 1970s, he met a man who loved beermaking despite “the slovenly indifference to work that socialism encourages.” In his enthusiasm, the man criticized the brewery’s management, only to be fired as a political saboteur, having turned himself into “the ‘dissident’ of the Eastern Bohemian Brewery.” If the miasma of post-totalitarianism is everywhere, so too is the potential for dissent.

The first step out of automatism, Havel wrote in one of his letters to Olga, is the recognition of absurdity, which comes only to those “whose very being thirsts after meaning” and who are pained to find it missing. The recognition provokes in the individual an “existential revolution,” which Havel described in terms borrowed from Heidegger as a wish to fight free of existence-in-the-world and to struggle toward Being. Theater is particularly good at delivering the recognition of absurdity, Havel believed, because a play is inextricable from its context: “I consider everything ‘around’ the theater important too: the atmosphere in the performance space and the building, the genius loci, the life in the foyer, the exhibitions, the programs and posters, the comportment of the box-office attendants and the ushers, etc., etc.” Because each performance of a play is created in an atmosphere specific to the people in the room acting and witnessing it, it constitutes an organic force of a special kind—“a living instrument,” Havel wrote, “of social self-awareness.” The concept of social self-awareness is key in Havel’s thinking; almost any form of expression, if allowed to develop freely, can communicate it.

Television, however, tends to pull its scriptwriters into automatism, the realm of inhuman power and artificial language, Havel argued. His attempts in his letters to Olga to explain the difference between theater and television strangely complement the ideas of the American media critic George W.S. Trow, whose essay “Within the Context of No-Context” was published in The New Yorker in 1980, while Havel was serving his sentence for subversion of the republic. Television, according to Trow, tries to convince viewers that they are consuming it in a universal context, which is to say no context at all, thus isolating them psychosocially, stranding them in an unmediated dependency on television itself.

The Czechs are inveterate mushroom-pickers, and I once heard Paul Wilson liken social self-awareness to podhoubí, the mycelium—which is the network of underground filaments by which a mushroom spreads—though I forget whether the metaphor was Wilson’s or Havel’s. (Near the end of The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud, who spent his childhood in Moravia, likens the relation of dreams to the unconscious to that of a mushroom to its mycelium.) Theater is capable of bringing a group of people into a new understanding of themselves, in Havel’s opinion. “A single performance for a few dozen people,” he wrote to Olga, “can be incomparably more important than a television serial viewed and talked about by the entire country.” Havel’s faith may seem quaint today, when impact is measured in sales or page views. But he insisted on it for other forms of art as well. If only twenty people read a novel, he wrote in his open letter to Husák, “the fact of its existence would still be important.” As “the main instrument of society’s self-awareness,” culture is like a vitamin. A society can survive without it for a while, subsisting instead on the “slick, trivial, and predigested” entertainment products of a totalitarian regime, but not forever. Censorship is not the only way to starve a society; it can also be deprived of essential nutrients by a diet of junk.

* * *

Brought by art to an awareness of his entrapment, the individual might be tempted to despair. He can’t, after all, single-handedly stop the destruction of the world. Havel’s position was that the individual should start with the development of one’s self. To do this, one has to become responsible in a series of concentric social contexts that Havel calls “horizons”—they function rather like the circles of Emerson’s Transcendentalism—against which one’s actions take on meaning. The last horizon might be called God, though Havel didn’t insist on the word. He did, however, insist that “responsibility establishes identity.” Responsibility is “the knife we use to carve out our own inimitable features in the panorama of Being,” he wrote. In Havel’s case, he came to a critical sense of responsibility through the ambiguous letter he wrote in 1977, appealing for release from jail. The authorities had claimed that it represented an abandonment of his dissident commitments, and although that hadn’t been his intention, after long self-questioning he nonetheless acknowledged the failure as his own. “We all tried to talk him out of it,” one friend later recalled, but as another explained, once Havel was convinced that the error was his, he set out to “provoke the police to arrest him again,” which they did. Much of his special charisma in the dissident movement stemmed from this decision to get rearrested. He acted as if such a sacrifice—in atonement for a failing that few people blamed him for—held meaning, thereby reclaiming the power to determine the meaning of his life, even in his errors.

“Whether all is really lost or not,” Havel explained in one of his letters to Olga, “depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.” He meant the proposition to be true of everyone. He believed that change would come to Communist Czechoslovakia when ordinary people across the country began to insist, as he did, on living fully human lives. His faith in the effect of this “antipolitical politics” was like his faith in art; though such a politics is “hidden, indirect, long-term, and hard to measure,” he was sure it would prevail. From millions of individual existential revolutions there would come a sociopolitical one, ushering in a “post-democratic” society, which he imagined would be heartfelt, local, improvised, based on trust and regulated only by a few “open, dynamic, and small” government structures—in other words, the dissident community writ large.

But Havel also knew that the first person to try to call a corrupt system’s bluff is likely to be perceived by others as “an eccentric, a fool, a Don Quixote,” and to encounter firm resistance. In his play The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), an inventor of robots retracts his grand indictment of technology as soon as an attractive young colleague takes his criticism personally and cries. In Audience, Unveiling and Protest, plays Havel wrote in the 1970s as his identity as a dissident was crystallizing, there is always a Havel figure attempting to live in truth—a pursuit that the other characters in the play try to seduce him into abandoning. When he persists, they try to make him feel guilty for causing their lives to look hollow and tainted by comparison. “I can be allowed to wallow in the slime,” wails a brewery foreman in Audience, after the dissident who works for him has declined to fill out secret police reports on himself. “But a fine gentleman like you can’t participate.” By the time of Largo Desolato (1984), the identity of the dissident has become so encrusted with the resentments and expectations of others that Havel imagines it as a kind of absurdist crucifixion, under which a figure very much like himself breaks down while wife, mistress and friends sling his existentialist sayings back at him. “I believe you do love me!” crows the mistress. “Without love no one is a complete person! We only achieve an identity through the person next to us!—isn’t that how you put it in your Ontology of the Human Self?!” As if to forestall further resentment, the failure of dissidents becomes an ostinato in the late plays. In Temptation (1985), a scientist who steps outside his technocratic world discovers no more than a snare laid to catch heretics; in Redevelopment (1987), a young architect with a “mysterious inner voice” learns to ignore it.

* * *

Even as Havel the essayist looked forward to tipping his nation into harmonious dissidence, Havel the dramatist seems to have sensed that few people have the grace or nerve to respond well to a moral example. As late as 1986, after all, Charter 77 had gathered only about 1,200 signatures in a nation of 15 million people. From the evidence in To the Castle and Back, Havel’s memoir of his years as president, the dramatist proved the more accurate political philosopher.

Havel’s memoir was braided from three ribbons: a long-distance interview with the journalist Karel Hvíždala that extended the question-and-answer format of Havel’s autobiography Disturbing the Peace (1986); excerpts from memos Havel had sent to his staff between 1993 and 2003, ranging from a lamentation on late-socialist décor (a corridor in the Castle “still looks like a district House of Culture from the era of normalization”) to a wish for a ruse that will keep the draft of one of his speeches out of the hands of a rival; and diarylike entries written in 2005 and 2006 as Havel was pulling the book together.

The invented genre established a continuity of style with Havel’s early work. In his decision to make a collage of chronologies, for example, Havel was returning to an experiment he first used in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, which so mixed up sequence that at one point the married philosopher-hero lets his innocent young secretary in the front door just after he has hidden a chronologically later version of her, with whom he is romantically compromised, in his wardrobe. Toward the end of the memoir, Havel drew on another of his old theatrical devices, repeating short passages from his presidential memos, as if to emphasize their absurdity: “I would ask Mr Rechtácek to repair and refill my lighter and send it back” appears several times, as does “We need a longer hose for watering.” The self-deprecating implication seems to be that Havel’s presidential self was a somewhat automatized character.

Was there a continuity of philosophy as well? There needn’t have been, according to Aviezer Tucker’s The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence From Patocka to Havel (2000). When Havel accepted power in late 1989, Tucker argues, he perforce shifted from an ethics of moral conviction (I choose to do X because it authentically expresses my true self) to one of social responsibility (I choose to do X because I reckon it will cause something good to happen, or avert something bad). For example, in 1991, when Havel signed a bill banning StB collaborators from government and civil service jobs, he acknowledged the bill’s flaws but pleaded that he could not veto it, because as president he had to balance a variety of political goals, including the civil rights of individuals, the nation’s wish to punish Communist-era malefactors and the stability of a young government. He explained that he could no longer afford the sort of “morally upright yet immensely risky act of civil disobedience typical of a dissident.” In Havel’s three accounts of himself in his memoir—against the imagined horizon-audiences of future historians, his presidential staff and himself in retirement—a picture emerges of a man often petulant, sometimes maladroit, but always honorable in his intentions, reaching in an altered world toward the same goals that had inspired him as a dissident.

* * *

In his memoir Havel owned up to stupidities freely. He wrote, for example, that when he had first gone to the Castle, it had not been his intention to distance himself from Civic Forum, the movement that had launched him into the presidency. He had simply been naïve: “the Castle swallowed me up whole.” He also included in the memoir an embarrassing memo he had written in 1998 to his staff, in which he apologized for having dressed them down while, unbeknownst to him, a television crew was filming. But where his motives had been, in his opinion, pure but misunderstood, he took back nothing. He refused to regret having revealed an StB collaborator on the eve of the June 1990 elections, or having volunteered Prague as the site for the secret Middle East peace talks that were later held in Oslo, or having said that Czechs ought to apologize for their eye-for-an-eye expulsion of Germans from the Sudetenland at the end of World War II.

He did, however, regret having trusted economic experts to formulate a just and effective way to privatize the businesses owned by the Communist state. In particular, he was sorry he had trusted Václav Klaus, finance minister from 1990 to 1992, prime minister from 1992 to 1997, and since 2003 Havel’s successor as president. An apostle of Friedrich Hayek and Margaret Thatcher, Klaus had demanded early a “market economy without any adjectives,” as he called it—a market relatively unfettered by government regulation. His privatization of small companies such as shops and restaurants did not go as badly as Havel feared at the time, though Havel pointed out later that it did give a number of mafiosi their start in life. But the privatization of large companies was something else altogether.

On Klaus’s advice, the government issued vouchers in the early 1990s with which citizens could bid for shares of state-owned companies. Unfortunately, in the absence of any financial disclosure laws, only the well-connected could figure out which companies were likely to prosper, and the best-connected were the nomenklatura, the former Communist elite—especially those who had belonged to or collaborated with the StB. Most citizens sold their vouchers to investment funds, most of the funds were managed by banks, and all the banks were controlled by the state. Voucher privatization thus muddied the lines of accountability without really taking anything off the state’s hands. The way was clear for the nomenklatura, the ex-StB and a rising class of new politicians to associate themselves in a mafia in order to strip the supposedly privatized companies of their assets—a process the Czechs nicknamed “tunneling”—while the government continued to subsidize them by forcing banks to eat their bad loans. The Czech Republic was not the only former Warsaw Pact country to suffer from this moral and economic syndrome, which Havel dubbed “postcommunism.” An elite, taking advantage of deregulation and a mystifyingly complex governance structure, plunders the institutions entrusted to it and figures out a clever way to stiff taxpayers with the bill: the really curious thing about postcommunism is that capitalist countries have lately suffered from it too.

After Havel’s retirement, Klaus suggested in articles and interviews that the role of dissidents in the breakdown of Czechoslovak Communism had been exaggerated, and that by passively living through the regime, ordinary citizens had made a contribution just as important and no less heroic. The suggestion so irritated Havel that in his memoir he hesitated to attribute it to Klaus by name, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Klaus was trying out the victor’s privilege of rewriting history. Today Klaus still occupies the Castle. (In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, Paul Wilson observed that Klaus continued his rewrite even in his eulogy of his predecessor, describing Havel as a mere reflection of his times—a “symbol” onto whom “people projected their hopes.”) Toward the end of his memoir, Havel observed bleakly that Klaus’s party had slipped neatly into the grooves that the Communist Party had formerly carved in Czech society, market fundamentalism having replaced communism as the ideology to which careerists feel obliged to swear fealty. “The revolt against postcommunism,” Havel wrote, “has been postponed.”

“Words can be silenced in two ways,” Havel wrote from prison in 1982, musing on Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a copy of which he had found there. “Either you ascribe such weight to them that no one dares utter them aloud, or you take away any weight they might have, and they turn into air.” In his dissident years, Havel lived under the first dispensation: he was sent to prison for what he dared to say. In his decade and a half as president, he lived under the second, witnessing firsthand the transformation of his country’s political culture. His challenge was to become a canny politician while remaining a moral one, but he was always a writer, even when in internal exile from his artistic identity: a figure of integrity in a darkening landscape, where a sense of responsibility kept him at work later than anyone expected.

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