Václav Havel: 1936–2011

Václav Havel, the playwright and dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the Czech Republic in 1993, died on Sunday.

Havel was still president when I went to Prague to teach English in the fall of 2002. I was there in early 2003 when his term as president ended. For the last month of his time in office, he placed a large neon heart above Prague Castle (where the president lives and works) to show his love and gratitude for the Czech people. During my year there, I not only learned how to pronounce Václav (vahts-lahv), I read a collection of his essays, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. I found many of his writings courageous and inspiring, and his idea of “living in truth” is particularly powerful. Here are a few passages I underlined in my copy of Open Letters:

From “Letter to Alexander Dubček”:

There are moments when a politician can achieve real political success only by turning aside from the complex network of relativized political considerations, analyses, and calculations, and behaving simply as an honest person. The sudden assertion of human criteria within a dehumanizing framework of political manipulation can be like a flash of lightning illuminating a dark landscape. And truth is suddenly truth again, reason is reason, and honor honor (48–49).

From “It Always Makes Sense to Tell the Truth”:

I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates. And when this happened, man began to lose his inner identity, that is, his identity with himself… It’s as if we were playing for a number of different teams at once, each with different uniforms, and as though–and this is the main thing–we didn’t know which one we ultimately belonged to, which one of those teams was really ours (94–95).

From “The Power of the Powerless”:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them (133).

If Western young people so often discover that retreat to an Indian monastery fails them as an individual or group solution, then this is obviously because, and only because, it lacks that element of universality, since not everyone can retire to an ashram. Christianity is an example of an opposite way out: it is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it. In other words, the parallel polis points beyond itself and makes sense only as an act of deepening one’s responsibility to and for the whole, as a way of discovering the most appropriate locus for this responsibility, not as an escape from it (195–196).

From “Politics and Conscience”:

I think that, with respect to the relation of western Europe to the totalitarian systems, no error could be greater than the one looming largest: that of a failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are—a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself…. They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own expansion (259).

It is… becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters (270).

From “Six Asides About Culture”:

The more an artist compromises to oblige power and gain advantages, the less good art we can expect from him; the more freely and independently, by contrast, he pursues his own vision… the better his chances of creating something good—though it remains only a chance: what is uncompromising need not automatically be good (281).

From “Stories and Totalitarianism”:

[The totalitarian system] began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect, then made that aspect absolute, and finally reduced all of history to that one aspect. The exciting variety of history was discarded in favor of an orderly, easily understood interplay of “historical laws,” “social groups,” and “relations of production,” so pleasing to the eye of the scientist. But this gradually expelled from history the very thing that gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story (335).

From “New Year’s Address” (1990, after he had been elected president for the first time):

Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would also be wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all (392).