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Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

That Old-Time Religion

The surprising source of Václav Havel's hope.

The Communist authorities never knew just what to do with Vaclav Havel. And it has come to pass that Western intellectuals don't know just what to do with him, either. That's because, as the poetry of action transmuted into the prose of reflection, his inner life turned out to be as unlikely as his outer life. This hero of sorts is also a fellow intellectual. Very good. An intellectual who became a practicing politician. Even better. Just the sort of person whose utterances should regularly appear in the pages of the New York Review of Books. He became the president of a whole country. Best of all. So much reflected glory for intellectuals to bask in.

And so refreshing in his politics. "Antipolitical politics," Havel calls his position, and we understand. He rebels against the all-too-familiar line-your-pockets, business-as-usual politics that we'd rebel against, too, were we ever to have his prominence. See his integrity in adapting for the nineties the countercultural vision he and we—some of us—came to in the sixties. No wonder thousands of America's young flock to Prague to find authenticity in public life and pubs. And such style. Still wearing jeans and sweaters when he can. Cool and charming, well-read and well-spoken. He is his own man.

And yet. Aren't some of his comments just a tad strange? This cosmopolitan can sound almost as bothered by "godless communism" as the squares and rednecks of the fifties. The communism part we can understand, since, as it was actually practiced, proved to be a failed experiment, however noble in theory, and also it sent him to prison. But the "godless" part? Why that accusatory fixation with atheism? Despite his rearing in Roman Catholicism, he's not a churchgoer, thank God, not churchy at all. But he can seldom get through a speech without bringing in The Transcendent—yes, his usage brings capital letters to mind. Well, let Havel be Havel, and pull the veil over the quirks that any self-actualizing figure is ...

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