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Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

Václav Havel's Improbable Life

How "in" has Vaclav Havel been? Barbra Streisand announced that he could smoke in her presence. Arthur Miller called him "the first surrealist president." Five thousand of America's glitterati gathered at New York's hip Cathedral of Saint John the Divine to inform him of their pleasure at his being one of them. The new celebrity. Flashbulbs popped, and one published photo even had the guest of honor in it. Music flowed—Paul Simon, Dizzy Gillespie, Placido Domingo, Roberta Flack. The podium received a train of speakers. Paul Newman grinned and gushed. Ron Silvers explained to the foreigner that "we" understand, since in our country "we" don't have full freedom, either. Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Susan Sarandon, and who all else spoke of Havel, of themselves and Havel. Everyone spoke except Havel. They spoke of a man who could say, doubtless with no particular event in mind, "I haven't lost my sense of seeing the absurd dimension of things."

This was February 1990, and all Havel had had to do to be welcomed into the ranks of the celebs was to become president of his country. Which, admittedly, he had done in a rather dramatic way, moving from prison to palace, cell to castle, in a matter of months. This was enough to get him a lavish welcome at the nation's other capital, Washington, too, where he got to give a speech to Congress, with a truly foreign accent on morality. In no time, he was installed in the media's shrine du jour as "one of the Ten Most Interesting People in the World," as "the world's ranking political saint." Or, for those preferring caution, "We are getting to be fanatical about (at least, fans of)" him. Havelmania. Vaclav Havel, Superstar.

Now, unquestionably, in this case the popular and the powerful bestowed their kudos on a most worthy recipient. His life story is even more sensational than those who came to it late imagine. His fellow Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who in many ways is his opposite number, said of Havel that "there are cases (very rare) where comparing a life to a work of art is justified." Except, of course, that no realistic novelist would dare touch a plot line such as Havel's. Nor is his the only marvel of improbability. What the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova decades ago called the True Twentieth Century has offered them up in profusion. It is a century marked distinctively by the vast experiment of totalitarianism, with all its depredations of the human spirit, and of those not few souls who resisted. It is also a century from which, at its end, those who are self-absorbed in their plush comforts have averted their gaze and drawn few lessons.

One who comes to Havel through Solzhenitsyn is apt to see something of a rerun in the trajectory of the West's reception. The prison writers come like Lazarus from another planet, if not from the dead, come to tell us all, and we say, "That is not it, at all." Those whom our local deities first lionize they then cast aside. True, the Czech, for being less alien to our sensibilities than the Russian, retains his cranny in as much of a pantheon of heroes as an antiheroic age can manage to maintain. He elicits from us, who have learned just enough to pigeonhole him, not our opprobrium, merely our neglect.

Michael Ignatieff understands. Solzhenitsyn, "the last of the great Russian intellectuals," returns to a homeland with "no time or patience for the moral sage." As for Havel, who acknowledges his indebtedness to Solzhenitsyn, his "voice is fading," too, "and with it the myth he embodies risks being forgotten." With both men, their moral authority was greatest when they stood outside and against illegitimate power. After their plot line climaxes in a certain victory, we send them off into a denouement of eclipse. And with their passing from our range of vision, "a chapter in the intellectual history of Europe may be closing." And closing too soon, too soon.

It is not that they have stopped talking. In particular, Havel, the younger one by 18 years, trots the globe, compelled, like some Ancient Mariner, to drive his message home to the nations. He could explain our century to us and point out ways to make the next one more hopeful and humane. He keeps talking; his plays and essays now form a substantial body of wisdom. But who is listening? There is not yet a single book-length study of his thinking. There is only one biography, and apart from its scattered stabs at hagiography, it does not always rise to the level of the pedestrian.

Havel's life can be periodized: his work in theater, his role as a "dissident" (the quotation marks follow his preference, since he dislikes the term), and his rise to power as his country's first post-Communist president. This progression is without a scintilla of inevitability, and no one has been more surprised by it than Havel himself. The playwright was a reluctant "dissident"; the "dissident" was a reluctant president. By contrast, his writings display continuity primarily. The plays explore fundamental human problems to which the essays then grope for answers. His basic world-view was established early. Then its themes were developed and expanded. The foundation held firm; the edifice was, and is, under ongoing construction.

Indeed, for the sycophantic, the best thing might be not to study Havel too closely, since disillusionment lurks. Those who would happily claim him for the sixties counterculture have too small a thread for their fabricated view to hold up. True, the spunk of outrageous nonconformity tugged at a free spirit dwelling in a drab, keep-your-head-down land, and (John) Lennon does beat Lenin. But when one, such as Jefferson Morley, so folds Havel into the sixties that even the statesman's vaulting speech to the U.S. Congress is described as "an effort to articulate a mature counterculturalism," he is projecting himself, not characterizing the speaker, whose youthful excitements have become more a fond memory than a guiding light.

Nor do those who claim him for postmodernism, that bastard offspring of the sixties, disclose much family resemblance. Caroline Bayard, trying to link Jean Francois Lyotard's theorizing and Havel's plays, concedes that "it may seem hard to imagine two more different manifestations of postmodernity" than these, and ends up proving not her thesis but her concession. Closer by a mile is Aviezer Tucker, who aligns Havel's values with "Solzhenitsyn's: Christian mercy, sacrifice, responsibility to God and society," and who doesn't like them at all.

The defining event of Havel's life occurred when he was 12. Communism came to Czechoslovakia. Apart from that, he would have grown up to be a very rich man, perhaps the richest man in his country. The paternal grandfather, born a poor laborer, ended his life fabulously wealthy, having made a killing in Prague real estate. Philosophically inclined, he logged a spell as a foreign diplomat under Tomas Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first democratic president. The father found his entrepreneurial niche as a prominent restaurateur. "Rich boy" Vaclav (Wenceslaus in Latin, as in Good King and his city's main square) was tended by maids, governesses, cooks, chauffeurs—until 1948, when the family's assets were seized.

That a youth deprived of university attendance (though not of military conscription) would soon turn to writing plays is as unlikely as all the subsequent transitions in this life. But give the Marxists their due: for once, their class analysis identified the enemy correctly—unless one prefers to think that they turned him into one.

Havel's theater career began inauspiciously enough, as a stagehand, but he soon turned to playwriting. He hit the boards at just the time when Czech culture experienced a tremendous and altogether unforeseeable boom. This stunning creative outburst comprised various genres—fiction, cinema, jazz and rock music—with Kundera's novels and the Oscar-winning film Closely Watched Trains remaining among the best-known outcomes.

But theater led the way. Small theaters popped up in such profusion that by the midsixties there were 50 companies in Prague alone and some 700 productions per season in this small country. One new house was the Theater on the Balustrade, under the bold leadership of Jan Grossman, who selected Havel as his right-hand man. Many worthy new playwrights surfaced, though the names of Pavel Kohout, Ivan Kl'ma, Josef Topol, and Ladislav Smocek did not get imprinted on the world's imagination. Havel's did. (We also know such Czech gifts as Tom Stoppard to British drama and Milos Forman, a schoolboy friend of Havel, to American film.)

In 1963, Havel's first play, The Garden Party, appeared; and Arthur Miller visited him. Next, in 1965, came The Memorandum. In just three years, it was playing at New York's Public Theater, with Havel present. All the "golden age" ferment brought a visit in 1967 from British critic Kenneth Tynan, who pronounced his verdict that "Prague has a strong claim to be regarded as the theatrical capital of Europe." Havel went on to write more than a dozen plays, most of them snapped up by houses in Europe and America. Such was his stature that Samuel Beckett himself would dedicate a play to him.

There is a fittingness here, even apart from any intrusion of politics into the story. Czech theater in the 1960s was dominated by Theater of the Absurd, and the chief influences on it came from Beckett and Eugene Ionesco—Irish and Romanian, respectively—both writing in French in France, both casting long shadows over European-language drama everywhere, both performed in Prague in the 1960s. Absurdism can be understood as a response to the world that Nietzsche made. If God is dead, then also gone is the familiar basis for claiming certainty about purpose in human life—and, with it, guidance for right conduct in daily affairs. By dwelling on the metaphysical level of rumination, Theater of the Absurd is, "by a strange paradox," according to its premier chronicler, Martin Esslin, "also a symptom of what probably comes nearest to being a genuine religious quest in our age," for it is "an effort to make man aware of the ultimate realities of his condition."

The Theater of the Absurd seems dated now. Rather than grappling, as it did, with Nietzschean questions, our moment in time has adopted Nietzschean answers and moved on to second-level concerns of race, gender, and class. So already we need an act of historical imagination to reconstruct how central to the twentieth century has been the concept of the absurd. The theater of it spread everywhere, for it spoke to the human condition worldwide. Albert Camus, for one, accepted absurdity as our condition; but, finding it impossible to live according to it, he also rebelled against it. And even now, when spiritual yearnings turn our minds to metaphysical reflection, absurdity retains its resonance.

In a totalitarian state with officially mandated atheism, metaphysical absurdity is compounded by social absurdity. As Havel would later specify—for example, in his powerful essay "The Power of the Powerless"—Communism requires that citizens under its rule "must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it." Especially for a people with democracy in their recent history, the unfree life would—daily, grindingly—seem absurd.

Although Czechoslovakia's creative efflorescence in the 1960s startled by following the very dreary cultural scene established by the Communist takeover, it is not as if this civilized nation was without prior literary sources to draw on. Two of them were particularly influential on Havel and his colleagues: Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek. Of Kafka, who, though he wrote in German, was nonetheless a Prague man, W. H. Auden has declared that he stands in relation to the modern age as Dante did to the medieval, that is, as the central literary figure whose work characterizes the distinctive cultural tenor of his era. Kafka explicated absurdity decades before the theater took up the theme, and he drove it to its logical conclusion of nihilism. Hasek's 1921 novel, Good Soldier Sveyk (or Schweik), describes a simpleton who, with unpredictably sly humor, somehow always gets by—a little-man theme with special resonance for a buffeted little nation.

As Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz explains in The Silenced Theatre, it is the fusion of the Kafkaesque and Schweikian moods that gives Czech drama of the 1960s its distinctive voice. It features the tension "between man's flaw—his failure to understand why he lives, and his glory—his indomitable spirit which cannot be subdued by the realization of his limits." The merging of "metaphysical anguish and low-life clowning" is nowhere more evident than in Havel's plays. Limning these moods allowed Havel and his confreres to address the Czechs' psychological and spiritual experiences without overt reference to their political and social conditions. Yet, as Goetz-Stankiewicz is careful to specify, the Kafka/Hasek tension also spoke beyond the immediate Czech context to twentieth-century anxieties broadly, and thus the plays could travel well.

On an early presidential trip to receive an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Havel explained the centrality of Kafka, the Prague Jew, for him. He went so far as to assert, "I sometimes feel that I'm the only one who really understands Kafka," and "I'm even secretly persuaded that, if Kafka did not exist, and if I were a better writer than I am, I would have written his works myself." With Kafka, he feels "a profound, banal, and therefore utterly vague sensation of culpability, as though my very existence were a kind of sin." It is precisely this thoroughly Kafkan "innermost feeling of being excluded, of belonging nowhere, a state of disinheritance" that impels his "longing for an unattainable order of things." Speaking here particularly "on the subject of Franz Kafka and my presidency," he credits whatever success he is having to "this constant doubt about myself and my right to hold the office." And he concludes his acceptance speech in perfect Kafka fashion: "I'm ashamed to repeat that I accept it with a sense of shame."

It is precisely in Kafkan terms that Havel understands the Theater of the Absurd. He calls it "the most significant theatrical phenomenon of the twentieth century," because "it shows man having lost his fundamental metaphysical certainty, the experience of the absolute, his relationship to eternity, the sensation of meaning—in other words, having lost the ground under his feet." However, if the logical Kafkan end of absurdist drama would seem to be nihilistic despair, Havel goes out of his way to counter that "the plays are not—and this is important—nihilistic. They are merely a warning." Far from expressing "a loss of faith in the meaning of life," the "sensation of absurdity … is, to the contrary, inseparable from the experience of meaning." If currently "we are living without hope," Havel returns time and again in his essays to the theme of hope. Thus do his essays reply to his plays.

Havel's first play, and one of his best, The Garden Party, illustrates what human beings are up against in a modern world dominated by bureaucracy, which is nowhere so oppressively monolithic as under scientific socialism. As the play opens, the Pludek parents, fretting about their two adult sons' futures, push dull son Hugo to attend a garden party of the Liquidation Office in hopes of his finding some position. (Liquidation sounds ominous but is left unexplained.) Once there, this passive nonentity hears the officially sanctioned mumbo-jumbo, begins mimicking the verbal idiocies, and finds in its meaninglessness his perfect element. At a stroke, he becomes the self-possessed leader of the Liquidation Office, then of the Inauguration Office, then of a brand-new and omnipotent Central Committee for Inauguration and Liquidation charged with liquidating liquidation. The Schweikian little man transplanted into the current Czech setting meets its endemic Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and he conquers. But at a cost. When he returns home, his parents and he discuss Hugo Pludek's success, but they do so entirely in the third person. Gone is his identity as a distinct individual recognizable to himself or others.

Havel noted with approval someone's remark that the main hero of The Garden Party is the cliche. Havel added, "The cliche organizes life; it expropriates people's identity." With action sparse and character development unmotivated, the play, like much absurdist drama, is dominated by language. Havel inventively puts on stage all sorts of diverting and diversionary verbal hijinks to satirize the language of bureaucracy as nonsensical. Audiences anywhere would rock with laughter at the innumerable hilarious lines. Snatches from old poems of the English Renaissance would remind them that once words—and human life itself—had meaning. But Czech audiences, in particular, would recognize in the socialist-sounding patter their very own linguistic environment and would be cut to the quick.

Havel once cited the opening of the Gospel of John—"In the beginning was the Word"—not only to agree that "the Word of God is the source of God's entire creation" but also to locate human distinctiveness; for, as Renaissance poems also assumed, "that part of God's creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God's miracles—the miracle of human speech." Because "language is the most proper medium of self-awareness," whoever controls it also controls minds and hearts.

The Memorandum is devoted explicitly to this issue. Here bureaucrats invent a perfectly scientific language in which every word has only one meaning. They call their artificial language Ptydepe, a word as unpronounceable as most others in its lexicon. If it is logical to make common words short, there are oh-so-many words that some get quite long, and the prize goes to "wombat," with 319 letters. Not even its inventors can master this Esperanto gone mad. But we see its intent: to turn out automata who have been denied all the nuances and pleasures that come from the vagaries of a language that has developed over time, along with the human culture that it carries. Havel's plays variously show the near impossibility of establishing authentic identity and finding meaningful activity in a world that places every impediment in the way of such fulfillment. How to be a truly human being today? That is our problem.

If it is unlikely for a writer to move from absurdist plays to philosophical ruminations about civic affairs, the events that triggered Havel's move were not unlikely. Prague's lively theater scene was too free-wheeling—or just too free—for the government's comfort. Indeed, part of the crackling excitement within the theater ranks came from the sense that they were getting away with something. In a totally politicized society, even ostensibly nonpolitical theater is in some way political, because it is, in Havel's words, "a manifestation of uncensored life."

And so we come to those traumatic events of 1968 that headlines around the world christened the Prague Spring. One cannot understate the importance of the theater as a precipitating cause of it. Alexander Dubcek, an obscure functionary, became the nation's leader and announced as his agenda "socialism with a human face." Hopes soared deliriously. Havel wrote Dubcek a letter to buck him up. Four months later, Soviet tanks entered Prague and smashed all hopes. Resisters switched street signs and mired some tanks in dead-end alleys—inspiring but ineffectual. Student Jan Palach indelibly put his name into Czech history—and now onto fixed streets signs—by burning himself to death. And a gray sameness descended. Again. The bright cultural life got stuffed back down in its underground hidey-hole.

(A personal aside: Some American students and I, arriving in Prague one year to the month after the tanks did, incredibly made happenstance contact with Czech students who showed us where their friend and budding poet Jan Zajic also immolated himself, though without attracting the world's attention. The Czech students had an explosively angry exchange with policemen who swarmed their "sacred" site along Wenceslaus Square when we arrived there; and thus began my interest in Czechoslovakia.)

As an acknowledged leader in the theater, Havel could not shed the mantle, and he became, willy-nilly, embroiled in public life. For example, as a board member of Tvar (Face), an officially sanctioned literary monthly trying to accommodate non-Communists, he fought against its suppression. This struggle proved, in hindsight, "to be far more important in my life than it first appeared to be," for it was his "private school of politics" and propelled him from being "a kind of working stiff" at the theater toward becoming a "dissident."

The mid-1970s saw the now-blacklisted playwright increasingly distracted by the moral obligation to act on behalf of his oppressed fellows. A long and thoughtful open letter on the state of the state was addressed to "Dear Dr. [Gustav] Husak," overlord of Communist Czechoslovakia, and signed "Vaclav Havel, Writer." The next year brought the arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe, a long-haired but not merely outlandish rock group; though mild-mannered and not a charismatic speaker, Havel led the protests and ineluctably established himself as Public Enemy #1. These protesters became the nucleus of the Charter 77 movement a year later.

The resulting document, participating in the widespread Helsinki Watch spirit, gained more than 1,200 signatories and became well-known. Havel called it "a citizens' initiative," promulgating no alternative political program but simply demanding that laws be observed and basic human rights be respected. For all its communal character, it was, according to biographer Eda Kriseova, "Havel's baby, whether he admitted it or not." Havel was one of the three appointed spokesmen for the group. Another was a mentor of his, Jan Patocka, an old philosopher with failing health, who underwent prolonged interrogation and died.

The initiative that did in the old man set the young man on his public course as his country's chief dissenting spokesman for the next 12 years. Arrested and released, arrested and released, Havel was dealt a "Go directly to jail" card in 1979 that kept him incarcerated for almost four years. In the line of his maternal grandfather and his father, he was making prison a family tradition. Better that than to take up the offer to emigrate to America, which he said would solve nothing: "Fourteen million people can't just go and leave Czechoslovakia empty."

Prison breaks many inmates. Others grow. Havel, secure in the conviction that "the Lord didn't send me to prison in vain," grew. Despite overwork and health-impairing conditions, which Havel blames for his 1996 bout with lung cancer, he found time to read: the Bible, Dostoevsky, Heidegger. And to write. He was permitted to write letters only, so he sent his wife 144 of them.

The luminous Letters to Olga rank high in the prolific history of prison literature, to which this century has had the honor of making an inordinately rich contribution. Normal aesthetic criteria do not apply. Prison rules required legibility, forbade crossings-out. Since the scribbler could not keep copies, he often repeated himself. With the odds of getting the letters through the censor's screen increased by incomprehensibility, he developed an uncharacteristically convoluted style. Here he was well served by the obscure vocabulary of Heidegger, from whom he drew, as Jean Bethke Elshtain puts it, "in a rough and ready way," more as a catalyst than as a major influence. The title can be seen, retrospectively, to memorialize his wife, who died prematurely in 1996. (He has remarried.) The letters reveal a deepening quest for meaning that culminates, in the words of translator Paul Wilson, "in a dramatic spiral of pure thought mingled with an experience of almost religious intensity."

While Havel was sitting and thinking in a stinking cell, others were shaking the foundations of the Soviet empire, starting with Solidarity, the labor movement in Poland, and spreading to other satellite states. Arrest and release, arrest and release—Havel's pattern continued until the glorious year of 1989. The best telling of Czechoslovakia's greatest historical moment comes from a British friend of Havel's, the journalist Timothy Garton Ash. Garton Ash was the only foreigner present as Havel and company gathered to plan strategy at—fittingly enough—a Prague theater, the Magic Lantern, which now staged its best performance. He also coined the memorable quip "In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!" He was close.

With late 1989 and early 1990, headlines herald hero Havel, and file folders fatten. (They thin again in 1991; how quickly we forget.) From rich kid to folk hero. From prisoner to president in half a year. Communist power abandoned the castle's heights not with a bang but a whimper. If "Revolution" described this moment at all, it could only be called "Velvet."

Havel, still a banned writer in November 1989, was installed as president in December 1989, and within days he gave the traditional New Year's Address to the Nation. It broke at a stroke the 40-year "how happy we all are" tradition: "I do not think you appointed me to this office for me, of all people, to lie to you. Our country is not prospering." The truth is that "we are living in a decayed moral environment. We have become morally ill, because we have become accustomed to saying one thing and thinking another." In the next couple of years, Havel would make more than 100 official speeches (with no speechwriters), but this was probably his greatest. It ended with an appeal to a different, an older, tradition. Drawing words from the great seventeenth-century Czech scholar Comenius, which Tomas Masaryk also borrowed for his inaugural address in 1918, Havel declaimed, "People, your government has returned to you!"

A good writer would leave the story right there, with the climax followed only by a brief denouement, perhaps a glory-basking trip the next month to, say, New York and Washington. A good writer would know (and Havel is a good writer and knew) that placing an idealist among some pretty sordid players in the very messy real world of practical politics would inevitably sully the most heroic of reputations. A good writer would definitely not disclose that the hero's country, against his advice, would split apart within two years of his election to the presidency.

If, however, it's history we're dealing with, integrity requires the moral man to place service above perfect plot structure. And history may well record that Havel's greatest self-sacrifice came not in the prisons but in the palace. (Imagine, too, how history would judge if he had chosen for a shapely biography over a needy nation.) In his 1991 political testament, Summer Meditations, Havel concedes "how immensely difficult it is to be guided in practice by the principles and ideals in which I believe." However improbable it was that he became president, maybe the crowning improbability is that he succeeded at being president.

Look at what he has wrought. If the Slovaks insisted on independent nationhood, at least let the Divorce be Velvet, leaving the door open to eventual reconciliation. (Think of the counterexample of Yugoslavia.) The president must resign when the old state, Czechoslovakia, goes defunct (parallel to Gorbachev). The dutiful man must say yes to becoming president of the new fragment, the Czech Republic (no parallel to Gorbachev). The ex-Communist country that has fared the best is the Czech Republic. It is the only one where Communists in bare disguise have not regained the main levers of power. To know what troubles Havel's nation still has is to know how exceedingly difficult it is proving to come out from under the rubble of Communism, as well as what a deft politician he has been.

In early 1998, Havel was elected to his second and last term as Czech president. Though he had only token opposition, petty politicians, positioning themselves and their parties, denied him a majority on the first ballot. Citizen polls revealed a 10-20 percent approval rating for the parliament, a 70-plus percent approval rating for the president. A Prague cabbie told me in 1995, as his only complaint about Havel, "Czech people need strong hand." That Havel is too gentle remains the most common criticism by citizens. As he embarked on his final term in office, he promised to override his preference for a "less visible" presidency and become "more energetic and more radical." A democratic leader, rather than manipulating the people, is responsive to them.

And after Havel leaves office, then what? Maybe write a play about his life? No, that would be just too absurd. Besides, the subject of the Velvet Revolution and his presidency has been taken, he avers, and he "wouldn't want to write an imitation of a play that has already been written by someone above all of us." Next issue: The enduring legacy of Havel's moral vision.

Edward E. Ericson, Jr., is professor of English at Calvin College.

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