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Havel’s legacy

9 January 2012

Václav Havel, who died in December, was Orwell’s true successor, writes Jane Goodall


Czechs gather outside Prague Castle for Václav Havel’s funeral last month. lempet/Flickr

Czechs gather outside Prague Castle for Václav Havel’s funeral last month. lempet/Flickr

THAT Václav Havel and Kim Jong Il died within twenty-four hours of each other is one of the sharper ironies of political history. It is also an oddly fitting reflection of Havel’s dramaturgical interest in the structure and sequence of public events, though he would certainly have objected to the simplistic moral polarity in the allocation of roles: Prague’s Prince of Light versus Pyongyang’s Prince of Darkness. As various forms of this narrative proliferated in media commentary, Gareth Evans called for some moderation. We should avoid the tendency to pillory or to sanctify political leaders, he says. The task is rather “to reconcile what they will often see as hopelessly competing demands of moral values and national interests, and to find ways to get them to do more good and less harm.”

For Havel, though, the focus was not on the leaders. In the Velvet Revolution that saw Czechoslovakia liberated from communist dictatorship in 1989 it was the people who were the agents of change, and Havel’s consciousness of that didn’t diminish during his time as president of the new Czech Republic. Throughout his long career as an international statesman he maintained the view that the people are ultimately responsible for the political climate in which they live.

During the funeral ceremonies held in Pyongyang and Prague, it was the people who were on show, and the polarities were overwhelmingly evident. In one city, mourners in camera-ready groups performed extravagant displays of grief as the giant portrait of the Dear Leader passed by at the head of the cortege. In the other, a spontaneous gathering of citizens, composed in their demeanour, formed small enclaves around communal arrangements of candles, flowers and photographs. Two kinds of theatre: an over-acted charade, and an improvisation expressive of complex and various human responses.

Havel was the figurehead of a revolution that manifested itself not as a change in leadership but through a comprehensive transformation in civic life. It had its beginnings in the Charter 77 declaration, issued in January 1977 by a loose confederation of Czech dissidents who held in common “the feeling of co-responsibility, faith in the idea of civic involvement and the will to exercise it and the common need to seek new and more effective means for its expression.” The signatories, led by Havel and the distinguished philosopher Jan Patočka, paid the price in the crackdown that followed. Patočka died two months later following an eleven-hour police interrogation. There is nothing bland in this interpretation of civic responsibility: the stakes are the highest, for the individual and the nation.

Havel’s sustained attempt to articulate this responsibility in “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay published in 1978, preceded his own longest term of imprisonment – four and a half years, during which he developed health problems from which he suffered for the rest of his life. But what the essay communicates is an urgent conviction that the penalties for not speaking out are wider and, ultimately, more miserable. Beginning with the greengrocer who puts a propaganda slogan in his window, the scenario pans out to depict an all-encompassing regime of falsehood. Propaganda infects the language of public and social communication, and is then internalised to influence the very process of thought formation and to control expressive behaviour. Moral instincts are inverted, the legislature is perverted and there is a radical contortion of the whole cognitive apparatus by which we judge what is and what is not.

This portrayal of life in a system “thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies” owes much to the philosophy of Patočka, to whom the essay is dedicated; Havel’s own perspectives were those of a dramatist. He wrote a number of widely influential plays during his early adulthood, and although his public duties as president prevented him from returning to the theatre, he continued to present a dramaturgical view of events.

With a playwright’s instinct for the impact of human speech, he shared with Patočka a truly Orwellian view of how the systemic perversion of language poisons the conditions of being. Speaking the truth may carry penalties, but living the lie is an abdication of everything that makes us alive as intelligent, sentient beings. Seen in this way, the phenomenon of the totalitarian regime is more about consensual delusion on the part of the people than about the dictates of any state leader.

The regime that is “captive to its own lies” requires the cooperation of all the individuals within it, and must, in turn, maintain vigilant control over them. The potential for crisis is ever present, because without the binding principle of a totalising world view the structure would undergo an atomic disintegration. In a domain of controlled appearances, it is all or nothing. The story of the emperor’s new clothes may have become a little hackneyed in more recent rhetorical skirmishes, but it is here invoked, with freshness and force, as the ultimate political speech-act.

A central part of Havel’s analysis is that postwar Europe has passed beyond the era of classical dictatorship into one in which the regime itself holds sway, as a technology of power that turns human subjects into its automatons. But beneath the ordered surface of the regime, “there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims.” For the subjects of the contemporary totalitarian state, an awakening to their own freedom takes the form of a crisis in the conditions of existence – “an existential revolution,” as Havel terms it in the final section of the essay. In coining this term, he gives a significant twist to the philosophical notion of existential crisis as a shock wave in the inner life of the individual, when the foundations of being are rocked by a piercing insight into the inauthenticity of life in the objective world.

Patočka sought to reinterpret existential insight as a phenomenon with collective and political implications, associating it with a form of consciousness compelled to affirm its freedom and responsibility for the conditions of life. Havel took the reinterpretation a step further. When the crisis becomes a revolution, it is a dramatic rather than a philosophical concept, something belonging to the world of events, a shared reality and a transformative actuality. At the same time, he introduced to the sphere of political rhetoric a proposition that carried metaphysical significance.

The call for an existential revolution was a call to action based on collective mental transformation, and it was inspired as much by Havel’s favourite rock groups as it was by Patočka’s ideas. There is an extent to which this vision meshes with that of the 1960s cultural revolution. Frank Zappa and Lou’s Reed’s Velvet Underground were potent influences on the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and Zappa’s scathing evocations of “plastic people” were taken up by Havel’s favourite Czech rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe. In the early 1990s, Zappa even served for a time with Havel’s administration as an official cultural ambassador.

Havel had an extraordinary capacity for bridging cultural worlds: introducing counter-cultural rock influences into his approach to international affairs; converting abstract philosophical concepts into transformative dramatic principles; bringing the mentality of a dissenter to diplomatic exchanges. These converging dynamics underlie his call for an existential revolution, which he reiterated in an address to international leaders assembled for Forum 2000, a conference he hosted in Prague in September 1997 to discuss “the fate and future of our common civilisation.”

In the face of massive inequities in the international distribution of wealth and the devastating consequences of ecological destruction, he said, “It is my deep conviction that the only option is for something to change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience, in the actual attitude of man towards the world and his understanding of himself and his place in the overall order of existence.” Perhaps he risked over-pitching the message, but this was not the talk of a naïve idealist. As a veteran of a revolution successfully accomplished, Havel spoke with a tempered sense of the conditions of possibility.

With the subsequent escalation of ecological and economic crises, others began to adopt his rhetoric. Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement in 2009 describing climate change as “the one truly existential threat” to human populations around the globe. In the past couple of years, the term “existential” has gone viral. It is used routinely in commentary on climate change, and on the current European economic meltdown. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe recently declared that the whole eurozone is in existential crisis.

Havel’s call for a shift in the register of consciousness is starting to look more and more like common sense. If it brings with it a shift to the front foot, from passively experienced crisis to an actively generated revolution in communal perception and understanding, this may indeed be the only way forward. What does it take to trigger this shift? How much cognitive turbulence can we sustain before we actually start unhitching ourselves from hard-wired dependencies on outmoded economic logic? And surely it’s time to ask: with all we’ve had going for us in the prosperous democratic regions of the world, how did we come to this pass?

In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel warns against any form of politics that offers a simplified view of the world. “One pays dearly for this low-rent home,” he writes. It’s a curious image, resonating, as it does now, with the mortgage crisis that has struck middle America. The low-rent home as a mental residence, though, carries more fundamental risks. A form of democratic politics that is conducted through the tabloid press, focus groups and opinion polls is one that ultimately fails democracy. An electorate dominated by resentment and punitive impulses can easily vote its way back into totalitarianism. This may have already happened in Hungary, and it doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to envisage a dictatorial right-wing turn in American politics.

Havel spoke always from a conviction that civic intelligence is the most valuable commodity in any nation, and its erosion is the greatest danger. He was Orwell’s true successor, the political prophet of his era, gifted with a kind of visionary realism that will continue to resonate long after his death. •

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