Citizen Havel Leaves

He never was a politician. He never wanted to be one. In this, he embodied the post-communist dream of an anti-political politics. Many, very many Czechs could not forgive him just that. When they put him at the Prague Castle, when they saw him in the legendary president T.G. Masaryk’s seat – they wanted him to play a statesman. And play he did, throughout his life he was a man of the theater. But he was a playwright, not an actor. As time went by, voices were heard that he is not fit for the position he holds. When people now say “he was an intellectual, a playwright, and a politician – in that order” it sounds more like a judgment than a description. Yet, little of that domestic criticism seemed to trickle through the borders of the Republic, and so the discrepancy between the international appreciation and the domestic disenchantment grew. Disenchantment is a good word. It was not Havel that changed. It was the Czechs who changed their expectations. He enchanted them with his charisma, his life-story and charm. And they (many of them) later did everything, to escape and deny that enchantment, as if they were ashamed of it. Inarguably, they owe him a lot. And so do the other nations in the region, because to our luck it was him and not any other former oppositionist that became the face of Central Europe in the early 1990s.

Havel appeared in Czechoslovakia’s public life in the 1960s as a writer – a young, avant-garde playwright. He was a declassed bourgeois, a descendant of a great Prague family. His grandfather – Vácslav Havel – was an architect, a leading representative of Czech modernism. His uncle Miloš established the famous film studios on the Barrandov hills. The father, Václav M. Havel, a friend of Masaryk’s, apart from building houses was also building institutions – the Czech Rotary and YMCA. If for the Czechoslovak Communist Party there ever was an archetype of a class enemy, it was him – the young blonde playwright, a frequent to the arty “Slavia” café. They wouldn’t allow him to study at the university; they expelled him from the economic school. However, already in 1963 the Theater on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na zábradlí), which would become one of his homes, staged his first play. And so, when he spoke out against censorship at the famous 4th Meeting of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, which pushed the country towards the Prague Spring, he was already recognizable. When in 1968, he clashed with Milan Kundera on the issue of the “Czech fate” (the two writers would differ on many things since), he became an important figure of the country’s intellectual life. And he did not cease to be one even despite the repressions of the so called “normalization.” His open letter of 1975 to the party’s general secretary – “Dear Dr. Husák” – was an early symptom of the nascent Czechoslovak dissent – the morally anchored political opposition dedicated to the defense of human rights.

Although his works were not staged and disappeared from bookstores, the communist regime itself helped to preserve his popularity and public awareness. After the Charter 77 was published, Husák’s bureaucracy unleashed a campaign of hatred and slander known as the “Anti-Charter.” Soon afterwards, the public radio broadcast a piece entitled “Who is Václav Havel?” It is difficult to come up with an example of a worse shot-in-the-foot in the history of Eastern European communism. Those who had not yet heard of the Charter now were aware of it. Those who never heard of Havel, now knew, that he is an enemy of the system. For many that was the highest compliment and a certificate of credibility.

And so when along with other members of the Committee for the Defense of Unjustly Persecuted (VONS) he was sentenced to four and a half years, the defiant Czech bard Jaroslav Hutka dedicated him a ballad: “Havlíčku, Havle.” Playing on the proximity of the names, in the song Hutka replaced Havel with the 19th century romantic Czech intellectual Karel Havlíček Borovský, who was banished and imprisoned by the Austrians, because his ideas about truth and law were too dangerous. The similarity of both figures was striking. Thus the domestic, Czechoslovak legend of Václav Havel was born.

Soon, however, it was outgrown by the international legend. In search for trans-border allies, the Workers Defense Committee (KOR) of Poland would seek to establish contacts with the Charter. Havel was symbolically put on the editorial board of the samizdat opinion periodical “Krytyka,” although back then he was still nearly anonymous for the Poles (his name – sometimes misspelled). The famous meeting of KOR and Charter representatives on a mountain trail at the Czechoslovak-Polish border in 1978 was a symbolic breakthrough. Rumor has it that Adam Michnik talked Havel into writing an essay, one that would later become internationally acclaimed as “The Power of the Powerless.” It is difficult to judge if that is true. If it is then (in no attempt to reduce the importance of his own writing), this would be Michnik’s greatest contribution to universal anti-totalitarian thought. For Havel, unlike Michnik or Jacek Kuroń, was always able to pinpoint a universal truth in an individual experience. Though he wrote about Czechoslovakia, he never wrote solely for Czechoslovakia. Perhaps it was his fantastic sense of drama that enabled him to see every issue, every conflict, and every choice from many angles. And most importantly – to find a way to very different audiences. “The Dissident” in Havel’s writing becomes a dramatis persona, which the reader observes and gets to understand. In the “Power of the Powerless” he was able to grasp the tragic condition of post totalitarian life, seemingly untranslatable for the Westerners, in the quasi-comic character of the greengrocer. In the same manner, he managed to build an intellectual bridge between Eastern European opposition and the Western peace movement in the extremely important, but somewhat forgotten essay “Anatomy of a Reticence.”

While his essays benefited from an uncommon profoundness because of their dramatization, Havel’s plays became more political, and thus unfortunately flatter. Timothy Garton Ash, the most important constructor of the Czechoslovak dissident-playwright international legend, made a note of that already in the mid-80s. It was the essays, as well as the incredible, thrilling and multidimensional collection of prison letters to his first wife, Olga, that secured a place for Havel in the global intellectual pantheon.

When in November of 1989 the citizens of Prague took to the streets to chant down the dictatorship, to jingle it down with thousands of key-rings, Havel naturally appeared at the head of the movement (the Civic Forum). And when the time came to chant for a new leader to the Prague Castle, the hundred-thousand-strong crowd in unison chose the playwright, whose plays were not seen in Czechoslovakia for twenty years, whose name was supposed to be erased from popular consciousness. “Havel to the Castle – Havel na Hrad!”

This is where a new chapter of the fairy tale begins, about the everyman Vašek, who became king (partly) against his will. Although already in the 1980s he was a western media darling, after he took office a true “Havelmania” erupted. Havel enchanted the world, led Czechoslovakia (later only the Czech Republic) and the whole region “back to Europe,” and singlehandedly built the image of stability and political culture of Central Europe (a concept that was close to his heart). Let us be frank. The fact that three Central European states joined NATO in 1999 and that the European Union let eight formerly communist countries join in 2004 was partly his accomplishment. This first political move, however, became something that many fellow-dissidents could not forgive him. When he assumed office, he wanted to play according to dissident rules, conduct diplomacy based on human rights, morality and truth. The turning point was probably the Bosnian War and the growing domestic tension in his homeland, inevitably sliding towards a divorce (back then it was not yet certain how “velvet” it would be). Havel bet on security, he bet on America. He believed that for certain higher values, such as freedom and human rights, it is worth to fight for – even armed. That is why he supported the bombing of Serbia, the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. It would not be wise, however, to hold this against him. A majority of the former Eastern European oppositionists trotted down that path. But outside the mainstream, the anger and disappointment grew.

As a president, he never ceased being a dissident and an intellectual. He didn’t feel well in a world, where the motto “truth shall prevail” was at times only a sticker on a jar of filth. He quickly made enemies at home, in the Czech Republic. The greatest was probably the current president Klaus, whose entire political career is basically cast around the struggle with Havel and his ghost. Watching the thousands of mourners on Venceslas Square, the thousands of mourners accompanying Havel’s coffin back to the Castle, I guess now his ghost will be more powerful than ever. Even despite the fact that since he left office his political power declined further and further (in 2010 he gave a moral blessing of publicity to the Green Party, which didn’t even make it past the electoral threshold to parliament).

His 75th birthday in October this year was a kind of festival of nastiness big and small. Many of them even below the region’s press culture average. The most pathetic of titles to my taste was “75 women for the 75th anniversary”. Havel the womanizer. A very often heard allegation, all the more bizarre that we are talking of a not very prude country. The other allegation was that he drank too much – and that he didn’t treat himself seriously enough. Instead of a king, an artist on the throne – Rex Bohemiae in both meanings. Not a philosopher, not yet a jester – a writer.

Where did this popular antipathy come from? It is easiest to blame the “dissident complex.” Only a few hundred people signed the Charter 77. A few more took part actively in various forms of opposition, which in Czechoslovakia was much riskier than in the neighboring Poland. The dissidents’ legend, with their undeniable civil (and human) courage and a demanding, grandiose, almost highfalutin rhetoric of “living in truth” (Havel and Václav Benda built it on the foundation of the philosophy of Patočka, the Charter’s intellectual godfather) – all this was tiresome and even irritating for the “silent majority.” The antipathy was enhanced by the almost limitless international praise for the president, speaking in his serious, low voice with a characteristic “ahr.” And so the attacks were sometimes cruel and pathetic. “He plays such a smartass, and he cheated on his wife” or “just buried the first one, and now he gets another, younger one.”

All this is history now. Havel described a pessimistic vision of his own descent into oblivion in his last play – “Leaving.” Reality will be, however, different from the theater, because Havel was a man of a totally different format than the self-ironically diminished Chancellor Rieger. With the passing of Václav Havel closes an extraordinarily important chapter (or better – act) in the history or Central Europe. A “Dissident” with a capital “D” – a man for whose sake that word itself changed its meaning – is leaving the stage. His essays, although written under the post-totalitarian condition, show the way for individual’s actions in the face of the state and any other dehumanized system, in relation to certain immovable moral truths. A standing ovation, though with a heavy heart. The curtain falls.

The text first appeared in the Polish internet weekly  Kultura Liberalna on Monday, December 19th.