February 13, 2011


Tanned and Rested: Vaclav Havel Marks His Return with ‘Leaving’ (Michael Zantovsky, World Affairs)

Although the things he set out to do—transforming the country into a parliamentary democracy governed by the rule of law, increasingly prosperous thanks to market economy, and part and parcel of the West thanks to its membership in NATO, OECD, and the EU—were all accomplished during his presidency, at the moment of his departure his political and personal status did not quite correspond to the momentous achievements in which he played a leading part. The onetime icon of the Velvet Revolution had gradually lost much of his power, if not his influence—some of it to constitutional changes, some to the emergence of competing sources of political power—and he had been criticized and then ridiculed by some as an impractical, irrelevant dreamer, or a devious, overambitious schemer, and sometimes as both at the same time. His international aura of a moral politician, a paragon of tolerance, nonviolence, and humanistic values, had also started to evaporate due to his association with some of the more controversial political events and decisions of recent decades.

Naturally, a large part of the criticism above could be attributed to the endemic ill will permeating the world of party politics. When not living in moments of historical upheaval, existential threat, and revolutionary change, politicians have to deal with the recurring problems and issues of economy, security, and welfare that can cut any legend down to size. Politics thus has to continually reinvent itself, and it has no other way to do this than in contrast to what, and who, has come before. As a dramatist who has dealt with contrast and counterpoint all his life, Havel understood this all too well. But he could not help being silently hurt by the grounding that new political realities had subjected him to, which led his opponents to accuse him of sulking and plotting.

It was therefore not surprising that many people expected Havel to retreat, fade away, or worse. When he left office, those who wished him well thought that he had done enough for several lifetimes and deserved to spend his remaining years in comfortable irrelevance. Those who did not would not miss him anyway.

Havel had other ideas. Almost immediately he started setting up an ex-presidential office, something perfectly customary in the United States but largely unprecedented in Central Europe. It was not his style to go on the lucrative speaker circuit (he may be an exceptionally gifted speechwriter but he’s a middling speaker) or to leverage his celebrity in the world of business. He has also largely avoided commenting on public affairs back home. Rather, he has continued in what he was doing for most of his adult life—advocating human rights causes and supporting dissidents around the world—in Cuba, Belarus, Burma, North Korea.

In keeping with his holistic view of the world as a network of cultures, ideologies, and religions, Havel designed and developed a forum where all these strands of modern civilization can meet and debate. The Forum 2000 conference was first held in Prague in 1997 and was intended to be a one-off. But instead it took off. In October, the fourteenth Forum 2000 conference, attended by politicians, experts, journalists, philosophers, and religious figures, took place under the title “The World We Want to Live In.”

Havel and his wife Dagmar also run a foundation called Vize 97, which helps the handicapped and the elderly, purchases medical equipment for the treatment of cancer, awards an annual prize to an important social thinker (the list of laureates includes novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, neuropsychologist Karl H. Pribram, economist Robert B. Reich, and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman), and runs a unique public space called the Prague Crossroads, adapted from an old dilapidated church in the center of the city.

The model of American presidencies does not stop at offices and philanthropy but extends to a Havel Presidential Library, the only institution of its kind in Europe. It collects, archives, and presents all the available documents pertaining to Havel and his presidency.

A volume of memoirs is an almost obligatory task for any former president. But the book Havel compiled, To the Castle and Back (2007), is like no other presidential book. It consists of an extensive interview covering the whole period of Havel’s presidency, transcripts of Havel’s notorious “instructions to the office” (originally written in a perfectionist’s meticulous longhand), and items from the diary he kept in 2005 during his three-month fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington. The charm of the book consists in the counterpoint between the seemingly disparate strands of highbrow political pronouncements, lowbrow struggle with issues of the everyday running of the president’s office, and comparative observations of life in the United States and the Czech Republic. For example: “I have become increasingly aware of an important difference between America, or Washington, and the Czech Republic, or Prague. People enjoy politics here [in America], back home they don’t like it; here they love to talk about it, back home they just curse it; here apparently politicians, scholars, journalists and other important people stay fresh all day and perhaps save their most brilliant conversation for the evening, back home in the evening people like that are either very tired, or desperately trying to catch up, or drunk, or just happy to be home, watching TV and not having to talk to anyone.” As anyone can see from this quote, the most subversive of all the tools in Havel’s literary armory, his humor, has made it back into his writing. In personal contact, it never quite disappeared. Havel’s speeches, however, which were his most frequent, if not his preferred, mode of verbal expression for thirteen years, had become increasingly serious, repetitive, and on some occasions, even a little pompous. (For all that, they differ from a standard political speech in having a beginning, a middle, and an end—and sometimes even what is called a dramatic arc. In his address to the joint session of the US Congress, for instance, he first points out that the rate of historical change has accelerated enormously, then demonstrates that it is the human spirit rather than any material forces that is the causal agent, and finally concludes by expressing hope that the human spirit will be capable, through action, of reflecting its own acceleration. Most political speeches could begin and end anywhere in this text. Some would have never even begun.)

Then came the unexpected. After several near-death episodes at the end of the last century, Havel’s health more or less held and then, almost imperceptibly at first, started to improve. Whether the return of humor was a symptom of the change or its instrument is immaterial in this context, but it was a sure sign that Havel was back to his playful ways. Some kind of a creation could not be far behind. In fact, the ex-president was writing a play. [...]

Entertaining as it is, Leaving provokes some uncomfortable questions about its text and its author. Is it self-referential? If all politics is just an absurd farce of musical chairs in which politicians say their interchangeable and ultimately empty lines only to make room for other interchangeable versions of themselves, does that also apply to the author who was once a politician? Can someone whose vision of the world is intrinsically absurd preach to others about conscience, responsibility, and “living in truth”? And if the sacrosanct slogans of the Velvet Revolution can be parodied on stage to the point of making them meaningless kitsch, does that imply a measure of hypocrisy bordering on cynicism in this playwright, both in the play and in real life? It is not an idle question. Hypocrisy and kitsch are something of which Havel has sometimes been accused by his domestic critics.

Havel does not dismiss the question but ponders it, politely and seriously, and then somewhat hesitantly suggests a few considerations rather than a coherent answer. “I am not sure one is capable of reflecting absurdity without having a strong sense of meaning. Absurdity makes sense only against a meaningful background. It is the deeper meaning that is shedding light on the absurdity. There must be a vanish point, a metaphysical horizon if you will where absurdity and meaning merge.”

But cannot perceived absurdity lead to exactly opposite results? Are not there many people for whom the experience of absurdity opens a way to an absolute nihilism? And by implication, are not you such a person yourself? Again the hesitant pause. “Yes, it is possible. Yes. My feeling is that when that happens it has to do with the loss of the metaphysical horizon. We are the first atheistic and global, all-embracing civilization. You cannot tell whether you are sitting at an airport in Hong Kong or in a hotel in Alaska. Everything is instrumentalized, subjected to a short-term purpose. It is quite possible that in such a situation any sense of a deeper meaning gets lost.”

Credo quia absurdum est? Is it after all a question of faith, something about which Havel has always been rather ambiguous, sometimes resembling a person who is irresistibly attracted yet cannot make the final jump? Is he more or less of a believer today? “It is hard to say. If by believing you mean praying to an anthropomorphic deity who created the world and half controls it and half observes it, then I am probably not a believer. But if you mean that it is not all accidental, that there is a mystery to existence, a deeper meaning, that I do believe in. Actually, I am pretty sure of it. We ask ourselves all kinds of questions, such as why does a peacock have such beautiful feathers, and we may answer that he needs the feathers to impress a female peacock, but then we ask ourselves, and why is there a peacock? And then we ask, why is there anything living? And then we ask, why is there anything at all? And if you tell some advocate of scientism that the answer is a secret, he will go white hot and write a book. But it is a secret. And the experience of living with the secret and thinking about it is in itself a kind of faith.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2011 7:38 AM
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