“MICHAEL,” said former Czech president Václav Havel to his now-biographer Michael Zantovsky when they met for the last time, “I am a ruin.” At that point, they had known each other for more than 30 years. Zantovsky had covered Havel as a journalist for Reuters, then collaborated with him during the run up to the 1989 Velvet Revolution that over-threw the repressive communist regime, and finally served as Havel’s press secretary for the first two of his four terms as president. In his introduction to Havel: A Life (now out in paper from Grove Press), Zantovsky anticipates the critique that he is being self-serving or indulging in sentimental hagiography and — as Havel himself might have done — openly questions his fitness to serve as Havel’s biographer. “My own relationship with Havel can best be described by a word that I use with the utmost reluctance,” he writes. “Being in love with the subject of one’s biography is not necessarily the best qualification for writing it.”
And yet it is just that intimacy — that proximity — that makes Zantovsky’s version of Havel’s life unique in the world of political biography, and that drew me to it. Václav Havel is firmly ensconced in my own personal hall of heroes (and I’m hardly alone), but now he lives in the nation’s as well. Last fall, a bronze and gold bust was unveiled in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, making Havel one of only four foreign leaders to be included in the Rotunda. There was rare bipartisan agreement on Havel’s worthiness to be honored — soon to be former House Speaker John Boehner lauded him as a lion in the defeat of communism and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi valorized him as a warrior for human rights.
Indeed, it is difficult not to romanticize the Havel story. Though he was born into a well-to-do family, those very privileges put him on the outs with the communist authorities from the moment they took over postwar Czechoslovakia. He was labeled a “bourgeois element” and was denied even a traditional high school education. Following night school and a stint in the military, Havel fell in with a group of writers and artists, and began to publish poems, essays, and plays. In 1963, he wrote The Garden Party, an allegorical farce that became the hottest ticket in town. From 1963 until 1965, hordes of young people waited on line for tickets, some of them seeing the play more than a dozen times.
The Garden Party and several of the plays that followed were well received not only in Prague but also in theaters throughout the West, raising Havel’s profile abroad and giving him a small but steady source of income. While his reputation as an artist grew, so did his visibility as a resistor to Czechoslovakia’s restrictions on free thought and expression. Though the 1968 Prague Spring and resulting Soviet crackdown were the focus of the world, Havel’s true breaking point came a few years later — in 1976 — when members of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe were arrested, tried, and convicted for aggravated hooliganism. Though the Plastics were far outside Havel’s social and intellectual circles, he dove into a defense of the band, arguing: “If today young people with long hair are condemned for their unconventional music as criminals without notice, it will be all that much easier tomorrow to condemn in the same way other artists for their novels, poems, essays, and paintings.”
Many other writers and artists signed on to Havel’s letter, arguing that a threat to speech somewhere was a threat to speech everywhere. But Havel’s reaction to the trial was both deeper and more nuanced. It was both personal and metaphoric:
It does not happen often and usually it happens at moments when few expect it: something somewhere snaps and an event — thanks to an unpredictable synergy of its own internal prerequisites and of more or less random external circumstances — suddenly oversteps the limits of its position in the context of habitual everydayness, breaks the crust of what it is supposed to be and what it appears to be, and suddenly discloses its innermost, hidden and in some respects, symbolic meaning.
From that point on, Havel was on a collision course with Czech authorities, resulting in several arrests and prison stays, the longest extending from 1979 until 1983. As Zantovsky characterizes it, rarely has a political movement been born requiring “nothing more and nothing less than staying true to oneself.”
In the ongoing argument amongst American writers and artists about whether we have an obligation to participate in public life, I fall firmly in the “yes” camp. I am afraid, though, up to now my reasons have been pretty vague — or, to put a more positive spin on it, mostly intuitive. But Zantovsky’s biography gives us an up-close look at what it really means for a writer to be at the center of a revolution. There is, of course, what Zantovsky calls the “strangely bookish tinge to modern Czech history,” but he also offers us a deeply personal portrait of a man who was all artist and yet was so engaged in the fate of his country that he became the face of a revolution and its first post-communist president.
Václav Havel brought the interiority and relentless self-examination of his plays to his life as both dissident and president. As Zantovsky puts it: “Havel offered his own criterion of an artist’s value, a criterion he did his best to live up to for the rest of his life. It was to live a ‘spiritual story.’” That interiority was not rooted in the stereotype of the tortured artist or even in a mere disposition, but was at the heart of Havel’s beef with the communists. In one of the high points of the book, Zantovsky recalls the speech that then-President Havel gave to a joint meeting of the US Congress in February 1990. Havel brought the legislators to their feet when he said: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.” Yet several members asked Havel afterward what he had meant when he said: “Consciousness precedes being and not the other way around.”
That statement encapsulated Havel’s central dispute with the architects of central European communism. One hundred fifty years earlier, Karl Marx had written: “Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness.” Marx believed that the self is constructed by a person’s position in the society, particularly by his or her economic position. Stalin took it one step further when he famously toasted members of the Writers Union: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks … And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.”
Havel as writer and activist and president never strayed from a central faith that human consciousness is inherent to the individual. He believed that the essential self is vulnerable to the influence of authoritarianism and crass consumerism, but that it is also the key to liberty. In his most widely read essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel argues that each individual has the ability to resist and ultimately topple authoritarianism by withholding what he calls “ritual approval” from an ideological regime. As Zantovsky summarizes it, “the human capacity to ‘live in truth,’ to reaffirm man’s ‘authentic identity,’ is the nuclear weapon that gives power to the powerless.”
The example Havel uses is a greengrocer who daily, dutifully displays a window placard provided by the authorities that says: “Workers of the world, unite!” As Havel describes it, everyone knows that the placard is unlikely to be reflective of the greengrocer’s own feelings or ideas, nor is it a genuine attempt to persuade passersby of anything in particular. Rather, it is a signal of compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”
And still, Havel imagines another future for the greengrocer. What if the greengrocer “snaps” and stops putting out the sign? Yes, Havel knows that the greengrocer will be punished by the authorities, that the “anonymous components of the system will spew the greengrocer from its mouth.” But he also imagines a more exalted role for him. By refusing to post a sign that is meaningless to him, the greengrocer rejects the lie on which the totalitarian system depends. He destabilizes everything. Havel writes:
The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent: this hidden sphere. It is from this sphere that life lived openly in the truth grows; it is to this sphere that it speaks, and in it that it finds understanding. This is where the potential for communication exists. But this place is hidden and therefore, from the perspective of power, very dangerous.
Here is something of a miracle: an actual politician who staked his very existence on the primacy and power of the inner life. In the period since the remarkable events of 1989, we have told ourselves reams of stories about the vanquishing of communism and Havel’s role in making it happen. The dominant — almost unquestioned — story is one of the supremacy of unregulated free market capitalism over communism. We tell ourselves that the communitarian spirit at the heart of communist doctrine was proved to be a fallacy and that the new manifest destiny, that of a worldwide consumer-driven market, is a happy victory and a classic tale of good over evil. But Havel’s story — and his struggle with the communists in power in Czechoslovakia — simply had nothing to do with the market or the free flow of consumer goods. Havel’s struggle was not economic — it was intellectual and emotional and spiritual. It was humanistic. This was not the stuff of grand powers competing but a worldview specifically grounded in the importance of elevating and protecting the individual consciousness.
Just writing this presses on a deep bruise. It feels something like homesickness or nostalgia or regret. Some of it — of course — has to do with a yearning for the irresistible mix of art, wine-soaked parties, and revolutionary thinking. And — in the spirit of true confession — I was actually in Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Poland (and the USSR and East Germany and Yugoslavia, for that matter) in the fall and winter of 1989, but I was a newly graduated traveler so far out of the action that I didn’t have a real sense of the import of what was brewing until the Berlin Wall was actually breached. In fact, as I read Zantovsky’s book, I felt a little sheepish that I didn’t take better notes about the world-changing events that were transpiring around me.
Even so, the overwhelming feeling I nursed throughout the book was not nostalgia for a particular trip or time, but a kind of longing for the purpose and community that Havel and his “bag of fleas” — as both friends and detractors called his inner circle of writers, artists, and intellectuals — brought to the Velvet Revolution. It is similar to the feeling I get when I fantasize about being a nun on the bus — riding with my friends, fighting for justice, and whispering “screw you” to Congressman Ryan and Pope Ratzinger. It’s the feeling I had when I visited Reykjavik earlier this summer, where I had coffee with the MP and self-proclaimed “poetician” Birgitta Jónsdóttir. I had been following her work since she was part of the movement that brought down the government and a lot of reckless bankers following the 2008 financial crisis. But when we walked into the beautiful terrace coffee shop above the bookstore, we bumped into a performance artist who had run for president, a painter who had found his life’s work when he lost his job in the financial crash, a co-founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party, and a mishmash of other artists and activists that I never run across in my neighborhood coffee shop.
The more I examine these feelings, the more I believe they are not just symptoms of a romantic temperament. They are rooted in longings that should be attended to. I wonder if nostalgia for Velvet Revolutionary Czechoslovakia does not belong to me alone. I wonder if it isn’t symptomatic of a kind of collective homesickness for our own inner lives and for genuine connection to one another. I wonder if it isn’t grounded in a deep alienation generated by the enormous institutions — private and public alike — that seem both omnipotent and omniscient.
One of the reasons I think this isn’t just me is that, a few years ago, I had the chance to work on back-to-back projects — one that brought me in close contact with true believers in the Tea Party uprising and another that allowed me to get to know members of the Occupy movement. Though they agitated in separate spheres, at heart their fears and dissatisfactions were remarkably similar. Both groups felt acted upon and dehumanized by huge, impersonal institutions. Tea Party members pinned their grievances on big government; Occupy activists targeted huge financial institutions. And all this in addition to news of blanket government surveillance, widespread police brutality, and a massive system protecting the haves and distracting the have-nots. It’s no wonder then that we might feel a little kinship with Czechs living behind the Iron Curtain.
But Havel was clear in where he placed both responsibility and hope. Unlike Beckett and some of his other artistic contemporaries, Havel believed that existential loneliness is not intrinsic to the human condition but is the consequence of “desocializing properties of the governing system.”
This analysis has some resonance for our moment in time and place in the world. Americans have less trust in institutions than ever before, and increasing numbers are beginning to question the hegemony created by concentrated money and power. I recently met a woman at a public library program (and though I can’t say for sure, I suspect her place on the political spectrum is a long way from mine) who said, “You know it is in corporate and government interests to keep us away from one another because if we were to meet, we might like each other and agree that we’re all getting screwed.”
This is right over the plate Havelian thinking, and we would be well served to take another look at what he has to offer. As he put it in “The Power of the Powerless”:
A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society. Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility.
Maybe that is what I’m homesick for. Maybe that is what the woman in the library and the Tea Partiers and the Occupy die-hards were talking about. Maybe we are all longing for the chance to take responsibility for our own lives and our own communities. Maybe we are looking to find a space in which our own quirky thoughts and dreams are respected and treated as worthy of consideration. And maybe we are looking for a place to build a movement — a society — based on moral choice and shared responsibility. And if Havel is a patron saint for our time, maybe that’s not a bad basis for a revolution.
This line of thinking requires a warning label, however. As Havel put it in the “Power of the Powerless,” “it is an all-or-nothing gamble” to dig deep into our innermost selves and hold ourselves and one another accountable for “living in truth.” And holding oneself to that standard while trying to live a public life is crushing. Governing was an excruciating business for Havel. Nearly half the time he was in office, he was suffering from or recovering from a serious illness. He endured nasty, personal criticism, humiliation in the press, and the breakup of a country. And yet, through all of that, he continued to examine his own inner motives through an exacting moral lens. While he was president, he wrote: “I am constantly preparing for the last judgement, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden, which will appreciate everything that should be appreciated, and which will, of course, notice anything that is not in its place.”
All this is to say that it is a steep and jagged road to take responsibility for ourselves and our own liberty. Let’s return to our plucky greengrocer. He refused to put out his sign, risking economic ruin and arrest. What about us? No one is requiring us to sport bumper stickers declaring “Surveillance: It’s Everywhere You Want to Be” or “I ♥ Unregulated Free Market Capitalism.”
But as with the citizens of Havel’s Czechoslovakia, the systems that create our malaise are dependent on our participation and compliance. Edward Snowden told us that the United States government is gathering massive quantities of personal data on American citizens in cahoots with the corporate masters of the internet. And yet nothing beats the convenience of banking and grocery shopping and stalking our exes all while keeping up with MLB box scores in our sweatpants on the couch. We can gas up our cars on any street corner and find the brand of cereal we want in any store in America and never have to be too hot or too cold or even wait very long for anything. But we — and by we, I mean relatively affluent 21st-century Americans if I am guessing correctly at the readership of this publication — are living in a Potemkin village. Flawless convenience and near-perfect comfort cannot protect us from our status as mammals and mortals. They cannot protect us from disaster or loss or death. Convenience on demand can’t protect us from — and in fact is escalating — an unhealthy ecosystem, economic injustice, and a runaway climate crisis. Ultimately our discomfort with discomfort makes us less able to cope with the human condition — both politically and personally.
So while Havel’s greengrocer was called to truth in the face of ideological totalitarianism, we are called to the truth of our own participation in an economic and political system that reinforces power disparities, income inequality, and ecological recklessness. If the greengrocer chooses to live in truth, he risks arrest. If we choose to live in truth, we risk inconvenience, aggravation, and discomfort.
I don’t say any of this to minimize the cost of the call. It is a call that requires us to be steady and mature against ubiquitous modeling to the contrary. It requires an inner eye that is unwavering in the face of the seductive temptation to look the other way. It subjects us to mocking and ridicule. And because we are human, any attempt to live in truth means we will certainly fail. We will come face-to-face with our own frailties and shortcomings. We will have to say “I don’t know” and “I am sorry” and “Maybe you’re right.” We will have to ask genuine questions and sit in restless discomfort and admit our own weaknesses and complicities. In the end, we will have to risk what Havel risked. Everything. We will have to risk ruin.