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Vaclav Havel: Living in Truth.

When I talked with Czechs about Vaclav Havel during a brief visit to Prague last fall, I was surprised to find that many did not share the esteem and enthusiasm with which their illustrious compatriot is so widely regarded in the West. Havel had just resigned as president of Czechoslovakia so that he would not have to preside over the dissolution of his country. He would return in a few months to head the new, truncated Czech Republic. His symbol-rich exit from the Prague Castle--wearing a T-shirt, carrying a backpack--had made more of an impression elsewhere in Europe (and in the United States) than at home.

Czechs criticized Havel for not fighting hard enough against the breakup, after seventy-four years, of Czechoslovakia. (I heard this, curiously, even from some who claimed not to care about Slovak independence and who said, dismissively, "Let them go!") Other Czechs --or, sometimes, the same ones--complained that Havel had deepened the nation's economic crisis by dismantling much of its arms industry and curtailing overseas weapons sales. And the most virulent attacks focused on Havel's opposition to the "lustration" law that stripped former communist officeholders of their civil rights regardless of whether they had, themselves, engaged in human-rights violations. Czechs who had suffered under the communist regime--though few had suffered more than Havel--simply could not understand his concern for the rights of those associated with their and his former tormentors.

All of this suggested to me that Havel was a decent, thoughtful, generous. and compassionate human being--qualities rarely encountered in those who hold high political office. And I concluded that the Czechs were in the extraordinary, almost unique position of having a leader better than they wanted or deserved.

These impressions were emphatically confirmed by the literate, profound, and humane essays compiled in Havel's Open Letters and Summer Meditations, and in Vaclav Havel: Living in Truth, which includes six pieces by Havel as well as sixteen appreciative essays by, among others, Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Boll, Milan Kundera, Arthur Miller, and Tom Stoppard.

The first essay in Open Letters, and the only one out of chronological sequence (it was originally published in 1977), is autobiographical and presents an excellent introduction to the man and his work.

"I do not belong to that fortunate class of authors who write constantly, quickly, easily, and always well, whose imaginations never tire and who--unhampered by doubts or inhibitions--are by nature open to the world," Havel writes. "Whatever they touch, it is always exactly right. That I do not belong in such company, of course, bothers me and sometimes even upsets me: I am ambitious and I'm angry with myself for having so few ideas, for finding it so difficult to write, for having so little faith in myself, and for thinking so much about everything that I often feel crippled by it."

That modest disclaimer notwithstanding, Havel has been remarkably prolific in the last thirty years--though less so while preoccupied by his presidential duties. His plays, with which I am, for the most part, unfamiliar, have been produced to critical acclaim in Europe and the United States. His letters and essays, of which these three collections constitute only a small part, are a formidable body of work.

Though he abandoned early efforts at writing poetry, he still writes as a poet, bringing pellucid insights even to political analysis, and achieving lyricism even while engaging in polemics. Here is Havel in a 1984 essay called "Thriller": "I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no more than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the human spirit. More probably it represents a necessary phase that man and humanity must go through, one that man--if he survives--will ultimately, and on some higher level (unthinkable, of course, without the present phase), transcend."

And here is his compelling argument against censorship, understandably a recurrent theme throughout Havel's work: "A great many people can peck at a typewriter and, fortunately, no one can stop them. But for that reason, even in samizdat [work unofficially circulated underground], there will always be countless bad books or poems for every important book.... But even if, objectively, there were some possibility of selection, who could claim the right to exercise it? Who among us would dare to say that he can unerringly distinguish something of value--even though it may still be nascent, unfamiliar, as yet only potential--from its counterfeit? Who among us can know whether what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time? Who among us has the right to deprive them of that pleasure, no matter how incomprehensible it may seem to us?"

Havel was born in Prague in 1936 and established himself as a dissident and irritant to the Czech state even before Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring of 1968. The earliest essay in Open Letters, "On Evasive Thinking," delivered as a speech to the Union of Czechoslovakian Writers in 1965, ranks with the best of George Orwell's work as an analysis of the use and abuse of political language.

"We never seem to notice," Havel writes, "how suspiciously often what happens--in fact--does not conform to what--according to our prognoses--was to have happened. We know with utter certainty what should happen and how it should happen, and when it turns out differently, we also know why it had to be different. The only thing that causes us trouble is knowing what will really happen. To know that assumes knowing how things really are now. But that is precisely where the catch lies: between a detailed prediction of the future and a broad impression of the past, there is somehow no room for what is most important of all--a down-to-earth analysis of the present."

That isn't just communist Czechoslovakia Havel is describing. As with the work of his compatriot, Franz Kafka, we are stunned by the generalizations we can draw from Havel's particulars.

In 1976, Havel attended the trial in Prague of four musicians from the Czech underground music scene--a travesty he recounts in a furious essay whose title must resonate in Prague: "The Trial." From that point on, Havel's dissidence was irreconcilable. He was a founder of Charter 77, the Czech human-rights movement, and in 1979 he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, during which time he produced letters and commentaries of lasting value. In 1989, he helped found the Civic Forum, the first legal opposition movement in postwar Czechoslovakia, and late that year his Forum colleagues unanimously elected him president.

"It would have been irresponsible of me," Havel writes, "to criticize the communist regime all my life and then, when it finally collapsed (with some help from me), refuse to take part in the creation of something better."

In Summer Meditations, a set of essays written while he was president of Czechoslovakia, Havel grapples with some of the troublesome questions that preoccupied him in this difficult period of transition--the split with Slovakia, the role of the "free market" in his country's emerging economy, the structures of constitutional government, the perpetual tension between politics and morality.

With admirable candor--especially for a chief of state--he agonizes aloud: He is constantly told, Havel says, that he "should be tougher, more decisive, more authoritative. For a good cause I shouldn't be afraid to pound the table occasionally, to shout at people, to try to rouse a little fear and trembling. Yet, if I wish to remain faithful to myself and my notion of politics, I mustn't listen to advice like this--not just in the interests of my personal mental health (which could be seen as a private, selfish desire), but chiefly in the interests of what most concerns me: the simple fact that directness can never be established by indirection, or truth through lies, or the democratic spirit through authoritarian directives. Of course, I don't know whether directness, truth, and the democratic spirit will succeed. But I do know how not to succeed, which is by means that contradict the ends. As we know from history, that is the best way to eliminate the very ends we set out to achieve."

There is only one way, Havel adds, "to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly. I'm aware that, in everyday politics, this is not seen as the most practical way of going about it. But I have one advantage: among my many bad qualities there is one that happens to be missing--a longing or love for power. Not being bound by that, I am essentially freer than those who cling to their power or position, and this allows me to indulge in the luxury of behaving untactically. I see the only way forward in that old, familiar injunction: |live in truth.' But how is this to be done when one is President?"

This eminently decent citizen--I absolutely believe him when he says he has no longing or love of power--is, of course, capable of error. His grasp of economics is, at best, tenuous. In understandable reaction to the abuses of the communist regime under which he lived and suffered, he has exaggerated expectations of the benefits to be derived from the market--and acknowledges as much. His determination to see the best in his fellow Czechs blinds him, perhaps, to the full ramifications of the worst: the pervasive greed, corruption, chauvinism, and pinched conservatism now on flagrant display in his country.

But Havel's most serious mistake may be the decision he reached, after much private and public self-questioning, to return to the Castle as president of the Czech Republic. "I have been thinking about this decision for a long time," he says in an afterword to Summer Meditations, "and it presents me with a genuine dilemma. There are so many arguments for and against." In the end, the arguments for prevailed--especially the argument that being president affords him an opportunity to work for his "civil program."

But the news from Prague indicates that right now--and for the foreseeable future--the Czechs need Havel the critic, Havel the pamphleteer, Havel the playwright, Havel the poet, more than they need Havel the president.

"Modern man, that methodical civil servant in the great bureaucracy of the world, mildly frustrated by the collapse of his 'scientific' world view, finally switches on his video recorder to watch Michael Jackson playing a vampire in |Thriller,' the best-selling videocassette in the history of the world, then goes into the kitchen to remove from a thermos flask--behind the backs of all animal-welfare societies--the still warm heart of a hoopoe. And he swallows it, hoping to have the gift of prophecy conferred on him."

Someone who can write like that has no business wasting his time as president of anything. He needs to devote every available moment to helping all of us understand the human condition.
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Author:Knoll, Erwin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:1819
Previous Article:Summer Meditations.
Next Article:Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy.
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