Thursday, December 22, 2011

The ennobling spiritual and moral as well as political legacy of Václav Havel -- to the West as well as the East


Havel translator Paul Wilson talks about his friend on Al-Jazeera following the Czechoslovak activist and former president's death this week.

"Let us pause to express gratitude to Václav Havel, who died this month, for enabling a generation to gain the chance to live in truth."
-- Jeffrey D. Sachs, in "The Power of Living in Truth" (see below)

by Ken

As I indicated Monday night, it's been my intention to write something about the impact Czechoslovak playwright and activist and later president Václav Havel had on me. Sure, I would have liked to get to it sooner, but I had a feeling that in the grand scheme of things a few days wouldn't matter, if the message of Havel's life is as important as I think it is.

And in the interim I've been able to see, thanks to Nation of Change, the piece that Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals, wrote for Project Syndicate, "The Power of Living in Truth." Here's how it starts:
The world's greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership. With a commitment to truth -- scientific, ethical, and personal -- a society can overcome the many crises of poverty, disease, hunger, and instability that confront us. Yet power abhors truth, and battles it relentlessly. So let us pause to express gratitude to Václav Havel, who died this month, for enabling a generation to gain the chance to live in truth.

Havel was a pivotal leader of the revolutionary movements that culminated in freedom in Eastern Europe and the end, 20 years ago this month, of the Soviet Union. Havel's plays, essays, and letters described the moral struggle of living honestly under Eastern Europe's Communist dictatorships. He risked everything to live in truth, as he called it -- honest to himself and heroically honest to the authoritarian power that repressed his society and crushed the freedoms of hundreds of millions.

He paid dearly for this choice, spending several years in prison and many more under surveillance, harassment, and censorship of his writings. Yet the glow of truth spread. Havel gave hope, courage, and even fearlessness to a generation of his compatriots. When the web of lies collapsed in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks poured into the streets to proclaim their freedom -- and to sweep the banished and jailed playwright into Prague Castle as Czechoslovakia's newly elected president.

As I mentioned Monday night, I'm hardly an expert on Havel. I think I read one or two of his plays, and certainly a number of articles he wrote over the years, but only one of his books, the one published in English as Disturbing the Peace, but I remember vividly how shaken I was by the intellectual, moral, and emotional force of his thinking as represented in a book that didn't appear in English until 1990 but had been conceived and executed in 1985-86, still several years before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, in which Czechoslovaks overthrew the harshly repressive regime installed by the Soviet Union after the brutal repression of the 1968 Prague Spring.

The book was intended to be a "conversation" with Havel's friend the Czech journalist Karl Hvíždala, who was then living in West Germany, which created obvious logistical problems for carrying on a "conversation." Yet they managed it, and in 1986 the book was published in samizdat form in Prague. I seem to recall that it was among the first books published, now aboveground, in the liberated Czechoslovak state. By the time the English version by the Canadian writer Paul Wilson (who had translated Havel's Letters to Olga, the collection of letters he wrote from prison to his first wife, who died in 1996, which for much of the world was the first contact with Havel's remarkable voice) was published as Disturbing the Peace in 1990, Havel was the elected president of Czechoslovakia.

In his introduction, translator Wilson recalls an episode in the spring of 1975, "outside the Slavia Café, just across the street from the National Theatre in Prague," when a friend handed him "a well-thumbed sheaf of typewritten pages" -- a flagrantly illegal act in the Prague of 1975. The friend told him to pass the typescript on when he was through.
That evening, at home, I sat down to read in a state of excitement that only the knowledge of doing something illicit can bring.

It was an extraordinary essay, addressed to the Czechoslovak president, Gustav Husák, about the desolate state of the country seven years after the Warsaw Pact armies had crushed the Prague Spring. The author described a society governed by fear -- not the cold, pit-of-the-stomach terror that Stalin had once spread throughout his empire, but a dull, existential fear that seeped into every crack and crevice of daily life and made one think twice about everything one said and did. This fear was maintained by the Secret Police, "that hideous spider whose invisible web runs right through society," and it reduced human action -- and therefore history itself -- to false premise.

The letter was, in fact, a state of the union message, and it contained an unforgettable metaphor: the regime, the author said, was "entropic," a force that was gradually reducing the vital energy, diversity, and unpredictability of Czechoslovak society to a state of dull, inert uniformity. And the letter also contained a remarkable prediction: that sooner or later, this regime would become the victim of its own "lethal principle."

"Life cannot be destroyed for good," the author wrote. "A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy crust of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undermining it. It may be a long process, but one day it has to happen: the crust can no longer hold and starts to crack. This is the moment when something once more begins visibly to happen, something new and unique. . . . History again demands to be heard."

The letter, dated April 8, 1975, was signed "Václav Havel, Writer."

Two years later Havel was instrumental in forming Charter 77, the group that became the lightning rod and clearinghouse for the eventual revolution, when finally history was heard.

It's been a powerful experience, reopening Havel's Disturbing the Peace after 20 years, and reexperiencing those shivers of recognition. I want to share some of those with you in a later post, but for now I want to return to Jeffrey Sachs, who communicates a powerful sense of the revolutionary impact that Havel passed on from the revolutionary thinkers who had influenced him, a process in which Sachs himself had a chance to play a direct part.
I personally witnessed the power of living in truth in that year, when the leadership of Poland's Solidarity movement asked me to help Poland with its transition to democracy and a market economy -- part of what the Poles called their "return to Europe." I met and was profoundly inspired by many in the region who, like Havel, lived in truth: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, Gregorsz Lindenberg, Jan Smolar, Irena Grosfeld, and, of course, Lech Walesa. These brave men and women, and those like Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Leszek Balcerowicz, who led Poland during its first steps in freedom, succeeded through their combination of courage, intellect, and integrity.

The power of truth-telling that year created a dazzling sense of possibility, for it proved the undoing of one of history's most recalcitrant hegemonies: Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Michnik, like Havel, radiated the joy of fearless truth. I asked him in July 1989, as Poland's communist regime was already unraveling, when freedom would reach Prague. He replied, "By the end of the year."

"How do you know?" I asked. "I was just with Havel in the mountains last week," he said. "Have no fear. Freedom is on the way." His forecast was correct, of course, with a month to spare.

Just as lies and corruption are contagious, so, too, moral truth and bravery spreads from one champion to another. Havel and Michnik could succeed in part because of the miracle of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who emerged from a poisoned system, yet who valued truth above force. And Gorbachev could triumph in part because of the sheer power of honesty of his countryman, Andrei Sakharov, the great and fearless nuclear physicist who also risked all to speak truth in the very heart of the Soviet empire -- and who paid for it with years of internal exile.

These pillars of moral leadership typically drew upon still other examples, including that of Mahatma Gandhi, who called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. They all believed that truth, both scientific and moral, could ultimately prevail against any phalanx of lies and power. Many died in the service of that belief; all of us alive today reap the benefits of their faith in the power of truth in action.

Havel's life is a reminder of the miracles that such a credo can bring about; yet it is also a reminder of the more somber fact that truth's victories are never definitive. Each generation must adapt its moral foundations to the ever-changing conditions of politics, culture, society, and technology.

It can sound, even from Jeffrey Sachs's powerfully intelligent and sympathetic remembrance, as if Havel's legacy relates exclusively, or even primarily, to the peoples of the former Soviet empire. I don't think so. I think what made Disturbing the Peace so powerful, so overwhelming for me when I first read it was Havel's strongly and eloquently expressed view that, although he was writing in the context of the failed "socialist" regimes of the Soviet bloc, an almost identical failure of moral imagination and will was built into the capitalist hierarchy.

I know I can't do justice to either Havel's commitment or his thinking, but in that next post I've promised, I want to share some of what he had to say on this subject.

UPDATE: For follow-up on Havels views about socialist vs. capitalist dehumanization . . .

. . . see "How far are we from the ideal of 'living in truth'? Just listen to right-wingers on the environment?"

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At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Václav Havel was a philosopher and statesman, but in the first place a heroic leader in a world where most people either did nothing to protest injustices and inhumanity, or were profiting from the evil regimes. Long live his inspiration and example to countless new heroes who will rise up to fill his shoes, acting with moral courage, and transforming compassion into courageous action, whenever confronted with challenges against overwhelming odds.

I invite you to see my complete tribute to Václav Havel here:

Phil Zimbardo
Founder and President
The Heroic Imagination Project

At 5:22 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Phil. That webpage is a good place to go for remembrance of Havel.



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