Sunday, December 18, 2011

Václav Havel: Power and Legacy

On my last trip to Prague in September 2010, I spent a good deal of time visiting places associated with Czech playwright, dissident and President Václav Havel – who died earlier today. I was fortunate enough on this journey to end up seeing Havel up close as I had coffee in the tiny café at Divadlo na zabradli ("Theatre on the Balustrade") – the small playhouse where Havel started his career and found fame as a writer.  

Looking dapper in a suit and tie, Havel was arriving to do a television interview in the theatre. He walked through the café with a wry smile and a slight stoop, nodding to patrons (including me) and exchanging greetings with us as he made his way into the theatre’s lobby.

It was a perfect way to end a trip in which I’d been thinking a lot about Havel, visiting a presidential museum dedicated to his life and some of the cafes and pubs most associated with his career. I ended up pitching an essay for The New Republic about Havel’s post-presidency (which is indeed a fascinating topic), but abandoned it because of other projects.

There will be many overviews of Havel’s life and work in the next few days – and you can start with this simply brilliant Guardian obituary, brimming with wit and knowing, written by WL Webb. But on hearing the sad news of his death this morning, I went back and found the torso of that abandoned piece and have reworked it and expanded it slightly.

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“Being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” – Václav Havel

The Prague castle is the city’s crowning glory and classic postcard image. Hapsburg emperors ruled by fiat from its imposing perch above the city. Totalitarians – both fascist and communist – ruled by terror from its heights.

So when revolution swept through Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in 1989, it was in Prague castle that Václav Havel, the nation’s most prominent –and oft-jailed – dissident, was installed as president on the voices of crowds chanting a three word slogan: “Havel na hrad” (“Havel to the castle”).

Even Havel himself called the story of his rise from censored playwright to imprisoned dissident to president in a castle a “fairy tale” in a 2002 speech given at CUNY. But in that same speech, published in the New York Review of Books as “A Farewell to Politics,” Havel spoke not only of the “hard fall to earth” involved in governing, but also reflected on his legacy and the opportunities that leaving politics might offer to him to regain some of that lost magic.

“I cannot help feeling that at the end of my long fall from a fairy-tale world onto the hard earth,” Havel said, “I suddenly find myself once more inside a fairy tale.”

So what did Havel do in that new fairy tale that ended with his death on December 18, 2011? I thought a lot about this question on a 2010 trip to Prague, poking into various haunts associated with Havel and visiting his new presidential library in Old Town Prague.

Havel had been back in international headlines as I visited in 2010 because one of his activist protégés – Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Havel was among those who nominated Xiaobo for the prize, and Xiaobo’s Charter 08 takes both its name and its tactic of a forthright demand for human rights for the Chinese people from Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.

Freed from self-suspicion, Havel spent as much or more time in his post- presidency revitalizing the activities of dissidence and drama that launched him to power as he did engaging in the usual tasks of an ex-presidency – burnishing and self-justification.

Whether it was writing a new play and a presidential memoir that trafficked in the political absurdism of his early work or making efforts to export the success of his mix of human rights and civil disobedience beyond Eastern Europe, Havel did something more honest than recapture a fairy tale. He found innovative ways not only to recount the fall, but also sow the seeds that might sprout new Havels elsewhere in the world

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Almost nine years after the end of Havel’s final term as Czech president in February, 2003, the Prague castle is still no place to look for his legacy. There is no monument to him there. No Havel museum. Indeed, Havel’s greatest post-1989 political enemy, Thatcherite and climate change denier Václav Klaus, is the current president and resident of the castle.

In the warm glow of international acclaim, it’s easy to forget that Havel’s domestic profile had shrunken greatly after thirteen years in office. Havel left Prague Castle to indifference from many quarters and jeers about his personal peccadilloes from his critics. Mutual exasperation and exhaustion between Havel and his countrymen muted his departure, and his leavetaking was soured further by the signal indignity of Klaus being installed as his successor.

There were failures as well as successes in his term as president. Havel presided over the break-up of Czechoslovakia into two nations (a move he opposed but did not effectively combat).  He then served two terms as president of a newly-created Czech Republic, during which his greatest accomplishments were cementing the new state successfully into NATO and the European Union.

Havel created a presidential library (Knihova Václava Havla) with a small exhibit of his life and times in Prague’s Old Town.  That exhibit is a better place to get a sense of the man, largely because it keenly reflects Havel’s own desire to highlight the aspects of his life and work that he labeled as a “fairy tale.

The pamphlet that advertises its location of the presidential library on the small and largely untouristed Retezova street also weaves Havel as writer and politician into a dense web of literary connections in the surrounding area.

For instance, the famous Golden Tiger (U Zlateho Tygra) pub, where Havel took President Bill Clinton for a beer on his visit in 1994, is just a few steps away from the library. The Golden Tiger has been the haunt of many intellectuals and writers, but is most identified with the raffish prose raconteur Bohumil Hrabal, whom Havel introduced to Clinton at the pub during his visit. (There’s still a picture of that moment on the wall of the pub.)

The building in which the library is housed is redolent with literary history. The ground floor houses the Cabaret Montmartre – a loving recreation of an early 20th Century café at the same address where members of Prague’s dueling literary tribes of that era (Czech and German) would collide to take in a new-fashioned dance called the tango. (The pamphlet points out that Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek – author of The Good Soldier Svejk – both frequented the place.)

The exhibit was empty on the day I visited, save for the attendant who took my 50 crowns ($2.50) entrance fee. There were numerous walls with photos of Havel’s childhood, life as a playwright and his dissident days. (The Obies that Havel won in the 1960s for New York productions of his plays The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration are on display.)

A much smaller proportion of the exhibit devoted to his presidency, with academic gowns for various degrees and quotes on the walls that fixate on the problem of čecháčkovství – or “Czech small-mindedness – and Havel’s striking insistence that Czechs rise to their potential on the world stage.

The exhibit is a terrific education for the tourist audiences which will now likely flock to it. Havel is best known to most people as an unlikely politician, but the emphasis of the exhibit on other facets of his career  demonstrates how deeply rooted his politics was in his literate and comprehensive humanism.

Havel’s early plays siphoned energy and inspiration from earlier playwrights of the absurd such as Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, but his genius as a playwright was to bend the genre to his own political uses by pitting the individual against the totalitarian state. In his breakthrough play The Garden Party (1963), young Hugo Pludek’s joyous entanglement with and rapid rise within a soulless bureaucracy of “liquidation” and “inauguration” leaves him so completely effaced that his own family does not recognize him at the end of the play. And in his next play, The Memorandum (1965), the ambitious rivals of a slightly oblivious director in a large enterprise outmaneuver him (and then, ultimately, themselves) by introducing a nonsense language for corporate communications.

What made Havel’s early plays so striking – as I alluded to above – was their transmutation of the theatre of the absurd into a rhetorical scalpel, cutting cleanly and sharply through the communist state. The individuals in these plays are dehumanized by not by the absurdity of existence but rather the inhuman and absurd demands of the state. The state can make such irrational and absurd metaphysical demands on humanity because it has the absolute power to do so.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 drove Havel into the active dissidence for which he is still best known. Havel’s playwriting was transformed as well – from the comic assault against totalitarianism and party hackery of his early work into plays that starkly and simply evoked the pitched moral battles of dissidence. The three Vanek plays (Audience, Unveiling and Protest) are the best-known of these plays. The ironic distance of the early work is erased, and the character of Vanek (a stand-in for the author himself, with wrinkles and creases and self-critique) forcibly confronts the psychology of collaboration – and its infection of every element of society – workplace, social life, friendship.

Much of Havel’s work written in the few years before the Velvet Revolution was a synthesis of two earlier styles. The best known of these plays – Temptation and Redevelopment – evoke the absurdities of totalitarian life and its warping of reality that was the engine of his earlier work, yet manages to frame these conflicts in the more starkly moral terms of the Vanek plays– to the point of retelling the Faust legend in Temptation. These are plays of great complexity and humanity which have yet to receive their due.

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Havel’s plunge into outright political dissidence after the violent repression of the Prague Spring – and his repeated incarcerations by the Czechoslovak state – reduced his theatrical output and yielded the great political essays and correspondence ("The Power of the Powerless," Letters to Olga) that made his name as a philosopher and political thinker.

Then, Havel’s fairy tale ascent to the presidencies – first of Czechoslovakia and then of the newly-created Czech Republic – almost completely channeled his literary output into speechmaking and other political writing.

At this point, his fierce jousts with Václav Klaus over the nature of the post-communist state not only wore down Havel, but also dragged him into the muck and mire of modern quotidian politics – including the requisite manufactured scandals. As a young writer and teacher of ESL in Prague and its environs in 1991and 1992, it was impossible for me not to see the emergence of what would be a grim two-decade struggle between the two men.

Havel’s intellectual brilliance and moral courage in the 20 years leading up to 1989 was a magnet, attracting the wide range of support needed to wage a peaceful and successful revolution. But those skills were not the ones required in the immediate aftermath of the revolution he helped to create. It was Klaus who seized that post-revolutionary moment, organizing his political party (ODS, or Občanská demokratická strana)  and creating a politics of faction: first in helping, with the connivance of Slovak politicians, to end the joint Czechoslovak state, and then in polarizing the Czech electorate with his intransigent crusade to install free market radicalism in the formerly socialist state.

Klaus’ message had fertile soil in post-communism, and many of the students in the little petrochemical town north of Prague where I taught English were involved in the grassroots party efforts that Klaus so skillfully engineered. There was clearly a lot of money and skilled organization behind Klaus’ efforts, even in 1991 and 1992. The forces of social democracy – perhaps exhausted by their central role in theorizing and creating revolution? – simply couldn’t keep up in those early years.

The ramifications of Klaus’ initial success for Havel’s presidencies were dire. Eventually, Havel became a man more revered outside the Czech Republic than inside it. Yet as many observers have pointed out, Havel also chafed against much of the pettiness and pomp of modern politics.

The battles against Klaus and the oddness of his presidential style dominate his post-presidential literary output, most notably his presidential memoir, To The Castle and Back and his play, Leaving.

To the Castle and Back is a synthetic work, blending a diary, an extended interview and a flood of presidential memos (many of them trivial) It’s an almost dadist, and thoroughly warts and all look at his own presidency that reflects Havel’s deep unease about the snares of power.

The play, Leaving, also possesses a synthetic feel, blending elements of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard to illuminate Havel’s own ambiguous responses to his own political life. The Shakespeare and Chekhov plays that Havel draws upon both deal with human failings of blindness, delusion and loss, and it is hard not to see Leaving as Havel’s harsh verdict on his own political impotence. The wicked inherit the future in Havel’s political universe.

Both To the Castle and Back and Leaving indulge in sharp self-mockery, not at the ideals that Havel espoused in creating revolution, but his own effectiveness in the post-revolutionary state. It’s less a burnishing of his legacy then a questioning of what he was able to accomplish with his hands on the levers of power.

Perhaps that is why Havel turned once again to literature – and to work through his foundation and other venues to encourage the Liu Xiaobos of the world to follow his dissident path – rather than his political path.

What remains so magical, and so much a fairy tale, in the life of Václav Havel, is that he was the most visible representative of that generation of playwrights, philosophers, labor organizers and clergymen who managed to destroy the walls erected by Central and Eastern Europe’s totalitarian regimes.

But Havel’s clarity in dissecting his achievements and his failures is also inspiring. Dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo do not draw inspiration from Havel’s presidency, but rather from the art and moral courage that remade his society.

Can one still remake a corrupt and repressive society with the weapons of the intellect and a fierce refusal to bend to untruth? Or was that a uniquely Bohemian fairy tale? The stakes remain high. And the answer, unclear.