Václav Havel World Literature Analysis
To view Havel exclusively as a critic of 1960’s Communist Czechoslovakia and as a dissident during Husák’s so-called normalization period of the 1970’s and 1980’s would limit his scope as a writer and thinker. Although Havel resisted being called a philosopher, his thinking is firmly grounded in his country’s humanistic tradition. The all-pervasive themes of his dramatic fiction and essays are individual responsibility, human dignity and identity, and the burden of human existence. While these themes are central to modern art, Havel’s dramatic vision particularly owes a debt to Franz Kafka and the French Theater of the Absurd. Furthermore, Havel was influenced by Martin Heidegger’s work, which was conveyed to the Czechs and Slovaks by the philosopher Jan Patoka, who steadfastly applied the principles of individual responsibility to his own life amid persecution.
Paul Wilson, in the introduction to his translation of Letters to Olga, rightly notes that phenomenology is congenial to a central and Eastern European mind that struggles to free itself from ideology and its deterministic worldview. Rather than attributing responsibility for the state of things to external factors, phenomenology seeks the obligation for betterment within the individual. Consequently, human rights, according to Wilson, are not privileges that can be granted or taken away at will but principles that govern responsible human conduct, which in turn revitalizes society.
This philosophical stance in part accounts for Havel’s courageous, uncompromising championing of human rights. Havel writes about his own experience—from “below,” where he was forced by the political circumstances—in the hope of addressing universal human concerns. Thus, in his work he not only exposes a corrupt, repressive regime in central Europe but also discloses a universally shared modern condition.
Havel’s interest is devoted to questions such as how the individual copes with impersonal power, how people maintain their identities, and how they carry themselves under the burden of existence. Although the author calls for the individual to assume responsibility and to live in the truth (as described in his essay “The Power of the Powerless”), he is not a naïve dreamer who would expect immediate and far-reaching results. Yet Havel seems steadfastly convinced that power is not an external but rather an internal faculty. This responsibility to answer only to one’s conscience at all costs is an active and perhaps inescapable endeavor.
Not surprisingly, Havel’s plays, particularly the so-called Vank trilogy, consisting of the semiautobiographical one-act plays Audience, Protest, and Private View, ironically expose the attempts of individuals to justify their selfish conformity in a repressive political system in which they claim to have no part, yet from which they shamelessly benefit. In Audience, Vank, a dissident, works in a brewery where he is being observed by the secret police with the help of his boss, an informer, who, among other unethical proposals, asks Vank, the writer, to relieve him from writing reports by composing them himself. Protest juxtaposes the dissident Vank and the successful sellout Stank; the latter selfishly seeks Vank’s help against the arrest of his daughter’s boyfriend, only to reason artfully against and ultimately dodge the signing of the very petition on the young man’s behalf that Vank has already prepared. Private View attacks the vacuous lives of conformist snobs, depicting a couple who subscribe to materialistic comforts and exhort Vank to abandon his obstinate antagonism and its corollary material deprivation. In each of these plays, the mental and linguistic acrobatics and sophistries reveal the absurdity of life in “normalized” Czechoslovakia, or, more universally, the schizophrenia of a life lived against one’s conscience.
Havel is interested in language, in both its potential benefits and its perniciousness. The essay “Words on Words” restates this theme of the far-reaching “power of words to change history” that is already present in his early plays The Garden Party and The Memorandum. The two satires are scathing absurdist indictments of the official Communist bureaucratese and its empty clichés that are characteristic of a dehumanized society in which monstrous paradoxes abound. Like these two plays, the vicious comedy The Increased Difficulty of Concentration is more than a...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)