Disturbing the Peace

by Vaclav Havel

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2134

The genre of Disturbing the Peace is both traditional and unique. The book must be considered an autobiography. Throughout, the focus is on Havel as a person: his biography—childhood, milieu, development, schools, influences, career as playwright—as well as his ideas and beliefs. The method of composition is original; the book was recorded rather than written, but the question-and-answer structure is not really that of an interview. The writer Karel Hvizdala, who lived in West Germany, sent a batch of about fifty questions to Havel, who was living in Prague. Havel shut himself up in a borrowed apartment and came out with eleven hours of tape-recorded answers, which he sent to Hvizdala in West Germany. Hvizdala transcribed and edited this, sending the manuscript back to Havel with some supplementary and edited this, sending the manuscript back to Havel with some supplementary ques tions. Havel completed the final version, which contained new material, in June, 1986. The book is a hybrid—recorded, but also written, edited, and with significant contributions from Hvizdala. His questions, howevet; are always short, the answers ample and informal; this is very much Havel’s book. The finished product is unified and reads smoothly.

This is a book about Havel the writer and thinker not about Havel the President of Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president beforeDisturbing the Peace was translated into English, and Paul Wilson, the translator, tried hard to persuade Havel to update the ending to include his election. The reasons were obvious: The book would have been more striking and would have profited from Havel’s new fame. Havel resisted the entreaties, and rightly so. The material is already ample, and Havel reflects on his ideas as well as all of his most important writings in several genres. In 1990 there was no evidence that these had been changed by his election to the presidency.

Havel stresses in Disturbing the Peace that he is not a politician at all. At the beginning he states, “I’ve never been a politician and never wanted to be.” These lines were written (or spoken) in 1985 or 1986, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. He continued, “I’ve never taken a systematic interest in politics, political science, or economics; I’ve never had a clear-cut political position, much less expressed it in public. I’m a writer, and I’ve always understood my mission to speak the truth about the world I live in….”

The temptation in the West to think of Havel after 1989 as a world-famous figure and president is inevitable; he became the one and the other. It is important, however, to reflect on the reasons that this playwright—whose plays are considered part of the theater of the absurd—was elected in the first place. Disturbing the Peace gives evidence throughout of Havel’s striking personal traits: modesty, his constant struggle against illusion and self-deception, his thoroughness and sobriety, tough-mindedness and courage, concern for the most ordinary people (the greengrocer in the famous passage in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”) together with an obstinate refusal to live with “a bent spine.” In addition, there is Havel’s famous humor.

Even when one considers Havel’s career only up to 1986, it becomes clear that several careers coexisted, and it is not easy to distinguish which is, or was, the most important. For example, is Havel primarily a playwright or a writer of philosophical essays? Havel’s essays are all on a consistently high level, although he claims that he is not a philosopher at all but someone who occasionally writes “like a philosopher.” As for his plays, he confesses in  Disturbing the...

(This entire section contains 2134 words.)

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Peace that he sometimes has doubts about his ability to write them; the book ends with an expression of uncertainty, depression, and fears. Havel’s modesty, however, is one of his most endearing traits. It is closely related to his insistence on clear-sightedness, and is a strength—it is possible to speak of Havel’s “steely” modesty—not a weakness.

Above all Havel is a playwright, and one of the most interesting features of Disturbing the Peace is that Havel analyzes and comments on all of his best-known plays. He points out weakness in some of them and describes his intentions. The second part of the book is entitled “Writing for the Stage” and might serve as an aid to accompany a reading of his plays. Some of the plays are more successful than others, and it is an interesting critical exercise to compare one’s own preferences and disappointments with those of Havel. Like many authors, Havel tends to favor his more recent work, distancing himself from an early play such as Zahradni slavnost (1963; The Garden Party, 1969). This is understandable, but it might well be that The Garden Party, together withVyrozumeni (1965; The Memorandum, 1967) and the three Vanek plays—Audience (1976; English translation, 1976), Vernistif (1976; Private View, 1978), and Protest (1978; English translation, 1980)—represent Havel’s finest dramatic work. The critic should not consider Havel’s plays in categories that are too rigid; Havel has undergone a distinct development. His experiences in prison, his activities with Charter 77, and probably his own prose essays have made his concerns different from those of the young author of The Garden Party. To this list of formative experiences must now be added the presidency of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.

Havel makes a number of lucid observations about his writings which contradict some of the popular notions prevalent among readers abroad. For example, when Havel represented the Civic Forum in negotiations with the Communists in 1989, Western newspapers repeatedly called Havel an “avant-garde playwright” and “a dissident.” In Disturbing the Peace, he rejects both the “avant-garde” and the “dissident” labels. Writing about all of his plays, he asserts: “They are in no way avant-garde. In this I am faithful to the tradition of the theater of the absurd.” Here he makes a clear distinction between what he calls the avant-garde and the theater of the absurd, which he identifies above all with the work of Samuel Beckett, Eugene lonesco, and Harold Pinter. In Western and American literary criticism, these two concepts are sometimes thought to be close to each other. Havel stresses the differences between them.

It might seem strange that Havel rejects the term “dissident” for himself The rejection is partial, however. Havel says that in the 1960’s he had no dissident experience, whereas in the decade of the 1970’s—when he was imprisoned for long periods, harassed by the police, exiled to a provincial town, and became a founding member of Charter 77—he participated, indeed, in dissident experience. This was reflected in the three Vanek plays and Largo desolato (1985; English translation, 1988). Then he deliberately began to look for new themes; the dissident experience was ’too exclusive.” He writes, “I was tired of hearing yet again that dissidents could only write about themselves. Therefore, I decided to try writing about the structures again, as though I were inside them”—that is, the day-to-day structures of Communist life. This explains not only Havel’s new concerns in plays after Largo Desolato but also many of the ideas in his essays which are concerned with the ordinary man on the street, the average Czech, who is neither a hero nor a villain

or the greengrocer in “The Power of the Powerless,” who is compelled to make countless tiny compromises with the regime. People are not divided into the two groups of “collaborators” and “noncollaborators” (or dissidents); instead, the split is within the individual. The average, representative man internalizes the split; constantly torn, he is both collaborator and dissident at the same time.

Havel’s refusal to glorify “dissident” experience, and his modest descriptions of his activities between 1975—the date of his “Open Letter to Gustav Husak”—and 1983, when he was released from a prison hospital, should be taken with a grain of salt. They are far too modest and self-effacing. Clearly Havel was trying to deem-phasize this aspect of his experience when he wrote Disturbing the Peace in 1985-1986; in his plays he was trying to “draw from a different barrel,” as he puts it, and move on to new material. Consequently, when he discusses his own motives for writing the “Open Letter” to Husak, he says that “it was a kind of autotherapy.” On the other hand, this was not simply a private act; he adds, “I had stopped waiting for the world to improve and exercised my right to intervene in that world.”

We should not be deceived by Havel’s modesty. For many observers, especially Czechs, Havel’s actions during the period 1975-1983 were truly heroic. His high esteem in Czechoslovakia is partly based on the ordeals during this period, which might be termed extraliterary. This is only partly true, however—his actions are reflected in several plays, inDopisy Olze (1985; Letters to Olga, 1988), and above all in the essays. During these years, Havel accomplished the remarkable feat of transforming what was strenuous, extraordinary, heroic, and unnatural (for heroism is not natural) into something ordinary, simple, and natural. The discussion of this period in Disturbing the Peace is colorful and always interesting, but probably errs on the side of too much modesty.

Havel had written about the theater of the absurd before Disturbing the Peace, but he returns to the topic and reaffirms his attachment to this theatrical movement: “I have the feeling,” he writes, “that if absurd theater had not existed before me, I would have had to invent it.” What does Havel mean by “the absurd”? He stresses that “the plays are not—and this is important—nihilistic. They are merely a warning. In a very shocking way, they throw us into the question of meaning by manifesting its absence. Absurd theater does not offer us consolation or hope. It merely reminds us of how we are living: without hope. And that is the essence of its warning.” American theatergoers respond to the humor of the theater of the absurd but often feel uncomfortable with this lack of hope—or negativism, which Havel denies. For Havel, to see the human condition with clear-sighted awareness is to see its absurdity. He writes: “The outlines of genuine meaning can only be perceived from the bottom of absurdity. Everything else is superficial.”

Havel refers to a general crisis not only in the Communist world but also in the West and America. “The West and the East, though different in so many ways, are going through a single, common crisis.” Here, perhaps, Havel is less successful or less convincing. He mentions the loss of metaphysical certainties and experience of the transcendental; he believes that we are going through a great departure from God without parallel in history and that we live in the middle of the first atheistic civilization. Other thinkers have pointed out similar trends, and Havel may well be right in his overall diagnosis. Perhaps it seems less immediately convincing to the Western reader for the obvious reason that Havel knows Western Europe and America less well than he does Eastern Europe. Karel Hvizdala, Havel’s questioner in Disturbing the Peace, points out a reluctance on the part of Western readers to apply Havel’s diagnosis of contemporary ills to their own societies:

… I don’t think I’ve ever read of anyone’s accepting your basic idea about the threat to human identity and then going on to ask whether this identity is also threatened in West Germany, in Sweden, or in England. The mass media here [in West Germanyl never seem to admit the possibility that the problem you raise might be a general problem. Doesn’t that bother you sometimes?

In reply, Havel admits the observation but has little to add. It might be pointed out in his defense that the theater of the absurd was as much a Western as an Eastern European phenomenon; the one-act play Private View is as good a satire on the Yuppie phenomenon as anything written in the West, and the cliche’s in The Garden Party, which a critic said are the “main hero” of the play, apply to the West as well as to the East.

Disturbing the Peace is the best available introduction to Havel the writer, and to a lesser degree Havel the man. Ironically, it was written by Havel himself. The story ends in 1985. There is much more to follow.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. July 26, 1990, p.14.

Foreign Affairs. LXIX, Fall, 1990, p.193.

Library Journal. CXV, June 15, 1990, p.117.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 20, 1990, p.1.

The New Republic. CCIII, July 23, 1990, p.27.

New Statesman and Society. III, October 19, 1990, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, May 31, 1990, p.36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, June 17, 1990, p.1.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, May 11, 1990, p.236.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, July 1, 1990, p.3.