Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1249
While tight censorship prevented Havel from describing the most harrowing of his prison experiences, another inmate and fellow VONS activist, Jiri Dienstbier, has recalled that Havel was persecuted by the vindictive warden of Hermanice prison, a self-declared admirer of Adolf Hitler. The warden would confiscate any Havel letter he considered too cerebral. “What’s all this crap about ‘the order of the spirit’ and ‘the order of Being?’” the warden would roar. He would add, “The only order you have to worry about is the rules of prison order!” Havel’s earlier correspondence is therefore more personal and less philosophical than his letters written from Plzen-Bory.
The reader is given a vivid portrait of Olga, even though none of her letters is published. She seems to be practical, solid, reliable, unsentimental, and somewhat unimaginative. Over and over, her husband begs her for more frequent, more detailed, and longer letters. It is impossible to establish whether her scant correspondence is the result of her reluctance to write or the prison authorities’ refusal to relay all of her letters to Havel. Many of the early letters are replete with Havel’s instructions to Olga concerning articles she should include in the rare parcels he is permitted to receive: shaving cream, toothpaste, socks, nail scissors, vitamin tablets, cigarettes, and the like.
Occasionally—but not often enough to depress the reader—Havel will mention his aches and pains: lumbago, chronic hemorrhoids, recurring attacks of influenza, pain in his legs from having to stand long hours at work, and general physical exhaustion. His most charmingly personal letter is a short essay on the addiction to tea drinking which he has acquired in prison. He has come to regard it as a symbol of individual freedom: He can prepare it on his own, it stimulates him to private contemplation, it affords him leisure and relaxation, it helps him ward off a range of minor indispositions, and it fulfills his need for order and ceremony. It is, therefore, the crown of his “self-care” program.
Havel accommodates admirers of his absurdist dramas when he discusses two of his more recent works: Zebracka opera (1975; the beggar’s opera) and Horsky hotel (1976; the mountain hotel). The first owes more to Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1949) than to their common model, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Like Brecht’s, Havel’s play is a cynical satire depicting a brutal and power-hungry world in which even the slightest display of altruism will lead to a person’s destruction. Its only staging in Czechoslovakia was a single performance by an amateur troupe in the suburbs of Prague. That sufficed to motivate a major police drive against the actors, some of the spectators, and, naturally, the author. Plaintively, Havel asks Olga to remind people of the play’s existence. All it needs to become popular, he tells her, is “one decent production.”
Horsky hotel is the most innovatively structured of Havel’s texts, involving a group of characters who happen to coincide in the same resort but undertake no common action. Havel muses on the play at length in several letters, declaring it abstract, self-referential, mathematical in construction, deliberately nonsensical, unnerving. He regards it as an allegorical expression of “a world with no firm center, no fixed identity, no past and no future, with no coherence or order.” He wants to leave his audience/readers disturbed, confused, but also compelled to ask significant questions about their existence. The work is clearly his favorite.
Havel considers himself a socially committed playwright. Moreover, he also delights in the theater’s communal nature—with actors, author, stagehands, director, and audience encountering one another in the same space and time so that “halfhearted coexistence suddenly blossoms into a feeling of mutual solidarity or brotherhood, even of brotherly love.” He calls this “socialness” of the theater an “existential bond” which anchors it in society and provides the play-attending public with a “spiritual home,” a collective spirit that both creates and reflects a culture. Thus, observes Havel, “After Samuel Beckett, we live in a different world than we did before him.” Besides Beckett, dramatists to whom Havel pays tribute include Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. His regard for Brecht is a reserved one: He only likes his “non-Brechtian moments,” when his plays are not driven by didacticism of ideology. Paradoxically, Havel prefers absurdist to thesis-ridden drama—even though his plays resound with intimations of social insurrection.
The second half of Havel’s correspondence is almost wholly meditative and speculative, with minimal references to his relationship with Olga, other relatives, and friends. His chief intellectual debt is to the phenomenological and existential concepts of Martin Heidegger, usually through the mediation of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose text Humanisme de l’autre homme (1972; humanism of the other man) his brother Ivan sent him in Czech translation. Three standard Heideggerian terms recur frequently: Sein, translated as “Being”; Dasein, translated as “existence-in-the-World”; and Geworfenheit, translated as “thrownness.” Yet Havel cautions his readers that he is not a rigorous, systematic thinker, that he has never created or accepted any integrated and unified philosophy or ideology:My entire “experience of the world” has persuaded me of the mysterious multiformity and infinite “elusiveness” of the order of Being, which—by its very nature and by the very nature of the human mind—simply cannot be grasped and described by a consistent system of knowledge.
Illustrating the selective nature of his mind and interests, Havel appends a postscript to the letter containing this declaration in which he advises Olga to buy the newest recording by the Bee Gees, a rock and roll band.
Repeatedly, Havel addresses the problem of human identity and integrity in a time of totalitarian dehumanization. He calls this “the most fundamental question of existence.” His ideal is individual autonomy, with every person able to act responsibly both toward himself or herself and toward the world at large. He refers, as a case in point, to his experience of watching the weather report on television and witnessing the female meteorologist become confused and fearful as the station’s sound was suddenly cut off. Stripped of the mantle of her routine, embarrassed and helpless, desperate to recover her dignity, this woman struck Havel as emblematic of man’s primal condition: “cast into an alien world and standing there before the question of self.” He found himself flooded with compassion for this person unknown to him, seized with “a boundless and unmotivated sense of responsibility.” Later, he calls this sense of maximal responsibility, which transcends the boundaries of individual subjectivity, the most significant expression of humanity’s “thrownness into the source in Being.”
Havel proceeds to meditate on another provocative example of human responsibility. Sometimes he would board the rear car of a tram late at night, when it was empty of a conductor or fellow passengers. The ethical question arose: With no one observing him, should he pay his fare by dropping a crown into the collection box? He did. Why? A mysterious “voice of Being” prompted him to do so. This “voice,” commonly called conscience, urged Havel to an affirmation of the community of man. Thus, he ends his letters to Olga by summarizing his moral code: He believes in “love, charity, sympathy, tolerance, understanding, self-control, solidarity, friendship, feelings of belonging, the acceptance of concrete responsibility for those close to one.” Hence, no more deceptions, no more injustices—no matter how small.
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