Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1862
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 satire on Communist bureaucracy and an individual’s plight to escape its dehumanizing effects; it reiterates Havel’s recurrent themes, which range from the schizophrenia of existence to fragmentation, alienation, and the loss of human identity.
First produced: Vyrozumní, 1965 (first published, 1966; English translation, 1967)
Type of work: Play
This play is a grotesque on the introduction of Ptydepe, an artificial, “logical” language, into a large organization satirizing the dehumanizing officialese of prereform Communist Czechoslovakia.
The Memorandum is perhaps Havel’s most widely performed play, along with Private View. Again, it would not do Havel justice to view the play exclusively as a parody of Communist bureaucracy and its lingo; rather, it is about the dehumanizing effects and the tyranny of language in any system that causes the disintegration of human identity.
The twelve scenes are set in a deliberately “generic” large organization, the purpose of which, like that of any amorphous self-serving bureaucracy, is not plain. Josef Gross, the managing director, and the development of his personality from the introduction to the abolition of the artificial language Ptydepe are both central to the play. Gross cannot decipher a memorandum directed to him because it is written in Ptydepe, a new office language introduced apparently without his knowledge by deputy director Ballas and his cronies and taught in classes in which every employee seems to have enrolled.
Ptydepe is presumably rational and precise and therefore superior to “dilettantish” natural languages, with their vagueness and ambivalence. Its goal is to eliminate imprecision by limiting all similarity between words and thereby achieve the highest possible redundancy in language. The result is monstrously long words that are formed by the least probable combination of letters. This new doctrine is difficult and complex, so it can be mastered only by discipline and most of all by faith. It is easy to see the parallels between Ptydepe and Communist ideology.
After attempting in vain to stop the spread of Ptydepe, Gross becomes enmeshed in a Kafkaesque catch-22: Even the translation director, Stroll, cannot perform the translation unless Gross’s text is “authorized” by a “Ptydepist,” a specialist who gives permission for each translation. Prior to an authorization, however, the memo needs to be translated. Gross realizes that since he cannot acquire Ptydepe himself because of his lack of faith, the only way to learn what his memo contains is to know it already.
Ballas glibly threatens Gross into submission by ridiculous charges, forces him to sign a declaration of compliance to Ptydepe, coerces him into self-indictment for his “wrongdoings,” and finally reduces him to the post of “staff watcher,” a spy who observes all employees through a crack in the wall. Gross regains his rank with the help of Maria, a sympathetic typist, who translates his memo at a moment when Ballas and his associates already begin to reverse themselves in a total rejection of Ptydepe. The memo itself utterly renounces the artificial language.
Ballas ingeniously justifies his reversal and again pressures the vindicated but naïve Gross into compliance, this time by threatening to expose Gross’s forced declaration of advocacy of Ptydepe. A search for culprits ensues. As a result, Maria is dismissed for performing an unauthorized translation. Gross conveniently rationalizes his inaction by claiming that if he maintains his position he will keep Ballas and his cronies in check. Ballas, in the meantime, introduces a new nonsensical bureaucratic language, Chorukor, a very antithesis to Ptydepe. Gross placates Maria by empty, hollow phrases invoking high ethical ideals; he blames the “difficult times” in which humankind, including himself, is fragmented, manipulated, and alienated. This “analysis” is ironic coming from an unwilling conformist who diagnoses in himself the very ills that are Havel’s primary philosophical concerns but who fails to assume his individual responsibility.
Letters to Olga
First published: Dopisy Olze: erven 1979-Záí 1982, 1983 (English translation, 1988)
Type of work: Letters and essays
This publication contains 144 selected letters from prison to Havel’s wife written between June, 1979, and September, 1982; the last sixteen letters are noted for their philosophical content.
Letters to Olga is a moving document of Havel’s imprisonment and, simultaneously, an important philosophical statement, primarily in the final sixteen letters, which were circulated separately and illegally underground.
The letters are particularly interesting in the light of the circumstances under which they were composed. Havel was subjected to hard labor with set quotas that were deliberately high and thus difficult to fulfill. He was permitted to write home only one four-page letter a week to only one person, so it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to address them to Olga Havel, his wife from 1964 until her death in 1996. Censorship was extremely strict and whimsical. The letters had to adhere to precise specifications: They had to be legible and without corrections, quotation marks, or foreign words. The censors prohibited humor and any thoughts that went beyond what they classified as family matters. The prisoners could not write rough drafts or take notes.
Under such difficult conditions, the weekly letter writing evolved into an anxious guessing game against the arbitrary interpretations of the censors, who ruthlessly confiscated letters that did not fit their specifications. Havel developed a strong dependence on this sole means of intellectual expression permitted to him.
Through her occasional letters, Olga grants him vicarious participation in the cherished life outside the prison. That explains Havel’s recurring insistence that Olga write to him more often, in more detail, and answer his questions and requests—an insistence that occasionally culminates in downright petulance and frustration. Havel persistently inquires about such mundane matters as the upkeep of their weekend retreat, Hrádeek, their Prague apartment, or Olga’s social life.
Naturally, censorship inhibited intimacy and so the letters may be perceived as devoid of true warmth and feeling. Yet Olga’s presence is felt, and Havel’s dependence on her, his earnest adviser and first critic of his work, is evident. When Havel became seriously ill in prison in early 1983, it was his wife who alerted the intellectual community abroad, whose interventions on Havel’s behalf speeded his release from prison before his sentence was terminated.
The final sixteen letters do not constitute a rigorous philosophical treatise, but even so they show Havel’s indebtedness to phenomenological thought and illuminate the tenets of his work. At the center is the image of birth that symbolizes the fundamental condition of humankind, the experience of separation and release, of breaking away: Humanity is cast into an alien world and faces the question of who it is. What essentially characterizes humankind is a boundless primal sense of responsibility for others in a world into which it is cast. All individuals share this isolation in a world from which they cannot escape, and this vulnerability and helplessness cry out for compassion. The misery of others reminds them of their own “thrownness” and isolation in the world. It follows that humankind is not only responsible for others but also obligated to shape the environment, free from scientific or ideological determinism.
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