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Václav Havel 1936–

Czechoslovakian dramatist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Havel's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 25, 58, and 65.

An internationally renowned Czechoslovakian statesman and champion of human rights, Václav Havel is among the...

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Václav Havel 1936–

Czechoslovakian dramatist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Havel's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 25, 58, and 65.

An internationally renowned Czechoslovakian statesman and champion of human rights, Václav Havel is among the most important East European dissident writers of the Cold War period. His relentless political activism and avant-garde plays established him as a leading voice of protest against the repressive communist government of Czechoslovakia during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. A frequent political prisoner whose writings were banned in his native country, Havel resisted totalitarianism in influential essays, speeches, and popular underground plays. As a dramatist, he is best known for Zahradní slavnost (1963; The Garden Party) and the trilogy of "Vanek" plays performed during the 1970s. Associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, his satiric dramas caricature the dehumanizing conditions of political tyranny and technocratic society. Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 after sweeping democratic reforms dissolved the nation's communist regime. A charismatic folk hero and public intellectual, Havel is recognized worldwide as a leading humanitarian and political visionary.

Biographical Information

Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Havel spent his formative years under Nazi Occupation and Stalinist hegemony. The son of a wealthy industrialist and property owner, he was denied access to a higher education in keeping with the communists's program to disenfranchise members of the bourgeoisie. Havel worked as an apprentice in a chemical laboratory while in school and, beginning in 1951, as a laboratory technician. Over the next several years he attended evening classes to earn a secondary degree in 1954. Havel studied economics at the Czech University of Technology from 1955 to 1957, during which time he published his first essays on literary topics. In 1959, after completing two years of compulsory military service, Havel found work as a stagehand for Divadlo ABC (the ABC Theatre of Prague). The next year he moved to Divadlo na zábradli (Theatre on the Balustrade), where he initially worked as a stagehand, then as a secretary, manuscript reader, and literary manager from 1963 to 1968. In 1961, Havel collaborated with Ivan Vyskocil, artistic director of Theatre on the Balustrade, to produce his first play, Autostop (1961; Hitchhike). Havel's first full-length independent play, The Garden Party, premiered in 1963, followed by Vyrozumení (1965; The Memorandum), winner of an Obie (Off-Broadway) Award, and Ztizená moznost soustredení (1968; The Increased Difficulty of Concentration)—all produced at Theatre on the Balustrade. He also published Protokoly (1966; Protocols), a collection of his early drama, essays, and poetry. While working and writing for the theater, Havel studied drama at the Academy of Art in Prague from 1962 to 1967. He married Olga Splichalova in 1964. During the "Prague Spring" of 1968, Havel was a leading activist for artistic freedom and democratic reforms. With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Havel's works were banned and he was subjected to repeated arrests, periods of imprisonment, and more than a decade of virtual house arrest. During the 1970s he remained an outspoken advocate for human and civil rights. He was a contributor to Charter 77, a human rights manifesto made public in 1977, for which he was incarcerated for four months. In 1978, Havel founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS), leading to another six-month imprisonment. Havel also wrote several plays for underground circulation, including Spiklenci (1970; The Conspirators), Zebrácká opera (1975), an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, Audience (1975), Vernisáz (1975; Private View), Horsky hotel (1976; The Mountain Hotel), and Protest (1978). For continued acts of political protest, Havel was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment in 1979. Upon his early release in 1983, he produced Dopisy Olze (1983; Letters to Olga), a collection of letters written to his wife while imprisoned; Dálkovy vyslech (1986; Disturbing the Peace), an interview with Czech journalist Karel Hvizdala in which Havel discusses his childhood, literary career, and political experiences; Václav Havel, or Living in Truth (1987), which contains six essays by Havel—notably "The Power of the Powerless" and "Politics and Conscience"—along with texts in honor of Havel by Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll, Tom Stoppard, Milan Kundera, and Arthur Miller; and the plays Pokouseni (1985; Temptation) and Largo Desolato (1986), both of which won Obie awards. After two years of intensified protest and labor strikes, in 1989 Czechoslovakia renounced its communist government for new democratic elections. Havel was unanimously appointed interim president by the Czechoslovakia Parliament in December 1989 and officially elected president in 1990. Havel resigned the presidency in 1992 to protest the imminent division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He was elected president of the new Czech Republic the same year. His political views and experiences are recorded in Open Letters (1991), which contains essays dating from 1965 to January 1990, Summer Meditations (1992), and The Art of the Impossible (1997).

Major Works

Havel's dramatic works are dominated by themes of alienation, malcommunication, betrayal, and the search for identity and truth. According to Havel in Disturbing the Peace, his plays are intended to portray "modern humanity in a 'state of crisis.'" Influenced by the writings of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, Havel's early absurdist comedies expose the ineptitude and depersonalization of bureaucratic institutions. In The Garden Party protagonist Hugo Pludek pursues a position at the Office of Liquidation through Orwellian doublespeak and linguistic contrivance. A shrewd careerist who easily assimilates party platitudes and clichés, Pludek eventually becomes the director of two agencies—the Office of Liquidation and the Office of Inauguration. However, an attempt to eliminate the Office of Liquidation raises an intractable dilemma, since only the Office of Liquidation can dissolve itself and once terminated would no longer exist to complete the process. Alluding to the structure of a chess game, Pludek's paradoxical checkmate signifies his compromised self-identity as a pawn of the nonsensical system. The Memorandum further examines the alienating effect of bureaucratic discourse. The plot involves Josef Gross, an office manager who attempts to decode an official document written in "Ptydepe," a new scientific language designed to banish ambiguity and emotion from human communication. Gross's efforts to decipher the incomprehensible memorandum are harried by irrational bureaucratic policies and a manipulative underling who has him demoted. Gross eventually convinces Maria, a secretary, to translate the memo which, ironically, is revealed to be itself a directive for the elimination of "Ptydepe" as an ineffective language. The Increased Difficulty of Concentration involves Dr. Eduard Huml, a social scientist who attempts to balance conflicting obligations to his wife and mistresses. While participating in a farcical computer experiment and composing a lecture on the complexity of modern life, Huml's personal life is increasingly complicated by multiple sexual infidelities that reveal his flawed personality. Havel's "Vanek" trilogy consists of the one-act plays Audience, Private View, and Protest. Each of the three plays is connected by the semiautobiographic protagonist Ferdinand Vanek, a dissident writer who witnesses the degrading forces of corruption, false ideology, and socioeconomic coercion. In Audience Vanek works in a brewery where the drunken head malter pressures him to write weekly reports on himself for the secret police in exchange for lighter work. Vanek refuses to assist the government that he openly opposes by betraying himself, demonstrating the inviolable principles of the artist in contrast to the malter's demoralization. In Private View, Vanek visits Michael and Vera, a superficial couple who have sacrificed moral consciousness for material advantage and social respectability. While proudly displaying their newly redecorated apartment, they espouse the conditioned values of Western consumerism and chastise Vanek for his stubborn idealism and alleged cowardice. In Protest, Vanek is approached by Stanek, a noncommittal fellow writer, to draft a protest letter on behalf of an imprisoned rock star who is involved with his daughter. When Vanek presents the document for Stanek's approval, Stanek loses his nerve and launches into a convoluted debate through which he affirms the status quo and dismisses his obligation to act. In the end, Stanek learns that the rock star is released and protest is unnecessary. In all of the "Vanek" plays, Vanek's self-effacement and humble integrity offer a foil for the sophistry and duplicity of those he encounters. Temptation is Havel's interpretation of the Faust myth in which Dr. Foustka's occult meddlings reveal the evil of instrumental truth and postmodern relativism. Largo Desolato centers upon the existential crisis of Professor Leopold Nettles, a persecuted intellectual who must renounce a controversial passage that he has written by denying its authorship. Confined to his apartment—a symbolic prison cell—to contemplate authority and subjectivity. Nettles's becomes consumed with self-doubt regarding his identity and the possibility of truth.

Critical Reception

Havel is widely praised as an uncompromising artist, human rights activist, and leader of democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia. Though best known for his political activities and message of hope, Havel's dramatic works are highly regarded as provocative commentaries on life in a totalitarian state. The majority of critical attention is directed at The Garden Party, The Memorandum, the "Vanek" trilogy, and Largo Desolato, generally considered his most effective plays. The Garden Party remains Havel's most popular and acclaimed literary work. Critics frequently comment on the significance of distorted language, moral abdication, and lost self-identity in Havel's parodies of oppressive sociopolitical structures. In addition to the absurdist influence of Camus, Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco, many critics compare Havel's bureaucratic nightmares to those depicted in the writings of fellow Czech-born author Franz Kafka. Critics also note Havel's philosophical debt to Martin Heidegger and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Though recognized as one of Eastern Europe's most important playwrights, some critics question Havel's literary accomplishment when measured against his contemporary Western counterparts. The reluctance of some Western critics to judge Havel's writing is attributed to fear that unfavorable evaluation of his literature may jeopardize his political stature. Havel's affinity for existentialism and outmoded theatrical devices of the 1960s, cited by some as a weakness in his work, is indicative of the cultural stagnation under the East Bloc regime Havel strove to overcome. Despite such qualifications, most critics view Havel's plays and essays as forceful philosophical statements on the degrading conditions of authoritarianism and the moral responsibilities of dissenters.

Principal Works

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Autostop [with Ivan Vyskocil; Hitchhike] (drama) 1961
Zahradní slavnost [The Garden Party] (drama) 1963
Vyrozumení [The Memorandum] (drama) 1965
Protokoly [Protocols] (drama, essays, and poetry) 1966
Ztizená moznost soustredení [The Increased Difficulty of Concentration] (drama) 1968
Spiklenci [The Conspirators] (drama) 1970
Audience (drama) 1975
Vernisáz [Private View; also translated as Unveiling] (drama) 1975
Zebrácká opera [adaptor; from the drama The Beggar's Opera by John Gay] (drama) 1975
Horsky hotel [The Mountain Hotel; also translated as A Hotel in the Hills] (drama) 1976
Protest (drama) 1978
Dopisy Olze [Letters to Olga: June 1979 to September 1982] (correspondence) 1983
A Private View [contains Audience, Private View, and Protest] (drama) 1983
Pokouseni [Temptation] (drama) 1985
Dálkovy vyslech [Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala] (interviews) 1986
Largo Desolato (drama) 1986
Václav Havel, or Living in Truth [with others] (essays) 1987
The Vanek Plays: Four Authors, One Character [contains Audience, Private View, and Protest] (drama) 1987
Open Letters: Selected Writings (essays) 1991
Summer Meditations (essays) 1992
The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice: Speeches and Writings, 1990–1996 (speeches and essays) 1997

Irving Howe (review date 26 May 1991)

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SOURCE: "One Can Stand Up to Lies," in New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1991, p. 5.

[In the following review, Howe offers positive assessment of Open Letters. "We turn to Havel," Howe writes, "not for theoretical innovation but for the consolidation of truth."]

There is a pleasing anecdote about Vaclav Havel, perhaps true, perhaps not. During the years he was being hounded by the Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, he would spend part of his time in the country, watched day and night by the secret police. Once, a policeman is supposed to have said to him: "Why go back to Prague? Why don't you remain in the country, where we have such a nice, quiet life together?" Intuitively, this policeman had come to grasp the moral power of the writer he was watching.

For there is a mystery to Mr. Havel. Now the President of his country and, before that, a leading dissident spokesman and playwright, he has come to occupy a special place in our imaginations. We think of him as … well, an unheroic hero. Open Letters, his new collection of writings, which range from the time of his first hesitant statements in 1965 to the soberly triumphant inaugural address of January 1990, can be read as a political history in miniature. Yet I found myself more deeply interested in Mr. Havel as a phenomenon—the writer as popular leader—than in the events he charts. Others have written quite as well about the struggle for freedom in Central and Eastern Europe, but what is remarkable about Mr. Havel is his emergence as public man. Why and how did he win the affection of people throughout the world? And still more, the confidence of Czechoslovaks long immured in skepticism about all varieties of politics?

Mr. Havel's essays are lucid, sometimes even luminous, but their content is either topical (this protest, that arrest) or derivative. It would not be hard to name a dozen Central and East European intellectuals who write with more flair and provide more original analysis—I think, for instance, of George Konrad and Leszek Kolakowski. Yet there is something peculiarly gripping about Mr. Havel, something that makes him central to this historical moment. A touch of charisma? A chastity of voice?

Once in a rare while he succumbs to the vanity of verbal display, as in writing that people must "assume the existential responsibility for their own truth." What, after all, would be lost if he had scrapped that pulpy word "existential"?

In the main, however, Mr. Havel writes in a transparent style (competently rendered into English by a variety of translators) and out of an ethic of community. He talks to people, to factory workers, common readers, learned colleagues, sometimes even party apparatchiks. He seems still to believe that in this age of debased "communications" it is possible to have an exchange of thought. And thereby he achieves the eloquence of simplicity, so that, as we keep reading, this simplicity comes to seem charming, a smile of friendship.

The longest essay in Open Letters is a 1978 piece entitled "The Power of the Powerless," an anatomy of totalitarianism about which the Polish Solidarity leader Zbigniew Bujak said: "It gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity." Now, anyone familiar with the literature on totalitarianism will recognize echoes in Mr. Havel's essay from, say, Hannah Arendt and Andrei Sakharov, as well as several others. But it doesn't really matter, since we turn to Mr. Havel not for theoretical innovation but for the consolidation of truth. "The Power of the Powerless" gave sustenance to the opponents of Stalinism—though I suspect that many of them shrugged their way past Mr. Havel's concluding slide into Heideggerian reflections about the dangers of technology.

Mr. Havel can be amusing about himself. He remarks that after he composed his stern 1975 letter, "Dear Dr. Husak" (to the then Stalinist boss of Czechoslovakia), "one friend told me he secretly suspects that I wrote [it] mainly to avoid having to write my play." He can be modest about the perils of dissidence in a dictatorship: "I've put together something I call my 'emergency packet' containing cigarettes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, some books, a T-shirt, paper, a laxative." But there are moments when he lets himself go, rising to strong ethical statement:

People [should] realize that it is always possible to preserve one's ideals and one's backbone; that one can stand up to lies; that there are values worth struggling for … and that no political defeat justifies complete historical skepticism as long as the victims manage to bear their defeat with dignity.

Mr. Havel is at his best when writing brief pieces that somehow survive their moment. There is a "Letter to Alexander Dubcek," sent after the defeat of the 1968 Prague Spring, in which he begs Mr. Dubcek to speak out for the values of "socialism with a human face." Later Mr. Havel would add, "I know that [Mr. Dubcek] got the letter; I don't know what he thought of it. He disappeared rather quietly and inconspicuously from political life; he didn't betray his own cause by renouncing it, but he didn't bring his political career to a very vivid end either." There is something very fine about the mixture of generous feeling and severe judgment in that last sentence.

Especially moving is an essay Mr. Havel wrote in 1988 about Frantisek Kriegel, a medical doctor and reform-minded Communist, the only one in the Dubcek leadership who refused to sign the Moscow agreement sanctioning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Kriegel then became an outcast, joining with the dissidents in the 1970's while still continuing to call himself a Communist. Tenderly but with a touch of asperity, Mr. Havel studies the paradox—still more, the complexities—of "a man who believed heart and soul in the equality of all people, but who was also a member of a party that claimed for its members a higher status than anyone else."

Throughout the years of opposition to Stalinism and then after the "velvet revolution" of 1989, Mr. Havel embodied what I'd call a mood of ethical fraternity. People of varying opinions joined together, first in spreading Charter 77, the manifesto of freedom, and then in the Civic Forum, the dissident political movement, to oppose the sclerotic version of Stalinism that had been imposed on their country since 1969. In that mood—it often flourishes during the initial phases of revolution—there is a tacit agreement to brush aside ideology, political platforms, plans for the future. All that matters is linking hands in behalf of simple freedoms—a phase Mr. Havel nicely calls "a period of youth." In that time, "a new and quite unusual etiquette appeared: no one bothered with introductions, getting acquainted, or feeling one another out. The usual conventions were dropped and the usual reticence disappeared."

An exalted moment, and of course, it could not last. In Czechoslovakia today the movement that raised Mr. Havel to the presidency is gradually, inevitably coming apart. At one pole there is a social democratic tendency, and at the other a free market tendency. Politics will return, good politics and bad politics, as the "period of youth" gives way to anxieties of maturity. And then, if he's lucky, Mr. Havel may go back to writing his plays.

Veronika Ambros (essay date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: "Fictional World and Dramatic Text: Václav Havel's Descent and Ascent," in Style, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 310-9.

[In the following essay, Ambros examines the interplay of fictional constructs, representations of reality, and dialogue in The Garden Party.]

Because the theory of fictional worlds concentrates primarily on narratology, work on drama is rare. The reason for this lack of interest lies in the very nature of the theater, which involves the audience's entering an "as if" world. This characteristic of a theater performance is attributed almost automatically to the text of drama. So, for instance, the construction of the dramatic world in the rendition of Keir Elam presupposes a spectator; it is more the world of theater than that of written drama which he has in mind. Moreover his elements of a fictional dramatic world, such as "a set of physical properties, a set of agents and a course of time-bound events," are not distinctive features of drama as a literary text. Elam's elements suggest that the fictional world of drama is similar to that of narrative. Yet, as I will point out, the dramatic text enjoys a unique position among literary genres. Its two layers, the dialogical and the extradialogical discourse, mark its special structures and provide distinctive devices for creating a dramatic fictional world. And it is theater that combines both textual and extratextual features (stage movements, props, nonverbal sounds, and so forth) and that assumes a spectator. In contrast, a drama is the entirety of the text that, though designed for the theater, hopes as much as any other text for a reader.

A distinction between the two types of discourse was first elaborated by representatives of the Prague Linguistic Circle, who initiated a new approach to the problems of drama and theater. At best, drama had been treated as a marginal literary genre and at worst as mere material for the theater performance. The Czech aesthetician Otakar Zich is an example of this approach. In his Estetika dramatického umení (Aesthetics of Dramatic Art), he separates drama from literature and refuses to regard the dramatic text as a work in its own right. The dramatic text is only part of the work of art. Hence for Zich, dramatic art means not so much the text as the performance based on a text. His only exception is texts that as literary works are what Miroslav Procházka calls "self-sufficient."

In contrast to Zich, Jirí Veltruský, a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, maintains that "drama is a work of literature in its own right" and that "it is a text that can, and mostly is intended to, be used as the verbal component of theatrical performance." The provocative title of Veltruský's important article "Drama jako básnické dílo" ("Drama as a Poetic Work") reflects its author's understanding of drama as literature focuses on the literary characteristics of dramatic texts.

As Veltruský emphasizes, "the semantic construction of a play relies on the plurality of contexts that unfold simultaneously, relay, interpenetrate, and vainly strive to subjugate and absorb one another." He indicates that all the different semantic contexts create semantic unity: the plot "provides all those semantic changes with a single motivation." Veltruský speaks in this context about "a central operative subject" controlling the different semantic contexts. Such an opinion strips the dramatis personae of their determination as representatives of actual persons and emphasizes their identities as literary constructs. The "central operative subject" is implicitly inherent in the special organization of the dramatic text. Its peculiarity lies in the distribution of the text: that is, in the distinction between the discourse of the characters and the extradialogic text.

In drama's capacity as a literary genre Veltruský regards dialogue as its most distinctive feature. In this he follows the ideas of Jan Mukarovský whose articles on dialogue and monologue hold their place among the fundamental works of Czech structuralism. Mukarovský lists three essential aspects of dialogue: 1) "The communication between the participants designated as the relationship between 'I' and 'you'"; 2) The relationship between the participants of a discourse and the real, material situation which surrounds them at the moment of the discourse; 3) "Dialogue is impossible without the unity of theme" (The Word and Verbal Art).

The importance of the last point is underscored by an ironic Czech folk saying: "Já o voze, on o koze" ("I talk about a cart, he talks about a goat"). Such a splitting of theme is also described by Peter Szondi, who takes his example from Chekhov's play Three Sisters, where a deaf person speaks to one of the characters. Szondi calls such a dialogue of participants lacking a common theme "aneinder-vorbei-Reden" ("talking past one another") and concludes that by this device the dramatic form itself is questioned.

Veltruský complements Mukarovský's theory with a special feature of dramatic dialogue: "Unlike the ordinary dialogue of everyday life, dramatic dialogue is both the sequence of alternating utterances made by several speakers and an utterance made by a single speaker, the author. The speeches attributed to each character are constructed in such a way as to be intelligible not only to the other character, but also, to the reader" ("Basic Features"). The unifying force of the author lies in the coordination of all constituents of the dramatic text.

Concentrating on the fact that the extradialogic text is transposed into another semiotic system, namely that of performance, Veltruský offers an explanation for why its role has been underestimated. It has generally been considered a mere instruction ("stage directions") for transforming the text into a theatrical performance and therefore subordinate to the main text: that is, the discourse of the characters. Veltruský observes that the less extradialogic text is employed, the shorter the gaps between each reply; the longer the extradialogic text, the greater the distance between the discourses of the characters. As a result, more physical action will be inserted in the latter case. Hence, both text layers are complementary. For this reason, the extradialogic text cannot be reduced to a framework of the discourse of the characters nor to directions for performance.

Depending on the epoch, literary trend, theater tradition, and so on, the extradialogic text might also perform the function of narrator. In spite of its rudimentary nature the extradialogic text approximates even the different narrative modes. And it is this part of the dramatic text that can primarily be endowed with authentication force. The "authentication function" is, according to Lubomír Dolezel, "absolutely essential for the construction of fictional worlds. It determines, first of all, what exists and what does not exist in the world and, no less importantly, assigns specific modes of existence to the fictional entities."

In opposition to narrative textures with a strong authentication force, Dolezel places the skaz: "The skaz-narrator constructs a non-authentic fictional world whose mode of existence is uncertain, ambiguous, where everything is open to doubts." In drama, a similar effect is achieved by a contradiction between the two layers of the dramatic text. One of the most notorious examples is the ending of Beckett's Waiting for Godot:

Estragon: Yes, let's go.

(They do not move.)

The action announced in the dialogue contradicts the nonaction indicated in the extradialogic text. The extradialogic text of Waiting for Godot, like the skaz-narrator's, does not fully authenticate the fictional world. On the contrary, the reader as much as the spectator of this play (for the nonaction indicated in the extradialogic text can easily be transformed into performance) faces doubts about the nature of Beckett's world. As this example shows, the authentication of the dramatic fictional world is negotiated in two kinds of textual contrast: the semantic confrontation between the discourses of the different characters and that between the characters' discourse and the extradialogic text. These diverse sources of authentication support each other, conflict with each other, or do anything in between. Obviously, authenticating the fictional world of drama is a rather complex undertaking, which offers a spectacular range of different solutions.

Václav Havel's Zahradní slavnost (The Garden Party) will be used to illustrate the authentication of the dramatic fictional world. In Martin Esslin's view, the play belongs within the Theater of the Absurd. The Garden Party, however, is a special, Czech variety of this category. In the 1960s, critics often labeled contemporary Czech drama "model-drama," a tag based on certain features that these plays have in common: presenting a possible world and modeling rather than depicting or representing the actual world. In contrast to the existential core of such plays as Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the Czech authors construed a model of a hypothetical world, one where political and moral issues of power distribution are raised.

Esslin states that The Garden Party "displays a mixture of hard-hitting political satire, Sweikian humour and Kafkaesque depths." He applies the worn-out clichés used as a rule by Western critics introducing a new work of modern Czech literature. But Havel follows different traditions: on the one hand, logically constructed models of a world (represented by Sartre or Camus) and, on the other, the Dadaist and surrealist tradition of "free," playful, hyperbolized language. The events in The Garden Party follow the pattern of a weird chess game played by Hugo Pludek, the protagonist: "Instead of a total victory one time or a total defeat another, he prefers to win a little and lose a little each time." Havel's play opens with Hugo playing simultaneously the black and the white figures and ends with the protagonist's announcing a checkmate. The four acts present a game within a play. Hugo's other game—a play on words—is a means to ascent in his career. He pursues it in different places (at home, at the gate of the garden where the party takes place, at the office of Ministry for Inauguration) and eventually returns to the starting point without actually coming back. Although he succeeds at this game, he is defeated as a human being: his identity vanishes. So the closing checkmate is, in fact, a defeat of Hugo by Hugo. The world of The Garden Party resembles a tightly meshed mechanism where the ascent of a character also means his concurrent descent.

Hugo's character depends on the construction of as well as the destruction by his basic deictic definitions:

Me? You mean who am I? Now look here, I don't like this one-sided way of putting questions, I really don't! You think one can ask in this simplifying way?… Truth is just as complicated and multiform as everything else in the world … and we all are a little bit what we were yesterday and a little bit what we are today; and also a little bit we are not these things. Anyway, we are all a little bit all the time and all the time we are not a little bit … some only are, some are only, and some are only not, so that none of us entirely is and at the same time each one of us is not entirely….

(The Garden Party)

Hugo suffers not only the loss of his identity index by undergoing a transformation from "I" into "we." When his own parents fail to recognize him, his pronominal status is questioned. The pronominal chaos reaches its peak when Hugo, in a dialogue with his mother, refers to himself as "he," imitating the impersonal speech of politicians:

Hugo: He [i.e., Hugo] has a friendly word for everyone, even for the simplest folk. As a matter of fact, I'm counting on it myself. I've come here to have a little chat with him and see if perhaps I might not give him a hand with this or the other. What about that nice cup of coffee?

Mrs. Pludek: Yes, of course, as soon as our darling little Hugo arrives.

Hugo: He's not home yet?

The deictic transformations entail the destruction of the protagonist's persona. According to Jindrich Honzl, "verbal deixis serves as a semantic filter that enables the dramatist to create and image of the world and of people…. Such a semantic filter, which does not admit images undesired by the dramatist, alters the profile of those real elements out of which the representation of a human being and his behavior is created in a play." Though Honzl relates his notion to ancient drama, the deictic transformations in The Garden Party can also be considered a "semantic filter" generating ambiguity in the fictional world.

Hugo's career is the final evidence of his identity loss. The promising son turns out to be a lost son. In the dramatic fictional world, however, he still retains his function of agent. The extradialogical text guards the status of the figure by providing its authentication.

The world in which Hugo rises consists of words. Like Hansel who, in Grimms' fairy tale, gathers stones to find his way back, Hugo collects words that guide him. In the second act, he memorizes such combinations of words as "lyrical-epic verses." This phrase then becomes a weapon to defeat a man from whose utterance it was originally taken. Hugo equips these overheard words with a new logic, so that their original meaning is twisted. As his discourse becomes more and more "sophisticated," the words lose their meaning more and more until a semantics of nonsense is brought about. In contrast to the nonsense of Alice in Wonderland, the nonsense of Hugo's utterances expresses the mechanistic character of the world of The Garden Party.

The plot of The Garden Party is modeled on the Bildungsroman, in which the hero sets off to explore the world. On his way, he faces various difficulties, finds himself in the thick of adventure, and finally settles down as a better man. Hugo, too, is a sort of pilgrim. But his journey is different: he progresses and regresses at one and the same time. His voyage starts at home, which is not a homely place at all since there is no difference between private and public life in the world Hugo tries to conquer. And unlike the Bildungsroman hero, he is not in the end a better man but ceases to exist altogether as a person. He lives on only as a legend in telegrams sent to his father's friend. Kalabis, and in the dialogues with his parents, where he speaks of himself as of someone else:

Hugo: So your Hugo is liquidating not only the Liquidation Office, but the Inauguration service as well?

The positive hero of socialist realism is kin to the protagonist of the Bildungsroman. The Garden Party rebels against this poetics. The positive hero is a spokesman for the socialist ideology, capable of reforming his surroundings for the better. Hugo, however, is anything but a conqueror of the "old and rotten world of the bourgeoisie" or a spokesman for the "right philosophy of the working class." Quite the contrary: Hugo makes his career "because he clearly has in his veins the healthy philosophy of the middle class!" His character demonstrates the fusion of two ideological layers—middle-class beliefs and vulgar Marxism—which make up the base of Havel's absurd fictional world. Hugo's father's reflection is worth quoting:

You can't fry chickenweed without straw. And why? Whereas all other classes in history kept exchanging their historical positions, the middle classes have come down through history untouched, because no other class has never tried to take their position, and so the middle classes never had anything to exchange with anybody and have thus remained the only permanent force in history.

A monologue of this type displays empty words, a desemantization of the dialogical text. A similar effect correlating the dialogical and extradialogical texts indicates that the utterance is comprehended literally and as a result entails action not at all intended. So, for instance, an exclamation "mami" is meant as a confirmation that Hugo accepts the offer to fraternize with the director and to see the latter as if he were a mother. The extradialogical text, though, announces "Hugo's mother." A short exchange between Hugo and his mother clarifies that the clamor was meant figuratively.

In his introduction to the Czech edition of the play. Jan Grossman, the former producer of the Theater on the Balustrade where The Garden Party was first staged, points out that the generating mechanism of Havel's first two plays is the cliché. Grossman even claims that the cliché is the real protagonist of The Garden Party. It is this special use of language that assumes a pivotal role. Marxist vocabulary merges with parodied proverbs into new phrases. Havel's concept of "gag" here jumps to the fore. In the essay "Anatomie gagu" ("Anatomy of the Gag"), published at the same time as his first play, Havel writes that a gag consists of a combination of automatisms.

Language consisting of elements of the new ideology combined with the distorted folk tradition signals what Herta Schmid calls "Verlust der Geschichtlichkeit" ("loss of historicity"). The Garden Party presents a distortion of the language and hence the dissolution of both the collective and the individual memory. So at the end of the first act, for instance, both parents use quotations from Czech literature. These fragments manifest how limited individual memory is. The parents' dialogue develops what is already indicated by their first names, Oldrich and Bozena, names that refer to a couple who represent the Czech national myth. The world of The Garden Party is that of determined national entity. The proverbs and their parody create an atmosphere of the Czech folk tradition artificially exhumed and peddled by the official ideology.

The Garden Party exhibits a contrast between both text layers as the contrast between a speech and action, akin to that mentioned in Waiting for Godot. In the first act the family expects the father's friend, Kalabis:

Pludek: (To Mrs. Pludek) If he doesn't come, somebody else will! (Just then the door-bell rings.)

Mrs. Pludek: Nobody will come! Nobody will write! Nobody will call! We're alone. Alone in the whole world!

Hugo: And there are more and more Japs every day. Did somebody ring?

(Peter enters.)

Mrs. Pludek: Peter! Go and hide in the pantry! Kalabis is here!

Kalabis has not arrived, contradicting the announcement in the dialogical text. As a result the cause-and-effect order of the actual world is reversed. The succession of ringing a bell and the expected announcement of a guest customary in the actual world is here violated. Moreover, the text underlines the contradiction between the action expressed by the extradialogical text and the utterance of the person. Breaking the law of the actual world raises the "as if" character of the dramatic world.

Yet another relation between the two discourses appears in the course of Hugo's apprenticeship in the world he is about to conquer. Accumulating combinations like that of the "lyricoepical verses," Hugo mumbles them "for himself." An aside is a typical device that as a rule provides the audience a surplus of information and in consequence produces so-called dramatic irony. But Hugo's murmur breaks this norm: it does not shed any light on the action or on any of the characters. On the contrary, when Hugo eventually repeats these mumbled words, his utterance proves that he only had been practicing the nonsense. Hence it is not only the expressions themselves that underscore that empty words with no enigma are involved. The very way the two text layers are juxtaposed results in an ambiguity similar to that of skaz.

Hugo's ascent is signaled by a nose made out of papier-maché that originally was a sign for Plzák's superiority. In the fourth act this prop also indicates Hugo's descent, his loss of identity. Hence the nose epitomizes the fictional world as a unit, where the opportunism destroys both the collective and the individual memory.

Investigating Beckett's Quad, the German semiotician Schmid comes to the conclusion that "the absence of all traditional means of drama, reveals the constant inner form of dramatic theater, that means a theater, which is governed by the verbal element." One can add that it is the very organization of the dramatic text that keeps this inner form together. The Garden Party shows the consistency of a dramatic fictional world in spite of the ambiguity displayed on different levels. Moreover, it is the ambiguity that emphasizes the fictional status of the presented world. This is how the text points to itself, becomes self-reflexive.

Most of the dialogue of The Garden Party is constructed according to the principle of "aneinander-vorbei-Reden." Instead of verbal exchange, the dialogue resembles a chain of fragmentary soliloquies. Even though the utterances are attributed to different persons, they often do not have distinct characteristics.

As a consequence, The Garden Party exposes the limits of human communication. The figures do not address each other in order to communicate; words serve another purpose: ritual. The very core of it is the "metaphysical dialectic," a term Havel coined in an essay published shortly after the opening night of The Garden Party. There Havel specifies metaphysical dialectic as the attitude that follows very much the logic expressed by Hugo: "In fact, they were both sort of right and sort of wrong, or rather, on the contrary, both were wrong and both right, weren't they? I mean, they were, were they not?"

Havel's target in the essay is the dominating vulgar and dogmatic understanding of dialectic and the neglect of its virtual philosophical qualities. He objects to the fact that the dialectic became a fetish: "Instead of the dialectic helping reality, it is the reality that serves the dialectic." Both the play and the essay about it try to disclose the mechanism of this absurd reversal.

The steps Hugo takes are akin to the pattern of the Dutch painter M. C. Escher's impossible configurations in, for example, Ascending and Descending, where the staircase leads simultaneously up and down. Concurrent ascent and descent is the overall pattern of the course of events in The Garden Party. At one point, the offices for Inauguration and for Liquidation fuse, a synthesis of thesis and antithesis. In accord with this dialectic principle, the play exhibits both the construction and deconstruction of its fictional world. At the end, when the bureaucrat Plzák crawls out of Hugo's cupboard and addresses the audience with "And now, without any sort of ado—go home!" Havel pays tribute to Brecht's "V-effect" (defamiliarization). He erases the opposition between the fictional world and the actual world. This breaking of the fictional into the actual is the final authentication of the dramatic world.

Phyllis Carey (essay date September 1991)

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SOURCE: "Contemporary World Drama 101: Václav Havel," in Thought, Vol. 66, No. 262, September, 1991, pp. 317-28.

[In the following essay, Carey provides an overview of Havel's literary career, major works, and critical reception.]

The performance of Vaclav Havel as Czech President since December 1989 has thus far met with mixed reviews from Western observers. But Western fascination with the popular and colorful Havel himself remains high as he continues to play a key role on the center stage of Czechoslovakia. English translations of Havel's political writing, his letters from prison, and his drama have rapidly appeared in book stores. So far a representative sampling is readily available; it is more than enough to whet the appetite. Most provocatively from a Western perspective, Havel's writings suggest that the drama that continues to unfold in Eastern bloc countries has the power to reveal to the West "its own latent tendencies" (Living in Truth). As the Iron Curtain continues to rise, the spectators of the West may glimpse, if Havel the philosophic playwright-president is to be believed, a reflection of themselves on the other side.


Havel insists that in all of his writings his starting point is his own experience. The events of his life have provided recurring themes for both his plays and his essays. Born in 1936 into a bourgeois family, he was isolated as a child because of the privileges of his class, but after World War II under the Communists, the family's property was confiscated, and Havel was repeatedly rejected for a higher education because of his class. After serving two years in the army, he began working as a theater technician, learning drama from the ground up, finally staging his first independent full-length play. The Garden Party, when he was 27—although he had begun writing and publishing before he was twenty years old and had authored or co-authored five other plays between 1959 and 1962.

Havel wrote three major plays in the 60s: The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum (1965), and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), the latter two each receiving American Obie awards. During this time he also wrote a radio and a television play. In the 70s he wrote The Conspirators (1970), his own version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1972), several one-act plays, including a trilogy on a "dissident" writer, Ferdinand Vanek, and a play about writing plays, A Hotel in the Hills (1976). His major plays of the 80s include Largo Desolato (1984)—named a Best Play of 1986 for Broadway and off-Broadway—and Temptation (1985). The early plays are absurdist theater, but as Milan Kundera describes it, Havel's drama portrays the absurdity of the rational, when bureaucracy reigns, and means and methods become ends in themselves. Havel himself has described his plays as depicting "modern humanity in a 'state of crisis'" (Disturbing the Peace). Besides rational extremes, Havel's drama satirizes careerism, irresponsibility, and abuses of language. The plays richly dramatize the themes that preoccupy him in his essays: betrayal, manipulation, exile, and isolation as well as truth, responsibility, and the search for identity.

Although Havel's public political views date back at least to 1956, it was not until 1969—after the Prague Spring followed by the Soviet invasion of 1968—that he was charged with subversion for his protests of the "normalization" process, and his plays, along with the works of several other Czech writers, banned.

The 70s and 80s in Czechoslovakia saw two literary circles at work: the official public writers and an unofficial "underground" group which circulated typewritten manuscripts, termed samizdat editions, some of which found their way to the West.

Havel's work in helping to initiate Charter 77, a manifesto for human rights made public in 1977, led to his first detention for four months. In 1978 he helped form the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS in its Czech acronym), was detained for six more weeks, and was virtually under "house arrest" when he was not in prison. Finally in May 1979, Havel and five other members of VONS were arrested. At their October trial, Havel received a four-and-one-half-year sentence. While in prison he wrote 144 letters to his wife, whom he had married in 1964, the letters becoming the substance of Letters to Olga. Because of pneumonia and other serious health problems, Havel was released early, in March 1983.

In 1985, Havel was detained twice for forty-eight hour periods. He remained active in the late 80s, writing both essays and plays in samizdat versions, and spending brief periods of time in detention. He served four months in prison in early 1989 for taking part in a memorial for Jan Palach, the young Czech who immolated himself in protest for the 1968 Soviet invasion. Havel also took part in the dramatic events in late 1989, finally leading a delegation of the Civic Forum to negotiate with the Communist government after the general strike in November. He was elected president of Czechoslovakia in December 1989.


Of the three most available volumes in English that explore in vastly different ways Havel's political ideas, Living in Truth provides the best introduction. The volume originated with the Erasmus Prize Foundation in Amsterdam, which awarded Havel the Erasmus Prize in 1986. The book is a collection of six essays by Havel and sixteen miscellaneous texts by several writers, mostly Czech, written specifically for Havel. Among the contributions by other writers are a response to Havel's Letters to Olga by Heinrich Böll, a prose poem by Arthur Miller, an introduction to Havel's play The Memorandum by Tom Stoppard, and Catastrophe, a one-act play written by Samuel Beckett for Havel when he was in prison in 1982.

Havel's own six essays come from the ten-year period 1975–85, two written before and four written after his three-year imprisonment. The first text, which contributed to Havel's initial detention in 1977, analyzes what he terms the "crisis of human identity" (Living in Truth) and presents an argument against censorship. In his published "Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party" (1975)—whom he replaced as Czech leader in 1989—Havel points out that beneath the superficial adaptation and rising standard of living of the mid-seventies, the Czech people are undergoing spiritual, political, and moral degradation: "What social conscience only yesterday regarded as improper is today casually excused; tomorrow it will eventually be thought natural, and the day after be held up as a model of behavior." Callousness, moreover, not only breeds greater insensitivity but also blinds the society to its own degradation. The human is the "obedient member of a consumer herd."

Havel's letter is primarily an appeal for the free exercise of culture as "the main instrument of society's self-knowledge." The "official" writers practice the "aesthetics of banality … culture in the consumer philosophy: not to excite people with the truth, but to reassure them with lies." The suppression of other writers and artists becomes a suppression of history, for which (here echoing Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.) the suppressors will suffer as much as the suppressed. The government in immobilizing culture also immobilizes itself and creates its own political entropy. But beneath the "heavy lid of inertia," a "secret streamlet trickles on" and—in one of many statements that now seem prophetic—Havel warns that the conflicts, demands, and issues growing beneath the surface will "burst forth when the moment arrives when the lid can no longer hold them down. That is the moment when the dead weight of inertia crumbles and history steps out again into the arena." Havel's letter, in summary, appeals morally to Husák and the other Communist leaders to exercise their authority responsibly and at the same time encourages the Czechs themselves in their resistance of the seventies for the sake of their own history.

The Power Within

Havel's "The Power of the Powerless" (1978) is perhaps his best-known and most influential political essay. As the title suggests, Havel argues that humans acting morally have the power to overthrow dictatorships. Havel asserts in the essay's introductory paragraphs that the Communism of the Eastern Bloc is not a classical dictatorship but rather another form of a consumer and industrial society, what Havel terms a "post-totalitarian system" (Living in Truth). As "an inflated caricature of modern life in general," the Eastern bloc stands "as a kind of warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies."

And what are those latent tendencies? According to Havel, they are not accidents of history or decrees of fate, but rather they are tendencies within humans themselves to create systems, adapt to those systems, and then maintain the systems in order to avoid acting responsibly as individuals:

A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.

But if humans become the system by surrendering to automatism, they also have the power to destroy the system because they are capable of living responsibly and in integrity. Morality comes from humans, not from systems nor from legality, Havel avers. Only by creating a better life can a better system—and better laws—be developed. The power of the powerless is, therefore, the potential to spread the "virus of truth" by living in integrity and, thereby, helping to reform society. Havel argues that moral acts have a power of illumination that can make an apparent wall of stone as transparent as a tissue.

Havel devotes a large portion of the essay to showing by specific examples the many ways that the powerless have provided illumination in Czechoslovakia. He also analyzes the nature of "opposition" and the term "dissidents." Havel finds the latter term especially misleading; he himself prefers to speak of a "parallel" or "second" culture.

Havel concludes the essay by underlining the universality of its theme. The "power of the powerless" does not refer only—nor perhaps even primarily—to people living under Communist regimes. Rather, the moral crisis Havel sees in his own country is just one expression of a global crisis of technological automatism, a theme he pursues in greater detail in another essay discussed below, "Politics and Conscience." Moreover, because manipulation is more subtle in Western democracies, Havel thinks that those who are ostensibly "free" may be the most unaware of their actual subjugation to a utilitarian automatism.

Havel suggests that the only true solution to the crisis of the world may lie in what he terms a "post-democratic" existential revolution, a moral reconstitution of society:

… a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the "human order," which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of "higher responsibility," a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community…. In other words, the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.

Havel is not proposing a future organized movement, but, rather, an ongoing resurrection of the individual human spirit. He queries at the end of the essay whether such a renovation is not already taking place, whether "only our own blindness and weakness has [sic] prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"

Post-Imprisonment Essays

The four essays from the mid-eighties echo the themes established earlier but add new dimensions and implications. "Six asides about culture" examines in six parts the plight of the unofficial writer in Czechoslovakia and attempts to define the unique Czech spirit expressed by the "parallel" writers. "Thriller" (1984), using the name of Michael Jackson's best-selling video, playfully explores the strange remnants of the primitive mixed with the technologically sophisticated in modern man. "An Anatomy of Reticence" (1985) contrasts the Western European peace movement with the efforts of the East European "dissidents" to reveal the complex ambiguities that prevented a totally united peace movement.

To Save the Earth

Of the four "post-prison" essays, "Politics and Conscience" (1984)—a speech that Havel would have given if allowed to attend the ceremony awarding him an honorary doctorate at the University of Toulouse—provides perhaps the greatest challenge to Western Europe and the United States. Drawing from his own experience and echoing Martin Heidegger's "Essay Concerning Technology," Havel laments the devastation of nature and the denaturing of the human that result from a wholesale adaptation to a scientific-technological world view. He sees in the pollution and degradation of the planet—and in the inability to conceive of any remedies outside of technological ones—the paradoxical triumph of an objectivizing that has subjugated the natural world:

The fault is not one of science as such but of the arrogance of man in the age of science. Man simply is not God, and playing God has cruel consequences. Man has abolished the absolute horizon of his relations, denied his personal "pre-objective" experience of the lived world, while relegating personal conscience and consciousness to the bathroom, as something so private that it is no one's business. Man rejected his responsibility as a "subjective illusion"—and in place of it installed what is now proving to be the most dangerous illusion of all: the fiction of objectivity stripped of all that is concretely human…. (Living in Truth)

Havel, of course, is not advocating a return to the Middle Ages. But neither does he believe that the evil humans have done to the environment—and to themselves—can be remedied without addressing its cause. Hence, his attempts to make explicit the hidden scientific-technological ideology underlying both capitalism and Communism.

In the realm of politics, he uses the Czech philosopher Václav Belohradský to point out the "rational technology of power" that can be traced back to Machiavelli "when human reason begins to 'free' itself from the human being as such, from his personal experience, personal conscience and personal responsibility." Havel acknowledges that the depersonalization of power is naturally linked with Eastern totalitarian systems but that these systems were in fact forced on the world by the Western European intellectual imperialism of natural science, rationalism, scientism, the industrial revolution, continuing down to the cult of consumption, the atomic bomb and Marxism:

I think that, with respect to the relation of western Europe to the totalitarian systems, no error could be greater than the one looming largest: that of a failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are—a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of that civilization's self-understanding.

For Havel, the question is clearly not whether capitalism or socialism will prevail. Nor is he convinced that people in the West understand what is actually at stake: "I cannot overcome the impression that Western culture is threatened far more by itself than by SS-20 rockets." The global answer for the planet as Havel sees it is a return to our humanity in its fullness: a reaffirmed human responsibility, a trusting in the voice of conscience, an honoring of the mystery of the natural world, a resistance to the anonymous, inhuman power of ideologies, systems, bureaucracies, artificial languages, political slogans, advertising, and consumption. For Havel, a single person who "dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters." Havel ends the essay with a call for the "solidarity of the shaken," an international community of human conscience—a call he realizes will be ridiculed "by the technicians of power."


As the direct experience of Havel the prisoner, Letters belongs not so much to the epistolary genre but to that indefinable category of writings that springs from the direct experience of prison life, including in our century such writers as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Etty Hillesum, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name only a few. Havel began serving his nearly four years knowing his letters would be circulated among friends but not realizing how vital those letters would become to his own survival. They were written under strict regulations and censored. No more than four standard pages per week, no humor, no rough drafts, no copies were allowed.

Letters to Olga contains 123 letters written between June 4, 1979 and September 4, 1982. Havel himself calls the volume a "very strange book" that "helped to save my life" (Disturbing the Peace). The letters contain very little about prison life itself as the prisoners were allowed to write only about family affairs, and Havel soon discovered that the more complex and intellectual the letters were, the easier it was to get them through the censors. The result is a form of "encoding"—occasional indirect expressions and convoluted sentences that point to a sub-text; for example, "some predetermined framework" (Letters to Olga) clearly includes the censors of the letter. Of the prison experience itself Havel has said, "The most important thing about it is incommunicable" (Disturbing the Peace).

Havel has also indicated that the "main hero, though admittedly hidden," is Olga (Letters to Olga), and—like the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets—the mysterious recipient of the letters intrigues the reader. The carping in Havel's early letters, however, is irritating despite the excuses in the introduction that Havel was deeply anxious and that Olga was the only person he could write to or receive letters from (others could communicate only through her). Havel instructs Olga on how she is to live her life while he is in prison and criticizes the frequency, length, content, and style of her letters. He evaluates her appearance after each visit—as well as the visits themselves—and at times what she said and brought. As the letters progress, however, Havel does seem to become more accepting of Olga as she is, and as Jan Lopatka, the Czech editor of the letters suggests, the volume can be seen on one level as a novel of "maturing love." In addition, however, "Olga," besides being Havel's wife, seems to become both the "outside world" and—in the late letters—the part of the self that listens.

In reading the letters, one becomes gradually aware of the human degradation from which they are emerging—the crowded cells, the filth, the restrictions on space and pencils and on what can be said, the disappointment over letters not delivered or refused. Havel's own physical ills, which he mentions almost in passing, contribute to the bleakness: flu, fevers, infected gums—which he lances himself—hemorrhoids (requiring surgery), a hernia. One of Havel's defenses for this misery is the "rage for order" underlying many of the requests he makes of Olga. He practices his own rigid routines within the narrow restrictions of space and time. He mentally composes and recomposes the letters themselves before the time appointed for letter-writing. The symmetry and schemes for organizing that are a prominent feature of Havel's drama seem to derive from his basic need to rescue experience from impending chaos through arranging and ordering.

But if ordering becomes a means of imposing meaning on experience, the language itself of the volume provides a measure of the weight of that meaning. Havel, commenting on Saul Bellow's Herzog, notes that in a society that permits total intellectual freedom, language has no weight. In Havel's own society, however, "words have so much weight that you must pay quite dearly for them" (Letters to Olga). Correspondingly, as Letters to Olga progresses, the language becomes denser.

The final letters of the volume express "existence at the edge"—a tenuous holding on to sanity that gives these "meditations" a dramatic intensity. They language grows more and more abstract but at the same time paradoxically more intensely concrete and particular:

We live in an age in which there is a general turning away from Being: our civilization, founded on a grand upsurge of science and technology, those great intellectual guides on how to conquer the world at the cost of losing touch with Being, transforms man its proud creator into a slave of his consumer needs, breaks him up into isolated functions, dissolves him in his existence-in-the-world and thus deprives him not only of his human integrity and his autonomy but ultimately any influence he may have had over his own "automatic responses." (Letters to Olga)

The volume ends with the admission that in all his letters from prison, nothing has been said that "hasn't already been discovered long before and expressed a hundred times better" but that these meditations have been a source of personal growth. Like Camus's Sisyphus, who ironically finds contentment in confronting absurdity, Havel asserts, "I may well be happier now than at any time in recent years."

One of the last letters (number 138) contains a "confession" that some have seen as the "climax" of the collection. Havel describes his misjudgment in requesting release from his 1977 imprisonment—which officials subsequently used to disgrace him—and admits that he has spent years excusing himself through a "psychological process" that he sees as "that typically modern way of excluding the self from the 'category of blame.'" He concludes, on the contrary, that "only by assuming full responsibility today for one's own yesterday, only by this unqualified assumption of responsibility by the 'I' for itself and for everything it ever was and did, does the 'I' achieve continuity and thus identity with the self." Havel's deep shame and anguish dramatize an implicit corollary to his explicit comments on responsibility: If the price for living responsibly is high—and all of the evidence suggests that Havel and the other "dissidents" paid dearly—the price for failing to take responsibility is for Havel clearly much higher.

The "catharsis" of the confession comes in the final group of letters; what initiates it is a trivial but Kafkaesque event that crystallizes many of the themes of the letters. Havel is watching the news one evening when the sound system of the television studio apparently fails. An anonymous television weather-woman realizes with great embarrassment that the sound system is not functioning and that her words are not being heard. Watching her predicament. Havel is moved almost to tears. The woman's vulnerability bespeaks naked human existence, which evokes compassion from those who are no less vulnerable. The picture of the mute human trying futilely to make contact from the machine-prison becomes a remarkable image for a great deal that Havel is trying to convey about human responsibility in a desensitized world; in addition, it becomes a convex image of Havel himself trying to communicate from his own prison cell in his letters to Olga what he has described as essentially incommunicable.


Disturbing the Peace originated as an interview with Karel Hvízdala, Czech journalist and playwright living in West Germany. In 1985, Havel, nearing 50, reflected on his experiences via tape recorder in response to Hvizdala's questions. Havel's answers were transcribed, edited, and the volume was published in samizdat in Czechoslovakia and translated into English in 1989 by Paul Wilson.

The volume provides a behind-the-scenes view of Havel discussing his childhood, his political experiences, his career in the theater, and his ideas on both politics and drama. Basic themes of the essays and the letters from prison—responsibility, identity, hope—are reiterated. The volume will be most useful for those who are already familiar with Havel and interested in the personal details, e.g., Havel's own experience of the Soviet occupation, his involvement in the various resistance movements, the memories and details of prison life. Unique to this volume, nevertheless, are reflections on his own poetics and extended meditations on the nature of human hope.

Havel's Poetics

As a literary critic of his own drama, Havel confirms the most striking features of his plays as intentional: "My plays are consciously, deliberately, and obviously constructed, schematic, almost machinelike" (Disturbing the Peace). Readily apparent are the symmetry and patterns in the plays, manifested in repetition and almost mathematical variations in actions and dialogues. Nevertheless, although Havel himself does not mention it, one may see a difference between the pre-prison and the post-prison plays. The plays of the sixties and seventies seem both more "absurd" and playful; the plays of the eighties, on the other hand, are much more serious. The protagonists, moreover, become increasingly more human as one progresses through Havel's oeuvre.

As to Hvízdala's charge that Havel's plays are pessimistic—a charge that may not coincide with the experience of Western readers who are used to far bleaker fare—Havel responds that his plays are intended "to warn, to predict horrors, to see clearly what is evil. Face to face with a distillation of evil, man might well recognize what is good."

Havel also discusses his fascination with language and his attempts to show how language shapes life, hence the need to be sensitive to the many shades of abuse that language both reveals and perpetrates. In The Garden Party, Havel concedes, the main hero is the cliché, which mechanically subdues human identity. In The Memorandum Havel invents the language of Ptydepe, an artificial scientific language designed to banish the imprecision and ambiguity of "natural" languages. Ptydepe becomes a wonderful satire on the many technical languages—including those in contemporary literary criticism—that manifest specialized knowledge today and that in turn create the illusion of sophistication and superiority.

The Paradoxes of Hope

The final section of Disturbing the Peace provides a glimpse into the many paradoxes that comprise Havel: He is a political activist who has never been a politician, a philosophical writer who is not a philosopher, a playwright who dislikes reading plays as well as most theater. The public Havel is "an eternal rebel and protestor" while the private Havel is a lover of harmony and peace; the public Havel is a pillar of strength while the private Havel is inwardly shy and diffident; the public Havel loves crowds while the private Havel thrives on solitude; the public Havel preaches hope and responsibility while the private Havel is wracked with fears and doubts.

But if Havel sees many contradictions in his own life and temperament, it is partially because of the fundamental discrepancy he sees between the seeming randomness and chaos of human existence and its call to the fullness of identity, displayed in the nature of human hope itself. Havel describes hope as "an orientation of the spirit" that is "anchored somewhere beyond [the world's] horizons" (Disturbing the Peace). He differentiates hope from joy in that joy is related to successful outcomes, whereas hope pertains to "the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

In working for something "because it is good" rather than because it may be successful, Havel demonstrates the link between responsibility and human hope. What humans are willing to risk their beings for defines not only their hopes but also two they are—their own identity. And in this regard, Havel again provides a mirror for the West in its condoning of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy while he supplied oil: "Westerners are risking their security and their basic moral principles for the sake of a few barrels of crude oil." For Havel the hope for nations—similar to the hope for individuals—derives from a sense of responsibility to something beyond, that which gives risking one's being a meaning.


Patocka once told me: the real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him. (Disturbing the Peace)

Havel seems eminently unqualified to be president of a country, but then, as the above quote implies, that may not be the issue. Nevertheless, he has been criticized for indecisiveness, choosing amateurs for positions demanding specialized skills, and visiting Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim despite the protests of many Jewish leaders. His country is undergoing a difficult economic transition, is suffering from deep internal divisions, and must come to terms with environmental pollution that may well be the worst in Eastern Europe.

What the world will ultimately make of Havel's performance as president is much too early to predict, but Havel himself has anticipated the conflict of image and identity in his most recent plays, Largo Desolato (1984) and Temptation (1985). As Largo Desolato suggests, a leader can become the embodiment of the hopes and expectations of the people he represents, to his own detriment; he may lose his own identity entirely in trying to measure up to the expectations—and consequent demands—of others. Temptation, based on the Faust theme, which runs through Havel's political writings, explores the subtle prostituting of one's ideas and integrity when they become calculated or useful, qualities that are considered simply good politics by many Westerners. Both plays dramatize the pressures, the temptations, and the ambiguities of leadership.

Havel's leadership also embodies the problem of "role reversal." Historically, Havel has thrived as a "dissident" who—despite pressure—refused to leave his own country in a century where political exiles have won the vast majority of literary and political kudos. His forte is pre-eminently the role of internal antagonist. Nevertheless, as the feisty president of a newly-reborn democracy with a tradition of philosopher presidents, Havel may yet find his most challenging role in confronting the smug "superiority" of the West. Havel, the Czech "dissident," has prepared the stage for the role of Havel, international protester.

And the critics are ready. Western intellectuals who hear echoes of Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Kafka in Havel's writings may label him a "preposterous idealist" (Havel's own term for what critics call him), an anachronistic Existentialist in a postmodern world, an obvious example of the intellectual backwardness of Eastern Europe—or worse. The task of protesting the deadening of the human in a Communist bureaucracy may turn out to be Havel's dress rehearsal for the challenge of confronting the self-propagating and seemingly impregnable automatism of a global technocracy.

In his writings, nonetheless, the folk-hero Havel has already pricked the sleeping Giant of the West. But if Havel's thought is taken seriously, it is not the response of the superpowers—or the intellectuals—that matters. Rather, it is the response of each seemingly powerless individual, assuming the roles assigned by destiny, that will make the difference in contemporary—and future—world drama. And no better example of this philosophy in action can be found than Václav Havel himself.

Michael L. Quinn (essay date May 1992)

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SOURCE: "Delirious Subjectivity: Four Scenes from Havel," in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 10, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 117-32.

[In the following essay, Quinn explores delirium, namely in the form of misunderstanding and confusion, in Havel's dramatic works. According to Quinn, Havel typically incorporates elements of delirium to evoke irony and satire.]

Setting the Stage: The Negative Concept of Delirium

One of the most interesting products of the contemporary critical focus on semiotics in the formation of subjectivity is the "negative theory" of delirium. Unlike an ordinary analytic theory, which tries to construct coherent references, delirium involves a theory of mistaken references, of incoherence; as a supplement to theories of communication, which are designed to explain how we keep messages straight, this theory explains how sense gets lost, and the interesting things that happen when people lose it.

As a theory of confusion, delirium has several uses, especially philosophical, psychoanalytic and aesthetic ones. As it has emerged in deconstructive philosophical writing, it provides an occasional tropology for the slippage of signs in relation to their conventional functions. For some psychoanalytic theorists delirium is a political solution, a valorized term that opens the utopian prospect of free play to the searching eyes of the anxious subject. In this case delirium serves as an utterly skeptical qualification to the logic of reference, as the shadow-side of a coherent, perhaps oppressive order of determinate things and events that produces symptomatic non-sense. My focus in this essay is on delirium's aesthetic interest, since it provides for both the vivid expression of character and the playful use of signs as they are imaginatively received by an interpreting community.

In The Logic of Sense Gilles Deleuze compares the tree of "ordo" with the roots, the "rhizome" of delirium. A logical analysis of representations typically ends in paradox; in delirious analysis the paradoxical "lekta" of representation—its gesture or, in Peirce's terms, interpretant—produces a series of semiotic associations. When these associations fall within the logical status of fictions, they have nothing to do with truth claims; their relations are with other signs, and they cease to function as propositions ([John R.] Searle). Even though such a situation causes the subject to lose contact with the phenomenal "manifold of perception," delirious association does seem to involve the mysterious perception of semiotic resemblances, whether of the homonymic type that exists between similar sign materials, or of the synonymic type that relates similar meanings ([Sergei] Karcevski).

Delirious analysis, as a semiotics of mental association like Freud's master tropes of condensation and displacement, may be brought to bear on any subjective context involved in the production and reception of drama. In the authorial context, delirious association provides the source for surrealist playwriting's not-so-random techniques of automatic writing and the journal of dreams; in this form, which communicates without coded associations, the entire appearance of the drama becomes a play of resemblant signs. Yet as a technique of dramatic writing, delirium appears most often as a crucial tool for the representation of character. When the confusion of a central character spins into an aesthetically fascinating dementia, an aesthetics of delirium can be used as a way to express or comprehend the progress of the unravelling mind. The idea of delirium exists as a safe categorical standpoint from which an audience or another character can explain what is being shown after the delirious subject becomes—however poetically—inarticulate.

Václav Havel has, since his first works, written characters whose mental states verge on the delirious. To describe all such moments would require much more than a short essay, so for the present I will describe four representative "moments" of delirium in his plays, together with the subjective situations, both cultural and dramaturgical, that helped to produce them. From this standpoint I am not following the thesis of Deleuze and Guattari, that the whole structure of thought in western culture is paranoid; I merely intend to use historical circumstance as the subjective, often culturally conditioned scene in which delirium erupts as an important part of dramatic texts or performances. In principle the notion of delirium does not imply any particular politics, but delirious expression does bear with it the conditioning limits of experience and culture, of what can be combined in unverifiable or unlikely scenarios according to the ruling lekta of association that constructs the series.

Only rarely does Havel employ the authorial context in his writing of delirium; the most obvious example is The Mountain Hotel, in which the delirium of the authorial persona overpowers the characters by making them all subject to the same repeating semiotic series. More often Havel uses a central moment of delirium—almost a borrowed technical "turn" from the rhetoric of expressionism—as a way of dramatizing the crisis of conscience (of consciousness) in the life of his central character. Fortunately, from the audience standpoint, he has produced these images of delirium in the context of an "inferential dramaturgy," which interprets the significance of delirium through an ordinary semantic and aesthetic context, encouraging delirious moments to be perceived as a means for the expression of irony and satire. The audience is supposed to be able to understand delirium, and even embrace it in dramatic form, but it is not supposed really to endorse it, and certainly not to imitate it.

Scene I: Motomorphosis

Havel's first use of playful delirium feeds on the formalist tradition of comic theory. I'd like to rehearse this tradition in relation to one of its master tropes, to give an example of the way that even delirious signification establishes a tradition within which its aesthetic uses can become clear.

One of Victor Shklovsky's favorite metaphors for the art work was a motor car. Writing in 1928, on the cusp of Formalism's official disappearance, he explained:

If you wish to become a writer you must examine a book as attentively as a watchmaker a clock or a chauffeur a car.

Cars are examined in the following ways: The most idiotic people come to the automobile and press the balloon of its horn. This is the first degree of stupidity. People who know a little more about cars but overestimate their knowledge come to the car and fiddle with its stick-shift. This is also stupid and even bad, because one should not touch a thing for which another worker is responsible.

The understanding man scrutinizes the car serenely and comprehends "what is for what": why it has so many cylinders and why it has big wheels, where its transmission is situated, and why its rear is cut in an acute angle and its radiator unpolished.

This is the way one should read.

Yet from the point of view of delirious analysis, what is most interesting is the way in which the first contacts with the car establish a relation, from which other relations begin to emerge. Shklovsky would have people know how the machine works as such, yet delirious resemblance accommodates the ridiculous efforts of the "stupid" to comprehend the car's significance much more coherently than does their out-of-hand practical dismissal. Only a mad theory of confused association can explain the sorts of uses that automobiles have acquired, for example, in contemporary advertisements for trucks or sports cars, in which the relations of cars to cultural signs of power, pleasure and identity far outweigh their importance as machines for transportation.

The potentially delirious aesthetic play in the metaphor of the motor car was noticed by Shklovsky's friend Roman Jakobson when it occurred as a joke in one of the plays of Prague's Liberated Theater. Jakobson's "Letter to Voskovec and Werich on the Noetics and Semantics of Fun," written for the Czech theater's outstanding pair of clowns, gives this example of how a delirious view of the sign for motorcar was staged in one of their revues, as a phenomenal "negative object":

Bun: Well, you know that big Sentinel sports car? The hood with all that chrome, six meters long?

Hand: Well, yeah, that's my dream!

Bun: Well, that hood, you see, I don't have that at all. But then again those six exhaust pipes, so nice one under the other …

Hand: Well, yeah, I know them!

Bun: Well, I don't have those, either.

To mistake the sign for the thing it represents becomes, in Jakobson's view, a convenient vehicle for the disruption of the "automatism of habit," which in the formalist tradition after Bergson usually implies a laugh. There are many darker shades of delirium in Czech literature and theory, like the fervent imaginings of Ladislav Klima or the "negative objects" in Kafka's works, (such as The Castle or the "The Oklahoma Nature Theater,") but delirium knows no genres, either—even though Havel's early perspective as a protegé of Jan Werich was doubtless conditioned by comedy. Havel seems to have inherited both the motorcar and a delirious, comical way of looking at it.

Havel's first three experiments in the professional theater were formally complex revues, commissioned for the Theater on the Balustrade by Ivan Vyskocil, a charismatic cabaret performer who specialized in what he called the theater of "text-appeal" (Horinek). These were collaborative projects: one was co-written with Vyskocil, one with Milos Macourek (an imaginative author of children's literature), and another, called The Demented Dove, dramatized the delirious transformations of language through the use of verse texts from writers working in the modernist Czech tradition of Poetism. The first of these was published as Auto-Stop (or Hitchhike); it consists of three one-act plays introduced by a "demonstrator," played by Vyskocil. All three one-acts are about the impact of the motorcar, but in the central one the demonstrator takes on the part of a university docent (an assistant professor without tenure) who is presenting research "On Motomorfosis," i.e. on an "essentially complex disease process of psychoneurotical origins, consisting in the graduated and general transformations of persons into an automobile or other kind of motorized vehicle."

After presenting his dissertation work, docent Macek (which means "tomcat") introduces a friendly case-study named Felinka ("feline"?) who drives himself on stage, parks, turns his motor off so that he can talk to the doctor, and then starts himself back up again so that the audience can ask amusing technical questions about things like the vibration in his carburetor and the mixture of oil and gasoline in fuel cylinders (since, like most Eastern bloc cars, he has a two-cycle engine). Finally Felinka drives back to his "ambulanci," which is the Czech word for both an ambulance and an outpatient clinic. In the next, crucial scene, the enthusiastic docent argues that Felinka's motomorphosis is not merely a delusion, but a real physiological disease, a "pathological process consisting in a complex stalling out of natural physiological functions … evidently declinating from all normal forms of everyday biology in humans," which is even verifiable "empirically and statistically."

When the audience objects to this bizarre physiological theory, the docent becomes extremely angry, proclaiming that they had better examine their relationship to his contemporary discovery, for they will be unmasked if they are revealed to be "among the members of the union hostile to motorism." In the final scene, the "transformation and conclusion," the audience for the presentation and the docent begin to "sound like klaxon horns," then assemble in formation behind a Mr. Bursik ("Exchange"), and "toodle" offstage together. They have been changed perhaps too literally into the "desiring machines" of Deleuze and Guattari, but in the context of a critical artistic tradition that was clearly moving the metaphor of the motorcar in just that nonsensical direction.

Scene II: Logical Disappearance

This sort of strange episode relates to Havel's study of absurdists like Ionesco—even though it predates Rhinoceros, which tells the same story through the more ominously Fascist myth of the savage beast that man can become. The influence of Ionesco asserts itself in Havel's work more obviously in the way Havel's dialogue imitates the theories of the linguistics professor in The Lesson. Signs which seem to be the same acquire different meanings in different moments, or their meanings are simply determined subjectively by the force of their speaker's assertions. In Ionesco's work the play's dialogue often suspends its ordinary relation to reality, despite its pretentions to logic. Such a profound loss of connection between signs and their coded references can strike at the very foundations of understanding, including supposedly self-evident notions like Descartes's cogito.

In Havel's case the metamorphic "mechanization" of man, seen as a goal in earlier theories like Italian Futurism, is also a metaphor for the forced reorientation of subjectivity that Czechoslovaks experienced after the Nazi occupation in 1938 and the subsequent Communist coup in 1948. As Czeslaw Milosz describes them in The Captive Mind (still the classic study of artistic subjectivity in the context of ideological drift), the rigid dialectical and historical requirements of the Soviet ideology established absolute connections between signs and reality that were not subject to judgement; the official ideology became a mechanism which threatened to overpower the traditional critical powers of thought. Consequently the concept of "mechanization" in Havel's work provoked a great deal of explanation in the first phase of his critical reception. The effort to think through the subjective effects of ideological transformation did not yield easily to logical analysis, but rather led Havel to the sorts of paradoxes of being that also provide the springboard for Deleuze's leap into the theory of delirious subjectivity.

The clearest example of this paradoxical problem with identity comes through the self-analysis carried out by Hugo Pludek in The Garden Party. This central character has a talent for logical games, and an uncanny ability to manipulate discourse into unexpected pseudo-logical formulations and strategies. Leaving the house where he compulsively plays chess with himself (and loses!), Hugo goes to a Party social gathering where his imitations of official language eventually lead the head of the Inauguration Dept. to deduce that the Liquidation Dept. has decided to dissolve his organization. Hugo, when he visits Inauguration the next day, is quick to understand that the liquidation can never begin if there is no Inauguration department to start it; Hugo ends up in charge of a newly-designed central commission that will administer both departments.

This pseudological semiotic game might seem to be a simple indictment of the bizarre Communist practice of strictly categorizing business responsibilities under government bureaus, but Hugo also extends his analysis into an examination of human identity. When the new, powerful Hugo returns home his parents can no longer recognize him, nor does Hugo really know himself; he is caught up in a delirious frenzy of dialectical language, which leads to the kind of semio-poetic analysis in which the connections between signs take on a life of their own apart from their referential uses. In this case the shorthand of representational logic slips into infinite regression:

Hugo: I? Who am I? Now look, I don't like such one-sidedly formulated questions, I really don't! How can you even ask in such a simplified manner? No matter how one answers questions like these—one can never encompass the whole truth, only its limited part: a Person—that is something so richly complex, changeable, and diversified, that there is no sentence, book, nothing at all that could define one in its totality. There is nothing permanent, eternal, absolute in persons, they are perpetual change, proudly ringing change, of course! Nowadays the time of static, unchangeable categories is over; nowadays, A is not just A, and B just B; today we know that A can often also be B, and B at the same time be A; that B can be B, as well as A and C; by the same token, C can be not only C, but also A, B, and D, and under certain circumstances, F can be Q or even Y or R!

Hugo's talent for analysis eventually helps him to theorize the delirious erasure of the possibility of his own being. Echoing Hamlet, he concludes: "I don't know whether you want to be or want not to be, and when you want to be and not to be; but me, I want to be always—that's why I must always a little bit not be." This satisfies Hugo's parents, and as the play ends the audience in the theater is subsequently told to "split."

Yet the audience's perception does not split; their identification with the delirious hero does not logically imply their imitation of Hugo's fragmentation into an aspect of political discourse. The coherence of the play's delirious elements depends upon their maintaining an understanding that the signifier for Hugo in the world of the play, the actor playing Hugo, remains recognizable. Hugo may seem to be logical, but he is also so badly mistaken about his place in the world that he is utterly ridiculous, and consequently completely fascinating.

Hugo represents the delirious potential of logic, just as the well-known effects of artificial language in The Memorandum represent a linguistic equivalent, in which the principles for the construction of the proposed "official" languages conform precisely to the poles of linguistic confusion and differentiation identified by Karcevski. Because logical arguments can maintain their logical form without maintaining the material correspondences that judgement must establish between signs and their referents, the logical connections between signs do not by themselves provide a secure context for stable judgements of identity. In The Garden Party one character goes adrift in an ocean of signs; in The Memorandum the whole world of the play risks being similarly overwhelmed by delirious signification.

Scene III: Time/Space Discontinuum

In The Increased Difficulty of Concentration Havel dramatizes the consciousness of a system of order even more vertiginous than language: social philosophy. Eduard Huml, overcome by anxiety, has retreated to his apartment, and Havel's play is cross-cut through time to show his confused interactions with the four women who meet with him there. In this play Havel uses time-sequence displacements to demonstrate confusion—disruptions of regular narrative chronology that also create spatial disturbances as characters move in and out of different doors in different costumes during time-spans that seem impossible. Havel wrote a thesis on this play in which he illustrates the disruptions in a chart. The left hand column is a list of the sequence of chronological events, beginning when Huml has breakfast with his wife, continuing through a series of episodes with a stenographer, mistress and visiting research team, and concluding with his wife's return from work. The right hand column shows the order of events in the plot, beginning and ending with the breakfast scene, and intercutting the action in what looks like a random sequence. In Deleuzian terms, the chart is the rhizome, the root system for an elegant, formally circular play in which the clarity of the dramatic structure is entirely at odds with the confused experience of the hero that it conveys. This elegant form is unmistakable for the audience, since the structure is bracketed by the first scene after Huml wakes and its twin, the last scene before he goes to sleep. With time, and consequently the spatial coordinates for time, in such formally imposed confusion, the hero literally cannot tell when and where people are; he lapses into repetitive behavior, confuses the identities of the women in the play, and loses any concept of the relative values of behavior.

At the climax of this formal structure is a crucial scene with the research group. In addition to the leading researcher, Jitká Balcarkova—who begins an unlikely affair with the confused Huml at the end of the play—the team includes a computer named PUZUK, the nickname of Havel's younger brother. This early computer brain is supposed to have enormous powers of calculation and scientific prediction, yet the hermeneutic burden placed upon its sensitive mechanical subjectivity is so great that when it is ordered to perform, it complains that it is tired, and asks for some rest. Later on, forced like Huml to cooperate with the research program despite having made its excuses, the computer becomes delirious, and begins to generate impertinent, surreal and embarrassing questions. Triggered by the machine, Huml's consciousness, too, spins out of control. In a bizarre sequence out of time and space, characters from earlier in the play re-appear in rapid sequence, repeating non-sensical questions that fruitfully combine their lines with others: "Fishing for fresh green apples, are you? Tomorrow I'm going carroting, so there! Give me your mountain dog-plums! Wherein lies the nucleus? Do you piss in public, or just now and then?" The burden of a theory of knowledge which makes the unit of data an absolute fact, but offers only an infinite context for judgement, is too great for either Huml or the little computer to bear, resulting in their parallel episodes of delirious imagination.

Huml, who dictates a lecture throughout the play, had theorized values in the broadest of relativist terms. After this delirious episode Huml can only restore his perspective through a new discovery that he works out in a long speech near the end of the play: the re-discovery of a personal hermeneutic perspective. Centered in the horizon of interactive experience, the human valuation of humans is a matter of shared judgment, and not necessarily an invitation for infinite "factual" ratiocination:

Huml: I'm afraid the key to a real knowledge of the human individual does not lie in some greater or lesser understanding of the complexity of man as an object of scientific knowledge. The only key lies in man's complexity as a subject of human togetherness, because the limitlessness of our own human nature is so far the only thing capable of approaching—however imperfectly—the limitlessness of others. In other words, the personal, human, unique relationship which arises between two individuals is so far the only thing that can—at least to some extent—mutually unveil the secret of those two individuals. Such values as love, friendship, compassion, sympathy and a unique, irreplaceable mutual understanding—or even mutual conflict—are the only tools which this human approach has at its disposal. By any other means we may perhaps be able more or less to explain man, but we shall never understand him—not even a little—and therefore we shall never arrive at a basic knowledge of him.

Though such a perspective is still vulnerable to problems of interpretation, and especially to any loss of the context for shared communication (either of which could be a pretext for new delirious "miscognitions"), Huml's discovery does solve the problems of spatial, temporal and self perception that can result when the subject exists in semiotic singularity.

Scene IV: Delirium and Political Paralysis

Havel's regular theoretical solution to the problem of delirious subjectivity has been a consistent faith in the intuitive hermeneutic power of the audience to infer appropriate judgements of the play's events. In technical articles on playwriting from the 1960s he consistently described conventions themselves as tending to construct "vicious circles"; without the semiotic discretion of the historical audience, any innovation, meaning, and even Deleuzian "sense," would be impossible to communicate. In this regard Havel's conclusions are very much like those of Gadamer, which suggest that interpretation occurs as a negotiation of perspectives on signs. The loss of this audience resource for Havel after the Prague Spring eventually led him to adopt a communicative ethics of dissent that closely resembles a phenomenological version of the late Habermas, in which the crucial concerns are access to communication, the sincerity of communication, and shared rules of legitimate argument. The ability to communicate becomes the foundation for democratic politics.

The political pitfall of delirious subjectivity, then, becomes apparent in Havel's work in the case of isolated characters like Leopold Koprivá, the dissident phenomenologist in Largo Desolato. The play begins with three identical scenes:

As the music dies away the curtain rises slowly. Leopold is alone on stage. He is sitting on the sofa and staring at the front door. After a long pause he gets up and looks through the peep-hole. Then he puts his ear to the door and listens intently. After another long pause the curtain drops suddenly and at the same time the music returns.

The same scene closes the play, modified only to include a curtain call. Leopold, isolated and deprived, exists in a situation in which the only important signs are outside, sensible only through the lens of a peep-hole and the muffled sounds that penetrate the door. Such a situation, the metaphoric equivalent of Havel's imprisonment, provides no reliable or coherent hermeneutic perspective, and requires change.

Left as it is, Leopold's life continues under conditions in which the delirious imaginings of the persecuted subject can only be allayed by the gestures that he gradually adds to his routine in the course of the play: pacing, taking medication, washing, and gasping for air. Even Leopold's monotonous, uneventful life becomes too complex to be tolerated in the context of his delirious situation; his lack of confidence about the truth of signs finds its analogous expression in his lack of personal confidence. Like Huml, late in the play Koprivá's consciousness yields to a delirious, imagined scene of veiled threats. The characters appear outside of the plot sequence, speaking lines from earlier in the play that focus on Leopold Koprivá's self-doubts:

Leopold: I don't exactly know what I was saying—

First Sidney: But we know—

(At that moment the bathroom door opens. Bertram is standing in the doorway talking to Leopold.)

Bertram: I don't want to be hard on you or hurt you in any way.

(At that moment the kitchen door opens. Edward is standing there speaking to Leopold.)

Edward: Were you worried?

(At that moment the door of Suzana's room opens. Suzana is standing there speaking to Leopold.)

Suzana: Are you sure you didn't get yourself into trouble again somehow?

Bertram: I'm not just speaking for myself.

Edward: Perhaps you should take some pills—

(At that moment the balcony door opens. Lucy is standing there in her bedspread and speaking to Leopold.)

Lucy: You sang a different tune the first time you got me to stay here with you.

Edward: You ought to go and see Lucy.

First Sidney: This could be what people are waiting for—

Second Sidney: You'll find a way

Suzana: What is there to consider, for heaven's sake.

Bertram: And how are things between you and Suzana?

Lucy: You've had enough of me and now you want to get shot of me—

Edward: Did you sign anything?

First Sidney: We've only taken the liberty of giving you our opinion—

Second Sidney: The opinion of ordinary people—

First Sidney: Lots of ordinary people—

Edward: Some hero.

Suzana: Some hero.

Bertram: Some hero.

Lucy: Some hero.

First Sidney: You've had enough of me and now you want to get shot of me.

Second Sidney: Some hero.

First Sidney: Did you sign anything?

Leopold: (Shouting) GET OUT!

Leopold, paralyzed by dread, fluctuates between a delirium that sometimes becomes a sustained, defensive indifference, but at other times emerges as an indiscriminate desire that has collapsed upon itself, so that he cannot resume his marriage, cannot commit to political action, and cannot conceive of meaningful alternatives to confinement. Even formerly convincing political arguments seem questionable, as Leopold admits to an admiring female student:

Leopold: On the other hand there is the fact—as I've already tried to show in Ontology of the Human Self—that there's a certain non-verbal, existential space in which—and only through which—one can get hold of something through experiencing the presence of another person—

Marketa: Forgive me, it's exactly that part—it's from chapter four—which made me decide to come and see you—

Leopold: There you are! But I wouldn't like to raise your hopes unduly, because the fact that I'm meditating on this topic doesn't automatically mean that I am myself capable of creating such a space—

Marketa: But you've been creating it for ages—by talking to me at all—by understanding me …

Leopold, unlike Huml, does not recapture a hermeneutic perspective, yet it has been taken up by an attentive reader. In this regard Marketa's understanding imitates the receptive understanding of the play's audience, which anchors every instance of delirium in Havel's imaginative work.

Havel uses delirious episodes throughout his later career; even in so apparently documentary a play as the Vanek "Audience," the Brewer's progressive drunkenness conjures a fluidly discontinuous whirlpool of subjectivity, against which the stoic dissident strives to communicate. In The Mountain Hotel the entire play is like Huml's nightmare, a delirious permutation combining characters, scenes, actions and dialogue into new sequences and effects. In The Beggar's Opera the delirious moment comes late in the play, when MacHeath finally realizes that his basic assumptions about the world were mistaken; deception is the rule, not the exception that makes truthfulness an issue, and at the end of the play he embraces the delirious implications of moral chaos. In ensemble pieces, like Temptation and Redevelopment, the delirious moment is a drunken party—a black mass and a celebration. Many of these moments have proven extremely difficult to stage, especially for the plays written during the time when Havel was without a theater. Earlier plays, carefully revised in rehearsal to respond to the dynamics of audience reception, augmented the coherent context of audience understanding with a strong aesthetic effect.

Curtain Call: Havel's Semiotic Self

I have argued elsewhere, in a piece called "Vanek for President," that the reception of Havel's authorial persona has been similarly susceptible to delirious permutations, many of which contributed to the man's unlikely yet all the same inexorable rise to power during the revolution. In "Stories and Totalitarianism" Havel had begun to discover a distinct cultural community, in Czechoslovakia's prisons, that still regarded proceedings beyond the prison walls with something like the theater audience's human perspective of hermeneutic engagement:

While I was in prison I realized again and again how much more present, compared with life outside, the story was. Almost every prisoner had a life story that was unique and shocking, or moving. As I listened to those different stories, I suddenly found myself in something like a pre-totalitarian world, or in the world of literature. Whatever else I may have thought of my fellow prisoners' colorful narratives, they were not documents of totalitarian nihilization. On the contrary, they testified to the rebelliousness with which human uniqueness resists its own nihilization, and the stubbornness with which it holds to its own and is willing to ignore this negating pressure. Regardless of whether crime and misfortune was dominant in any given story, the faces in that world were specific and personal.

Dialogic narrative, and the affirmation of understanding that occurs during its plural, inter-subjective coherence, provides a context for identity and experience that extreme commitments to logic and dogma cannot easily contradict. Havel, known as a historical hero with singular talents, nevertheless theorizes a dialogic construction of the self.

For many contemporary philosophers responding to the delirious post-deconstructive discourses of identity, the "logically simple" factor of the person—as Strawson puts it—in semiotic dialogue with others offers new hope for an answer to Christopher Norris's uneasy question, "What's Wrong with Post-modernism?" If the phenomenon of the person is a semiotic creation of communication, then delirium, as a crisis of semiotic coherence that disrupts interaction and isolates people, is a serious political problem. The perspective on the semiotic self that Havel seems to encourage in his "living in truth," a new phenomenological politics of communication, is much like the one described by Hugh Silverman in Inscriptions:

In a hermeneutic semiology of the self, meaning cannot be relegated on the one hand to pure consciousness nor on the other hand to a simple chain of signifiers. Pure consciousness is only another substitute for a beginning and a pure chain of signifiers replaces goal-like objectives. The system of signs must arise out of the self's interpretive activity. It must be realized through the grasp of consciousness (prise de conscience), not through consciousness itself—through the meaning of sign systems, not through their external manifestations. Interpretive experience is an ongoing activity that creates meaning, leaves signs and tends toward the production of new signs. If I AM my system of signs, the interpretive mode will have turned into a concatenation of objectivized identifications. The non-objective characters of these identities cannot be over-stressed. The signs of the self are produced through the interpretation and maintained through the ongoing activity of interpretive experience. Self-knowledge therefore will depend upon a careful understanding of signs in relation to one another. These signs, however, are not separable from the understanding that reveals them. This ambiguity is the perplexity of western philosophy …

This ambiguity is also the place in which the delirious self slips under the horizon, unable to translate signs into representations of experience and hence unable to experience more than the querulous self-expression of an excessively meaningless transcendental intentionality—otherwise known as desire. These coherent expressions of experience admit others to the pleasures of an effective code, unfolding in the historical perspective of the interpretive community; for the delirious subject, expression is merely more nothing.

Havel may very well emerge as a kind of proto-type of the generative self: creator of signs, pseudonyms, self-interpretations and public meditations. Certainly his dramaturgy suggests that he manages a careful balance between the expression of delirious characters and the coherent audience interpretation of their playful mental associations. This paradox of aesthetic technique seems sensible in the case of a public figure who asserts a conspicuous lack of desire for power, yet conversely gains power through altruism. The successful subject in post-modern culture is not only reflective, but expressive and receptive, able to balance self-assessment with the ongoing social project of personal interpretation. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sums up the contemporary notion of a "dialogic" self in terms that seem to imply just this conclusion about Havel, so I will allow his summary to conclude my argument:

Much of our understanding of self, society, and world is carried in practices that consist in dialogical action. I would like to argue, in fact, that language itself serves to set up spaces of common action, on a number of levels, intimate and public. This means that our identity is never simply defined in terms of our individual properties. It also places us in some social space. We define ourselves partly in terms of what we come to accept as our appropriate place within dialogical actions. In the case that I really identify myself with my deferential attitude toward wiser people like you, then this conversational stance becomes a constituent of my identity. This social reference figures even more clearly in the identity of the dedicated revolutionary.

Phyllis Carey (essay date Summer 1992)

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SOURCE: "Living Lies: Václav Havel's Drama," in Cross Currents, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 200-11.

[In the following essay, Carey provides an overview of Havel's creative periods and major dramatic works.]

Americans were captivated by the 1989 election of Vaclav Havel, a human rights activist who spent almost four years in prison, as the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Many who had heard that his ideas had played a vital role in the country's "Velvet Revolution" were introduced to his thinking through interviews, particularly the extended dialogue in Disturbing the Peace, as well as occasional pieces in the New York Review of Books. They learned even more from the philosophical-political essays of Living in Truth, and from Letters to Olga, the collection of fascinating, philosophical letters Havel wrote to his wife while he was in prison. Havel's political writings emphasize, among a great many other things, the "power of the powerless," the ability of seemingly impotent individuals to transform their societies through assuming responsibility for their humanity and living in truth.

Fewer Americans have been introduced to Havel's dramatic oeuvre, which provides a fascinating counterpoint to his philosophical and political thought. His plays, which have earned an international reputation and have won several awards in the U.S., were banned in Czechoslovakia between 1969 and 1989. In contrast to the moral clarity of the political essays, the plays explore the ethical ambiguity that plagues modern life regardless of its political context.

Havel, who served for a number of years as literary manager of the Balustrade Theater in Prague, has defined his dramatic goal as forcing the viewer/reader "to stick his nose into his own misery, into my misery, into our common misery, by way of reminding him that the time has come to do something about it…. Face to face with a distillation of evil, man might well recognize what is good" (Disturbing the Peace). Three major phases characterize Havel's drama: the early absurdist comedies; the Vanek morality plays; and the psychological-prison plays.

Absurdist Plays of the 1960s

Havel's first full-length play, The Garden Party (1963), demonstrates his enduring interest in the many roles language plays in modern society. As Havel himself notes, the action of The Garden Party is controlled by cliché, which not only inundates the dialogue but becomes the objective correlative of the humans who have surrendered themselves to the bureaucratic system.

The play derives its name from a garden party at an anonymous Liquidation Office. Hugo Pludek, the would-be protagonist, seeks a career in the system, but because each bureaucrat has become merely an interchangeable functionary, Hugo ends up compromising himself out of existence, unaware that the "Hugo Pludek" he is waiting to see at the end of the play is himself. As in the game of chess that forms a recurring motif in the play, the characters move in grid-like fashion within the rigid confines of prescribed, lifeless systems—social, political and linguistic—only to checkmate their own meaningless existences. Like a political address that avoids offending any group or individual, Hugo's final speech, echoing both Hamlet and Beckett's Watt, reduces the question of being to verbal gymnastics:

… we are all a little bit all the time and all the time we are not a little bit; some of us are more and some of us are more not; some only are, some are only, and some only are not; so that none of us entirely is and at the same time each one of us is not entirely;… I don't know whether you want more to be or not to be, and when you want to be or not to be; but I know I want to be all the time and that's why all the time I must a little bit not-be….

If the language games of The Garden Party relativize the human out of the equation, the use of a synthetic language—Ptydepe—enables Havel in The Memorandum (1965), winner of the Obie Award (1967–68) for best foreign play, to focus on the process by which humans abdicate their humanity to linguistic and/or political systems.

Josef Gross, the Managing Director of an anonymous bureaucracy, receives a memorandum in Ptydepe, an artificial language designed to make human communication scientifically precise by making words as dissimilar as possible. In his attempts to get the memo translated, Gross experiences the paradoxes of bureaucracy: he can obtain the documents he needs to authorize the translation only by having the memorandum already translated. While he struggles with the irrationality of the system, he falls victim to a subordinate's power play, is demoted, but eventually convinces Maria, a secretary, to translate his memo; the message, ironically, confirms in Ptydepe the inadequacy of the new language, urging its liquidation. The play ends with Gross back in charge and with the prospect of a new synthetic language—Chorukor—which will operate on linguistic principles of similarity.

In The Memorandum Havel explores the scientific effort to transform language into a technological tool. Here, the drive for scientific precision contends with the apparently human need for unpredictability. The language instructor's lesson on saying "boo" in Ptydepe illustrates how analysis increasingly deadens spontaneity: The decision as to which Ptydepe expression to use for "boo" depends on the rank of the person speaking and whether the "boo" is anticipated, a surprise, a joke, or a test, as in "Yxap tseror najx." Another hilarious example of a simple expression made as complex as possible is the word "Hurrah!," which in Ptydepe becomes "frnygko jefr dabux altep dy savarub goz texeres."

The precision exercised on analyzing the trivial contrasts with the imprecision in expressing what may be humanly significant. The ambiguous term "whatever," deemed the most used human expression, is rendered by the shortest Ptydepe word, "gh." Ironically, beneath all of the scientific pretensions, body language communicates and carries much of the action.

The preoccupation with using an artificial language in The Memorandum draws attention to the technological propensity to focus on means instead of ends. Enormous efforts to communicate precisely are undercut by the banality of what is expressed. Knowing the system, however, enables one to participate in the illusion of power and control. Like the specialized jargon of most professionals, Ptydepe represents an elitist code that paradoxically limits human communication both to a small group of cognoscenti and to those issues that can be analyzed and labeled.

Gross is caught between the need to fit into the system and his own humanistic platitudes. When Maria, fired because she translated the message without authorization, asks for his help, Gross excuses himself on the grounds that he cannot compromise his position as the "last remains of Man's humanity" within the system. He moves Hamlet's dilemma into Camus' theory of the absurd, and as so often in a scientific age, the descriptive becomes the normative:

Like Sisyphus, we roll the boulder of our life up the hill of its illusory meaning, only for it to roll down again into the valley of its own absurdity…. Manipulated, absurdity … automatized, made into a fetish, Man loses the experience of his own totality; horrified, he stares as a stranger at himself, unable not to be what he is not, nor to be what he is.

Gross, the would-be existentialist who is always wishing he could start his life over, cannot translate his own language into responsible action. If Pudnik is entangled in language games devoid of human integrity, Gross demonstrates that when language becomes an end in itself, even the most accurate or the most eloquent expressions become impotent.

In the tradition of Kafka, Camus, and Beckett, probably his most significant mentors, Havel explores in The Garden Party and The Memorandum the paradox of human rationality pushed to its absurd logical extreme. As in Kafka, anonymous authority figures loom behind the absurd context; as in Beckett, the habits and rituals of daily existence frequently deaden people from the horror of their predicament; as in Camus, there is occasional recognition of the absurdity. But Havel's characters, unlike those of Camus, do not rebel; rather they adapt and use the absurdity as an excuse for their own inhumanity.

The Vanek Plays

Havel wrote three one-act plays in the mid-to-late 1970s that are based on one character, a Czech writer named Ferdinand Vanek: Audience (1975); Private View (1975); and Protest (1978). (In a fascinating twist to dramatic history, three other playwrights adopted Vanek for their own plays—Jiri Dienstbier, Pavel Kohout, and Pavel Landovský.) Havel's Vanek plays focus on the role of the writer in a society whose corruption extends from the workplace to the privacy of home, and even to the professional life of writers.

Audience (also published with Private View under the title Sorry …), is probably Havel's best known work in the United States: it is often paired with Catastrophe, a one-act play Samuel Beckett wrote and dedicated to Havel while the latter was in prison in 1982. Although superficially simple, Audience raises complex ethical questions. Essentially a dialogue between Vanek and the increasingly drunken head-malster of the brewery where Vanek works, Audience focuses on the brewmaster's attempts to persuade Vanek to compose the brewmaster's weekly reports in exchange for an easier job. To do so, however, Vanek would, ironically, be supporting the system he is against by informing on himself.

Vanek's reluctance to accept the offer precipitates the brewmaster's assault on intellectuals, which some critics see as the heart of the play:

It's all right if I get filthy—so long as the gentleman stays clean! The gentleman cares about a principle! But what about the rest of us, eh? He couldn't care less!… Principles! Principles! Sure you hang on to your flipping principles! Why not? You know damned well how to cash in on them, you know there's always a market for them, you know bloody well how to sell them at a profit! Thing is, you live on your flipping principles! But what about me?… Nobody's ever going to look after me, nobody's afraid of me, nobody's going to write about me, nobody's going to help me, nobody takes an interest in me! I'm only good enough to be the manure on which your flaming principles can grow!

The play ends with Vanek making a mock exit and re-entrance, starting the dialogue anew with the malster, this time readily accepting the proffered beer and joining immediately in camaraderie. The "underlying message" of the play, as Damien Jaques (drama critic of The Milwaukee Journal) notes, would seem to be that "artists can have principles that they refuse to violate [but] the common man doesn't have that luxury."

But truth, as Havel dramatizes it, is almost never so obvious. Among the inescapable ironies of Audience is that the brewmaster—rather than not having principles of his own—has merely exchanged them for the mechanics of the bureaucracy and, as a result, has become a slave to the system. Although ostensibly the one in power—he is in charge of Vanek and several other workers—he confesses himself powerless because he is a mere dispensable cog. Vanek, on the other hand, is a threat by virtue of being an authentic human being. The drunken brewmaster, a blustery administrator of the powers-that-be, ends up begging the timid Vanek to bring an actress to see him so that he can believe "I didn't live for nothing—." To "live for nothing," however, as Vanek's reticence implies, is as much a choice as to live on principle, to live for something. The ending of the play, suggesting an alternative scenario, leaves the larger "audience" with the question of which alternative is preferable.

"Living for nothing" comes in many different packages, however, as Private View—perhaps the most accessible and humorous of Havel's Vanek plays—amply illustrates. Michael and Vera are Westernized Yuppies who have invited Vanek for a "private view" of their newly redecorated apartment. That their lifestyle has become their only absolute is clear early on as Michael proudly shows Ferdinand the Madonna he has long sought in order to fit his "niche." Rather than adjusting the niche, he has traveled widely to find a Madonna the right size. Correspondingly, he and Vera fit all of life's experiences into the niches of their consumer clichés, which they try to convince Vanek are the "solution" to all of his presumed problems: he should redecorate; he should have a child; his wife should take cooking lessons, etc.

As the play progresses, Michael and Vera increasingly sound like commercials. When they reach the topic of their sex lives, they are quite willing to perform a demonstration for Vanek. As Michael notes,

"Vera has remained as smashing as ever…. The body she's got now! It's a knockout! So fresh and young! Well, you can judge for yourself. Darling, do you mind just opening your dress a little bit?… After we've finished our little chat, we're going to show you some more, so you'd see what sophisticated things we do to one another."

When Vanek demurs and starts to leave amidst a barrage of advice, Michael and Vera suddenly fall apart. Their facade is their existence, and with no one to impress, they lose their only reason for being. They browbeat Vanek into staying, and the play ends where it began.

Private View provides a glimpse of private life withdrawn and alienated from public and political concerns. Michael and Vera accuse Vanek of being a coward and a romantic because he will not compromise enough to get a socially respectable job. They, on the other hand, in substituting consumer comforts and "self-fulfillment" for social responsibility, have become dehumanized, merely part of the decoration in their apartment. The satisfaction Michael finds in the almond peeler he has brought back from the States suggests the way in which their being and purpose have been trivialized, their identity subsumed in the objects that they serve.

Havel, describing elsewhere the interdependence of the social and the private, the historical and the personal, alludes to the problem at the core of Private View:

… even the most private life is oddly distorted, sometimes to the point where it becomes implausibly bizarre, the paradoxical outcome of a paralyzing desire for verisimilitude. It is obvious what has made this desire so intense: the subconscious need to compensate for the absence of the opposite pole—truth. It is as though life in this case were stripped of its inner tension, its true tragedy and greatness, its questions. ("Stories and Totalitarianism," Open Letters)

If the "crisis of human identity" that Havel sees as the central question of all of his plays (Living in Truth) afflicts the bureaucrat, the blue-collar worker, and even the purely private relationships of spouses, it also afflicts writers themselves as the Vanek play Protest illustrates. Like all of his plays, Protest contains vague allusions to actual events or experiences in Havel's life.

As in the other two Vanek plays—and most of Havel's oeuvre—the action takes place in the language, in this case the dialogue between Vanek and Stanek, a fellow writer whose daughter is pregnant by a pop star who has just been arrested on a pretext. Stanek, who enjoys political immunity presumably because he can straddle issues, asks Vanek about protesting the pop star's arrest. When Vanek, who has already written a protest, presents Stanek with the document for his signature, Stanek's inner conflicts come to the fore. In a lengthy monologue Stanek analyzes the "subjective" and "objective" arguments for signing the protest, demonstrating through convoluted logic both how "they"—the authorities—think and how he excuses himself from taking responsibility. His speech embodies "double think," becoming a brilliant exercise in reducing morality to rationality. Stanek does not sign the document and the play ends when Stanek learns that the pop star has been released, making the protest superfluous.

Part of Stanek's rationalizing anticipates what Havel explores in greater detail in Largo Desolato: the widespread abdication of personal responsibility to the professionals in morality. Stanek points out that "the rest of us—when we want to do something for the sake of ordinary human decency—automatically turn to you [Vanek], as though you were a sort of service establishment in moral matters." The question of Stanek's signature, therefore, involves his claiming identity as a responsible human being, a claim he is unable to make.

Havel's Vanek, however, around whom moral issues arise, does not play the role of a moral authority; rather, he comes off as a self-ironic, timid soul whose occasional embarrassment becomes the only comment on the "bad faith" of the brewmaster, Michael and Vera, and Stanek. In all three plays Vanek, who speaks very little, becomes a sounding board for the characters' reflections on their own identities and concerns. His simplicity contrasts with their sophistication and sophistry. He occasionally questions, often offers understanding, never condemns. Rather, he allows his own integrity and motives to be questioned and attacked as the other characters attempt to implicate or discredit him. If he is an alter-ego of Havel, he is also an anti-hero, his humility and self-effacement pointing beyond the human to a standard of truth that enables the other characters to glimpse their own duplicity and that gives his own character both its quiet dignity and its self-parody.

Psychological-Prison Plays

When Havel returned from his stay in prison as a result of dissident activities, he wrote a short play (1983) in response to Beckett's Catastrophe. The play, entitled Mistake, foregrounds the human tendency—regardless of political system—toward totalitarianism, not only politically but privately as well. The plot is simple: four inmates in a prison—who have formed their own subsystem with their own kingpin—indoctrinate a new prisoner, who has inadvertently smoked a cigarette before breakfast, on his rights and responsibilities within the system. The new inmate. XIBOY, says nothing throughout the play, merely shrugging and looking embarrassed, to the increasing anger and frustration of the "King" and his cohorts, who finally realize that XIBOY is a "bloody foreigner." The play ends with King's "death sentence" for XIBOY.

The prison setting as a totalitarian system—although no doubt inspired by Havel's own recent experiences—underscores the human propensity not only to adapt to repressive systems but to duplicate them in subsystems, and to subjugate others, attempting to force them into uniformity. The seemingly trivial offense against "non-smokers' rights" becomes a major crime in the context of the repressive systems operating without and within and suggests a subtle challenge to the West's preoccupation with minor "rights" when larger questions of human survival and identity are at stake. The foreigner's death sentence comes about because, speaking another language literally and perhaps metaphysically, he cannot be indoctrinated and subsumed into the system. His silence and lack of complicity become a threat to the status quo.

Havel's two full-length post-imprisonment plays, Largo Desolato (1984) and Temptation (1985), further explore the themes of Mistake. Unlike the relatively flat characters of Pudnik and Gross in the earlier plays, the post-imprisonment drama excavates much deeper psychological terrain. In addition, the archetype of Faust joins Hamlet as the subtle distortions of truth become both increasingly ambiguous and perverse.

Largo Desolato, which won a Best Play Off Broadway award for 1985–86, probes the relationship between human identity and the roles one plays. Professor Leopold Nettles, an existentialist philosopher who has been under police surveillance and harassment for writing a paragraph "disturbing the intellectual peace," can escape from his dilemma by declaring that he is "not the same person who is the author of that thing." Nettles is so tortured by the expectations of his friends and by his own self-doubts, however, that he has virtually imprisoned himself within his own apartment and his own mind.

Like Vanek in Protest, Nettles has been the vicarious moral voice upon whom all his friends, who have surrendered their own voices, depend. He is their excuse not to be. Their vague expectations and dependence contribute to his identity crisis: is there a split between who he is and the roles others expect him to play? The dichotomy between Nettles's current internal torment and the image he has projected in the past is revealed through the other characters. His friend Bertram notes, "I can't escape the awful feeling that lately something inside you has begun to collapse … that you are tending more and more to act the part of yourself instead of being yourself."

In fact, Nettles in his desperation increasingly acts the roles that others project on him, using the same phrases they have addressed to him. Urged to put his philosophical ideas to some practical use, he ironically does just that: he uses his reputation and writings to seduce Marguerite, a young student whom he sees as "in mid-crisis about the meaning of life." Before the seduction is complete, however, the agents of the authorities appear. Nettles takes a stand, swearing that he will not disclaim his paragraphs, that he will not give up his "own human identity." The agents inform him that his protest comes too late: he has already given up his identity, and his signature, therefore, "would be superfluous." Like Stanek, Nettles has spent so much time analyzing and worrying about his image that he has lost his own identity in the process. The play ends where it began, but with Nettles taking a bow as the actor playing a role in a play about playing roles.

Largo Desolato anticipates Temptation in its depiction of the external and internal demons that make Nettles's existence a living hell. The prospect of going to prison seems trivial in comparison with the the torment and restrictions that Nettles experiences as a result of trying to serve all of his self-imposed masters, of playing all of the roles others expect of him. As in a dysfunctional family, most of the other characters have already abdicated their identities, becoming mere stage props or interchangeable characters, as evidenced by their very names—"First Sidney" and "Second Sidney," "First Chap" and "Second Chap," "First Man" and "Second Man." Largo Desolato depicts the loss of human identity both by those who depend on others to save them and by those who would save others from their own burden of humanity. For Havel, there are no specialists in being human; every human is challenged to be—or not to be.

Havel's long-term interest in writing a play based on the Faust legend found its fruition in Temptation, his latest full-length play. Temptation is by far Havel's wordiest play as he explores in depth the question of truth and the ways truth can be perverted. Havel's Faust, Dr. Foustka, who is a scientist, has been secretly studying black magic. Fistula, who plays the Mephistopheles role, becomes his mentor and points out that "the truth isn't merely what we believe, after all, but also why and to whom and under what circumstances we say it!" Here, ironically the Devil is paraphrasing Havel, who expressed this definition of truth in a 1982 letter to his wife (Letters to Olga [No. 138]). Later, the Deputy of the Institute in the play convolutes the definition:

The truth must prevail, come what may. But for that very reason we must remind ourselves that looking for the truth means looking for the whole, unadulterated truth. That is to say that the truth isn't only something that can be demonstrated in one way or another, it is also the purpose for which the demonstrated thing is used or for which it may be misused, and who boasts about it and why, and in what context it finds itself.

Foustka begins his struggle with truth where Nettles left off in Largo Desolato; Foustka's philosophic description of modern humanity leads Marketa, a secretary at the Institute, to fall in love with him. When, his ego inflated by the "conquest," Foustka is confronted by the Director and accused of pursuing unscientific knowledge, Foustka appeals to scientific truth and morality to exonerate him. He claims that he has studied the occult in order to expose its unscientific basis. Marketa, who has believed Foustka's appeal to a higher authority as a basis for truth, ends up as Foustka's Ophelia, dismissed from the Institute and singing in madness. Foustka later learns that Fistula is a secret agent of the Institute, sent to test his fidelity to scientific truth. Foustka is finally entrapped by the complex web of lies he has woven; like Nettles, he has created his own hellish prison.

Finally aware that his attempts to manipulate the system have failed, Foustka acknowledges the devil—"here among us"—not Fistula, but "the pride of that intolerant, all-powerful, and self-serving power that uses sciences merely as a handy weapon for shooting down anything that threatens it, that is, anything that doesn't derive its authority from this power or that is related to an authority deriving its powers elsewhere." The play ends with a witches' sabbath, chaos, Foustka being set afire, and a fireman coming to put out the flames.

Temptation constantly challenges common definitions of truth while affirming its fundamental significance. Havel masterfully demonstrates how the most "truthful" expressions can be demonic when truth is instrumentalized, made a tool for some human purpose. At the same time, he creates seemingly demonic characters who see clearly the logical inconsistencies of selective duplicity. Ironically, it is a devil figure quoting Scripture who points out that living in lies carries its own rules: "You cannot serve two masters at once and deceive them both at the same time!… You simply must take a side!" The play suggests, moreover, that to reduce truth to the limits of rationality in turn distorts the "truths" of that rationality. Temptation becomes a comic-bitter indictment of the postmodern mind.

The setting of Havel's plays alternates from modern apartment interiors to anonymous bureaucracies. Although the characters all seem to be aware of "higher authorities," those in charge might as easily be representatives of free-market countries as of communist or socialist regimes. As in Beckett, Havel's perennial setting is metaphysical: the contemporary human mind, imprisoned in its rationality, substituting scientific, political, and consumer systems to fill the need for an absolute.

The question of human identity that Havel explores in all of his works is not the issue of individual self-fulfillment that seems to preoccupy Americans. Rather, it is the universal question of the human on the brink of the twenty-first century, in which technical specialization has, paradoxically, produced greater standardization, and more and more people are living in an artificial environment, seduced by the comforts of effortless existence. The question for Havel from Pudnik to Foustka is whether humans choose to be or not to be human beings, to live in truth rather than to support the lies that make them mere adjuncts of one or another system: "Human identity, simply put, is not a 'place of existence' where one sits things out, but a constant encounter with the question of how to be, and how to exist in the world" (Letters to Olga [No. 139]).

And what is truth? Havel never tells us directly in his plays. He assumes that we will recognize the many forms of its opposite—the excuses, subterfuges, rationalizations, illusions, pretexts, sophistries—even if many of his characters do not. Truth for Havel seems inextricably linked with assuming responsibility for one's humanity. To the extent we fail, his drama implies, we live in misery; hope lies in recognizing and taking responsibility for "our common misery."

Alfred Thomas (review date Summer 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of The Vanek Plays and Living in Truth, in Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 348-51.

[In the following review, Thomas offers positive assessment of Living in Truth and The Vanek Plays. According to Thomas, Havel's dramatic works "are more complex, darker studies of the human spirit than the Czech tradition of 'humanist' criticism would suppose."]

Predating the tumultuous political events of 1989, both volumes here under review—one a collection of political essays by the playwright Václav Havel, the other an anthology of plays by Czech dissident writers including Havel—can and should be assessed in the light of subsequent events. It would be facile to claim that these books have become outdated by the political changes in central Europe; rather, Havel's essays, contained in Living in Truth, form a continuity with President Havel's more recent pronouncements on the fortunes of his country as it evolves into a democratic, pluralist state.

Living in Truth consists of six seminal essays by Havel himself (including "Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák," "The Power of the Powerless" and "Politics and Conscience") and sixteen additional works of homage to Havel by writers as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll, Jirí Grusa, Pavel Kohout, Milan Kundera, Ludvík Vaculík, Arthur Miller and Timothy Garton Ash. The need for this type of hommage is understandable: artists, critics and journalists from Czechoslovakia and the west were at pains to demonstrate their moral support to a persecuted fellow artist in the years of so-called "normalization" when Havel spent many years in prison. With historical hindsight, one cannot help but regard these expressions of support as the nascent development of what I choose to term the western-inspired "phenomenon" of Václav Havel. In the present Czech and Slovak Federal Republic Havel is frequently the object of criticism yet here in the west he remains the object of unqualified praise and admiration. The "phenomenon" of Havel is inviolate in the west perhaps because of his status as the embodiment of the spirit of central European democracy. During and following the revolution of 1989 Havel was synonymous with freedom and reform. Criticism of Havel in the west would probably be construed, therefore, as automatically harmful to renewed Czech democracy itself. (It is perhaps a sign of the healthy resilience of democracy in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic that the figure of the President is not untouchable.)

While it is understandable, maybe even desirable, for western commentators and critics to desist from criticism of a brave individual who is struggling to keep his internally beleaguered country together, this kind of unqualified admiration can interfere with a truly objective critique of Havel as an artist. All too often Czech literary criticism fails to distinguish between politics and critical evaluation. Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz's introduction to The Vanek Plays exemplifies the unfortunate tendency of certain modes of scholarship to subordinate disinterested criticism to the imperatives of the partisan politics. Let us illustrate what is meant: Professor Goetz-Stankiewicz informs us that Havel is the recipient of many western awards and accolades. What does this have to do with being a good playwright? When we read criticism on Harold Pinter or Sam Shepard we do not expect to be told how many trophies they display on their mantel. (Incidentally, the Czech fin de siècle critic Arnost Procházka regarded the Czech need for praise from foreigners as a peculiar failing of the "small nation" mentality.) Professor Goetz-Stankiewicz sees a "common idea of human value" running through the Vanek plays. We might ask what "human value" means here—human goodness perhaps? Such an emphasis is reminiscent of T. G. Masaryk's concept of humanita, the ethical system which perceives the quality of "humanity" as immanent in the Czech intellectual tradition from the Hussites to the present.

It is my belief that Havel's plays—both those of the "Vanek" cycle contained in the present anthology (Audience, Protest and Unveiling) and the later drama Temptation and Largo Desolato—are more complex, darker studies of the human spirit than the Czech tradition of "humanist" criticism would suppose. As Havel points out in his collection of essays Dálkový výslech, the figure of Vanek in his plays serves as a "dramatic principle," a foil which highlights the moral predicament of the principal protagonists. In Audience, for example, Vanek is a dissident prisoner harangued by the drunken Brewmaster who is demoralized not by Vanek's impassive responses but by his own personal sense of inadequacy. In Unveiling, Vanek is a visitor at the apartment of a couple, Michal and Vera, who have sold out to the regime. Their materialistic lifestyle includes free access to western travel and luxury goods. The couple attributes to Vanek's marriage the misery which underlies their own personal life. In a fine example of the circular structure of theatre of the absurd, the play ends with the all-suffering Vanek coerced by his neurotic hosts to stay on—a conclusion reminiscent of Josef Topol's play Slavik k veceri (Nightingale for Dinner) in which the eponymous Mr. Nightingale is emotionally bullied and finally murdered by a grotesque bourgeois family. In the third Havel one-act play, Protest, Vanek pays a visit to Stanek, another of Havel's self-hating conformists who is trapped between the poles of political expediency and private conscience. By the end of the play, Stanek has managed to persuade himself by means of a dialectical process of reasoning that the political status quo is acceptable.

For Goetz-Stankiewicz, Vanek is a positive, steadfast character, the "quiet eye of a hurricane" whose eloquent silence proves the falseness of the language by which the other characters live. In claiming that language has been emptied of metaphysical meaning, Goetz-Stankiewicz is subscribing to a "modernist" reading of the "Vanek" plays which, to my mind, overlooks their more radical pessimism. Goetz-Stankiewicz perceives a seamless unity between Havel's essays and his fiction, each mutually illuminating the other. I am rather of the opinion that Havel's drama undermines some of his most cherished ethical ideas as expounded in essays like "The Power of the Powerless." Goetz-Stankiewicz states that in Vanek Havel has created a "new hero," a representative of that strong, if silent majority which will prevail against the forces of reaction and oppression. This is a prescriptive, programmatic criticism which is belied by the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In Unveiling Vanek (a latter day variation on the Czech ideal of the virtuous little man typified by Masaryk's Kleiner Mensch and Karel Capek's obycejny clovek) emerges as a weak, pathetic individual who is unable to resist or oppose the predatory instincts of his interlocutors. One might even notice a latent contempt for this Czech ideal of compliance and obedience.

On a philosophical note, Havel's plays reveal a radical critique of a solipsistic ontology. In Protest, for example, Stanek is trapped in a dilemma of his own making, whether to subscribe to the "objective" world of political pragmatism or the "subjective" world of private conscience. As the character puts it: "Should I be guided by ruthless objective considerations, or by subjective inner feelings?" On one level Havel's plays are programmatic in their desire to illustrate the ethical need for personal responsibility (a key word in Havel's essays). For him the individual is society. Yet the playwright's ethical agenda is complicated, even contradicted, by his more original insight that personal responsibility is all but impossible to achieve in the modern world where the exercise of power is no longer objective and externalized but, as Foucault put it, "internalized." It is impossible in the modern world. Havel seems to be saying, to draw a clear dividing line between the public and private self. The objective-subjective dichotomy, maintained by Stanek, breaks down; political exigency is as subjectively determined as the dictates of social conscience; that is to say, "inner feelings" can be both political and personal. According to Foucault, the post-Enlightenment world involved a gradual movement from power conceived as a crude, unilateral coercion imposed on the individual from outside (such as imprisonment and torture) to a more subtle, "internalized" mode of control in which the individual checks his own behavior. Stanek, Michal, Vera and the Brewmaster are subjects and objects of power in that they regulate and are regulated by power. There seems to be no way out of this dialectic. Goetz-Stankiewicz proposes a humanistic "happy-ending" by attributing to the disenfranchised Vanek the role of a positive hero. But Havel's drama is of a distinctly darker hue: there simply is no hero or self uncontaminated by corruption, greed and the lust for power. To make of Vanek the redemptive hero is to play down the tragic-comic absurdity that identifies Havel as a direct spiritual descendant of Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek.

Havel treats the problem of power and subjectivity with consummate skill in Largo Desolato. In this play (to my mind his best) the philosopher's living room has become a metaphor for the prison of the mind. The tragi-comic absurdity of the action is generated not by the scenario of surveillance but the hero's inability to distinguish between external and subjective reality. In this solipsistic hell it is impossible to tell whether the other characters (Kopriva's contemptuous wife, his bullying fellow-dissident Bertram and those Kafkaesque doubles who drop in at regular intervals) are intended as real people or fragmented projections of the hero's psyche. Havel's "Vanek" plays can be read in an analogous fashion as subjective monologues masquerading as dialogues wherein the individual struggles in vain to demarcate the boundary between objective and subjective experience.

In conclusion, we can claim that Havel's plays are more ambiguous and pessimistic than many commentators have suggested. In highlighting the plays' ethical-humanistic message, critics risk oversimplifying their dramatic power. Far from being positive affirmations of "human value," Havel's plays are tragi-comic allegories about the insidious configuration of power in the modern world—insidious precisely because its starting point is the private domain of the self.

George F. Kennan (review date 24 September 1992)

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SOURCE: "Keeping the Faith," in New York Review of Books, September 24, 1992, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review, Kennan offers favorable assessment of Summer Meditations, praising Havel's courage to "offer to the public so unsparingly an exposure of what one can only call his political and personal philosophy."]

Václav Havel, the courageous leading dissident in the years of Communist control of Czechoslovakia, and more recently president of that country, needs no introduction to the readers of The New York Review. His name has appeared on the pages of the Review in a number of capacities. Known originally primarily as a playwright, Havel has always been a prolific and engaging writer. His literary output in later years has taken exclusively the form of essays, letters, and unpublished interviews; and after his release from prison in 1983, several volumes of English translations of such materials saw publication, prior to the appearances of the volume here under review.

With very minor exceptions, the materials contained in those volumes were written during the Communist period of Czechoslovak history and reflected Havel's preoccupation with the tremendous strains that rested upon his life and those of so many others in those tragic years. The volume to which this present discussion is devoted was written in the summer of 1991 and reviewed by the author in early 1992—that is, during his second presidency of that country, now terminated by his recent withdrawal.

It is the first such volume, therefore, to reflect the author's reactions to the tremendous events, including prominently his own experiences, of the period of liberation. It speaks, however, for the depth and solidity of his thinking that this fundamental change in political environment occasioned, and required, no significant revision of the convictions and principles that had inspired his earlier writings. These last were simply applied to the new situation; and they seem to have lost none of their relevance or their force in the process.

Leaving aside the first section of the book entitled "Politics, Morality, and Civility" (which was placed last in the original Czech edition and will be given similar place here), the first material to meet the reader's eye is the long section (the longest in the book) that deals, under the title "In a Time of Transition," with the internal political problems of the Czechoslovak state as they presented themselves to Havel during his second presidency, when the book was written. Much of this section is devoted to constitutional problems. The present constitution, inherited from the Communist period, being plainly unsuitable for the present era, Havel, a strong opponent of proportional representation and advocate of the strengthening of the presidency, pressed hard, while president, for the early preparation of a new one. But this question soon became enmeshed with the problem (among others) of Slovak separatism; and pending a resolution of that problem, no serious progress in the constitutional question was possible.

This being the case, it was not surprising that a large portion of this first section of Havel's book was addressed to the future of the Czech-Slovak relationship. And an agonizing matter this was for a man of Havel's generous impulses, torn between a broad-minded sympathy and understanding for Slovak national feeling, on the one hand, and exasperation with the erratic and irresponsible behavior of Slovak politicians (and some of the Czech ones as well) in the official discussions of this bitter problem. It remained throughout his conviction, and one for which he offered a number of serious arguments, that a complete separation of the two peoples would be nothing but "a grave misfortune" for all concerned. And his reluctance to preside over a break-up of the country was apparently one of the principal reasons for his withdrawal from the presidential office.

There is a particularly tragic aspect to Havel's helplessness in the face of this problem, for it is hard to believe that the Slovaks, whether independent or otherwise, will ever have a fairer, more tolerant, or more understanding chief of state than Václav Havel would have been at the head of a continuing Czechoslovakia. And indeed, this writer knows of no evidence that the majority of the Slovaks, if challenged by the sort of referendum Havel has urged, would favor a complete separation. But here is where the professional politicians come in. The drift toward separation appears to have been largely the product of their narrowness of concept and their tendency to play with words and slogans that would shore up their own positions. Things will no doubt continue to be this way.

Among Havel's comments on this subject there were a few observations about politicians and politics that were clearly part of his general political philosophy and had a much wider relevance than to Czechoslovak problems alone. He did not challenge the usefulness or the necessity of the political party as such. He saw it as "an integral part of modern democracy and an expression of its plurality of opinion." But he minced no words in expressing his impatience with what he calls "the dictatorship of partisanship." which he defines as "the excessive influence of parties in the system of political power." Political parties, he writes, can become "a shadow state within a state." The loyalties they demand "can count for more than the will of the electorate." Their pre-electoral maneuverings have a tendency to supersede society's interests. Electors come to be governed by people they never elected. Political decisions come to be determined by the tactics and strategies of partisan competition. "A few months before the election," he noted,

electoral politics are already dominating political life…. There are articles about partisan bickering, bragging and intrigue, predications about who will join with whom and against whom, who will help (or harm) whose chances in the election, who might eventually shift support to whom, who is beholden to whom or falling out with whom. Politicians seem to be devoting more time to party politics than to their jobs. Not a single law is passed without a debate about how a particular stand might serve a party's popularity. Ideas, no matter how absurd, are touted to gain favour with the electorate…. All this displaces a responsible interest in the prosperity and success of the broader community.

These views were written, of course, about conditions in Czechoslovakia; and this being a country in which, according to Havel's translator, Paul Wilson, "forty parties, coalitions, and movements" were competing in the most recent election. They are not surprising. But no one who has been following pre-election developments in the United States will fail to note the wider connotations of Havel's remarks. It is not hard to detect in them not only echoes of early Federalist anxieties about "factionalism" in the emerging American political system, but also something of the impatience with rampant partisanship that caused so many Americans to greet with sympathy and satisfaction Mr. Ross Perot's strictures on the American political establishment of this day.

It is in fact a question whether Havel, in these observations, did not strike a chord that resonated with the public of a number of modern democracies. It would be hard, of course, to deny the vulnerability of modern democracy generally to domination by party machines and personalities in whose motivation for political involvement a devotion to the public interest is diluted to put it mildly, by considerations of another and less admirable nature. It has been customary in the past for most Western peoples to accept this situation with a resigned shrug of the shoulders as one of the prices for political freedom. But the years immediately ahead mark the passage not only of a century but of an age in Western civilization, and the advent of an age that is bound to place many new and unprecedented strains on the resources of modern democracy. What Havel has done, intentionally or otherwise, is to raise the question whether these developments do not call for adaptive changes in democratic systems, and whether, in particular, the democracies can continue to afford the luxury of leaving the great affairs of state so extensively dependent upon the outcome of struggles among political factions more immediately concerned with their own competitive fortunes than with the major problems of national interest. This comes out particularly clearly in his opposition to proportional representation and in his feeling that the choices the common citizen should be asked and permitted to make in the election booth should be ones among individuals, not among parties.

The next section of Havel's book, entitled "What I Believe," is devoted primarily to questions of ideology, doctrine, dogma—whatever one wishes to call it. It places principal emphasis on his skepticism and aversion with relation to all schematic thinking of this nature. He firmly rejects what he describes as the Communist effort "to unite all economic entities under the authority of a single monstrous owner … one central voice of reason that deems itself more clever than life itself"; and he accepts without stint the basic necessity of a market economy. But he warns against making a dogma out of the attachment to the free market. The state, too, has its part to play; but this is limited to the establishment by legislation of the rules of the game, to making the usual "macroeconomic decisions," and to formulating clear policies for all those situations in which government finds itself compelled to accept involvement. All this admittedly requires some sort of a master plan, or strategy, the aim of which should be the maximum gradual reduction of precisely this involvement, recognizing, of course, that its total elimination will never be possible.

The chapter "The Task of Independence," which follows, is devoted to the foreign policy of the Czechoslovak state as it existed at the time of Havel's writing (although there is no reason why most of it should not be applicable to the rump "Czech" state by which that older one will presumably be replaced). Not surprisingly, it is a moderate and thoroughly peaceable policy that Havel envisages. It is marked by an eagerness for association with the remainder of Europe through whatever international bodies, whether the European Community or the Council of Europe, or the CSCE, or even NATO, lend themselves to this relationship and this, then, in whatever ways seem possible and promising. Of all this it can only be said, with assurance, that a Europe concerned for its own peace and prosperity will encounter no obstacles in any Czechoslovak or rump Czech state dominated, as either of these would be likely to be, whether or not Havel is in the presidential office, by his ideas and personality.

In his observations on this subject, Havel could not avoid the effort to come to terms with one of the great overarching problems of the international life in the emerging age, which is the tension, everywhere, between the forces of integration and disintegration—this is a problem that embraces not only the restlessness of national minorities within the framework of a larger state but also the struggles of new and small states to find a middle ground between their overpowering longing for the trappings of sovereignty, on the one hand, and the obvious fact, on the other hand, of a degree of real dependence on outside forces that make a mockery of all strivings for total independence. Underlying this entire problem is of course the lack of a suitable intermediary status between that of complete formal subservience of a minority within a larger state, and, on the other hand, its total (but unreal) independence and equality with all other states as a member of the universal UN community. What Havel has to say about Czechoslovakia's relationship to these problems is thoughtful and sensible; but no more than anyone else is he in a position to come up with sweeping and universally applicable and acceptable answers to this most baffling and recalcitrant of contemporary world problems.

The chapter entitled "Beyond the Shock of Freedom" sets forth Havel's vision—a dream he calls it—of Czechoslovakia as he would hope to see it one or two decades hence. The text of this chapter having appeared in somewhat different form in The New York Review of June 25, 1992, under the title "My Dream for Czechoslovakia," there is no need for a recounting of its many features at this point. Suffice it to note that Havel would be the first to deny that what he is presenting is a plausible utopia. He is well aware that his dream could never be realized in its totality:

A heaven on earth in which people all love each other and everyone is hard-working, well-mannered, and virtuous, in which the land flourishes and everything is sweetness and light, working harmoniously to the satisfaction of God: this will never be. On the contrary, the world has had the worst experiences with utopian thinkers who promised all that. Evil will remain with us, no one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions.

But all great statesmanship, as Martin Luther King suggested, must begin with some sort of a dream; and the one Havel describes—the dream of a small people with limited resources that has nevertheless come to terms with its international entourage, its natural environment, and itself—is so far ahead of most of the dreams that have inspired statesmanship in this brutal century that the reader can only acknowledge his respect for the dreamer, even if this means sharing the wistfulness that inspired the dream.

In the first chapter of this book (which I, like the original Czech publisher, have reserved for the end of this discussion) Havel sets forth and defends his effort to move his country, despite the many obstacles that lie across the path, in the direction of his dream. Of the difficulty of the task he has no illusions. He is aware, as few others could be, of the damage done to the moral fabric of Czechoslovak society by decades of Communist abuse. He had made this clear in his earlier writings. But the reality, as observable in the years since the liberation, exceeded his worst fears. What followed upon the removal of the heavy Communist hand was "an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice." Society had indeed freed itself; but in some ways it was behaving "worse than when it was in chains"; and it would take years to develop and cultivate a new moral order.

This, however, in Havel's view, was no cause for despair. "The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle." And he had no doubt that the people at large would be responsive to his effort to create that new order. There was among them a dormant good will that needed only to be touched—that longed in fact to be recognized and cultivated. Nor was there any need for cynicism or deception in the approach to them. Politics was not essentially a disreputable business. There was no ultimate conflict between morality and successful political leadership. Politics as the practice of morality was not easy; but it was possible.

In this moving affirmation of confidence in the decency, the good will, and the latent responsiveness of the common man to responsible leadership there was bound to be, one might suppose, even in a man as little given to outward piety as Havel, a touch of something very close to a religious faith, guarded and undemonstrative, if you will, but none the less since. "Our death," he wrote.

ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere "above us," in what I have called "the memory of Being"—an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is subject. Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed "from above," that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten, and so earthly time has no power to wipe away the sharp disappointments of earthly failure: our spirit knows that it is not the only entity aware of these failures.

Havel denies being a philosopher. He describes himself, instead, as "only an occasional essayist or a philosophically inclined literary man." But what emerges from these pages is a remarkably integral view, and a strongly held one, of many things. And it is surely rare for the president of a modern country, while still in office, to offer the public so unsparing an exposure what one can only call his politically personal philosophy. And what is even more striking still is the elevated quality, morally and intellectually, of philosophy that emerges from this effort. If we look for its origins, we find that they were forged and tempered in the grueling experience of his long personal conflict with a Communist regime (an experience that included some four years in prison), and in persistent effort to understand both that regime and his own people's reaction to it.

Is there not, one wonders, a lesson in this? How much more comfortable and easy it was, by comparison, for leaders of Western societies never touched by the Communist hand to concentrate their heavy-lidded gaze exclusively on the material aspects modern life—such things as economic growth, unemployment, budgetary problems—and to leave the moral condition of society to the public schools, the churches, the commercially dominated mass media. But can this, one asks, go on? Will there not have to be a more determined and structured effort to confront young people with the seriousness of life and its problems, and with the full measure of their responsibility for responding to it, if they are to meet the coming age head-on? These, in any case, are the questions with which at least one reader puts down Havel's book; they suggest that in the writing of it he was serving purposes wider than those of which he was aware.

One cannot leave this subject without a word of recognition for the quality of Paul Wilson's translation. Wilson has been translating Havel's books for several years, and the intimate acquaintance with Havel's thought that this engendered has no doubt been uniquely helpful to him in finding the proper terms for its rendition in another language. The reader, in any case, is grateful for a text of such fluency and naturalness that he is allowed to forget that it is a translation.

Robert Skloot (essay date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: "Václav Havel: The Once and Future Playwright," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 223-31.

[In the following essay, Skloot considers the literary accomplishment of Havel's drama in relation to the works of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett.]

In the short space of a few years, we have been witness to a Havel industry. Images of the Czech playwright-politician appear frequently in the West, and his words are quoted often whenever democrats of all kinds convene. His life is held up as an example of resistance to the tyrant's authority and the terrors of the state, and he is celebrated by those who have suffered brutal indignities as well as by those who have suffered not at all.

In 1992, with the fragmentation of his bipartite nation and the loss of his presidency, the simple fact of his unwavering commitment to human rights and to policies of tolerance and trust has introduced into the politics of the 1990s new spirit of both personal courage and political resolve. The mention of Havel's name is, for most observers, an occasion to chart the possibilities of changing old, repressive, tribal ways for new, humane ones, an exercise all the more needed as neighboring countries hemorrhage in an agony of self-destruction. In this essay, I want to explore the nature of political Havelism by temporarily disengaging it from the newspaper headlines and looking at a number of his plays. In doing so, I want to point out their distinctiveness as well as their problematic aspects and to ask whether, were it not for Havel's political importance, we should attend to (or attend at all) the theater of this astonishingly undramatic actor on the stage of modern history.

One result of Václav Havel's recent celebrity has been references throughout the media to his plays which, it is quite likely, have never been seen or read by most American commentators or journalists. Since 1963, when The Garden Party was first produced, Havel has written four short and five full-length plays which are available in English translation, the language in which I have come to know them, and several others. The remainder of Havel's artistic energy has been expended in political essays and correspondence, the latter including Letters to Olga (published in English in 1988), Disturbing the Peace (in English, 1990) and Summer Meditations (in English, 1992). Havel's plays have been generally neglected by most American theaters. Because the predominant concern of most American theater has been, and continues to be, to provide entertainment for the dwindling numbers of middle-class audiences, Havel is not good "box office." For a while, smaller and "engaged" theaters and a few in universities, will produce Havel's plays as a statement of political solidarity with the momentous changes in European politics. At the same time, they will confirm the feebleness of America's theatrical art to rouse anyone to thought or action.

Aside from its political context, what is the artistic relationship between Havel's plays and those of his contemporaries? Discerning the thread that binds the plays of Czechoslovakia's ex-president to other modern playwrights is important in understanding his theater. One dramatist who comes to mind is Harold Pinter who, not surprisingly, acted in two of Havel's short plays (Audience and A Private View) in 1977 on the British Broadcasting Company. Pinter shares with Havel an interest in how people respond to the space in which they live, particularly the enclosed kind of space which makes Havel's Audience and Largo Desolato reminiscent of Pinter's The Dumbwaiter and, especially, The Birthday Party. In the latter, first produced in 1958, Pinter creates the figure of Stanley, the inarticulate recluse who is, depending on the interpretation of the text in production, destroyed by a thuggish, malevolent society or "birthed" into a culture which may not be as corrupt as it is pragmatically brutal. In fact, such opportunities for interpretation separate Pinter's plays from Havel's. Pinter's plays suffer markedly when they are "located"; Havel's, on the other hand, are conceived within a specific political context which is very difficult to separate out from the texts and their implications. Pinter, who writes in a democracy, is interested in existential freedom and is nonideological in his plays; confinement is a condition of life, not of politics. Trying to make his plays overtly political (as in the presentation of McCann's Irishness in The Birthday Party) restricts and diminishes them.

Havel, who wrote his plays under tyranny, is deeply ideological in both attitude and experience. His plays embody a knowledge of history and are always attached to a context; Pinter's float free and are open to multiple inferences. For Pinter, the threatening "Other" is whoever happens to be the annihilating force of the moment; for Havel, the Other is always the state which may be, depending on the depth of our compromise with its invidious demands, surprisingly benign. Pinter's people talk elliptically, trying to conceal motive and expressing a wide range of psychological subtexts; Havel's people talk ambiguously, seeking to avoid blame or shame, but expressing a very narrow choice of psychological motive. Both writers do create a very powerful sense of the sinister, and Havel's plays may be called, as Pinter's have been, "comedies of menace." Pinter frequently creates a feeling of threat through the use of an enclosed space; Havel often achieves the same effect by including in his plays a character or two, perhaps silent, who represent the omnipresent repressive state, for example Pillar in The Memorandum, the Two Chaps in Largo Desolato, and the Secret Messenger in Temptation.

An even closer theatrical affinity exists between Havel and the English playwright Tom Stoppard, who was born a few months after Havel, also in Czechoslovakia. Kenneth Tynan has written a splendid comparison of the lives, plays and temperaments of the two writers. Suffice to say that the two playwrights share a deep mistrust of all orthodoxy and authority, and an identical delight in the liberating power of satirical language. The beginning of Stoppard's Travesties with its multilingual, arch use of language made both artistic and incomprehensible (to the audience) in the hands (or at the scissors) of Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin reminds us of Havel's invention of Ptydepe, the unlearnable bureaucratic babble of The Memorandum, written in 1965. And, equally important, the "time slips" in Travesties have been an identifying feature of Havel's plays since The Garden Party, a theatrical device where one scene or piece of dialogue is repeatedly replayed, perhaps modified by changing who says a certain speech or who performs the repeated action.

In Stoppard's play, the "slips" are "under the erratic control" of Henry Carr, his irascible curmudgeon of a protagonist, and Carr's frequent narrative recapitulations in the performance of Travesties are intended by Stoppard to be metatheatrical intrusions. Havel uses the technique more as a metaphorical device, apart from character, in order to signal either a world careening out of control (when the words and actions are accelerated), or one denuded of objective meaning, leaving its inhabitants to their meaningless lives. Stoppard has adapted Havel's Largo Desolato, written the introduction to The Memorandum in its English translation, and has dedicated his own brilliant political comedy about life under tyranny in Czechoslovakia, Professional Foul, to Havel. Geographically speaking, Stoppard is the cultural and national bridge between Havel and Pinter since he was born in Czechoslovakia but relocated to England at an early age. Artistically, he has been more prolific and inventive.

The third and even greater influence on Havel, of an entirely continental source, is Eugene Ionesco. With The Bald Soprano, first produced in 1950 and called an "anti-play" by its Romanian-born author, Ionesco began a series of theater pieces extraordinary for their antic humor and complete disregard of what can be called the logical necessities of stage realism. Well into the 1960s, his work endured as one of the dominant influences on European playwriting, and his shadow looms large as a presence in Havel's work. In a brief tribute to Havel, Milan Kundera asserts that

… no foreign writer had for us at that time [the 1960s] such a liberating sense as Ionesco. We were suffocating under art conceived as educational, moral or political …

One cannot conceive of Havel without the example of Ionesco yet he is not an epigone. His plays are an original and irreplaceable development within what is called 'The Theater of the Absurd'. Moreover, they were understood as such by everyone at the time …

Looking at The Garden Party with its loopy dialogue, nonsensical action and its fragmentation of character (by the end of the play, the protagonist Hugo Pludek has assumed a second identity of the same name), or noting the pretentious social chatter and bourgeois accumulations in A Private View, it is impossible not to perceive the Ionesco of The Bald Soprano, The Lesson or Jack, or the Submission, the first two of which were produced by Havel's Theatre of the Balustrade in the early 1960s. And Havel's use of doors in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration and Largo Desolato, in particular as an expression of the intrusions of an erratic, malignant external universe, has Ionesco's type of comic paranoia as its model. Havel, however, adds the political context missing in Ionesco, and Kundera is but one of many observers who see this Absurdism with a political face as a true moment of cultural liberation in the dark history of postwar Czechoslovakian politics.

One additional name must be mentioned in relation to Havel, though not for his structural, scenographic or linguistic similarities. It is a thematic thread that ties Pinter, Stoppard, Ionesco and Havel together with Samuel Beckett who wrote this small Catastrophe in 1983 to commemorate and excoriate (though subtly, minimally) Havel's lengthy and near-fatal imprisonment. This thematic line can be expressed as the well-worn theme of "respect for individual worth and the individual's need for dignity," though it is the unique genius of each of these five artists that keeps this concern meaningful and frequently moving. The painful and occasionally fanciful existence of Pinter's Stanley, of Stoppard's Henry Carr, of Ionesco's Berenger and of Beckett's Gogo and Didi are all images of their creators' devotion to the irreducible minimum of human freedom, and it is no coincidence that all of them in their personal lives (though some more than others and Beckett least of all) have committed themselves to fighting on several fronts for a humane existence for all the world's abused inhabitants.

With his election to the presidency, Havel's career in the theater was suspended, and his political commitments needed to be worked out in the "real world." In this connection, I think of the Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (who took his name from a lesser-known Czech writer of the nineteenth century), for just as Neruda's Nobel Prize was earned for literature, Havel may receive his for peace.

Currently, the great attraction to Havel's writing in the West is extratheatrical, based on its antitotalitarian ideology of tolerance and responsibility, as well as by Havel's personal drama of exemplary courage in the face of oppression. One curious result of recent events in Czechoslovakia is that Havel's political failure now aligns him better with the failure of his plays' protagonists (who share occasional details of a common biography with their author). But if we examine Havel's artistic endeavor apart from his political life, how can we measure his achievement?

Looking at Havel's plays leads even a sympathetic reader to conclude that the stylistic and structural repetitions, for example, the time warps, the repeated gestures and bits of business, the identical dreary "journeys" of the protagonists (Gross in The Memorandum, Huml in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Nettles in Largo Desolato and Foustka in Temptation) show Havel repeating himself too much. Thus, Largo Desolato and Temptation, Havel's last two plays, reveal a continuing preoccupation with outdated theater forms and an inability to drive his thinking or technique into a more moving creative expression than it possessed before the time of his imprisonment in 1979. In his brief tribute to Havel, Timothy Garton Ash assesses the situation thus:

… I still cannot avoid a deeper disappointment. The play [Temptation, produced in 1986 in Vienna], even as Havel has written it, is weak. And it is weak, it seems to me, for reasons directly related to his situation. For a start, the dramaturgy and stage effects envisioned in his very detailed stage directions are stilted, and if not stilted, then dated—all stroboscopes and smoke, circa 1966. Not surprising if you consider that he has been unable to work in the theater for eighteen years.

In 1986, in a culinary metaphor Brecht would have loved and perhaps agreed with. Ash concludes about Temptation "The thing is overcooked."

The comparison to Ionesco now becomes useful, for it has long been noted that the best efforts of Ionesco are the early, short plays like those mentioned above. Absurdist drama, already a historical detail in the postmodern theater and unknown firsthand to anyone under thirty, was most successful when it remained playfully brief. When lengthy, as is Ionesco's work since Exit the King (1962), Absurdism turned turgid and not a little pompous because the fun (often touched with horror) and the spirit of invention was unsustainable. Consider the conclusions of The Garden Party and Temptation, two Havel plays separated by almost a quarter of a century. The former ends with a character hidden inside a large cupboard (eavesdroppers appear in several Havel plays), making a surprising entrance, walking down to the footlights and directly addressing the audience: "And now, without sort of much ado—go home!" For this play, essentially a cartoon, the ending is abrupt, silly and appropriate. But the ending of Temptation, a play that attempts to deal with some of the same themes as The Garden Party (the language of bureaucracy, the description of life without commitment), seems to result from an exhausted imagination that has reached a point of no return, and no advance. The concluding dance which Havel describes as "a crazy, orgiastic masked ball or witches' sabbath" is accompanied by excruciatingly loud music and an auditorium full of smoke. The stage direction reads:

The music suddenly stops, the house lights go on, the smoke fades and it becomes evident that at some point during all this the curtain has fallen. After a very brief silence, music comes on again, now at a bearable level of loudness—the most banal commercial music possible. If the smoke—or the play itself—hasn't caused the audience to flee, and if there are still a few left in the audience who might even want to applaud, let the first to take a bow and thank the audience be a fireman in full uniform with a helmet on his head and a fire extinguisher [a major prop in The Memorandum] in his hand.

Temptation explores in greater measure Havel's major theme of betrayal (by society, of self), but its satirical attack on a world destined to disappear in flames is too discursive and distended, lacking precision or sting. Temptation features the usual Havel touches: repetitive and replayed dialogue or action, long speeches of apology for or exculpation from corruption (Havel's protagonists are frequently compromised intellectuals and/or academics), an environment of bureaucratic timeserving and political cowardice, and ample though insufficient flashes of antic wit. But, unlike Beckett whose work traced an endangered and dying universe with ever greater austerity and concision (including Catastrophe), Havel's proliferating scenic and linguistic excesses provide a smaller payoff.

In Tynan's essay referred to earlier, he discusses Stoppard's difficulty in expressing genuine emotion and in creating convincing female characters. These are Havel's problems too, although in his defense it could be argued that in the kind of comic universe he creates, having either would be unusual. Nonetheless Havel's comic plays, essentially cerebral and objective, exclude the opportunity for the expression of deep, genuine feeling. His world is usually one of evasion and avoidance, like the world of classical farce which it frequently resembles in its dependence on rapid entrances and exits through a multiple number of doors. At his weakest, Havel replaces feeling with activity, providing gestures instead of activated concern. When this occurs, as in the recurrent business with PUZUK the computer in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, the face washing/door slamming of Largo Desolato or second dance sequence of Temptation, the plays lack, in Tynan's phrase, "the magic ingredient of pressure toward desperation."

The most common Havel story (and clearly a political one) involves the increasing pressure of a (male) protagonist to decide whether or not to betray himself or his friends. Mostly, Havel's characters fail the test miserably. But on the way to failure, the plays suggest a way to a true if limited salvation: the involvement in a genuine experience of love with a woman. Thus, in The Memorandum, Gross is attracted to the pure adoration of the office clerk, Maria, but he abandons her at the moment of her greatest need and marches off to lunch with his office staff. That Maria remains "happy" because "nobody ever talked to me so nicely before" does not excuse Gross's avoidance of moral action nor his failure to reciprocate Maria's genuine expression of love toward him. Similarly, at the conclusion of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Huml almost reaches an expressive emotional reciprocity with Miss Balcar who, at one moment in the final scene, is reduced to tears by her need for Huml despite the gassy academic discourse he puts between them. Though he embraces her and kisses her "gently on her tearful eyes," and she exits "smiling happily," it is clear that Miss Balcar will be the fourth of Huml's failures with women in this play and additional proof of his intellectual and political cowardice.

At the end of Largo Desolato, Marguerite arrives to give Leopold Nettles one final chance for rejuvenation through love. "You have given me back the meaning to my life," she tells him, "which is to give you the meaning back to yours." But their intense embrace is interrupted by the doorbell, and a terrorized Nettles leaves her immediately to chase after and to be humiliated by the two sinister chaps who inform him his gesture of "heroism" will no longer be required. Lastly, in Temptation, it is Marketa who serves as the abused image of innocence when her moment of courage in defending Foustka in front of their hostile bosses ends only in her summary dismissal after Foustka's betrayal of her. She returns later in the play dressed and behaving like a lunatic Ophelia, the one serious moment in the "witches' sabbath," but one deprived of tragic resonance because Havel has her return under peculiar circumstances for a last appearance as one of Foustka's tormentors.

In all of these scenes, I sense that Havel is flirting with a way to express a potentially liberating emotional occasion, liberating to his protagonists and to himself as a playwright of satirical political comedies. But in all of them, he deflects the serious tendencies of the characters and himself, preferring to avoid the entanglements of emotion with a disengaged, objective posture. It would be possible to argue that this lack of emotional commitment is the result of the political environment of his country, but I do not believe this is the case. Instead, I see this pattern as a refusal to extend these wonderful comedies into a more profound and troubling territory which would have serious and I think very positive results on Havel's playwriting. Havel turns back to his satire of bureaucratic and academic language in the arias of his cowardly protagonists, preferring the Ionesco "antiplay" to, say, Beckett's "tragicomedy." In this critical context, I would choose the two short pieces Audience and Protest as Havel's most successful plays, although I have a great liking for the stylish, sustained confidence of the comic ironies of The Memorandum. These plays are relatively brief, with all male characters, and emphasize the anguish of moral action and the fallibility of the human character, and are very funny.

In the third of his "Six asides about culture" (1984), Havel compares the Czechs with their northeastern neighbors: "We live in a land of notorious realism, far removed from, say, the Polish courage for sacrifice." I understand Havel to refer to the Polish inclination toward the deathly side of human existence rather than his own Czech appreciation of the dark side of human organizations, and to the Polish strain of fatalism which is outside of and resistant to Havel's satirical assault on the notorious political realism of Czechoslovakia. Havel has yet to write a play as powerful, as, say, Mrozek's Tango, that terrifying exposure of malignant brutality which, it should be mentioned, was adapted for the English stage by Tom Stoppard.

In John Webster's early seventeenth-century tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, the title character confronts her state supported executioners and replies to their murderous threats with an ingenious and unlikely metaphor:

      I know that death hath ten thousand several doors
      For men to take their exits, and 'tis found
      They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
      You may open them both ways.

Havel's stage world until now has had the doors but not the death. His new, resumed life as an ex-president may include an appointment with the theater where, contemplating the murderous world around him, he will be hard pressed to avoid writing pointedly about how countries and peoples die. In his part of Europe the dire situation isn't, or isn't only, a joke.

"… if you must have a revolution," wrote Timothy Garton Ash, "it would be difficult to imagine a better revolution than the one Czechoslovakia had: swift, nonviolent, joyful, and funny. A laughing revolution." This revolution culminated in Havel on the balcony overlooking a huge public square, in Prague's open air, unconfined, and recorded by accredited journalists rather than hidden informers. As president, Havel's voice was aspiring and consoling, simple and moral, a deliberate rejection of the anxious volubility and fussy cowardice of his absurd protagonists. Now it appears that he has been given a new, unwanted freedom so that he may, in the words of the Israeli novelist David Grossman, "hallucinate another kind of future," or perhaps, another kind of play. For a brief political moment, Havel's was the triumph of life over art, though the future may demand otherwise.

Erwin Knoll (review date April 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Poet as President," in Progressive, Vol. 57, No. 4, April, 1993, pp. 40-3.

[In the following review, Knoll offers favorable assessment of Open Letters, Summer Meditations, and Living in Truth. Knoll praises Havel's "literate, profound, and humane essays."]

When I talked with Czechs about Václav Havel during a brief visit to Prague last fall, I was surprised to find that many did not share the esteem and enthusiasm with which their illustrious compatriot is so widely regarded in the West. Havel had just resigned as president of Czechoslovakia so that he would not have to preside over the dissolution of his country. He would return in a few months to head the new, truncated Czech Republic. His symbol-rich exit from the Prague Castle—wearing a T-shirt, carrying a backpack—had made more of an impression elsewhere in Europe (and in the United States) than at home.

Czechs criticized Havel for not fighting hard enough against the breakup, after seventy-four years, of Czechoslovakia. (I heard this, curiously, even from some who claimed not to care about Slovak independence and who said, dismissively. "Let them go!") Other Czechs—or, sometimes, the same ones—complained that Havel had deepened the nation's economic crisis by dismantling much of its arms industry and curtailing overseas weapons sales. And the most virulent attacks focused on Havel's opposition to the "lustration" law that stripped former communist office-holders of their civil rights regardless of whether they had, themselves, engaged in human-rights violations. Czechs who had suffered under the communist regime—though few had suffered more than Havel—simply could not understand his concern for the rights of those associated with their and his former tormentors.

All of this suggested to me that Havel was a decent, thoughtful, generous, and compassionate human being—qualities rarely encountered in those who hold high political office. And I concluded that the Czechs were in the extraordinary, almost unique position of having a leader better than they wanted or deserved.

These impressions were emphatically confirmed by the literate, profound, and humane essays compiled in Havel's Open Letters and Summer Meditations, and in Václav Havel: Living in Truth, which includes six pieces by Havel as well as sixteen appreciative essays by, among others. Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll, Milan Kundera, Arthur Miller, and Tom Stoppard.

The first essay in Open Letters, and the only one out of chronological sequence (it was originally published in 1977), is autobiographical and presents an excellent introduction to the man and his work.

"I do not belong to that fortunate class of authors who write constantly, quickly, easily, and always well, whose imaginations never tire and who—unhampered by doubts or inhibitions—are by nature open to the world." Havel writes. "Whatever they touch, it is always exactly right. That I do not belong in such company, of course, bothers me and sometimes even upsets me: I am ambitious and I'm angry with myself for having so few ideas, for finding it so difficult to write, for having so little faith in myself, and for thinking so much about everything that I often feel crippled by it."

That modest disclaimer notwithstanding, Havel has been remarkably prolific in the last thirty years—though less so while preoccupied by his presidential duties. His plays, with which I am, for the most part, unfamiliar, have been produced to critical acclaim in Europe and the United States. His letters and essays, of which these three collections constitute only a small part, are a formidable body of work.

Though he abandoned early efforts at writing poetry, he still writes as a poet, bringing pellucid insights even to political analysis, and achieving lyricism even while engaging in polemics. Here is Havel in a 1984 essay called "Thriller": "I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no more than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the human spirit. More probably it represents a necessary phase that man and humanity must go through, one that man—if he survives—will ultimately, and on some higher level (unthinkable, of course, without the present phase), transcend."

And here is his compelling argument against censorship, understandably a recurrent theme throughout Havel's work: "A great many people can peck at a typewriter and, fortunately, no one can stop them. But for that reason, even in samizdat [work unofficially circulated underground], there will always be countless bad books or poems for every important book…. But even if, objectively, there were some possibility of selection, who could claim the right to exercise it? Who among us would dare to say that he can unerringly distinguish something of value—even though it may still be nascent, unfamiliar, as yet only potential—from its counterfeit? Who among us can know whether what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time? Who among us has the right to deprive them of that pleasure, no matter how incomprehensible it may seem to us?"

Havel was born in Prague in 1936 and established himself as a dissident and irritant to the Czech state even before Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring of 1968. The earliest essays in Open Letters, "On Evasive Thinking," delivered as a speech to the Union of Czechoslovakian Writers in 1965, ranks with the best of George Orwell's work as an analysis of the use and abuse of political language.

"We never seem to notice," Havel writes, "how suspiciously often what happens—in fact—does not conform to what—according to our prognoses—was to have happened. We know with utter certainty what should happen and how it should happen, and when it turns out differently, we also know why it had to be different. The only thing that causes us trouble is knowing what will really happen. To know that assumes knowing how things really are now. But that is precisely where the catch lies: between a detailed prediction of the future and a broad impression of the past, there is somehow no room for what is most important of all—a down-to-earth analysis of the present."

That isn't just communist Czechoslovakia Havel is describing. As with the work of his compatriot, Franz Kafka, we are stunned by the generalizations we can draw from Havel's particulars.

In 1976, Havel attended the trial in Prague of four musicians from the Czech underground music scene—a travesty he recounts in a furious essay whose title must resonate in Prague: "The Trial." From that point on, Havel's dissidence was irreconcilable. He was a founder of Charter 77, the Czech human-rights movement, and in 1979 he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, during which time he produced letters and commentaries of lasting value. In 1989, he helped found the Civil Forum, the first legal opposition movement in postwar Czechoslovakia, and late that year his Forum colleagues unanimously elected him president.

"It would have been irresponsible of me," Havel writes, "to criticize the communist regime all my life and then, when it finally collapsed (with some help from me), refuse to take part in the creation of something better."

In Summer Meditations, a set of essays written while he was president of Czechoslovakia, Havel grapples with some of the troublesome questions that preoccupied him in this difficult period of transition—the split with Slovakia, the role of the "free market" in his country's emerging economy, the structures of constitutional government, the perpetual tension between politics and morality.

With admirable candor—especially for a chief of state—he agonizes aloud: He is constantly told, Havel says, that he "should be tougher, more decisive, more authoritative. For a good cause I shouldn't be afraid to pound the table occasionally, to shout at people, to try to rouse a little fear and trembling. Yet, if I wish to remain faithful to myself and my notion of politics, I mustn't listen to advice like this—not just in the interests of my personal mental health (which could be seen as a private, selfish desire), but chiefly in the interests of what most concerns me: the simple fact that directness can never be established by indirection, or truth through lies, or the democratic spirit through authoritarian directives. Of course, I don't known whether directness, truth, and the democratic spirit will succeed. But I do know how not to succeed, which is by means that contradict the ends. As we know from history, that is the best way to eliminate the very ends we set out to achieve."

There is only one way, Havel adds, "to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly. I'm aware that, in everyday politics, this is not seen as the most practical way of going about it. But I have one advantage: among my many bad qualities there is one that happens to be missing—a longing or love for power. Not being bound by that, I am essentially freer than those who cling to their power or position, and this allows me to indulge in the luxury of behaving untactically. I see the only way forward in that old, familiar injunction: 'live in truth.' But how is this to be done when one is President?"

This eminently decent citizen—I absolutely believe him when he says he has no longing or love of power—is, of course, capable of error. His grasp of economics is, at best, tenuous. In understandable reaction to the abuses of the communist regime under which he lived and suffered, he has exaggerated expectations of the benefits to be derived from the market—and acknowledges as much. His determination to see the best in his fellow Czechs blinds him, perhaps, to the full ramifications of the worst: the pervasive greed, corruption, chauvinism, and pinched conservatism now on flagrant display in his country.

But Havel's most serious mistake may be the decision he reached, after much private and public self-questioning, to return to the Castle as president of the Czech Republic. "I have been thinking about this decision for a long time," he says in an afterward to Summer Meditations, "and it presents me with a genuine dilemma. There are so many arguments for and against." In the end, the arguments for prevailed—especially the arguments that being president affords him an opportunity to work for his "civil program."

But the news from Prague indicates that right now—and for the foreseeable future—the Czechs need Havel the critic, Havel the pamphleteer. Havel the playwright, Havel the poet, more than they need Havel the president.

"Modern man, that methodical civil servant in the great bureaucracy of the world, mildly frustrated by the collapse of his 'scientific' world view, finally switches on his video recorder to watch Michael Jackson playing a vampire in 'Thriller,' the best-selling videocassette in the history of the world, then goes into the kitchen to remove from a thermos flask—behind the backs of all animal-welfare societies—the still warm heart of a hoopoe. And he swallows it, hoping to have the gift of prophecy conferred on him."

Someone who can write like that has no business wasting his time as president of anything. He needs to devote every available moment to helping all of us understand the human condition.

Peter Majer (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: "Time, Identity and Being: The World of Václav Havel," in Twentieth-Century European Drama, edited by Brian Docherty, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 172-82.

[In the following essay, Majer examines the influence of totalitarian oppression and imprisonment on Havel's existentialist concept of time, individual identity, and the possibility of meaning in his dramatic works.]

In his first speech to the Federal Assembly in Prague (25 January 1990), playwright Václav Havel, in his new role as President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, focused on the phenomenon of time:

In my offices in the Prague Castle, I did not find one single clock. To me, that has a symbolic meaning: for long years, there was no reason to look at clocks, because time had stood still. History had come to a halt, not only in the Prague Castle but in the whole country. So much faster does it roll forward now that we have at long last freed ourselves from the paralysing straitjacket of the totalitarian system. Time has speeded up.

As Guillaume Apollinaire notes, in his poem, 'La Zone', 'les aiguilles de l'horloge du quartier juif vont à rebours'. The clock in the Prague Jewish quarter, at the Jewish Town Hall tower, moves backward, as if symbolising—poetically as well as historically—the absurd movement of time: no longer forward, no longer even static, but really moving back. Czech history has moved back a number of times. The dormant and petrified beauty of Prague, a city described by Franz Kafka as the mother with claws, with its backward-moving clock, with its legends of slumbering knights who would return 'when the time is right', made the theme of Time a central feature of Czech philosophical thinking, traceable in the writings of Comenius, Bernard Bolzano, T. G. Masaryk and, more recently, Jan Patocka.

The dramas of president-philosopher Václav Havel contain many elements which relate directly or indirectly to Time, which in Havel's interpretation is primarily an existential category, in the same sense as viewed by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Martin Heidegger. But to Havel, Time is quite a specific entity. It is more tangible and man-related than Heidegger's Time, which has always a metaphysical, abstract dimension, and relates to existence itself, as expressed in the very title of Heidegger's major philosophical work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), published in 1927.

Heidegger's concept of Time, as interpreted by Jan Patocka (in whose clandestine seminars Havel took part when he wasn't serving a prison term), helped Havel survive some depressing times of isolation. In isolation, be it physical or psychological, time slows down. The very private and inward-looking existence forced upon people by a totalitarian regime which inspires fear of meaningful action and interaction, lest the meaning they produce turns out to be subversive, are the stuff from which Havel weaves his slow-moving but inwardly intense drama. He represents a conflict of the individual struggling with events and human relationships stuck in a time warp. His characters struggle to escape from a cobweb of meaningless events which move predictably and tediously in a closed circle. Their struggle seems equally meaningless to those for whom suspended time has become the only tangible reality, in which they know only how to function, and survive. In Havel's plays, individuals struggle with a world which is grinding to a halt, and that threatens to blur any difference between people and to bring human existence to a fossilised end.

This bleak picture is most poignantly illustrated in Havel's play The Mountain Hotel (1976), whose characters meander in circles, repeating phrases which betray nothing of their individuality or any personal thoughts, and which gradually become interchangeable to a point where personal identity no longer matters and communication becomes impossible. No one listens to anyone and no one expects to be listened to. As if they were all a single character, a hydra-like monster speaking through several mouths, they say the same things, becoming a symbol of uniform repetitive thinking. Any yet, at one point, out of the blue and almost out of character, one of the mouths (Drasar) says:

Isn't it time to break the barriers between us? To take off our conventional masks and open up to one another just a little? We may not realise it but time flies, life is short and your sojourn here flows like water—and before you notice, some of you begin to leave, and those who stay behind feel remorse—unfortunately too late—how little they were able to say to those who are now irretrievably gone, how little they were able to let them know that—in spite of everything—they cared and felt something deeper for them—

Milan Uhde, the playwright and now the Czech Minister of Culture, describes the characters in this play. They are

not people with a past, a present, or an identity, with attributes and relationships. They are sloughing all of these off and one wonders if they ever wore them. The only thing that covers them now are their names. Their actions, their status, careers, destinies, feelings, dreams, dialogues, amours, flirtations, peel off their personalities like a label off a bottle. The labels are interchangeable, the content evaporates. Void is all that remains.

This is a reflection of a deformed social reality as Havel perceives it, a society which extols empty slogans and makes them into yardsticks with which to measure non-existence, often masquerading under the banner of bizarre ideological facades.

In this kind of world, one might as well be in prison. Havel was offered a choice between prison and exile. As if to discover for himself the meaning of life separated from time, to clarify, as he calls it, the 'naked values', timeless and eternal, which would give human existence a meaning in any circumstances, any conditions, Havel chose prison. In his letters from prison to his wife, Havel writes:

I think a great deal about the meaning I should give to the prison years which I am facing. Last time, I wrote about the possibility that it might lead—if I manage it well—to an overall psychological and mental reconstruction of myself. Why do I believe that? In recent years, I have lived rather an odd, unnatural, exclusive existence, as if in a glasshouse. That is going to change now. I shall be one of many small and powerless ants. I shall in a sense be returning to the old times, thrown into the world in a similar way I was when I worked as a lab assistant, as a stage-hand, or when I was a soldier or a student. I shall be a mere number, I shall be one of many and no one will expect anything of me or take any special notice of me. For some people outside, I shall probably be an 'institution,' but I shall know nothing about it, I shall live in a different world with different problems. This return to the earlier existential situation—a situation in which I thrived best and in which I also created most—might help me with this inner reconstitution which I spoke about last time (losing my stiffness and lack of self-confidence, stop seeing myself through the eyes of others who expect something from me, give up my nervousness, self-doubt, etc.) One of the specific things I might do is to start writing more for the theatre again—as an observer of 'the theatre of the world' …

Serving time in prison and attempting to reconstruct Time internally helped Havel focus on the deformations of time existing in the world outside. For Havel as a playwright, the static cobweb of Czech totalitarian tedium was the framework within which drama was created by the two clashing concepts of time, with a predictable end: whatever happens, whatever action an individual might take, round in circles he goes. For Havel as a philosopher and politician, the unpredictable and exciting events of November 1989 provided the explosion through which compressed time burst out with speed and confusion, and which required a playwright to take charge. Too many suppressed dramas were now writing themselves out and needed to be harnessed. And an observer cannot escape the impression that, just as Havel the playwright once struggled to speed time up, Havel the statesman may now be struggling, if not to slow time down, then at least to channel the millions of accelerated personal dramas into a coherent dramatic shape.

Focus and purpose, which Havel has been trying to give his confused nation, are to him not merely a philosophical concept, but a specific entity linked to a restoration of individual identity lost in years of meaningless, mechanised, uniform patter and prescribed action. Years in which people could lose their sense of identity to a point when they could end up visiting themselves, like Pludek in The Garden Party (1963).

The threat to identity is real in any political system, so much more so in a totalitarian one. Havel's The Garden Party has two absurd organisations, whose job is to ensure loss of identity: the liquidation department and the commencing service. Between them, they make people blend into each other and gradually liquidate them by making them indistinguishable. Uniformity is the ideal, exceptions are out. When the play's protagonist, Pludek, becomes director of both institutions, even the institutions themselves blend into each other and become indistinguishable. Their activities are an Orwellian pretence, a cover-up of some mysterious activity which is the opposite of what the institutions claim to stand for.

Similarly, The Memorandum (1965) takes us to an unspecified office where scientists are mere officials and administrators pretending to be engaged in scientific experiments, exchanging repetitive meaningless banalities. Havel further foregrounds this pseudo-reality of pretence and camouflage by their concern with an artificial language—'Ptydepe', which destroys universal human values by depriving people of the ability of communicate anything sensible, and by stripping words of their meaning.

In most of his plays, Havel deals with the issue of 'The Inner Lie' and the possibility of dismantling it, be it a self-deception or deception about the world. However, many of his characters simply refuse to find out anything about themselves, to identify who they are. In The Garden Party, Hugo Pludek's father, when asked who exactly he is, replies with dismay: 'I? Who am I? Look. I don't like such one-sided questions. I really don't!'

In their search for identity Havel's heroes get entangled in situations of existential conflict with established social structures. They need to defend their identity, if for no other reason, then at least to come to terms with, and to be able to survive in, a totalitarian society. Those who do not defend their identity often end up like the protagonists of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968), where a conflict occurs when two sets of 'scientists' meet and make each other's work impossible. They are mainly clerks or bureaucrats or scientists from a variety of ephemeral institutes and establishments, who carry out their activity with enthusiasm but without any results. Everything degenerates into personal and sexual relationships between secretaries and bosses, superiors and their staff.

Havel returns to the atmosphere of pseudo-science of his earlier plays in his more recent work, Temptation (1985). Temptation presents a renowned scientist, Dr Foustka, tempted by the devil. Foustka is one of those scientists engaged in unspecified work for an institution with unspecified purpose. His job is to protect and supervise the 'scientificality of science' and guard it against any infiltration by unscientific irrationality. But Foustka dabbles in the esoteric, the occult and the magical, so his encounter with the devil is only a matter of time, and to fall into the devil's, claws means never to be able to get out again. The devil, here, functions as a system from which there is no escape. Foustka's identity has to be defended in conflicts with his boss and colleagues, in an atmosphere of fears and anxiety, seeping through from outside.

The Faustian theme, which Havel knew as early as 1977 (at the inception of Charter 77), had by then acquired a specific Czech significance. In the Czech predicament of that time, the inept and comic devils were personified by interrogators and supervisors. In order not to lose himself, not to betray those he represented or ideals he believed to be true, Havel, like his protagonist, Foustka, had to strive for personal integrity or, in Heidegger's terms, authenticity, truthfulness, and loyalty to one's true self. He had to struggle to preserve his identity in the face of the devil, in the face of temptation by evil. Evil was seen as loss of identity, through collaboration with, or connivance at, the dehumanising machinery of totalitarianism, and was to be fought. Pressure to conform in return for relative comfort had to be resisted. All these became issues of everyday existence, not only for characters in dramas, but also for individuals in Czech society.

In this situation, drama becomes a way of expressing and defining models of existential conflicts resembling simulated situations in experimental psychology. An illustration of a psychological premise in specific human situations is often carried ad absurdum.

The absurdity of totalitarian politics is parodied in Havel's play Conspirators (1970), where general prosecutor Dykl describes the new candidate for the dictator's job, Colonel Moher, with these words: 'Let me be frank. His awful self-confidence scares me. He considers all his decisions automatically correct, however many proofs one may present of his errors. Or take his dreadful implacability. I am an old veteran but I must say that when he described how severely he was going to deal with the students, he scared the daylights out of me. Imagine a situation when practically all power is concentrated in his hands.' Major Ofir replies: 'His measures are, admittedly, often somewhat harsh. But what matters is that his goals are beneficial.' Dykl: 'Forgive me, Major, but history will not judge our intentions but only and solely our deeds. We may repeat a hundred times that we are building a new and more humane world. But what will all this mean when the imprints of our blood-stained hands cry out from every single stone of our glorious edifice.'

Havel makes a direct attempt to decode and identify the absurd features of totalitarian pseudo-government in The Beggars' Opera (1975), linking it with criminality which does not stop short of murder. The city chief in the play is, at the same time, chief of all gangsters. Whoever leads a gang must also report to the police, and the chief of police runs the entire criminal network. He does, to be sure, solve some crimes and prosecute some criminals, but does not forget to use this to enrich himself and strengthen his personal power.

Such a deformed society induces a crisis of awareness of the meaning and purpose of life and the world, and leads to a dissipation of human identity. Man goes on living merely as a robot. Havel's dramas, in his own view, carry the dissipation of identity into 'a dismemberment of the dramatic character, suspension of time and absence of a coherent story on which an identity of a character could assert itself. Time loses its human dimension, comes to a halt or runs around in a circle.' Events do not connect or relate to each other any more, and are not heading towards a solution or conclusion. Man, instead of being their creator, becomes their powerless victim. In the dismemberment of the storyline into disconnected elements which do not match, traditional drama, as a sequence of time, disappears. It becomes, as it has in Havel's plays, a psychodrama—a conflict of psychological states rather than real characters.

Havel's early plays, such as The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, can be seen as an updated illustration of Existentialist philosophy, a philosophy of a man on the run. Havel's Existentialism, however, is returning to humanism steeped in a passionate desire to make sense out of absurdity. The running man will soon have nowhere left to run, he has to seek certainty within himself by reclaiming and accepting responsibility for his actions, and even for events which he might have thought were not of his own doing. Hence the often repeated claim, in his addresses to his fellow citizens: 'We all have our share of responsibility. All of us carry totalitarianism within ourselves.'

With the Soviet invasion, in 1968, and Jan Palach's death a few months later, the political climate changed drastically. For Havel, it meant that he could no longer maintain his ironic distance. He wanted to scream rather than laugh. If, in his earlier plays, he had been ironically modelling the totalitarian machine, he was now becoming vitally interested in the destiny of the human individual crushed under its wheels.

The philosophy of integrity and responsibility is what informs his later plays and what gives them the shape of Socratean dialogues. In the 'Vanek Plays', Havel introduces the protagonist, who serves as a catalyst, bringing to the surface and exposing the existential dilemmas of his environment. Often silent and self-doubting, Vanek is a kind of a modern Socratic character leading his co-players, but also readers and viewers, to clarify the nature of their 'presence in the world'. By his very presence, Vanek challenges basic ethical categories of human responsibility and integrity.

Havel's meticulously constructed plays are not always easy to decode, and the level of abstraction often makes identification and empathy with individual characters impossible. The Vanek plays—The Audience in particular—enjoyed international success, perhaps mainly because they clearly drew on Havel's personal experience, presenting real and tangible situations and characters.

Prison may have damaged Havel's health, but it did, as he acknowledges, wake him up from understandable lethargy and laziness to systematic and serious philosophical work. Having experienced, in prison, the Sartrean 'Hell is being with others', he could no longer satisfy himself with Sartre's intellectual 'roads to freedom', but had to reach for concrete tangible freedom, for himself and his nation, for which he felt responsible.

Havel used his prison time to search for his inner self, identity, individuality. In a letter to Olga, no. 13, he writes:

You may find it odd that prison of all places should serve me for a self-reconstitution, but I truly believe that cut off for a longer period of time from all ties which I myself turned into limitations, I could gain inner freedom and a new sovereignty. This is not, of course, merely a revision of my view of the world, my aim is a better fulfillment of the tasks imposed on me by the world—as I see it. I do not want to change myself but be myself in a better way. This may resemble somewhat the hopes with which Dostoyevsky's heroes go to prison—but in my case, it is not so pathetic, so absurd, or so religious …

Largo Desolato (1984) bears the mark of Havel's experience of life in prison and of interrogations leading to it. Its main character is a man who falls victim to fabricated accusations, an intellectual whose identity is destroyed by the whims of officialdom, by a power system which wears him down and makes him not just its victim but also its co-creator. However steadfastly the hero, philosopher Kopriva, may hold to his intellectual integrity, he remains unable to maintain human relationships.

Havel is not just a playwright dealing with philosophical questions, but a philosopher in his own right. His plays, which started as jolly and absurd comedies, Ionesco style, gradually turned into modern Socratean philosophical dialogues. In them, however, wisdom is not imparted by a teacher to a student, but discovered in the course of a lonely character's conflict with a world whose reality does not match its established description.

To Havel, the appearance of absurd drama—which has also been referred to as 'anti-drama'—is a result of living under stress, with no obvious way out. Remove the stress and drama is set in motion anew, returning to its classic story shape. With no way out, Havel searches for a way in—a rediscovery of his identity which would no longer depend for its creation on external circumstances but could start creating itself from its own resources. From the discovery of a higher, timeless and self-generating dimension of Being, which Havel believes is present in man's inner self in any circumstances, comes that which removes the stress of absurdity. The rediscovery of a man's intrinsic higher identity is, to Havel's philosophical thinking, absolutely essential for any serious and systematic creative work. It is that which brings about the integration of the dissipated elements of man—and thus generates meaningful action.

One of the principal philosophical problems for Havel is probably the very concept of Being, which was the pivotal issue with all existentialists, Heidegger in particular. But Heidegger, or other existentialists, never presented a precise definition of the concept of Being. Havel felt a need to define it. While Heidegger's approach is focusing on the awareness of death, on 'Sein zum Tode' (Being towards Death), Havel affirms life as the absolute horizon and parameter of Being, including the human individual. Being as a philosophical issue is very much present in his later letters from prison. Havel writes:

The orientation of Being as a state of the spirit can also be interpreted as faith: a man oriented towards Being has profound faith in life, the world, morality, a purpose of things and of himself: his attitude to life is accompanied by hope, awe, humility and spontaneous respect for its mystery.

Havel is not only trying to define this concept in the context of awareness, consciousness, thinking, but also as a reflection of the spirit. He writes, 'What exactly is spirit, a reflection of consciousness? I would say that this dimension of "self" can be seen as a certain "duplication" of Being.'

The awareness of Being, which, for Havel, may be given any name including God, is a gradual integrative process, completing man inwardly and enabling him to reach self-realisation. It is an essential need of any man to aspire to his inner integrity, an ability to find within himself the very essence of Being, and identify with it.

Havel's entire work, dramatic, philosophical and political, is permeated with a desire to set things right, to rectify the absurdity of the world he lives in. To free the individual from lies, from meaningless phrases, from enforced pretence. He struggles against all that is shallow, vague and false in human relations. His quest is to help create a society in which individuals will again desire to understand each other, tolerate each other's shortcomings and forgive each other's mistakes and lapses. He refuses to be the judge of his persecutors because he knows that they, as tiny screws in a dehumanised machine, did not know any better.

His life as a writer, philosopher and statesman is an attempt to realise the utopian vision of a world where, in the words of a 1989 revolution poster, 'truth and love shall triumph over lie and hate'.

Jude R. Meche (essay date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: "Female Victims and the Male Protagonist in Václav Havel's Drama," in Modern Drama, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 468-76.

[In the following essay, Meche discusses the role of subordinate or victimized women in Havel's drama as a symbolic foil for deficient male protagonists.]

Václav Havel's recent rise to political power in the now-dissolved Czechoslovak Republic has only confirmed some critics' contentions that Havel's dramatic works are all basically political in origin and theme. These critics' beliefs are supported by some striking similarities in many of Havel's plays; the bureaucracies that are often seen as thinly veiled representations of totalitarian regimes, for example, are present in or alluded to in all of Havel's major works beginning with The Garden Party (1963) and ending with Temptation (1985). But while the existence of these bureaucratic systems and the protagonists' struggle to retain their personal identity in their dealings with such systems may suggest a political theme, they by no means limit Havel's plays to political matters. The appeal of Havel's plays in the West—especially in the United States, where threats of totalitarianism are distant—seems to suggest that these works hold within themselves something beyond their political content, something capable of capturing the attention of a large portion of the Western hemisphere.

Martin Esslin offers perhaps a better perspective to Havel's plays (or at least one that is better able to explain the playwright's international popularity) when he identifies Havel as an absurdist. Esslin's absurdist playwrights strive to express "the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought"; and indeed, Havel injects a multitude of contradictions and paradoxes into his plays, seemingly to express this very idea. And alongside these paradoxes and contradictions, Havel's works also mercilessly employ repetitions of words and actions. The end result of these techniques is a world—often centered around scientific or business affairs—where the human is remote or even alien; and it is in such a world that Havel's protagonists confront the absurd in the guise of bureaucracy and inner-office power struggles. For Hugo Pludek, Josef Gross, Leopold Nettles, or any of Havel's other heroes, the seemingly-arbitrary rise and fall of fortune is akin to Sisyphus's meaningless but interminable struggles to roll a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down. Unfortunately, the protagonists in these dramatic works fail to face the absurd with the heroic acceptance that Camus attributes to Sisyphus. In The Garden Party, for instance, Hugo's "swift career is … realized at the expense of his personality," and Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz describes this loss of individuality as a fall from humanity: "Hugo has become a talking machine, a robot, repeating language which has become independent of its user. He has become a well-functioning particle in a system."

Havel's other protagonists, like Ionesco's rhinoceroses, also abandon their humanity or compromise themselves to become more easily assimilated into the inhuman bureaucracy that surrounds them. However, if Havel's heroes are not representative of the human in these plays, questions concerning whether such a representative exists and who such a figure would be follow logically. In searching for answers to these questions, Havel's viewer quickly finds that the only figures who consistently stand in contrast to the absurdity of the dramatist's bureaucracies are his female characters, particularly his secretaries.

In his own life, Havel seems to find an element of innate humanity in women. Certainly, his wife serves almost as an anchor, in Letters to Olga, to keep him connected to the normal, human world outside of his prison routine of work and interrogation. And Phyllis Carey identifies as the climactic catharsis of Letters to Olga one moment when, while Havel is watching television in prison, the television studio's sound equipment fails and "[a]n anonymous television weather-woman realizes with great embarrassment … that her words are not being heard." Carey notes that

The woman's vulnerability bespeaks naked human existence, which evokes compassion from those who are no less vulnerable. The picture of the mute human trying futilely to make contact from the machine-prison becomes a remarkable image for a great deal that Havel is trying to convey about human responsibility in a desensitized world.

Of course, Havel's female characters do not, like Olga, have fully fleshed-out identities. Havel's females are much closer to the two dimensional image that Havel views in prison (though a number of his female characters precede his experience with the mute weather-woman). As is often typical in absurdist plays, these human shells are not meant to be actual human beings; instead, they are part of "concrete stage images," to use Esslin's words, meant only to represent an abstract mood, situation, or idea. Havel's women are such characters. They respond to kind acts and kind words with love; they become willing to help or protect those they love, even if such assistance violates the laws of the synthetic world in which they are placed. Inevitably, these female characters are punished (literally or figuratively) for violating bureaucratic procedures; and/or worse, their love for the male protagonist is unrequited since he has by now assimilated himself into the bureaucracy he has initially struggled against. These actions or slight variations of these actions occur again and again throughout Havel's earliest works as well as in Largo Desolato (1984) and Temptation.

The first of Havel's female characters to follow or approximate this scheme is the Secretary in The Garden Party. This Secretary, who lacks a name and is only identifiable by her title, is tending to her duties at the Liquidation Office's garden party until Falk brings up the subject of love. Prior to this, as Paul I. Trensky observes, each character (with the exception of Hugo) has a "particular lingo": "The language of the [Clerk and Secretary] is characterized by excessive literariness. Both speak as if they were citing a prepared text; their language is dry, precise and complex." However, when love arises as a topic of conversation and when the Clerk and Secretary interpret Falk's praises of love ("a bloody useful thing—so long as one knows how to latch on to it" [Garden Party]) as a suggestion that they should try love, their language begins to fall apart:

CLERK I say, sparrows are flying—the boss mlossoms—the meadows are a-humming—

SECRETARY Oh, I see—nature!

CLERK Yes. Well now. You have hair! It's pretty—gold—like buttercrumbs—I mean buttercups—and your nose is like a rose—I'm sorry—I mean like a forget-me-not—white—

SECRETARY Look—a sparrow!


SECRETARY It's flying!

CLERK And you have breasts.


CLERK Two—like two—like two—two little founts—(Pause.) I'm sorry—I mean footballs—like two footballs, that's what I meant to say—sorry—

SECRETARY That's all right—go on—

Trensky calls this dialogue "a grotesque demonstration of their emotional bankruptcy," but as "grotesque" and utterly pathetic as the Clerk's advances are, the Secretary welcomes them. This "love affair" progresses to further levels of intimacy, which the Clerk sums up for Falk:

we exchanged various facts from our private lives—we threw pine cones at each other—we tickled each other—nudged each other—tried to throw each other off balance—I pulled my colleague the Liquidation Secretary by the hair—my colleague the Liquidation Secretary bit me—but all just in fun, you know! Then we showed each other various peculiarities of our persons—we both found it very interesting—and we also touched each other—and, finally, we even called each other by our first names a few times!

Unfortunately for the Secretary, the Clerk quickly loses interest in love when he learns that the Inauguration Service is to be "liquidated." And when he turns their conversation to speculations about how the liquidation is to be carried out, she becomes distraught. Further, when the Clerk encourages her with "Be glad it's all over," she "begins to sob" and runs toward the exit. This disappointed sobbing is to occur again in later plays.

In contrast to this Secretary, who develops genuine human feelings, the Clerk and Hugo show badly. The Clerk clearly has no interest in anything remotely human; he prefers the sterile procedures of the Inauguration Office's bureaucracy. Hugo's transformation, though, is inversely proportional to the Secretary's. As she becomes more human, as she begins to experience love, Hugo loses any humanity that he had at the play's opening. When Hugo returns home, for example, he does not realize that he has entered his own home nor does he realize that he is in search of himself. He is seemingly so transformed that not even his parents recognize him upon his return. In contrast to Hugo's loss of humanity, the Secretary's failed love affair—though bringing the Secretary grief—reveals her as a character conscious of her emotions and, in this most basic way, human.

While the Secretary in The Garden Party reveals Hugo's inhumanity by way of a juxtaposition with her ability to love, Maria in The Memorandum shows Josef Gross to be another failure as a human being. This time, though, Havel's protagonist is directly involved with the secretary and, this time, it is Gross who disappoints the female character and ruins her professional prospects. Havel's change in tactics from simple juxtaposition of characters to direct involvement between Gross and Maria serves to better reveal Gross's loss of interest in non-professional human affairs and relationships after he again acquires the Director's chair. Ironically, her translation of Gross's typed memo makes his second rise to power possible, and Maria voluntarily performs this act despite the distinct possibility that she will be punished for it.

Of course, Maria's willingness to risk termination in translating the memorandum does nothing to condemn Gross; her willingness only testifies to her courage and sympathy for a fellow human being in need. Gross condemns himself by not only "abandon[ing] her at the moment of her greatest need" but by excusing himself from this debt with a wave of self-important rhetoric. He explains:

Dear Maria! We're living in a strange, complex epoch. As Hamlet says, our "time is out of joint." Just think, we're reaching for the moon and yet it's increasingly hard for us to reach ourselves; we're able to split the atom, but unable to prevent the splitting of our personality; we build superb communications between the continents, and yet communication between man and man is increasingly difficult…. Dear Maria! You can't begin to guess how happy I would be if I could do for you what you've just asked me to do. The more am I frightened therefore that in reality I can do next to nothing for you, because I am in fact totally alienated from myself….

The twentieth-century alienation of man from his fellow man is no more a reason to refuse Maria's plea than is Hamlet's lamentation directed at the twentieth century. Of course, Gross is correct in blaming his alienation from himself as the reason for his refusal, but the Director's awareness of the problem may just as easily make his behavior toward Maria more hateful as it is capable of excusing his actions. And finally, Robert Skloot adds: "[t]hat Maria remains 'happy' because 'nobody ever talked to me so nicely before' does not excuse Gross's avoidance of moral action nor his failure to reciprocate Maria's genuine expression of love toward him."

Havel's next major work, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, provides yet another variation on the same male/female situation. While Hugo Pludek and Josef Gross lose themselves in the machinations of their respective bureaucracies, Dr. Eduard Huml drowns in the growing complexity of his private life; but oddly, this complexity is caused by Huml's own womanizing. Huml is married, but he also has a mistress. Meanwhile, he makes repeated, violent sexual advances to his secretary Blanka. Finally, toward the play's end, he embarks upon a fourth romantic entanglement with Miss Balcar. Huml's wife, to complicate matters, is aware of Renata, her husband's mistress, and continually prods him to break off his relationship with her. At the same time, Renata urges Huml to take action and leave his wife. Through the course of the play, Huml quickly goes from woman to woman while events speed up and Huml becomes increasingly confused, using the same pet names and the same lines of dialogue for all four women.

Eventually, Huml begins to alienate these women. Renata complains that her lover never says anything tender to her, and when Huml protests that he only lacks the "imagination" to say "big words," Renata exclaims "I'm a fool, I really am!" running from the stage in tears. Later Mrs. Huml makes a similar complaint about Huml's lack of "one kind word" and then laments that Huml never kisses her neck. She then uses the exact words to her husband that Renata uses in frustration with him: "I'm a fool, I really am!"

Huml's advances to his secretary are less emotional and more primitive than his dealings with either his wife or his mistress. Repeatedly, Huml stops his dictation, staring strangely at her turned back. And after a pause.

HUML leaps towards BLANKA, falls on his knees, grabs her shoulders and tries to kiss her.[…]

A short struggle ensues…. BLANKA resists, finally she gives him a push," HUML loses his balance and falls down. (intervening stage direction and outcry from Blanka omitted)

This scenario occurs repeatedly throughout the course of the work. And like his dealings with Renata and his wife, Huml's dealings with Blanka reveal the protagonist's inability to function normally on either an emotional or sexual level. His advances are almost attempts at rape, primal in nature and lacking any civilized human finesse. Further emphasizing the primal nature of Huml's attacks is their spontaneity. Like rapes, they occur without any clear reason or provocation.

Finally, Huml's dealings with women return to a more civilized though no less inept level with Miss, actually Dr., Balcar. Huml devastates her with a long and rhetorical speech against her career as a social scientist in which he argues the impossibility of ever understanding man "even a little." Miss Balcar responds to this attack with tears, and Huml responds in turn with a recantation and gentle sexual advances. "HUML watches her for a moment in some embarrassment, then he quickly approaches her, takes her gently in his arms and begins to stroke her hair." This embrace leads to several kisses and then to "passionate kissing." As he does with Blanka, Huml reveals, through his actions, a seeming inability to deal with women in any way other than as sexual objects. He is embarrassed and seemingly puzzled about what he should do since he has hurt Miss/Dr. Balcar. The only solution he can devise is to treat her the same way as he treats the other women in his life; he sets out to seduce her.

Indeed, Edward Huml reveals his limited ability to behave in a genuinely human manner by his consistently uncivilized treatment of the four female characters in the play and by contrast with them. On the other hand, Leopold Nettles in Largo Desolato shows his withdrawal from humanity and his ensuing lack of social skills through the difficulty he experiences in maintaining a successful emotional relationship. As Huml's four female companions suffer from his lack of humanity, so Lucy suffers in Largo Desolato because of Nettles's similar deficiency. Lucy sacrifices herself to rebuild Leopold, and she admits, "Everything I've done for us I've done freely and willingly, I'm not complaining and I don't want anything in return." However, Lucy does complain; she is clearly not happy with the state of their relationship; and immediately after protesting that she wants nothing, Lucy adds "I only want you to admit what is true," that she and Leopold are lovers. Leopold recoils from this request, though. In fact, he recoils from anything having to do with human emotions, failing to start work on his highly academic treatise which argues the thesis "that love is actually a dimension of being—it gives fulfillment and meaning to existence." Indeed, Leopold appears to be an even worse case than Huml, for Huml at least seeks out physical love. Leopold is repulsed by public acts of love. And in contrast, Lucy's openness and her aggressive efforts to strengthen Leopold through love testify to her acceptance of this emotion and all of its consequences. The contrast between Lucy and Leopold, for instance, is especially evident as Lucy promises to "unblock" Leopold, "embrac[ing]" him and "kiss[ing] his face." During Lucy's embraces and promises, "LEOPOLD sits perplexed and remains quite passive."

Lucy's efforts, though, lead to the same fate as befalls many of Havel's other female characters: tears. She realizes that Leopold is worse off than she believed. Saying, "All this talk—it's nothing but excuses!" She confronts him with the fact that he is a hopeless case. Leopold again shows his unwillingness to help her when she is detained by both the First Man and the Second Man. He fails to act on her behalf or even to visit her after her release, claiming: "I can't possibly leave here!" And finally, Leopold reaffirms his failed character by abandoning his second love when, "terrorized," he "chase[s] after and [is] humiliated by the two sinister chaps who inform him his gesture of 'heroism' will no longer be required."

Most likely, he would, like Josef Gross, excuse these failures because

In reality I've had the feeling for some time now that something is collapsing inside me—as if an axis holding me together has started to break—the ground crumbling under my feet—I lack a fixed point from which everything inside me could grow and develop—I get the feeling sometimes that I'm not really doing anything except listening helplessly to the time going by.

Like Havel's other protagonists, Leopold suffers from a loss of identity. Not only has he lost the drive to continue his work, he has also lost, seemingly, a part of his humanity, as is obvious first in contrast to Lucy and later in contrast to Marguerite's hope and optimism that she might save him.

Havel incorporates this male/female relationship into Temptation, his version of the Faust myth. In fact, Goetz-Stankiewicz observes that the secretary Marketa fits perfectly "in the tradition of Goethe's Gretchen," and that Havel appears to take advantage of the character's appearance in Goethe's Faust play as an opportunity to again juxtapose the male protagonist who compromises his soul to the innocent woman who retains a basic element of humanity. Indeed, Dr. Henry Foustka's seemingly sincere discussion of "moral action" strikes a chord in Marketa. She exclaims: "Yes, yes, that's exactly how I've felt about it all my life!," and believing that Foustka is as moral as she is and as he appears to be, she falls in love with him, declaring to him that she would "rather be ruined with you and live the truth than be without you and live a lie!" Havel's protagonists, though, never choose to live in truth, and Foustka is no exception. Like his predecessors, he offers no help to the woman who has, ironically, sacrificed herself in defense of him. He simply lets her lose her position. The only difference is that, on this occasion, the audience witnesses the consequences of Foustka's actions, for Marketa later reappears as a lunatic Ophelia.

However, the greater tragedy in this work comes as Foustka loses his moral compass, manipulating truth for his own benefit. Such actions are despicable enough, but when Foustka's morally-barren efforts to retain his position are contrasted to Marketa's honest words prior to her termination, Havel again succeeds in further disgracing his male protagonist while retaining a model of truth for his audience to celebrate and (possibly) emulate.

Throughout these works, Havel exhibits an amazing consistency in his presentation and use of secretaries and victimized female characters as foils to his male protagonists. As far as the reason Havel uses female characters as representative examples of fully-functioning human beings (in contrast to his deficient protagonists), one might only speculate. Certainly, if Havel is working on a somewhat symbolic level as he appears to be, a female character might be an appropriate choice because—archetypically—women are viewed as more nurturing and more likely to show their emotions. Whether such archetypal perceptions are true seems to be of little concern to Havel, for he deals not in fully developed female characters but—like many absurdists—in concrete representations of abstract concepts. Similarly, Havel's frequent use of females in secretarial roles might be explained (in addition to matters of setting and the status of women when these plays were written) by the low status of the secretary in bureaucracies and in relation to the male protagonist. The secretary is a person who can be taken advantage of by the protagonist. Treatment of his underlings becomes yet another facet of the comprehensive test of his humanity that Havel sets before him. Indeed, Havel appears to make much use of the contrasts that he repeatedly establishes between male protagonists and their female foils.

Walter H. Capps (essay date Fall 1997)

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SOURCE: "Interpreting Václav Havel," in Cross Currents, Vol. 47, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 301-16.

[In the following essay, Capps examines Havel's artistic and philosophical development in the context of Czechoslovakian intellectual tradition and contemporary politics.]

Though the intellectual and academic worlds haven't caught full sight of it yet, we are standing on the threshold of a new era in thought, idea, and cultural construction. This new era has been made possible by the ending of a prolonged Cold War, and the sudden, unexpected opportunity to learn how the people of Eastern bloc nations sustained themselves culturally and spiritually during the time of their subjection to totalitarian forces. For most of the Cold War period, philosophical and artistic expression in Marxist countries was neither widely known nor acknowledged in the western world. Since the appropriate evidence was not readily available, it was too easy to assume that not much of significance was happening.

Yet, one can quickly appreciate how untrue such an assumption is. Human nature being human nature, there is never a time or circumstance that does not produce ideas or cultural expressions. Indeed, many of the most profound ideas and the most stirring expressions have been created during times of greatest social, political, and economic unrest, and by those who were the most seriously affected. We learn about the character of the struggles of the time, for example, through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," Nelson Mandela's autobiography, the Diary of Anne Frank, the testimony of dissidents, and the literature of marginality. And when the portion of the world that is now being referenced deserves to be called the "new Europe," one recognizes that the social, cultural, religious, and intellectual fallout is of significant proportions and dimensions.

Of course, a single essay cannot attempt a comprehensive sketch of pertinent developments in Eastern Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, not to mention Bosnia, and the provinces of the former Soviet Union. But we can focus attention on one of these places, namely, the Czech Republic, knowing that the other regions can also boast of important and exciting occurrences and developments. In this essay we wish to focus specifically on the intellectual and political life in the city of Prague, prior to the successful "velvet revolution" of 1989—a subject that is magnetized by another remarkable piece of prison literature, namely, Václav Havel's Letters to Olga—and then to give consideration to Havel's thought and vision for politics.

Prague's Intellectual Life during the Cold War

It is difficult to imagine what was transpiring in the city of Prague during Soviet occupation. But we do know something about how intellectual freedom survived, and how it was advanced. For clues I am indebted to the insight and analysis of the late Ernest Gellner, Prague-born Cambridge University philosopher, who, at the time of his death, was the director of the Center for the Study of Nationalism at the new Central European University in Prague, and whose most recent book is Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (1994). My thinking on these matters has also been influenced by Dinko Tomasic and Stjepan G. Mestrovic, whose work is referenced in Mestrovic's highly provocative Habits of the Balkan Heart: Social Character and the Fall of Communism (1993), which builds its case in brilliant conversation with Alexis de Tocqueville, Thorstein Veblen, Erich Fromm, David Riesman, Robert N. Bellah, and Seymour Martin Lipset. Also supporting Mestrovic's analysis are the writings of Friedrich Tonnies, and, in particular, Tonnies's distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, as this is the central focus of Tonnies's Community and Society. But I am following Gellner's analysis because it is compatible with that offered by Václav Havel (b. 1936), the famous playwright and essayist, who currently serves as president of the Czech Republic.

The sequential development can be traced and sketched. Prague is invaded in 1968 when the Soviet tanks come rumbling into the city and make their indomitable presence felt in Wenceslaus Square. The citizens of the city try to make some accommodation to the Soviet presence. Promises are offered but promises are broken. The people suffer increased disappointment and disillusionment. Suddenly, with the frustration level high, a certain Jan Palach, hardly a well-known or prominent citizen, in protest against the repressions of occupying Soviet forces; burns himself to death in front of the statue of St. Václav in Wenceslaus Square on January 19, 1969.

A few months after Palach's suicide, Václav Havel, already known as a superb essayist and dramatist, appealed to President Alexander Dubcek to institute democratic reforms, proposing that such an act of defiance against the Soviets "would place before us an ethical mirror as powerful as that of Jan Palach's recent deed." Dubcek listened to Havel's plea, but, under pressure from the reigning Communists, took no action. But the tide of revolution was already in process. Havel commented that Palach's self-immolation marked the beginning of a period in which nothing short of "human existence itself is at stake."

None of this happened, of course, in isolation, but rather was part of an intricate set of interconnecting influences. A prominent background presence is Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937), a brilliant philosopher who served for fifteen years as a member of the Austrian Parliament. Opposed to Germany's nationalism in Austria and Austria's adventurous policies in the Balkans, Masaryk became convinced that Austro-Hungary could no longer serve as the common homeland for the small nations of Central Europe. Thus, dramatically, following the outbreak of World War I, Masaryk became the champion of an independent Czechoslovakia, leading troops who fought successfully alongside Allied forces. At the end of the war, Masaryk became president of the first Czechoslovakian Republic, from 1919 to 1938.

Primarily a philosopher, Masaryk had come under the influence of Franz von Brentano (1838–1917) during his studies in Vienna. Subsequently, when he was twenty-seven years old, in Leipzig, Masaryk developed a friendship with Edmund Husserl, and was instrumental in convincing Husserl to switch from the study of mathematics to philosophy. Through Masaryk, Husserl was directed toward the work of Brentano. And from Masaryk, Husserl acquired a heightened sense of the spiritual crisis of the modern world. Masaryk was concerned about the loss of religious faith. Alarmed that increased scientific sophistication did not bring moral progress, he feared that modern reason had become detached from the world of good and evil, which for him was the foundation of lived reality.

Husserl extended Masaryk's analysis to include the judgment that theoretical knowledge had lost contact with living human experience. Eventually Husserl wrote a powerful treatise on the subject, The Crisis of European Sciences (1936), in which he affirmed that the morally ordered world of our prereflective lived experience is indeed the common life-world. Masaryk would have said the same, though with greater emphasis on matters of religious belief. For our purposes, it is significant to note that these Masarykian and Husserlian themes are perceptible in Václav Havel's thinking and writing.

In addition. Masaryk affirmed that Czech national consciousness had been grounded and shaped by the Hussite movement. Through Masaryk's testimony, the national martyr, Jan Hus (1370–1415), gained fresh place in contemporary Czech thinking. So when Jan Palach burned himself after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, it was appropriate for Czech patriots to assign Hussite martyr symbolism to the event.

We must also cite the strong influence of the philosopher Jan Patocka (1907–77), who studied under Husserl, taught Václav Havel, and subsequently was instrumental in publishing Charter 77, the statement of resistance to Soviet occupation and communist ideology, Patocka, whose philosophical work at last is becoming better known outside the Czech Republic, drew upon the thought of his significant predecessors. First, he studied under Husserl, and devoted a good portion of his graduate work to a systematic study of Masaryk's thought. (When Husserl was expelled from Freiburg University by the Nazi rulers of Germany, Patocka was instrumental in bringing him to Prague to deliver guest lectures.) Then too, like Masaryk, Patocka exhibited respect for religion, and spent considerable time studying theology. In one of his earlier essays he wrote, "without God the world is unthinkable." He admitted, however, that God was not accessible to him through lived experience.

Patocka's final set of writings, grouped under the title Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, provides evidence that the subject that most captivated him is the requirement of the human struggle. The final essay in this collection, "Wars of the Twentieth Century and the Twentieth Century as War," offers a commentary on Heraclitus's understanding of polemos, which Patocka translates as "struggle, fight, and war." The reference is to Heraclitus's Fragment 26: "It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife." Here Patocka affirms that this struggle possesses the kind of ontological fundamentality that others accord to love, justice, compassion, happiness. Indeed, there is evidence that Patocka would vote for other thematic possibilities himself, were it possible to do so. But the always necessary struggle against the world—which is nothing less than an adversarial conflict with reality—forces him to give priority to polemos.

Patocka employed Heraclitus to correct and amend Husserl's Phenomenological assumptions about reality's underlying harmony. The conclusions of Heretical Essays are thoroughly compatible with Patocka's understanding of his cultural task. In fact, the publication of the Essays, in informal typescript copies, received widespread attention, and served to rally the Czech citizenry against the oppressions being inflicted by the occupying forces. Patocka's readers understood that hope is paradoxical: when its ontological supports fail, hope must be re-established on grounds intrinsic to the person. Paradoxically, the collapse of confidence in external supports evokes personal responsibility; there emerge twin needs to save one's soul in the midst of war's apocalypse and to establish a community of solidarity among those who have been shaken. This "solidarity of the shaken" provides them with that refuge and strength which is "the power of the powerless."

He even took on the alien, adversarial powers, with the promulgation of the Charter 77 texts, prompted by the 1977 Helsinki Agreement on human rights which affirm that human beings are obliged to discover and protect a valid moral foundation since there can be no rightful expectation that salvation will be provided by the state, or that it can be effected by any combination of social powers and forces. In a message to the Czech people, Patocka explained the creed of Charter 77 as follows:

Something fundamentally non-technical and non-instrumental must exist. There must be a self-evident, non-circumstantial ethic and unconditional morality. A moral system does not exist in order to help society function but simply so that man can be human. It is not man who defines a moral order according to the arbitrary nature of his needs, wishes, tendencies, and desires, but, on the contrary, it is morality which defines man.

Patocka and the other signers of Charter 77 urged their Czechoslovakian compatriots to resist injustice by assuming the responsibility of free citizens, in accordance with the Helsinki principles. For Patocka, polemos both separates and unites people. The solidarity it enjoins is the basis for establishing the polis, and for seeing oneself and other citizens as members of the polis.

Predictably, the promulgation of Charter 77 incensed the authorities. Patocka, whose publications were already censured, was brought in for long hours of intensive interrogation. It was too much for him emotionally and physically, and he was transferred to the hospital after suffering heart trouble. Still, he kept up his resistance, promulgating an explanatory statement: "conformity has not yet led to any improvement; what is needed is to speak the truth." Under continuing pressure from the authorities, on March 13, 1977, just a few days prior to his seventieth birthday, he died of a severe brain hemorrhage. More than a thousand mourners came to his funeral, all under the watchful eyes of police agents and cameramen. Several of his friends were taken into custody. Havel, calling Patocka Czechoslovakia's "most important philosopher," named it a martyr's death. On March 19, Paul Ricoeur, in a commemorative essay in Le Monde, attested that it was because he "knew no fear that he has literally been put to death by the authorities." Havel was also arrested and jailed for four months for his part in Charter 77 activities. In 1979 he was convicted again, this time sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, but received a suspended sentence because of poor health and an international protest campaign. It was during his second stay in prison that he wrote the letters to his wife that were subsequently published as Letters to Olga.

Masaryk, Patocka, and Havel

Before analyzing the career and thought of Václav Havel in more detail, we must call attention to similarities in the principal ideas and sense of vocation of Masaryk, Patocka, and Havel. Note, first, that all three mixed keen interest in theory and unfailing commitment to scholarship with dedicated involvement in direct political activity. As noted, Masaryk was a member of the Austrian parliament, the leader of a Czech movement for independence, and the first president of independent Czechoslovakia. Patocka dedicated much of his philosophical career to identifying reality's most distinctive principle; after according centrality to strife, he then rallied his fellow citizens to support freedom and responsibility, before succumbing to a martyr's death. Havel was a playwright and essayist, who, following the "velvet revolution" of 1989, became the first president of the newly (re-)established Czech Republic.

Note, second, that the lives and careers of all three exhibit narratives that support the collective identification of the Czech people with the martyrdom of Hus. Masaryk invoked the memory of Hus to facilitate independent Czech national identity. Patocka, following Jan Palach's self-immolation, was interrogated so severely that his death was perceived as suffering on behalf of the Czech people. When Patocka died, Havel wrote his testimonial, "The Power of the Powerless," and dedicated it to Patocka's memory. Havel's own qualifications for martyr's status are to be found in his imprisonments.

Third, the intellectual intentions of all three were remarkably similar. All three took their intellectual cues from the shared recognition that, as a result of disjuncture, disharmony, or pervasive conflict, European life and thought were in profound crisis. In The Crisis of European Sciences, Husserl's extensive commentary on the principles according to which Descartes established modern philosophy, this disjuncture was portrayed as a crisis of self-alienation. Such profound alienation could not possibly be resolved, Husserl argued, except through attribution of normative status to the Lebenswelt (life-world), which is the basis for ethical autonomy. Masaryk perceived a crisis too. For him, the traditional habits and patterns of religious faith conflicted with a technological world increasingly devoid of moral and ethical meaning. As Masaryk saw it, nineteenth-century science had usurped the authority previously accorded to faith and reason, and the moral and ethical repercussions were catastrophic. In Suicide as a Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization, Masaryk traced the reversal of moral progress which had accompanied the loss of religious faith. For him, science was both mechanistic and materialistic, and, in these senses, substituted dysfunctionally for an awareness that human life belongs to an ordered moral universe. Following Brentano, Masaryk believed it crucial that human beings return to the world of primary experience, there to be reconnected with a vital sense of good and evil.

Václav Havel's Philosophical and Political Program

Václav Havel, then, did not emerge out of nowhere, he is part of an ongoing Czech intellectual tradition. When he needed ideas by which to counter oppressive Marxist thinking, he found the key in Husserl's concept of Lebenswelt. For Havel, the resort to Lebenswelt fostered the conditions of "living in truth." The alternative to top-down, mechanistic, manipulative theoretical deduction (which, in Havel's view, is the tendency of Marxism) is acute attention to what Havel's calls "the flow of life." And "flow of life" (a phrase Heraclitus might well have incorporated in his "everything flows" [Fragment 20] and "time is a river into which one cannot step twice in the same place" [Fragment 21]), evidences deep contracts between the superficiality and artificiality of ideology and the dependability of fundamental ideas.

It is also important to recognize that Havel understood that he too was responding to the problematic identified in Husserl's Crisis. In "Politics and Conscience" (1984), Havel calls Husserl's understanding of "the natural world" and "the world of lived experience" reliable vectors through which to approach "the spiritual Framework of modern civilization and the source of the present crisis." In the same passage, reflecting Masaryk's fundamental trust in what Erazim Kohak describes as "the prereflective certainty of Moravian peasants," Havel identifies children, working people, and peasants as "far more rooted in what some philosophers call the natural world, or Lebenswelt, than most modern adults." Then, in direct response to the self-alienation Husserl addressed in the Crisis, Havel explains:

They have not grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience, the world which has its morning and its evening, its down (the earth) and its up (the heavens), where the sun rises daily in the east, traverses the sky and sets in the west, and where concepts like "at home" and "in foreign parts," good and evil, beauty and ugliness, near and far, duty and rights, still mean something living and definite.

It is significant that Havel employed his predecessors' commentaries on "the crisis" to criticize the totalitarian system under which the people of (then) Czechoslovakia were subjected. Indeed, the untrustworthy mechanistic world of impersonal agents and forces is vividly illustrated in Soviet Marxist rule. In "What I Believe," Havel becomes quite specific. He criticizes "systematically pure market economics," while seeking to cast suspicions on Marxist ideology. He chastises both for presuming that "operating from theory is essentially smarter than operating from a knowledge of life." The alternative—again following the guidance of Masaryk and Patocka—is a true "understanding of individual human beings, and the moral and social sensitivity that comes from such understanding." In other words, "social life is not a machine built to any set of plans known to us." Rather, in true Heraclitean fashion, "new theories are constantly being fashioned." And in this essay, Havel invokes Lebenswelt as "the flow of life which is always taking us by surprise."

Through all of this it becomes apparent that Havel and his colleagues interpreted the Czech situation under Soviet rule to be a vivid exemplification of the fundamental challenge that both Masaryk and Patocka had identified, and Husserl had conceptualized. In Disturbing the Peace, Havel thanks Patocka for teaching him that "the real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him."

Put the ideas together, and they come out like this: there is a fundamental contrast between the world that can be constructed out of some presumed ideological viewpoint and the world that is rooted in trustworthy lived-experience; impersonal, mechanistic, manipulative force can be effectively resisted only by the one true power that all persons have at their disposal, their own humanity. Ivan Klima, a brilliant contemporary Czech writer, in The Spirit of Prague finds the same lesson in the teachings of Prague's Franz Kafka:

[Kafka's] hero is, above all, a hero for our time, a godless age in which power endowed with a higher meaning has been replaced with a vacuous power of tradition and legal and bureaucratic norms, that is, by human institutions. Man, deprived of all means and all weapons in his effort to achieve freedom and order, has no hope other than the one provided by his inner space.

Havel and the Language of Being

The pattern was established by Masaryk. After the basic human conflict has been identified and described and effective ways of responding are proposed, the question becomes what portions and degrees of the religious or spiritual world can be invoked. Masaryk found satisfaction in traditional Christianity. Patocka flirted with religious resolutions, but adopted the position that strife is the source of all things. Havel moved in a distinctive direction, keeping faith with the intellectual tradition in which he had been raised and trained, while continuing to combine insights from Husserl and Heidegger, both of whom employed the language of being and felt constrained to come to terms with the transcendent.

It is hardly surprising that Havel writes (in Letters to Olga, Letter 76):

Behind all phenomena and discrete entities in the world, we may observe, intimate, or experience existentially in various ways something like a general "order of Being." The essence and meaning of this order are veiled in mystery; it is as much an enigma as the Sphinx, it always speaks to us differently and always, I suppose, in ways that we ourselves are open to, in ways, to put it simply, that we can hear.

Consequently, when addressing an audience at the Stanford University Law School, September 29, 1994, Havel referred to "unconscious experience" as well as to "archetypes and archetypal visions." His point was that cultures formed thousands of years ago, quite independently of one another, nevertheless employ the same basic archetypes. This suggests that "there exist deep and fundamental experiences shared by the entire human race." Further, "traces of such experiences can be found in all cultures, regardless of how distant or how different they are from one another:"

… the whole history of the cosmos, and especially of life, is mysteriously recorded in the inner workings of all human beings. This history is projected into man's creations and is, again, something that joins us together far more than we think.

The idea is extended even further: "after thousands of years, people of different epochs and cultures feel that they are somehow parts and partakers of the same integral Being, carrying within themselves a piece of the infinity of that Being [italics mine]." In the final take, Havel asserts that "all cultures assume the existence of something that might be called the Memory of Being, in which everything is constantly recorded." The guarantees of human freedom and personal responsibility lie neither in programs of action nor systems of thought, but, rather, in "man's relationship to that which transcends him, without which he would not be and of which he is an integral part."

Havel's Stanford University discourse carried the title "The Spiritual Roots of Democracy" and was designed to delineate his understanding of the fundamental crisis in the modern world. Humans, he says, have lost respect—self-respect, respect for others, and respect for what Havel calls "the order of nature, the order of humanity, and for secular authority as well." When respect is lost, laws, moral norms, and established authority are also undermined. Gone is the sense of responsibility that inhabitants of one and the same planet have toward one another:

The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences [originates] in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, [italics mine], and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect.

When explaining how human dignity, freedom, and responsibility can be secured, Havel makes the same point again: "The source of these basic human potentials lies in man's relationship to that which transcends him." And what is this? Havel answers not by talking about God, or even about Being (though both may be implied), but by referring to the universal experience of the human race. He pleads that humankind today must become connected (or is it reconnected?) to "the mythologies and religions of all cultures" so that all humans, together, may "engage in a common quest for the general good." And what is the general good? Havel's somewhat apocalyptic answer is that "global civilization" is already preparing a place for "planetary democracy." And what is this? It is "the very Earth we inhabit, linked with Heaven above us":

Only in this setting can the mutuality and the commonality of the human race be newly created, with reverence and gratitude for that which transcends each of us, and all of us together. The authority of a world democratic order simply cannot be built on anything else but the revitalized authority of the universe.

In an essay entitled "Politics and the World Itself" (Kettering Review, Summer 1992), Havel criticized the Marxist presumption that reality is governed by a finite number of universal laws whose interrelationships can be grasped by the human mind and anticipated in systematic formulae. According to Havel, there are no such laws or theories, just as there is no comprehensive ideology that can either explain or direct human life. The demonstrable weakness of Marxist philosophy carries profound implications for the future of the world. Indeed, it calls for an abandonment of "the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution." Havel understands that there is no "universal key to salvation." The alternative is to recognize the pluralism of the world, which does not reduce to "common denominators" or to a "single common equation." Havel's alternative to proposed keys to salvation begins with "an elementary sense of transcendental responsibility," to which he appends "archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and, not least, faith in the importance of particular measures."

The Global Agenda

Several extraordinary addresses he has given in the United States provide a clear sense of Havel's aspirations. One of the most compelling was his February 1990 address to the U.S. Congress on the subject of democratic ideals and the rebirth of the human spirit. The previous bipolarity of the Cold War has yielded to "an era of multipolarity in which all of us, large and small, former slaves and former masters, will be able to create what your great President Lincoln called 'the family of men.'" His experience with antagonists, Havel said, had taught him that "consciousness precedes being, and not [as Marxist philosophy erroneously teaches] the other way around." This means that "the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility."

To be more specific:

Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.

So, what is to be done? Havel's answer is not a specific program, or a prescribed philosophical or ideological point of view. Rather, the only way to progress is through dedication to responsibility:

Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success—responsibility to the order of being [italics mine] where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.

On June 8, 1995, in a commencement address at Harvard, Havel sounded similar themes in recognizing that the world has already entered a single technological civilization. He commended the scientific achievement that made such a civilization possible but—in the spirit of Masaryk, Husserl, and Patocka—sounded the alarm. In fact, to counteract this single technological civilization, a contrary movement is occurring which finds expression in dramatic revivals of ancient traditions, religions and cultures. Havel explained the phenomenon as the recovery of an "archetypal spirituality" that is "the foundation of most religions and cultures"—"respect for what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of Being or a moral order that stands above us."

We must divest ourselves of our egoistically anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of Being, where it is judged.

His intention was to invite the Harvard graduates to accept responsibility for creating "a new order for the world."

Havel's May 15, 1996, address in Aachen, called "The Hope for Europe" (The New York Review, June 20, 1996), stands as a provocative survey of Europe's influences, both destructive and constructive, on human civilization, and envisions the role that the countries of the region might exercise today. The contrast on which he draws derives from an application of key distinctions in Husserl's Crisis. (Indeed, the Aachen address can be read as an updated, contemporary response to prior Czech analyses of the principal challenges of European culture.) Havel identifies "the starting point" with "a discussion about Europe as a place of shared values" (recall what he said the previous year at Harvard on this topic). And this is to talk about "European spiritual and intellectual identity or—if you like—European soul." Havel hopes that post-Cold War Europe "might establish itself on democratic principles as a whole entity for the first time in its history." But this will happen only if the "values that underlie the European tradition" are supported by "a metaphysically anchored sense of responsibility." In short:

The only meaningful task for the Europe of the next century is to be the best it can possibly be—that is, to revivify its best spiritual and intellectual traditions and thus help to create a new global pattern of coexistence.

The word "global" is central.

A Personal Word

I have been reading and contemplating Václav Havel's essays for the past several years because I know of no one writing about politics today whose work is more inspirational. A brilliant intellectual, playwright and essayist, he believes with passion that essayists, poets, dramatists, artists, musicians, and philosophers carry responsibility for the well-being of the societies in which they live. In describing the role of politics in the world today, he exhibits a keen grasp of prevailing global dynamics. He knows from conviction and experience why a politics that is not attached to an anchored spirituality carries no lasting promise. When addressing religion, he affirms what believers wish to avow without falling into debilitating dogmatic or parochial traps. In assessing the present conditions of the world, he warns against utilitarian, pragmatic techno-culture. He respects the innate human aspiration to become rooted in that which most profoundly binds us to the core of being. In evaluating the Cold War, he is confident he knows why Marxist philosophy failed. It was not that it was beaten by a rival system but "by life, by the human spirit, by conscience, by the resistance of Being and man to manipulation." Havel expands on this thesis with a Heraclitean corollary: "it was defeated by a revolt of color, authenticity, history in all its variety, and human individuality against imprisonment within a uniform ideology."

I am not sure I know how to translate such ideas into contemporary American political thinking, or even if it is appropriate to try. After all, Washington is not Prague, and the history of the United States is not interchangeable with the history of communist and post-Cold War Europe. Moreover, I sometimes fear that politics in the United States no longer has a philosophical context, and this is why what content there is derives so directly from ideology or is so swiftly transposed into public relations. I am often suspicious of American calls for more vital moral and spiritual foundations, because we all know how quickly they can dissolve into rancorous requests for audible prayer in the schools. Do our citizens understand that ours is a culture in crisis, not because we are following the misguided counsel of an incorrect politics, but because whatever remains of the flow of life has been overwhelmed by unjustifiable confidence in code, formula, policy, and divisive special interests?

When I consider the fullness of spirit with which Havel believes reality deserves to be engaged, I fear that the weakest of alternatives is to try to live life as an analyst, critic, or spectator. When he strives vigorously to resist depersonalization, I question our depth of commitment to keeping intuitive faculties alive. With profound respect for the priority he accords moral guidance, I ask how we can expect to get by on substitutes for a primary trust that our own subjectivity is linked to the subjectivity of the world. When I hear Havel extol the needs of the global community. I worry that post-Cold War America has become too isolationist, too shockingly and embarrassingly greedy.

I do not know whether a political philosophy like Havel's can function effectively in a world like ours. But I know that we are deriving less substance and direction from it than we ought. I hear him plead that politics and politicians must cultivate new attitudes if they are to meet the challenges and opportunities of our world. He is surely correct when he observes that it is not enough for us to try to reform political methods and procedures. We must revise not our procedures but our view of reality. We must subject ourselves to an authority now ignored—of real persons in their life-world.

I do not know how this transformation can be effected, but I believe I do know where and how it starts. Václav Havel writes frequently of soul and spirit, and points to where "living in truth" takes place. Whenever he invokes these terms he links them to "the humility that is appropriate in the face of the mysterious order of Being." In "The Politics of Hope" we read: "in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way." With this grounding, politics becomes "the universal consultation on the reform of the affairs which render man human."

Translating this vision into American terms is difficult. Yet Havel is admired and loved within the United States. His 1990 address to Congress continues to evoke approval and excitement. He lectures often at American institutions. Increasing numbers are becoming acquainted with his writings. Does the fact that more Americans than one might expect attend to his views and support his vision stand as evidence that citizens of this country are searching for alternatives to our prevailing fare of divisive, uninspiring politics? Is it confirmation that people would welcome an intellectually substantive, culturally satisfying, and spiritually nurturing politics?

I do not know, but I am confident that this strong voice of the post-Cold War "new Europe," with its insistence that politics be accorded a transcendental source and foundation, is a resounding testimony to hope.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 24 October 1997)

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SOURCE: "Philosopher President," in Commonweal, October 24, 1997, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review, Elshtain offers a positive evaluation of The Art of the Impossible.]

President Václav Havel of the Czech Republic is one of the great spokesmen for the "return to Europe" of countries formerly compelled to inhabit that political nowhereland called "Eastern Europe." He is an urbane intellectual, a playwright, and a moralist. That he is also the president of a nation-state is for him one of life's great ironies, even miracles, and he claims that he can scarcely believe it most of the time: one day an infamous dissident slated for harassment and incarceration; the next a famous dissident addressing hundreds of thousands gathered in Wenceslaus Square in defiance of a corrupt, authoritarian regime; and then a bit further on, the president of (then) Czechoslovakia proclaiming, on January 1, 1990: "People, your government has returned to you!"

It has not been an easy return. Havel knew it would not be. In October 1992, in a conversation with a small group gathered in Prague, Havel was sober to the point of being somber. The two republics were breaking up. The process of crafting a new constitution was then frustrated—so much so that Havel declared that he felt rather like locking up a group of clever constitutional lawyers and not permitting them to leave the building until they had forged a draft constitution. And, as well, Europe, his part of Europe, had "entered the long tunnel at the end of the light." This was a brilliant reversal of a standard metaphor. Havel has never been a utopian; indeed, much of his life has been dedicated to defeating all utopian politics, all ends-of-histories and overarching world views that promote ugly social engineering and destroy human freedom, mutual self-help, and even minimal decency.

And yet the title of this book is The Art of the Impossible. What, then, does Havel mean? He means hopefulness, a kind of canny insightfulness, energy for the tasks ahead. So much has happened so fast. How can one not believe in "miracles" [his word]? But such miracles are not wholly within our grasp. At best, we can see the possibilities immanent in a situation and screw up our courage in order to act, knowing that human events are not wholly under our own control. Much of this collection of speeches and essays written between 1990 and 1996 traverses the in-between—in-between quiescence and arrogant overreach. That is Havel's terrain. How well does he traverse it? Passing well. I would say, although he does seem to falter from time to time and he thinks aloud about the reasons why. He struggles with Oxford fellow Timothy Garton Ash's critique of intellectuals in politics, for example. Ash had worried in print about the confusion of independent intellectual and practicing politician that he believed plagued post-1989 Europe: become one or the other, Ash more or less urged. Either stay outside and maintain your intellectual independence or take up a post and start to act, well, Weberian. (Weber, remember, distinguished between an ethic of "ultimate ends," too good for this world, and an "ethic of responsibility," one that is forced to choose between imperfect alternatives.)

Many of the most interesting reflections in this volume show Havel grappling with Ash's criticism. He understands "how difficult it is for an independent intellectual to adjust overnight to the world of practical politics when he has spent his whole life critically analyzing the world and defending certain chemically pure tenets." And there is a tendency for the intellectual to "resort to philosophical meditation, which in most cases makes things worse" than they would have been if he had just opted for an alternative, even a bad one. Another temptation is to launch into "complex reflections that voters find difficult to follow"—a charge lodged frequently against Havel—when what he ought to be about is saying "in clear and unambiguous terms that he is running for office because he is the best person for the job…." He shouldn't spend a lot of time hesitating, doubting, refusing to fight, questioning his own motives—again the sort of thing Havel is taxed with. He should shoulder the burden that is his and just get down to it.

Practical politics, yes, but never a politics shorn of morality. Havel's great fear is that relinquishing a politics of high morality often leads to a politics of brute instrumentality; thus, he rejects politics that is simply "the art of the possible." No, one should lift up politics. It is a nobler craft and a more demanding art than the technicians and power mongers allow. Politics has to do with hope and with purpose, with the articulation of a "spiritual dimension." It has to do with accepting responsibility, not of a total and unlimited sort, but of a carefully defined sort, and going on to approach that responsibility neither from a "will to power nor an ideological vision of the world but, rather, a moral stance."

What does Havel have in mind here? The verities and virtues he embraces are basic decencies, Christian in origin, but honed and shaped through the struggles with human dignity, rights, and power in modernity. Havel is clear that the source of the sense of responsibility he embraces is "metaphysical." This probably doesn't win many votes, and it frustrates some of his admirers and friends, especially when he starts to talk about "the order of Being" and the like. These Heideggerian turns of phrase turn lots of folks off. And I must say that the references to "Being" at times seem rather off-hand in these writings. Perhaps Havel needs to flesh out a bit more the conceptual and moral work his frequent references to Being play in his overall moral and political thinking.

That having been said, it is refreshing to read the words—most of them spoken aloud—of an erudite thinker and writer and political leader who unabashedly celebrates certain universal truths and rebukes "moral relativism" and "the denial of any kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal," and other features characteristic of the late modern West. For Havel, human beings need a "transcendental anchor,… the only genuine source of [their] responsibility and self-respect." Without these we forfeit much of the credibility of our own political affirmations and we blight our spirits. Havel manages to say all this in a way that avoids tub-thumping and breast-beating. But he is insistent. If we pit politics and morality against one another, we give politics over to the devil. We lose "the moral integrity of society" and relinquish "responsibility for human lives."

There are those who believe Havel's moment has come and gone. I don't think we've arrived at that moment yet.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154


Bradbrook, M. C. "Václav Havel's Second Wind." Modern Drama 27, No. 1 (March 1984): 124-32.

Provides an overview of Havel's dramatic works and literary influences.

Procházka, Martin. "Prisoner's Predicament: Public Privacy in Havel's Letters to Olga." Representations 43 (Summer 1993): 126-54.

Examines Havel's philosophical meditations and elements of public discourse in Letters to Olga.

Trensky, Paul I. "Havel's The Garden Party Revisited." In Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, edited by William E. Harkins and Paul I. Trensky, pp. 103-18. New York: Bohemica, 1980.

Offers critical analysis of The Garden Party.


Emingerová, Dana, and Lubos Beniak. "'Uncertain Strength': An Interview With Václav Havel." New York Review of Books (15 August 1991): 6, 8.

Havel discusses his presidential experiences, literary interests, and Czechoslovakian politics.

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