Archive for October 5th, 2016

The night Václav Havel created a scandal.

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016
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Václav Havelbirthday cake would have been eighty today. The playwright and philosopher who had the distinction of being the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic was born in Prague. He died in 2011. Let us celebrate, as the New York Review of Books did, with revisiting his first 1979 piece in NYRB, called “Kicking the Door.” It’s a critique of Paragraph 202 of the Penal Code in the Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, which allowed arrest under the flexible charge of “creating a scandal.” The political dissident was arrested and imprisoned on precisely that charge in 1978. Here’s the story of a time that he effectively created a scandal, but managed to do so without arrest. It led to this reflection:

It was midnight one Sunday and we—two friends and I—were looking for a place where we could get a glass of wine. Surprisingly enough, we found one; not only was it open, but it would stay open for another hour. As often happens, the door was locked, so we rang the bell. Nothing. An instant later we rang again. Still nothing. After another minute we decided to knock lightly. Again nothing. Then, just as we were about to leave, the door opened—not for us, but so that the waiter could let out one of his friends. We took advantage of the opportunity to ask very politely if there wasn’t room inside for us. The waiter didn’t even bother to answer—that the place was full, that he didn’t want clients, that he was only admitting friends, or anything else. He said nothing. He made no sign, didn’t even look at us. Then he slammed the door in our faces….

Václav_Havel

Recalling the night he lost his temper…

The strange thing happened then: I became suddenly furious. If I say strange, it’s because I’m not at all an angry man. Sudden crises of rage of this sort—which distort my vision and render me capable of doing things that I never do and that aren’t characteristic of me—happen to me only very exceptionally, I would say once every seven to ten years. Typically the most important events (as, for example, when someone slanders me in public, or they confiscate my apartment, etc.) do not arouse my fury; but mere trifles do. When I was in the army, a soldier named Ulver once tried to trip me, and I turned on him to beat him up. It is in this sense that the crisis that night in front of the bar was in keeping with my personal history.

This is not to say that the trifle that makes me furious is not a kind of substitute, a compensation. Perhaps it pays, as they say, for all the larger things that don’t succeed in making me angry. Perhaps somewhere in the depths of my tranquil soul there is a secret battery that charges, little by little, until the accumulated potential reaches a certain level. Then any little provocation is enough: the cup overflows, and all is discharged in a blast for an apparently inadequate reason. Thus the innocent joker Ulver was cruelly and arbitrarily punished because I had just spent two years building a floating bridge and then been ordered to destroy it.

havel-michnik

With Poland’s Adam Michnik

So I became suddenly angry and began to kick savagely at the door of the bar. To my astonishment nothing happened; it must have been made of very thick glass. My attitude was, by all standards, absurd and indefensible. I acted like a vagabond. Some part of me knew this at the time, but it had no influence on my behavior.

It is likely that the door served as the same kind of compensation that the soldier Ulver played many years before. The door paid for all the arrogant indifference, the scorn, the humiliation, the crudity, and the disrespect that so color the life of an ordinary man today. It paid for all the waiting in public offices, all the lines in department stores, all the institutions that won’t answer my polite letters, all the policemen who don’t know how to speak to a man except as a noncommissioned officer speaks to his lackey. It paid for all the conspiracies of cops and other uniformed thugs that have made Prague nights unfit for innocent amusement. It may even have paid for the men who kicked and beat the philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek. It paid for the haughty insolence of office workers, and the terror of those who aren’t office workers, for the disdain and the fearfulness that are seeping slowly but inevitably into all corners of contemporary life, quietly dehumanizing every place and every relationship. My anger was the explosion of an impotent man piqued by a small humiliation that seemed to symbolize all the huge, complex humiliation that weighs upon his life.

What happened next? Read the whole thing here.