Posts Tagged ‘Adam Michnik’

“The ultimate power is the power of the powerless”: Václav Havel’s legacy

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012
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"He assumed good and humanity in everyone."

My friend Jane Leftwich Curry organized an evening at Santa Clara University, where she is a professor of political science, to honor the playwright, dissident, and first president of the Czech Republic (and last president of Czechoslovakia), Václav Havel, who died in December.

The Wednesday event served as my introduction to Havel’s plays as well as to the university itself – despite its proximity, I had never seen SCU, which has the old Santa Clara Mission at its heart.

During the evening, a few of the university’s alumni performed staged readings from 1965′s The Memorandum and the much later 2007 Leaving.

The first was distinctly edgier – at least in the excerpted version.  A deputy manager introduces a new “official” made-up language in the office, “Ptydepe.”  Of course it’s all part of a bureaucratic coup d’état, and the managing director finds himself being edged out.  In the second, a chancellor is leaving office – but does he have to leave the state villa, which has been his extended family’s home for years?  The play was made into a movie in 2010, marking Havel’s debut as a director.

“We, here in Silicon Valley, do not live in an authoritarian society,” said Janey, who is author of six books on the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. “But we have much to learn from this man who had spent his years as a dissident and a writer and overnight took over as president not because he wanted power but because, as he said, ‘You cannot spend your whole life criticizing something and then, when you have a chance to do it better, refuse to go near it.’”

She gave a few examples of his ingenuity from his life as a dissident:

“He was creative not only in outsmarting the police when he could but also in living his life well in spite of all the pressures on him. There are thousands of stories of this … one that comes to mind here in this setting, is that, when he was in prison with the Archbishop of Prague, he organized chess tournaments – not, as the archbishop said at his state funeral, because Havel really liked chess, but because it provided a cover for Archbishop Duka to say mass under the ruse that the prisoners were just playing chess.

Author Curry

“Havel also laughingly told a s story of skiing up the high Tatra mountains – a struggle as he was both a heavy smoker and a non-athlete. He did it so he could meet at the top, on the border, with Polish dissidents like Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik – neither of whom were any better skiers or athletes than he was and both of whom could match him as smokers. They came to share ideas and enjoy each other in the only place they could, a ski hut smack on the border of their two nations at the top of the Tatra mountains.”  It was a good gamble – “the Czech and Polish secret police were too lazy to ski up the mountains to catch dissidents.”

When he was sworn in as president to replace the man who had imprisoned him, some asked what he would say to departing president Gustáv Husák at the cocktail party that followed the ceremony.  “He thought about it and said he supposed they could talk about prison conditions as they had both served time in the same prison – Husak during World War II for being a communist, and he, under communism, for being a dissident. And so they did.”

The incident also illustrated a big theme in Havel’s life and leadership: inclusion, even extending to those who had harmed him.  “He assumed good and humanity in everyone, even though most Czechs and Slovaks kept silent rather than lose their peaceful lives.”

After the fall of communism, when questions arose about the controversial policies of  “lustration,” a government process to reintegrate former Communist into post-communist public life, “he reminded the nation that each and every one of them, himself included, had been part of making the communist system work. That the fault was shared by all and that each person had to account to himself for what he had done or not done. For Havel, then, the ultimate power was the power of the powerless.”

Steven Boyd Saum, editor of Santa Clara Magazine, also spoke – Saum is also attaché to the Honorary Consul General of the Czech Republic in San Francisco/Silicon Valley.

Saum hailed Havel as a man of “compassion and conscience.” He was “a bourgeois child” who, when denied a higher education under communism, became a lab assistant, a soldier, and a stagehand.  “Havel, the man, was a hero.” Arthur Miller called him “the first surrealist president.”

Saum compared him to Thomas Jefferson, in his understanding that loyalties work best when they are to neighbors and communities, rather than monolithic states.

Nice venue

Change occurred so fast in Czechoslovokia that dissidents like Havel quickly found themselves catapulted to power. The skills of a dissident didn’t always translate into the skills of a politician.  Havel believed firmly that when you change the system, people will change. He had respect even for the people who had betrayed him and his colleagues, or who had been silent during their persecution – “he stuck up for them.”

His first biographer Eda Kriseova wrote rather a hagiography. “The world needs heroes,” she said. “I am giving you one.”

(Another biographer, John Keane, author of Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, answers questions here.)

Timothy Snyder: On dissent and “the stories people tell about themselves”

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
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Provocative author of "Bloodlands"

You don’t have to live under a totalitarian government to understand some of the head trips  Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands fame describes in his provocative and incisive interview over at the Browser.  We run them through our minds daily – at home, in the workplace, in our social circles.

Which hardly undermines the stories of people for whom the stakes were astronomically higher – those who face prison, death, or poverty for risking free expression.  But it does make his observations universal.

His responses in the Q&A (with Alec Ash) are heartbreakingly insightful.  But then, he is often quoting maestros. He recommends five books: George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia, Czeslaw Milosz‘s The Captive Mind, Adam Michnik‘s The Church and the Left, Milan Kundera‘s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Václav Havels The Power of the Powerless.

“The people whose books I’ve chosen lived in regimes which not only monopolized violence but threatened it in an everyday sense. And some of them suffered as a direct result of what they wrote,” he said.

Tim’s responses, and the books he has chosen, do not just tell us (as the subhead says) “how to challenge the over-mighty”; more importantly, they all demonstrate the way we delude ourselves – regardless of political stripe, personal beliefs, or external circumstances.

I have my caveats. He seems to put a lot of stock in such terms as “liberals”; I find that these labels increasingly meaningless if not misleading (and highly elastic), and have come to feel that it’s dangerous to identify oneself with any political group.  Too often among my colleagues, such labels become simple synonyms for “good,” “truth,” and “people who think like me.” Which means you can do anything you like, because you’ve a priori identified yourself with the good.  And why is the piece, which praises non-violence, illustrated with a clenched fist from Wikipedia Commons?  Ah well.

That said, how can you argue with passages like this?

… The Captive Mind by the celebrated Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, seems to have some overtones of 1984 itself.

Milosz

Yes. Milosz tried to explain – as the title suggests – how thinking people could accept communism from inside the communist system. How does one not resist or just endure, but actually place one’s mind in the system? He points to a number of ways in which the mind can adapt. You can accept one larger truth that guides your interpretation of all of the smaller untruths, accept a vision of the future that is so bright that it drives away the shadows of the various dark acts of your own time and place. Or you can collaborate on the outside but preserve an inner core of yourself that does not collaborate on the inside.

Milosz’s point was that all of these things are possible as human adaptations to a situation, but impossible as ways of preserving humanity. In fact they’re nothing more than stories people tell about themselves, as they give in to a system which is actually inferior and repressive.

Kundera

Why did you choose Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?

Milan Kundera was of course not really a dissident, but this book gets across the heartfelt reality of Stalinist faith. Kundera was a young Stalinist, as were his friends. So he knows what it was like to be on the inside, to have certainty about the rest of the world and to believe that everyone who didn’t share that certainty was a fool. To know where things were going and what you wanted from society – that glowing, overwhelming sense that one is young and the world belongs to you. Kundera really gets that sense across, and I think that’s incredibly important.

Also apropos of Czechoslovakia and very topical, your final selection is Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless.

Havel

In the end I think Havel will be remembered as the outstanding East European dissident writer, and he will be remembered as such above all for this essay. Its central point is that even a communist regime that controls the media and exercises a great deal of power depends ultimately on an almost visible collaboration with society – society meaning individual decisions taken by individuals, which accumulate to have a universal appearance.

And what does Havel say to that inner voice that you shouldn’t risk personal suffering and put your head above the parapet?

He understands it. There is this Christ-like patience, and he’s not programmatic. Havel doesn’t call for everyone to do what’s beyond them. He asks them to do what they can, and then – like [Adam] Michnik – he leads by example, does things his own way and pays the price for it. Michnik and Havel are among the dissidents who have spent the longest time in prison.

Read the whole thing here.

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PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:  Some time ago, we explained that the Book Haven was moving, and there might be a few cyberspace bumps in the subsequent days as we switched servers.  It never happened.  But it is happening in the next 24 hours.  Bear with us.  All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well …

What he meant: postscript on Adam Michnik, Czesław Miłosz, and the Warsaw Uprising

Thursday, May 26th, 2011
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The bombing of Warsaw's Old Town

A few days ago,  I reported on Adam Michnik‘s haunting remarks during the Czesław Miłosz festival.  He recalled a few brief months of freedom in 1981, with the heady rise of Solidarity and the Polish poet’s return to Warsaw after decades of exile:


“It was a time of euphoria, carnival – it was our victory,” he said.

Miłosz was more cautious.  He told Michnik, “The atmosphere feels like just before the Warsaw Uprising. Please be careful.” Tanks rolled into Warsaw and martial law was declared a few months later.

I was intrigued, but somewhat puzzled by Miłosz’s comment.  I had always assumed that the days before the Warsaw Uprising were full of terror and apprehension. I chalked up Michnik’s recollection to pure prescience on Miłosz’s part.

Then, bumping along in the train between Warsaw and Vilnius, I found my answer.  I ran across this passage in the new collection of essays, Proud to Be a Mammal, in a reprinted piece called simply “G.G.”

Little by little the time was drawing near for the destruction of Warsaw. The uprising was a blameworthy, lightheaded enterprise … Handfuls of people stood on street corners, watching with a quiet smile as trucks were loaded with wardrobes, mirrors, rugs – the contents of German offices and private homes. They were fleeing. No one was afraid of them anymore.

Michnik remembers

In other words, what the Polish people saw as a retreat was simply the Germans evacuating a city they knew was about to be destroyed.

The posters that had been tacked up, ordering all males to report for work on the fortifications, were received with jeers.  You could already hear Russian artillery fire. Rumors of an armed uprising were greeted joyfully: a chance to throw oneself at one’s tormentors and take revenge … Soon, however, came the news that there would be no uprising. One of my Socialist colleagues told me that to take any sort of action now, when Mikołajczyk, the premier of the London government [in exile], was flying to Moscow, would be nonsense.  Stalin was too clever to negotiate with anyone using such a trump card, and whoever tried to outsmart him would never be forgiven.

The military leaders (caught between two fires, because the Russian Radio broadcasts called for the taking up of arms) did not enter into such subtleties; as a result their judgment was incompetent. The command was given so suddenly that it found most of the units without weapons. …

That day, the first of August, Janka and I were walking over to Tiger’s for an after-dinner chat and a cup of tea. I had something terribly important to discuss; namely, my new translation of an English poem. On leaving for a walk one should never be too sure of returning home, not only because something may happen to one personally, but also because the house may cease to exist.

The older I get, the more uncomfortable I am with any group emotions – whether crowd hatred or crowd euphorias.  And sometimes the euphorias are more blinding than the hatreds.

“The Wolf Who Ate Books”: Michnik, Vendler, Hirshfield, and others remember Miłosz

Monday, May 16th, 2011
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Aleksander Fiut in foreground, Michnik in striped shirt, Vendler in back (Photo by my Droid)

Jane Hirshfield recalls that Czesław Miłosz lived in a “storybook” cottage on Grizzly Peak in the hills of Berkeley.  But to describe the fairy tale that took place within the cottage, you’d need a new character, a new story – “The Wolf Who Ate Books,” she suggested.

In the elegant and newly revamped Szczepanski Square, the Miłosz Pavilion – a strange, science fiction-y formation of hemispherical  tents and tunnels – hosted a range of activities during the Czesław Miłosz centenary festival. One spotlighted reminiscences with, as well as Jane, scholar Aleksander Fiut, Gazeta Wyborcza editor Adam Michnik, poet Tomas Venclova, leading critic Helen Vendler, and poet Adam Zagajewski. As with so many of the events, Znak publisher Jerzy Illg hosted.  Here are a few of their memories:

Michnik recalled Miłosz trying to meet him at a very particular Bulgarian restaurant in Paris, where Miłosz spent the lonely, tormented decade following his lonely defection from Communist Poland.  “Then Miłosz said a sentence I would remember for the rest of my life:  ‘I wanted to meet you here, because here, in the 1950s, very often I kept feeling I would commit suicide,’” he confided to his friend.  Michnik recalled his famous essay of the time, “Nie” [No], where he explained his defection to the world.  It opened: “What I’m going to tell now could well be called a story of a suicide…”

He also remembered Miłosz’s triumphant return to Poland in 1981, with the heady rise of Solidarity.  “It was a time of euphoria, carnival – it was our victory,” he said.

Miłosz was more cautious.  He told Michnik, “The atmosphere feels like just before the Warsaw Uprising. Please be careful.” Tanks rolled into Warsaw and martial law was declared a few months later.

Tomas Venclova recalled when Stanisław Lem was rumored to be up for the Nobel prize.  “I don’t care about the Nobel prize,” Miłosz told him, “but if any other writer gets it, I wouldn’t be too happy.”

A 21st century monster of hemispheres and tunnels (from my Droid)

Aleksander Fiut traveled with Miłosz to Stockholm for the 1980 Nobel.  On the way to the event, in a chauffeur-driven limousine, Miłosz was hungry.  Where did they stop?  He told the chauffeur to pull into McDonald’s.  “Her facial muscles didn’t even move,” Fiut recalled.

Jerzy Illg recalls the poet at 90, looking deeply into a vodka and a piece of herring – two of his favorite things.  “Happiness is accessible,” he declared finally. Illg had him write that down and sign it. “It’s a valuable security paper I hold,” Jerzy reflected.

Jane met both Carol and Czesław at a Bay Area picnic, where the hostess urged her beforehand to chat with the Miłoszes, since many were too intimidated to be social.  So, unfortunately, was Jane.  It was as if, she said, she had been told, “Please go talk to Yeats.  Please go talk to Shakespeare.”

Jane also recalled the death of Miłosz’s much-younger wife Carol, in 2002.  At the memorial service in Berkeley, she remembers Miłosz sitting erect, “evidence of decades of unbearable loss being carried.” She spoke to him afterward, and “for three seconds he completely broke down.”

“I never held a grief that large in my arms,” she said.

The Poles throw a party: postcard from Kraków

Monday, May 9th, 2011
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Jagiellonian University's Collegium Novum

When the Poles throw a party – they don’t settle for half-measures.  And what better occasion than the Czesław Miłosz centenary?  This is easily the most lavish, labor-intensive, high-class shindig of its kind I’ve ever attended.

We’re not just talking about the obvious:  swag bags with books and DVDs; Miłosz pencils, pens, and t-shirts; Miłosz’s signature on the dinner napkins, and just about everywhere else.  It’s not only the stunning setting at Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in Europe.

Collegium Novum's Assembly Room

Everyone is here:  Derek Walcott, Bei Dao, Thomas Venclova, Adonis, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, and Adam Michnik are among the luminaries – but only among. There are many more.

Queen Jadwiga's portrait watches over us

Though the Book Haven has been relatively silent lately, obviously I have not been idly eating bonbons.  Or at least, not only. This conference at the university’s Collegium Novum and the “Miłosz Pavilion” has pretty much been running me ragged – and the Milosz365 festival continues into the weekend and next week.

And organizers Jerzy Illg, publisher of Znak, and Aleksander Fiut, Miłosz scholar, have bags under their eyes …  Well, they’re not the only ones.

Consider this a down payment.  More later.

Postscript on 5/14:  Walcott’s a no-show, nobody knows why, though a pleasant, vague letter was read by Jerzy Illg at one of the events.  I understand this is not the first time Walcott has bailed.