Posts Tagged ‘Václav Havel’

Long after the Cold War, have we become our opponents? Václav Havel weighs in.

Saturday, February 25th, 2017
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I have long observed how people become the thing they hate most, so when René Girard described how locked rivals come to resemble each other more and more, it was no surprise to me. Czech writer, dissident, and president Václav Havel apparently felt much the same way. This recent New Yorker article – Pankaj Mishra’s “Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a ‘Parallel Polis” – has been an open tab in my Google Chrome window for at least a week. Don’t you wait that long to read it. Despite Mishra’s Manichaean cast of mind (it’s not a case of the pure and the monstrous, we could all use a little self-examination), it is essential reading that expresses some important thoughts for this particular historical moment:

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Have we become “statistical choruses of voters”?

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”

According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”

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With Polish dissident editor Adam Michnik

Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

Read the whole thing here.

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….

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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.

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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.

Marci Shore on Ukraine, a graduate seminar via Skype, and “the return of metaphysics”

Saturday, August 29th, 2015
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marci-shoreIntellectual and cultural historian Marci Shore remembers Tony Judt in the current issue of the New Yorker, which quickly segues into the current plight of Ukraine:

“We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil,” Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. “If you can’t use the word ‘evil,’ you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world.” In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like “Where does evil come from?” As Król’s friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, “This is a civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Marci reminds us of Judt’s “insistence on the historian’s moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.” Her own form of engagement, or one of them, took the form of skyping in for graduate seminar on Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, Israel: An Alternative, and Past Imperfect. (The first is an excellent series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, who happens to be Marci’s husband.) “And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola [a graduate student and now soldier] in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav [Hrytsak], together with Mykolas’s classmates, appeared on the other half.”

In response to Michnik’s call, she said:

judtThe Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak … described the Maidan as akin to Noah’s Ark: it took “two of every kind.” For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said—it cannot be described.

You can read more about Marci’s unusual graduate seminar here.

Another honor for poet Tomas Venclova – keep ’em coming.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015
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Terrific poet in a little-known tongue.

One of our favorite people has bagged another honor: earlier this month, one of Europe’s most eminent poets, Tomas Venclova, was awarded for “creative fidelity to the values which comprise the foundation of European civilization.”  The ceremony took place at the Ossoliński National Institute, one of Poland’s oldest scientific libraries and research centers.

In his talk, the Lithuanian poet praised the previous prize laureates: “I have followed in the footsteps of people much greater than myself, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Stanisław Szuszkiewicz, Sergei Kovalev, Václav Havel, Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus and Zbigniew Brzeziński,” he said. (Personally, I’m not so sure about the “greater than himself” part.)

He also paid homage to the prize’s namesake, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a Polish journalist and war-time resistance fighter who was an emissary between the Home Army and the Polish Government in Exile in London. After the war in Communist Poland, Nowak-Jeziorański headed the Polish Section of Radio Free Europe. “Unfortunately I never met Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, although I know he was an emblematic figure in the history of Eastern Europe and global society,” said Venclova. “A politician and solider, journalist and social worker, a diplomat who was a paradigm of fidelity to his beliefs.”

Venclova himself is one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group, whose poetry in the disfavored Lithuanian language could be circulated only in samizdat. His dissident activities attracted the perilous attention of the Soviet authorities, and in 1977 he was forced to emigrate. He taught for many years at Yale University. His poetry has been translated by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. A selection of his poetry, translated into English by Ellen Hinsey, is at the Poetry Foundation here.

His previous honors include the Gloria Artis and Order of Merit Polish honours, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Kraków, Gdańsk, Toruń, Lublin and the Lithuanian centres of Klaipeda and Kaunas. All that said, he is too little recognized in the West. So we think there should be more honors, west of the Danube. We have written about him here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Congratulations, Tomas!

The “politics of the sinless” and the “superficiality of the everyday”: Michnik, Havel, and the post-communist world

Saturday, February 21st, 2015
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Long friendship: Michnik and Havel in 2011

Marci Shore, acclaimed author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, has written an important article – indispensable writing, really – over at the Weekly Standard. It’s one that merits not only reading, but reading – so I’m printing out a version for slow reading when I get some more work done this weekend. The focus of her essay is a Adam Michnik‘s The Trouble with History, edited by Irena Grudzińska Gross and published last year by Yale University Press. The Book Haven has written about Polish journalist and Solidarity leader Michnik here and here, and about Marci here and here and here and about Irena here and here. Read Marci’s article in its entirety here.  Fellow dissident Václav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and president of the post-communist Czech Republic, also plays a role in the piece – we’ve written about him here and here and here. A few excerpts from Marci’s article below:

The story of “living in truth” involves urban intellectuals hiking up a mountain. In August 1978, four Charter 77 signatories (including Havel, who was not ordinarily much of a hiker) met with their Polish counterparts (including Michnik) on Sněžka Mountain on the Czechoslovak-Polish border. Havel pulled a bottle of vodka from his backpack. A lifelong friendship was not all that resulted from that first encounter between the two men.

On Sněžka, they spoke about the political resonance of seemingly insignificant moral acts. Michnik asked Havel to write down his thoughts. Three months later, an underground courier appeared at Michnik’s Warsaw apartment with a manuscript entitled “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel’s essay introduced an ordinary green-grocer who, every morning, displays in the shop window a sign stating: “Workers of the world unite!” Neither he nor his customers believe in the Communist slogan. Even the members of the regime no longer believe in it. All know it to be a lie.

troublewithhistoryYet what else can the greengrocer do? If he were to refuse to display the sign, he could be questioned, detained, arrested—which suggests that displaying a slogan in which no one believes is of great importance. If, one day, all the greengrocers were to take down their signs, that would be the beginning of a revolution. And so the seemingly powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. He bears responsibility; by failing to “live in truth,” people like the green-grocer “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

This is a diagnosis of post-1968 communism as a descent into inauthenticity, and it comes not from the comfortable classics of Western liberal (or conservative) thought but, rather, from Martin Heidegger.

***

One lesson for the West was about responsibility in conditions of moral ambiguity. In Havel’s autobiographical one-act play Audience (1975), Havel’s alter ego Ferdinand Vaněk is a dissident playwright working at a brewery. The secret police have demanded that the brewmaster file weekly reports on Vaněk. The brewmaster becomes nervous: He finds it difficult to compose the reports. Could Vaněk, perhaps, write them? “You could do that much for me, couldn’t you?” he asks Vaněk. “It would be child’s play for you! You’re a writer, damn it, right?”

Vaněk appreciates the brew-master’s kind treatment of him; nonetheless, he refuses to write the reports about himself. For Vaněk, this is “a matter of principle.” The brewmaster breaks down:

And what about me? You’re just gonna let me sink, right? You’re just gonna say, fuck you! It’s okay if I end up being an asshole! Me, I can wallow in this shit, because I don’t count, I ain’t nothin’ but a regular brewery hick—but the VIP here can’t have any part of this! It’s okay if I get smeared with shit, so long the VIP here stays clean! .  .  . All I’m good for is to be the manure that your damn principles gonna grow out of .  .  .

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Decries “official memory politics”

In Audience, everyone is implicated: the regime, the brewmaster, Vaněk himself. The brewmaster is a variation of the greengrocer; he is both victim and oppressor.

For Michnik, among the disappointments of post-communism has been the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, accompanied by an official memory politics known as “historical policy.” The essence of historical policy is a denial of moral ambiguity and a failure to take responsibility. It is an attempt to enforce a national historical narrative that presents “the thesis that all Polish disasters were the result of Polish benevolence, trust, and gentleness, and of the malice and cruelty of foreigners.”

For Michnik, historical policy is absurd: Communism had not simply been a Soviet occupation; everyone had taken part. In order to do something good, one had to participate in a system that was evil. Between heroes and villains there were many shades of gray. This was among the reasons why “lustration”—the purging from government and public life of those who had collaborated with the secret police—was not a straightforward matter. Many were put on secret police lists of potential informers without their knowledge. Others found themselves on those lists because they had once met with an agent at a restaurant or had succumbed to threats to their children.

Moreover, those placed most at risk by lustration were those who had been in the opposition—after all, it was their circles the secret police had tried to infiltrate. Those safest under lustration were the greengrocers. The post-Communist antipathy towards the dissidents, Havel believed, had its roots in the dissidents’ serving as people’s bad consciences. He and Michnik were among those who, under communism, had sat in prison the longest. They were also among those most willing to forgive. For Michnik, historical policy and lustration reflected a Jacobin-like impulse to impose a politics of the sinless. And the problem with revolutionary purity was that it led to the guillotine.

***

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Read her article. Please.

The trouble with revolution, Michnik finds, is also its aftermath: the superficiality of the everyday. Once upon a time, East Europeans had stayed up all night copying censored poems by hand. Now, no one had time to read serious literature. The omnipresence of Communist propaganda had been replaced by the omnipresence of quasi-pornographic tabloids. The revolution had brought the end of censorship. Then, the market had taken over—and had proven to be tawdry. “Suddenly all great value systems are collapsing,” Michnik observed.

“[A]long with the development of this consumerist global civilization grows a mass of people who do not create any values,” Havel said during one of his last conversations with Michnik. For Michnik, this “axiological vacuum” was “a typical phenomenon of periods of restoration as described by Stendhal in The Red and the Black: this is a time of cynicism, intrigues, careerism.” Michnik grew preoccupied with Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s weak plebian hero who seeks authenticity in illicit love affairs: “Let everyone take care of himself in the desert of egoism called life,” Julien says.

In 1989, Michnik’s friend, the philosopher Marcin Król, was among those who had considered liberty to be the great priority. But individualism began to dominate all other values. “We were stupid,” Król said in an interview last year. No longer does anyone pose metaphysical questions like “Where does evil come from?” The dramas of characters like Julien Sorel resulted from their awareness of the weight of their actions. The lack of an answer to the question of whether they behaved well or badly was the source of great suffering. “Today,” Król said, “the lack of an answer does not hurt.” And that is the problem: It should hurt.

The man who was “the soul of the Czech nation”

Monday, December 1st, 2014
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havel5In an era that is so cynical about its politicians and leaders, it’s nice to know that Václav Havel even existed (we’ve written about him here and here). So we can be grateful to a new biography by Michael Žantovsky, Havel’s former press secretary, advisor, and longtime friend, for reminding us in his new biography Havel: A Life. Publishers Weekly called it “a vivid and intimate biography of the playwright-turned-statesman who came to embody the soul of the Czech nation.” The review continues:

“Though Žantovský claims to have relied on his “dispassionate notes” and training as a clinical psychologist while writing, the unfettered access he enjoyed to Havel during his presidency’s most eventful years undoubtedly accounts for much of the book’s insight into his personality—equal parts self-doubt, stubbornness, and vision. After covering Havel’s riches-to-rags childhood (his family lost its wealth in the 1948 Communist takeover, when Havel was 12 years old) the book focuses on his achievements as a dissident, highlighting the qualities that made him the ideal person to peacefully negotiate an end to Communist rule during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Žantovský evokes the heady excitement of Havel’s early days as Czechoslovakia’s first popularly elected president, assembling a government of fellow artists and philosophers and pursuing a “continent-wide” agenda to bring his country back into Western Europe. Žantovský lends a more impartial eye to Havel’s subsequent 10-year term as president of the newly formed Czech Republic, when he was no longer at Havel’s side, and to the travails of his last years. This moving, perceptive chronicle succeeds in showing the many dimensions of a towering 20th-century figure.

It also gets high marks in an article by Daniel Johnson in the current issue of Standpoint (hat tip to Dave Lull for this), who remembers the Velvet Revolution:

It happened because Havel understood that those who overthrow a system have a responsibility to prove that they are morally superior to those they have ousted. He was magnanimous in victory: “Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them.”

For journalists who were there — watching and listening to the street theatre in Wenceslas Square, or taking notes at the press conferences held by the Civic Forum in an actual theatre, the Magic Lantern — the pathos of Havel’s performance was unforgettable. Nobody else — not even Alexander Dubček, who had seen the Prague Spring crushed by Russian tanks 20 years before, and who also stood on the balcony in the square — could have brought this drama to its climax. Havel was the Bohemian who personified la Bohème.

Revolutions are often betrayed and end in blood. Since 1989, we have seen the use and abuse of people power many times — most recently in the Arab Spring. Yet the Velvet Revolution remains as an unsurpassed model of peaceful change.

How did Havel do it? Tension had been rising since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. On November 17, 1989, the riot police crushed a demonstration in Prague and a student was (falsely) reported killed. Three days later, having set up the “Civic Forum”, Havel appeared before a sea of 150,000 people in Wenceslas Square. Once he had drawn a critical mass of people to the square, the old fear of the secret police vanished. The atmosphere was festive, never menacing, with speakers appealing to the crowds, who answered spontaneously but in unison. They dared to mock Miloš Jakeš, the general secretary of the Communist Party, who had hitherto been a much-feared bogeyman. “Miloš, it’s over,” they chanted.

And it was. Four days later, Jakeš and the rest of the party leadership fell on their swords and resigned. I recall the mood in Wenceslas Square when the news was announced. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, but the French Revolution was violent from the start. What happened in Prague in 1989 was nothing like Paris in 1789. The peaceful vigils in Wenceslas Square could not have been more different from the storming of the Bastille, let alone the Terror.

Read the whole thing here. And below, Wenceslas Square, just because I love it and miss it and want to go back. (Photo: Andreas Praefcke)

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Salman Rushdie, Timothy Garton Ash chat at P.E.N. festival in NYC

Monday, May 5th, 2014
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He’s still here, 25 years after the fatwa. Rushdie and Garton Ash chat. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

“If we all had a right not to be offended by anything that offended us, no one could say anything,” said Salman Rushdie at the P.E.N. World Voices Festival in New York City, in an onstage conversation with Timothy Garton Ash.  The man who has lived under a fatwa since Valentine’s Day, 1989 hasn’t given an inch: “I would not allow one of my books to be published with passages missing,” he said.

placard-1Zygmunt Malinowski recorded the event yesterday afternoon with scribbled notes and photos – alas, that appears to be the only recording of the event. However, Garton Ash’s “Basic Principles of Free Speech” are here. The Guardian columnist discussed how our idea of privacy has changed because of the internet and “that’s the side effect that we created ourselves.” Rushdie was amused at the modern “obsession with selfies.”

For its 10th anniversary, the P.E.N. Festival celebrates those who have dared to stand “on the edge,” risking their careers, and sometimes their lives, to speak out for their art and beliefs – the website is here.

Since we couldn’t attend in person, we’ll settle for Zygmunt’s account: “As I approached the stately Public Theatre downtown on Lafayette Street, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large colorful billboard advertising P.E.N. World Voices Festival. The photo on the placard, taken by the innovative photographer Sylvia Plachy, who lives near my neighborhood, is unusual. It depicts a mountain climber’s feet dangling over a precipice. It reminded me when, a few years ago, I was in an open-door vintage helicopter with my feet over the floor edge, photographing Colca Canyon in Peru, considered deepest canyon in the world. ‘On the Edge’ was the subtitle of the placard and it seemed such an appropriate image for this afternoon’s event. Weren’t writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz or Joseph Brodsky pushing the boundaries of literature, courageously ‘offering a vantage point from which to develop a deeper understanding of the intellectual landscape around the world’?”

Happy birthday, Milan Kundera! A few of his thoughts on “true human goodness.”

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014
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The birthday boy in 1980

Today is the 85th birthday of Czech writer Milan Kundera. The Czech Republic apparently has a lot of feelings about the event and the author, who has written only in French since the mid-1980s. From Radio Prague:

“Critics like Jiří Peňas from the Czech daily Lidové noviny have argued that Milan Kundera owes the Czech Republic nothing and that if anything, on the occasion of the author’s 85th birthday it is Czechs who could offer him thanks. In an opinion piece published Tuesday, Peňas reminded readers that Kundera’s novels cast a positive light on Czechoslovakia during the Iron Curtain, informing the West that the country was, culturally-speaking, not a Russian governorate where locals “blew their noses in the tablecloth”.

“In his Op-ed, Peňas alluded to the weight of Kundera’s “absence”, a question that has come up routinely since the Velvet Revolution. Why? Examples abound: when Mr Kundera allegedly visits friends in the Czech Republic it is incognito to avoid detection; when he was awarded state honours by the late president Václav Havel, he chose not to attend; and he has forbidden any of his new work to be translated into Czech. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in 2006, was the last.”

birthday cakeHis publisher Miroslav Balaštík said on the occasion: “For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.” I’ve just discovered the author for myself. I know… I know… I’m late to the table. My battered copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is heavily penciled, with all sorts of marginalia now. Those who have read it will appreciate his addition to the annals of literary canines, with Teresa’s dog Karenin – not to mention a very memorable pig as well. Since I am holed up right now, taking care of an ailing and disabled (but very beloved) dog, I thought a few of his animal-loving remarks would be pertinent for the occasion:

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Please get better, Poopsie.

“The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.

The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game – a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars’ – and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice on his dinner plate and apologize (belatedly!) to the cow. …

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”

“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 …