Seeing the human world as it really is: Vaclav Havel 1936–2011

December 18, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Vaclav Havel, a man Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt calls “[o]ne of modern Europe’s most important, strongest and bravest voices,” has died in his sleep at the age of 75. Havel, a playwright and dissident, was the driving force behind the so-called “Velvet Revolution” that saw the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. He became increasingly politicized after the Prague Spring of 1968, and was one of the men responsible for drafting Charter 77, a declaration decrying human rights abuses on the part of the Communist Czech government.

Havel’s plays were banned in his own country, and he was imprisoned for his dissident views and statements. He nevertheless became – along with Polish leader Lech Walesa – one of the symbols of the downfall of European Communism associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the country split in 1992. Despite opposing the breakup, Havel stood for election as president of the Czech Republic in 1993 and won; he held the position until 2003.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, described Havel as “a great European.” Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, went even further, calling Havel “a trailblazer for European reunification,” a somewhat ironic characterization given the Euro zone’s current uncertain future.

Havel was a persistent humanist and employed the rhetorical skills he honed as a playwright and essayist to win broad support for his reforms. In one of his most famous essays, “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, Havel muses over the philosophical nature of existence in what he termed a “post-totalitarian” society, and anticipates some of the challenges our current postmodern world faces:

The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.

Havel goes on to identify society’s “willingness to surrender higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization” and its soporific “vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference” in terms that eerily presage our existential dilemma in the second decade of the 21st century.

As an intellectual, essayist, and playwright, Havel was highly attuned to the nature and power of words – in particular, the power of words to twist and obscure meaning. When the German Booksellers Association presented him with their Peace Prize in 1989, Havel took the opportunity to muse about the slippery nature of language and the various ways it can be corrupted by those seeking to gain and hold the reins of power:

No word – at least not in the rather metaphorical sense I am employing the word “word” here – comprises only the meaning assigned to it by an etymological dictionary. Every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays. The same word can be true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another, machine-gun fire resounds in its every syllable.

I can rightly say that as far as we Czechs are concerned, the age-old animosities, prejudices, and passions, fueled and fanned in so many ways over the centuries, have evaporated in recent decades. And it is no coincidence that this has happened when we have been saddled with a totalitarian regime. This regime has cultivated in us such a profound distrust of all generalizations, ideological platitudes, clichés, slogans, intellectual stereotypes, and insidious appeals to various levels of our emotions, from the baser to the loftier, that we are now largely immune to all hypnotic enticements, even of the traditionally persuasive national or nationalistic variety. The stifling pall of hollow words that has smothered us for so long has cultivated in us such a deep mistrust of the world of deceptive words that we are now better equipped than ever before to see the human world as it really is: a complex community of thousands and millions of unique, individual human beings in whom hundreds of wonderful qualities are matched by hundreds of faults and negative tendencies. They must never be lumped together into homogeneous masses beneath a welter of hollow clichés and sterile words and then en bloc – as “classes,” “nations,” or “political forces” – extolled or denounced, loved or hated, maligned or glorified.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN UPDATED. The original post misidentified the title “The Power of the Powerless.” TSR regrets the error.


One Response to “Seeing the human world as it really is: Vaclav Havel 1936–2011”
  1. Damo says:

    Steven, thank you for such a good article.

    I do not know if you have every heard of Theodore Dalrymple?

    Here’s is an extract from his book, the Wilder shores of Marx. He also mentions Vaclav Havel. I hope you enjoy it.