An All or Nothing Gamble: Václav Havel and His Spiritual Revolution

“MICHAEL,” said former Czech president Václav Havel to his now-biographer Michael Zantovsky when they met for the last time, “I am a ruin.” At that point, they had known each other for more than 30 years. Zantovsky had covered Havel as a journalist for Reuters, then collaborated with him during the run up to the 1989 Velvet Revolution that over-threw the repressive communist regime, and finally served as Havel’s press secretary for the first two of his four terms as president. In his introduction to Havel: A Life (now out in paper from Grove Press), Zantovsky anticipates the critique that he is being self-serving or indulging in sentimental hagiography and — as Havel himself might have done — openly questions his fitness to serve as Havel’s biographer. “My own relationship with Havel can best be described by a word that I use with the utmost reluctance,” he writes. “Being in love with the subject of one’s biography is not necessarily the best qualification for writing it.”
And yet it is just that intimacy — that proximity — that makes Zantovsky’s version of Havel’s life unique in the world of political biography, and that drew me to it. Václav Havel is firmly ensconced in my own personal hall of heroes (and I’m hardly alone), but now he lives in the nation’s as well. Last fall, a bronze and gold bust was unveiled in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, making Havel one of only four foreign leaders to be included in the Rotunda. There was rare bipartisan agreement on Havel’s worthiness to be honored — soon to be former House Speaker John Boehner lauded him as a lion in the defeat of communism and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi valorized him as a warrior for human rights.
Indeed, it is difficult not to romanticize the Havel story. Though he was born into a well-to-do family, those very privileges put him on the outs with the communist authorities from the moment they took over postwar Czechoslovakia. He was labeled a “bourgeois element” and was denied even a traditional high school education. Following night school and a stint in the military, Havel fell in with a group of writers and artists, and began to publish poems, essays, and plays. In 1963, he wrote The Garden Party, an allegorical farce that became the hottest ticket in town. From 1963 until 1965, hordes of young people waited on line for tickets, some of them seeing the play more than a dozen times.
The Garden Party and several of the plays that followed were well received not only in Prague but also in theaters throughout the West, raising Havel’s profile abroad and giving him a small but steady source of income. While his reputation as an artist grew, so did his visibility as a resistor to Czechoslovakia’s restrictions on free thought and expression. Though the 1968 Prague Spring and resulting Soviet crackdown were the focus of the world, Havel’s true breaking point came a few years later — in 1976 — when members of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe were arrested, tried, and convicted for aggravated hooliganism. Though the Plastics were far outside Havel’s social and intellectual circles, he dove into a defense of the band, arguing: “If today young people with long hair are condemned for their unconventional music as criminals without notice, it will be all that much easier tomorrow to condemn in the same way other artists for their novels, poems, essays, and paintings.”
Many other writers and artists signed on to Havel’s letter, arguing that a threat to speech somewhere was a threat to speech everywhere. But Havel’s reaction to the trial was both deeper and more nuanced. It was both personal and metaphoric:
It does not happen often and usually it happens at moments when few expect it: something somewhere snaps and an event — thanks to an unpredictable synergy of its own internal prerequisites and of more or less random external circumstances — suddenly oversteps the limits of its position in the context of habitual everydayness, breaks the crust of what it is supposed to be and what it appears to be, and suddenly discloses its innermost, hidden and in some respects, symbolic meaning.
From that point on, Havel was on a collision course with Czech authorities, resulting in several arrests and prison stays, the longest extending from 1979 until 1983. As Zantovsky characterizes it, rarely has a political movement been born requiring “nothing more and nothing less than staying true to oneself.”
In the ongoing argument amongst American writers and artists about whether we have an obligation to participate in public life, I fall firmly in the “yes” camp. I am afraid, though, up to now my reasons have been pretty vague — or, to put a more positive spin on it, mostly intuitive. But Zantovsky’s biography gives us an up-close look at what it really means for a writer to be at the center of a revolution. There is, of course, what Zantovsky calls the “strangely bookish tinge to modern Czech history,” but he also offers us a deeply personal portrait of a man who was all artist and yet was so engaged in the fate of his country that he became the face of a revolution and its first post-communist president.
Václav Havel brought the interiority and relentless self-examination of his plays to his life as both dissident and president. As Zantovsky puts it: “Havel offered his own criterion of an artist’s value, a criterion he did his best to live up to for the rest of his life. It was to live a ‘spiritual story.’” That interiority was not rooted in the stereotype of the tortured artist or even in a mere disposition, but was at the heart of Havel’s beef with the communists. In one of the high points of the book, Zantovsky recalls the speech that then-President Havel gave to a joint meeting of the US Congress in February 1990. Havel brought the legislators to their feet when he said: “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.” Yet several members asked Havel afterward what he had meant when he said: “Consciousness precedes being and not the other way around.”
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