Vaclav Havel (1936–2011)

quarta-feira, dezembro 21, 2011

20 December 2011
Vaclav Havel (1936–2011)

There aren’t so many great men among us nowadays that we can afford to let the death of one of them go unremarked. So, a word about Vaclav Havel.

Havel, who died on Sunday (Dec. 18), aged 75, was certainly a great man. But he was not exactly a great writer, or a great thinker, or even a great statesman.

Rather, he was one of those “who have greatness thrust upon ‘em,” in Malvolio’s famous formula.(1) He tended to look ironically upon his own role on the world stage—as an unaccountable accident of fate that could easily have formed the subject for a play in the style of his beloved Theater of the Absurd.

Havel’s greatness lay primarily in the way he faced the moral challenges he was faced with. Part of this was simple physical courage—the mother of all the virtues.

It took courage to conceive and write plays that employed the tropes of existentialism to protest totalitarianism. It took courage to allow those plays to be produced abroad in the period leading up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It took courage to go on writing such plays afterwards, when they were banned, and he was fired from his position at the Theater on the Balustrade in Prague and sent to work in a brewery. It took courage to help produce the “Charter 77 Manifesto,” demanding that the freedoms guaranteed by the 1975 Helsinki Accords be respected. It took courage to withstand nearly five years in prison without going under. And it took perhaps the most courage of all to assume the presidency of a democratic, post-Soviet Czechoslovakia—a post he not only did not seek, but positively shunned—after the collapse of communism in 1989. Of his long struggle with lung cancer, there is no need to speak.

So, Vaclav Havel’s tremendous courage is not in question. But courage must be tethered to a moral vision in order to be great. It is worth pausing a moment, then, to ask precisely what his moral vision consisted in.

It seems that one place we must not look for elucidation of that vision is his private life. He could be vain to the point of betraying his own principles. His breakthrough play, The Garden Party, owed much of its success when it was first performed in 1963 to the editorial intervention of the director of the Theater on the Balustrade—a fact that Havel only grudgingly acknowledged in 1980. He was a compulsive philanderer, who repeatedly humiliated his devoted wife, Olga, in public. And many blame the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 on his self-righteous inflexibility and political tone-deafness.

But all such character defects fade into insignificance in comparison with the grandeur of the moral vision he communicated in his best moments, both in his writings and in his public actions.

What was his vision? It can be summed up in a phrase: “living in truth.” But, what exactly did Havel mean by this?

The expression derives from his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless“—most likely the piece of writing for which he will be best remembered—written in 1978 and originally circulated clandestinely. It is an elegant meditation on a striking image—that of a greengrocer forced to display a sign in his shop window, “Workers of the World, Unite!,” among the onions and the carrots, as Havel puts it. Here are some excerpts from this remarkable work:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. . . .

The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system. . . .

Thus, living in truth, for Havel, is the only conceivable means of struggling against such a state of affairs, because the struggle for freedom under such conditions must begin in the individual human conscience. By taking down the hypocritical sign from his store window, the powerless greengrocer declares his refusal to participate in the system of lies. He will pay a heavy price as an individual for his act of resistence, but at the same time his act affirms his power, because his example poses an existential threat to the system. Thus, the power of the powerless consists in living in truth.

By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety. . . .

The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. . . . it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

What were these “genuine aims of life,” for Havel?

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