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Friday, April 25, 2003

Orwell as Chief of State.

A great article about the career of Vaclav Havel over at Reason Magazine. A fascinating portrait of the artist as crusader for (true) liberty, with all of the brilliance and quirkiness that implies:

Most normal politicians, after nearly 13 years in power (including two and a half years as president of a unified Czechoslovakia), would lament the end of their special treatment and cling to whatever bureaucratic influence they could grasp. But most normal politicians don’t make a life’s work out of analyzing the inextricable link between personal freedom and a society’s overall health. Though the Czech Republic is exponentially more free than it was when Havel first made his fairy tale ascent from gulag to castle, the former playwright has suffered personally under the constraints imposed by official decorum.

"What I really long for is that I shall be free of duties dictated by protocol," he told London’s Sunday Times earlier this year. "Naturally, I have had to express myself in a more cautious and diplomatic manner and I have not been very happy about it."

* * *

The first targets of Havel’s considerable wrath and sarcasm were the poor fools making "halfhearted" efforts at creating "Socialism with a human face." One of his first essays, 1965’s "On Evasive Thinking" (collected in the English-language volume Open Letters) makes cruel sport of a newspaper essayist who -- not unlike his modern American counterparts -- attempted to assess and then dismiss the broader significance of a temporal tragedy, in this case, a building ledge falling and killing a passerby. "The public," Havel wrote, "again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects of mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by [another] window ledge, and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk."

Here, in Havel’s earliest essay to be translated into English, you can already find the four main themes that have animated his adult nonfiction writing ever since. One is the responsibility to make the world a better place. Another is that the slightest bit of personal dishonesty warps the soul. ("The minute we begin turning a blind eye to what we don’t like in each other’s writing, the minute we begin to back away from our own inner norms, to accommodate ourselves to each other, cut deals with each other over poetics, we will in fact set ourselves against each other...until one day we will disappear in a general fog of mutual admiration.")

A third theme is that ideology-driven governance is practically doomed to fail. ("It prevents whoever has it in his power to solve the problem of the Prague fa├žades from understanding that he bears responsibility for something and that he can’t lie his way out of that responsibility.") Finally, there is his belief in the revolutionary potency of individuals speaking freely and "living in truth."

* * *

Once in office, Havel took pains to remain himself. On his first New Year’s speech, in 1990, he started by saying "I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you," and from that point on tried to give his fellow citizens the feeling that one of them was up in the Castle. The same impact can be seen on many of his foreign admirers; when I ask my American or British friends who lived in Prague to tell me their favorite story about Havel, it usually involves them bumming a smoke off the guy, or sharing a urinal, or seeing him with a hot blonde at a rock show. Though he quickly grew out of the blue jeans phase, and was careful about the ceremonial dignities of office, he was forever injecting informality into the serious work of public life. He was trying to practice democracy with a human face.

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