JANUARY 26, 2012
The Village Voice gives out theater awards called the Obies (for Off-Broadway), and during the 1980s the Voice’s theater department voted to bestow one of those prizes on the distinguished absurdist Václav Havel, who dwelled in the faraway absurdistan known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In their New York productions, Havel’s plays ran at the Public Theater, and everyone who kept up with the downtown scene knew them well. The plays were splendidly mordant. They were dry, sometimes drier yet, until you could find yourself wondering, as the subway rumbled darkly beneath your seat, “Can life really be so bleak?” The plays were oddly funny, though.
Only, having been awarded the Obie, Havel was unable to make his way to New York to attend the ceremony and bask in applause. There is not the slightest doubt that, given his druthers, Havel would have jumped at the chance to participate in such an event. We know he would have jumped because we know what happened next—namely, that even after he led the Velvet Revolution, and ascended to the presidency of his suddenly ex-communist country, and reaped admiration the world over, and exchanged beatifications with the Dalai Lama, he still boasted of having won an Obie from a New York newspaper called The Village Voice. To be accurate, the Voice awarded him three separate Obies. He was a recidivist.
But he was unable to attend the awards ceremony back in the 1980s because, in those pre-revolutionary days, the Czechoslovak Communist Party kept arresting and re-arresting him, which made him a recidivist of a more conventional and dismal sort. He was incorrigible. He spent more than four years in the communist prisons. There were two weeks in solitary and repeated bouts of pneumonia. By 1983 his health was crumbling, and the authorities, exasperated at their own victim, offered to release him, if only he would request a pardon. But a request would have implied acknowledgment of guilt. He came down with pneumonia again. He could barely breathe, and even then the bastards had no intention of letting an unrepentant man slip from their control. They brought him, handcuffed, in an ambulance to a prison hospital. He ended up in a civilian hospital with superior care only because a Czech exile in Vienna got up an agitation abroad, and the communists were fearful of embarrassment. His lungs never did fully recover.
He smoked cigarettes, too, which may have given him pleasure, but ultimately brought on still graver difficulties. Anyway, the normal everyday air was dreadful in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, visibly atrocious, as if the sky were streaky with crows. By the 1980s, life expectancy was said to be five years less among Czechoslovaks than among the equally industrialized but more hygienic Austrians, who also enjoyed the benefits of democratic liberty. And so the Havel who racked up those many world-historical achievements—as playwright, dissident, orator at Wenceslas Square, recipient of standing ovations from the U.S. Congress, and so on—was, for much of his adult life, a man with damaged lungs and recurrent health problems.
By 1996, in the seventh year of his presidency, a combination of cancer and pneumonia set in. Havel’s staff was dominated by people who, like himself, had evidently never made the upward transition, psychologically speaking, from the harried lowly ranks of persecuted dissidents to the comfortable responsibilities of lofty state power. The staff, in its dissident mentality, had failed to prepare for the most predictable of contingencies, which in Havel’s case was lung disease. The doctors removed half of one of his lungs. The operation led to a new infection. This was not unusual. The infection turned severe. This was a problem. But no one had established a chain of command among the medical experts, and the doctors fell into a feud with one another, Prague clinic versus Prague clinic. A lung ventilator stopped working. The doctors panicked. Havel’s systems were thought to be failing.
Havel’s first wife had died not long before, but now he had someone new, an actress named Dagmar Veškrnová, who, under these frightening circumstances, asserted her own authority as unofficial new wife by calling in a faith healer. The faith healer was said to have made use of a shark’s fin. And who is to say, really? The fin may have done the trick. Veškrnová also called on a Czech friend with American connections, which may or may not have been the State Department, and the American connections called in a doctor of their own. This was a Canadian in New York named Robert Ginsberg, chief thoracic surgeon at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The New York Canadian turned out to be a keen admirer of Václav Havel, and he departed instantly for Prague. He entered the clinic, marveled at the 1970s-style medical equipment, and noticed at a glance that Havel had been put on the wrong level of oxygen. The surgeon ordered a change in dosage, peered through a tracheotomy incision, manipulated a bronchoscope, cleaned out the president’s insides, and two days later returned to New York, confident that his patient was going to recover. Veškrnová remained at Havel’s side all the while. So it might have been the faith healer, or it might have been the New York surgeon, but either way, through magic or science, Havel survived. Or love might have been the crucial factor. But recovery was not instantaneous. Surgery leads to depression, too.
THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE sent me to interview Havel in the months that followed, but appointments with the recuperating president were not so easy to obtain. I presented my credentials at the giant cupcake of a castle that sits atop Prague—Hradschin, “the Castle”—and was told to try my luck again in a few days. A few days later my luck failed to improve. I hung around in the reception room. People clamored for admittance, and among the crowd I recognized the face of Joseph R. Biden, Democrat from Delaware. Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he was more than delighted to pump the hand of anyone on assignment for The New York Times Magazine. Biden’s skin glistened. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee was there with a little party of Americans, including the American ambassador and an interpreter and an aide or two, and he and his party were ushered into the Castle for their audience with the president. And since Biden had evidently conceived a fondness for me, I saw no reason to abandon our budding friendship now. Wordlessly I tiptoed after the senator into the Castle, quite as if I, too, had been invited.
The five or six of us trooped along a corridor, up a wide stone stairway, and through vast feudal galleries lined with vertical windows that overlooked Prague and an enormous sky and, even so, appeared to admit scarcely any light, as if the medieval duty of those ancient windows was to maintain a decorous gloom. Just now I have read a description of the Castle by the French writer Chateaubriand, who visited the place in 1833 in the course of concocting a royalist plot, and I see that, from the 1830s to the 1990s, not much changed, apart from the candles. The corridors and the stairways and the sparseness of furniture reminded Chateaubriand of prisons and monasteries, and those same precincts reminded Biden of the Pentagon, or so he remarked as we trod the halls. Such was the interior of the cupcake.
Havel awaited us in his meeting room, together with a cagey-looking adviser, one of his cabinet ministers, and an interpreter. His skin did not glisten. Biden gave an impression of being taller than he was, and Havel, the opposite impression. Everyone took a seat at a long table—the officials, the aides, the interpreters, and I, the non-speaking trespasser, busy taking notes, whose presence no one questioned. The agenda of the meeting was delicate. The question was NATO, and whether the military alliance should expand into the former zones of the Warsaw Pact by admitting the Czech Republic.
For a brief moment during the Velvet Revolution, Havel seemed to take the view that, in a post-1989 world, his country ought to avoid getting involved in the battle of the superpowers and stay away from NATO. But his thinking had evidently evolved. He had come to believe that his tiny Czech Republic ought to join NATO as a full member (and in later years he insisted that he had never thought otherwise, and always yearned to enlist in NATO). Enlisting in NATO was not a popular proposition among ordinary Czechs in 1997. Czech instincts had always tended toward neutralism, pacifism, and generally the policy of giving no offense, which was not a bad policy during the later years of the AustroHungarian Empire. There was even a short period after World War I when the Czechs succeeded in ruling themselves, together with their neighbors the Slovaks. Over the centuries, though, the inoffensive Czechs had mostly been ruled by everybody but Czechs. Prague is an architectural marvel today because, when the Nazis invaded, the citizenry wished to avoid enraging the Germans, which meant putting up no resistance; and Prague’s architecture achieved an excellent survival rate. In regard to NATO, ordinary Czechs wondered, why enrage the Russians? In 1997 the Russian ambassador threatened to cut off the Czech Republic’s access to natural gas if the Czechs joined NATO. Even so, Havel was pro-NATO.
Senator Biden admired Havel’s position. Everybody was of one mind. Still, Biden had something to add. It was a matter of enthusiasm, and of funding. Joining NATO was going to require the integration of military forces and technologies and the offering of military guarantees, and all of this was going to be terribly expensive. Biden explained that, even in Poland, where people were euphoric about joining NATO, they were not being realistic about the costs. In the Czech Republic, worse yet, Havel’s prime minister was committed to balancing the budget. Biden pointed out that, if the Czechs joined NATO without raising their defense expenditures by a significant percentage, the United States was going to end up footing the bill. His fellow senators back in Washington were going to object. The Senate was not going to permit NATO’s expansion under those conditions. His voice rose. He invoked a terrible figure back home in the Senate named Christopher Dodd, who was already threatening to turn America’s attention away from Europe in the direction of Latin America.
“Mexico is fifty times as important to us as you are!” Biden said. Havel’s cabinet minister spoke up. He explained that the Czech Republic understood that each country had to pay its way. The minister wanted to know the goals. He wanted to be assured that everything had been realistically conceived. Biden exploded. “Let’s get this straight,” he said. “No one is asking you to join.” Biden had no intention of conducting a negotiation. “You would like to join,” he told the Czech leaders. They were also free not to join. And America was free to accept the advice of Senator Dodd and the champions of isolationism and to turn away from Europe altogether. He pointed out that, from an American standpoint, Asia, too, was extremely important, and not just Mexico. “Democracy is a bitch,” concluded Senator Biden.
Havel mumbled something about having already spoken to Jesse Helms, which suggested that he himself, the president, had a clear idea of the Senate and its thinking. But mostly Havel looked sallow and depressed. I followed Biden and his party back through the monastic galleries and stairways and out to the little plaza in front of the Castle, and as we made our way down the stone stairways, I sympathized keenly with poor Havel, the recipient of what had seemed to me an unforgiveable harangue from Biden. Mexico fifty times as important as the Czech Republic—what kind of arrogant remark was that to make to the Czech president? To the hero of 1989? I understood why the world hates America. It was not even that Biden held Mexico in especially high regard. Many years later, over dinner in New York, a retired senior government minister of Mexico told me that, when he was in office, he had met with Biden and a group of other senators, and Biden had launched into an equally insulting harangue about how Mexico ought to clean up its drug problem. Mexico’s official returned from the meeting in a fury.
THEN AGAIN, after a few hours of seething, the Mexican official reflected that Mexico’s foreign policy ought not to depend on his own feelings of personal injury, and Mexico did have national interests, and he ought to pursue them, regardless of Senator Biden. In a similar fashion I returned from the meeting at the Castle to my hotel at Wenceslas Square, and I resumed my own responsibilities, which at that moment required an investigation into the grandeurs of Czech beer. And, as my research deepened, I reflected on my own encounter with Biden, and I found myself concluding that, from a hardheaded point of view, Biden had done a good thing at the Castle.
He had laid out reality to the Czech leaders. The leaders were guaranteed not to like it. Given that most Czechs were afraid of NATO anyway, raising the defense budget in order to join was going to be doubly unpopular; and the unpopularity was bound to encourage the Czech leaders to engage in the kind of wishful thinking that prompts people to ask for clarifications, discussion of tiny points, debates over unlikely contingencies, and so on. The leaders were going to pore over Biden’s every last word to see if, beneath the bluster, he was holding out a possibility that faraway America would eventually offer a more palatable deal, and NATO could be had on the cheap. Senator Biden had made it impossible to entertain any such hope. He did not care whether the leaders of foreign countries looked with affection upon Joseph R. Biden. He preferred his messages to be unmistakable. A few well-chosen insults about the insignificance of the Czech Republic were guaranteed to deter anyone from getting all dreamy and unrealistic about American generosity. I came away respecting Biden. He was right about Mexico and its drug problem, too. Still, poor Havel.
I returned for my own private interview at the Castle, which was not so private as to fail to include Havel’s political spokesman, together with the interpreter and a couple of aides. The editors at The New York Times Magazine knew that I was an old Village Voice writer, and they remembered that I had run around Prague during the later weeks of the Velvet Revolution as the Voice’s correspondent, a prestigious thing to be in Prague at that moment. I had even spent a few years in the Voice’s theater department, humbly occupying the very lowest spot on the reviewers’ rotation. The Times editors hoped that, with downtown Manhattan credentials such as those, Voice-like vibrations would lead the president of the Czech Republic to go beer-cellar-hopping with me, ruminating over Frank Zappa and the mysteries of the cosmos. This was of course a wonderful idea. In real life, President Havel received me at the same table as before, sitting stiffly with his team. I laid out to him what seemed to me a mystery.
The revolutions of 1989 were more than European, and they had overthrown dictatorships of all sorts, communist and otherwise, in the name of democracy. But nowhere in the world had anyone succeeded in presenting a full exposition of the democratic ideal and its grandeurs and weaknesses. The revolutions had ended up, as a result, a political success and an intellectual failure. One of the only people anywhere in the world who did manage to lay out larger thoughts to a general public was Havel himself. If 1989 could claim a philosopher, Havel was that singular person. And yet his ideas about democracy displayed all sorts of odd traits, touching on spiritual or perhaps religious themes.
I invoked Walt Whitman, whose democratic ideas were likewise spiritual—explicitly “religious,” in Whitman’s word, though religion, to Whitman, signified no particular rite or chapel. Whitman’s ideas were cheerful and optimistic, though, and Havel’s tended to be, like the Castle, morose. Havel was always predicting that mankind was headed toward a colossal disaster. Another peculiarity: Havel drew a few thoughts from Heidegger and his followers. Heidegger spoke about something called capital-B Being, and Havel, too, spoke about Being. Heidegger held out a despairing hope for a new god, and Havel, too, speculated about a new god. Here was something to ponder. Heidegger and the Heideggerians regularly veered off the highway into the anti-democratic right or the antidemocratic left. Heidegger was a Nazi. Sartre, the French Heideggerian, had a soft spot for Stalin. What was there in Havel’s Heideggerian inspiration that was going to keep Havel, too, from running into a ditch? Or, if you granted Havel his reliable good sense, what was going to keep his flakier admirers on the straight and narrow? Didn’t we need a stronger emphasis on rational thinking, instead of a weaker one, as he seemed to argue? This was a question. In any case, what could account for his success at capturing people’s attention around the world?
Havel heard me out. He attributed his worldwide fame to a series of events that allowed people to picture his career as a fairy tale, from prison to the Castle, in which truth had defeated lies; and he worried that fairy-tale traits made his thinking look too simple. Then again, he acknowledged that, as political leaders go, he did have an unusual quality. For instance, he wrote his own speeches. He had visited the United States in 1968, and the opportunity arose to visit the White House, and the person he had encountered there was a species unknown to himself, a “speechwriter.” He marveled at the existence of such people.
He did not want his own ideas to be chalked up to ideology—did not want to be called a Heideggerian, or a Kafkian, or a Milton Friedmanite, or any such thing. He granted that Heidegger had spoken about a new god, and Heidegger had also spoken about Nazism in a friendly way. But he pointed out that Heidegger’s comments about the new god and his comments about Nazism had appeared separately—in two different interviews—and should not be melded together. Havel suggested that, in holding Heidegger against him, I was dealing in journalistic clichés. Here was a jab. He also judged that capital-B Being was one of those words that does not translate into English. He had discussed the matter with his English-language translator, Paul Wilson. A vexing matter. Anyway, his big point had to do with the limits of rationalism. People had embraced science and Marxism and all kinds of modern ideas in the belief that rational analyses were guiding their steps. But something other than rational analyses always turned out to be at work. We would do better to acknowledge the limits of our understanding. We should recognize that something stands above us, beyond our understanding.
He granted that, in modern times, it has become unfashionable to speak about democracy in connection to anything above us or beyond our understanding. This was of course the crucial point. To write one’s own speeches was unusual, but the content of those speeches made them triply unusual. He stood in a grand tradition, though. He invoked the American Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers spoke about a Creator. Why, after all, does man have a right to freedom and a right to dignity? Who has bestowed these rights? They do not come from treaties. They are not human inventions. They are gifts of the Creator. The rights also imply a duty to the Creator. Havel cited the Declaration of Independence—all of which seemed to me rather stirring, given that, unlike a lot of people who natter on about the Founding Fathers and Thomas Jefferson, Havel meant what he was saying, and the Czech Republic was there to prove it. He was Thomas Jefferson. Without slaves!
Still, I did not take him to be a man of the eighteenth century. His proposed new god, for instance, did not have an Enlightenment look. Havel paused to reflect on the god. A new god, he told me, would most likely be abstract and multicultural—a god who brought together Allah, Buddha, Christ, and so on. Only, having made this remark, he reflected a little more and specified that he was merely throwing out ideas in a conversational spirit, and he did not want me to publish these particular thoughts. (And I did not, although now that fifteen years have gone by and Havel has passed into history, I figure that the statute of limitations has been reached. Nor were these notions of his a secret.) Of course I could see why he was in no rush to be quoted. One of his closest advisers had confessed to me that even his inner team rolled their eyes over Havel’s screwy ideas. A multicultural god—“multicultural” was his word—might upset the various mono-cultural churches. There was no reason to start up pointless controversies over theological musings of a kind that might, in fact, have been enhanced by beer.
Even so, I did not think that Havel was being screwy. I thought he was being nineteenth century, instead of eighteenth. “Multicultural” is strictly a modern word, but the Romantic poets, some of them, loved to go on about notions of god that were recognizably the same—a universal and abstract god consisting of Pythagoras, Jove, Jesus, Muhammad, the god of Hiawatha, and anyone else you cared to add. Havel seemed to me in the Romantic vein. Philosophically speaking, the leader of the 1989 revolution was an 1848-er. I never had the opportunity to return to this theme, though—to talk with him about, say, Alphonse de Lamartine, the French poet, a solid Catholic who evolved into a solid pantheist and ended up as the leader of the 1848 revolution in France for a while: one of Havel’s obvious predecessors in the field of revolutionary-poetic nation-leading. Of course, Havel was enjoying a greater success than Lamartine’s.
Instead the conversation took an unfortunate turn, as if the new multicultural god, annoyed at the denial of publicity, had chosen to throw a fit. Havel’s private life during the course of his convalescence had erupted into two distinct and awkward controversies, like bedsores. As soon as the doctors gave him permission to venture out into the world, he straightaway formalized his relationship to Ms. Veškrnová. Here was evidence on behalf of the medical benefits of love. But the marriage went down poorly among the Czech public. The ordinary public figured that Havel’s much-admired late first wife had died too recently to allow him to remarry. Also the public took a dim view of the second Mrs. Havel’s background as a flashy actress. My own impression of the new wife, the times I saw her, was entirely positive. I watched her button the president’s overcoat when the air turned chilly. She brought her grown-up golden-haired daughter along to public events.
But Havel’s larger problem bore on his brother’s wife, and not his own. This was a matter of real estate. Also of politics, regrettably. Havel and his brother, Ivan, had inherited a grand wreck of an Art Deco theater-palace in Wenceslas Square, and Ivan’s wife wanted to devote herself to renovating the building. But Václav wanted to sell his share. He arranged a deal with a Czech businessman whose reputation was not ideal, such that people took him to be a Russian agent. The businessman was, in fact, at least formerly a spy. Various journalists in Prague had pounced on Havel regarding this point, and among those journalists was the son of a couple of leading dissidents from the heroic days of the 1970s and 1980s. Havel was bound to feel that he had been stabbed by an ungrateful offspring of his own circle.
Since I, too, was a journalist—the jab was accurate—it was plainly my obligation to inquire into the real estate deal. Havel until that moment had by and large refused to speak to the press about the affair, and I brought it up for discussion fully expecting that, on this topic, he would decline to speak to me as well. He did insist to me that his business quarrels ought not to be of interest to The New York Times. Still, he chose to regard my question as a new take on the philosophical discussion that we had already been conducting—in this instance, a question about how his philosophical principles translated into practical life. He put it that way. And then, having supplied his own high-minded explanation for why he should speak about the real estate deal, he launched into a tirade. He thought the Prague journalists were unjust, outrageous, and hypocritical.
His spokesman suggested that our conversation ought now to address the spiritual values of NATO. Havel said: “So let’s speak about the spiritual values of NATO.” I pursued the real estate dispute for another moment. This time it was Havel who exploded. He hated hypocrisy, he said. He had spent his life fighting hypocrisy. He was currently under accusation from hypocrites. If he followed their advice and did not sell his share of the building, the building would collapse and he would be jailed. The hypocrites said they were in favor of business success, but they were full of criticism of successful businessmen—meaning, the businessman to whom he was selling his share of the building. The Hilton Hotel chain may have a good reputation, he observed, but Hilton had not made an offer for the building. As for the businessman who did make an offer, the journalists said he used to be a communist spy. But didn’t the whole of society under the old regime spy upon one another? Wasn’t an open and professional spy preferable to the hidden spies?
The spokesman broke in again. It was not a good idea to defend the businessman, he said. But Havel was on a tear. The spokesman again: “OK, let’s talk about NATO and let’s finish.” Havel said to the interpreter, “Let him not write about it at all,” referring to me. Nor would he look at me. He addressed every word to the interpreter. Ultimately he allowed his spokesman to drag him back to NATO. He explained to the interpreter that NATO’s purpose was to protect the values of democracy—a post-cold-war purpose, something larger and different from opposing a Soviet threat that no longer existed. And he stopped. His heart was right now not in NATO. I made my lonely way back down the stone stairways of the Castle sorry indeed that I had bummed the man out. But what are we journalists to do? I blamed Biden.
VÁCLAV HAVEL, in his years as dissident and president, came up with three ideas that I think will linger with us, hopefully long. You can find them most clearly stated in his early essays—“The Power of the Powerless,” the “Open Letter to Gustáv Husák,” and others-and in some of the later speeches. The first of those ideas is his notion of “post-totalitarianism.” A totalitarian society is a place where huge numbers of people have been whipped up into ideological fervors and hatreds, and everyone else and even the political fanatics live in a state of terror, petrified of the police and of the neighbors and of their own heretical thoughts. A “post-totalitarian” society, as Havel describes it, is the same place a few decades later. Fervors have cooled. No one takes the totalitarian ideology seriously anymore. The police are no longer so violent. But the system remains in power, and the ideology still serves as the glue that holds everything together, which means that everyone feels obliged to keep up a pretense of belief, perhaps even to themselves. In a “post-totalitarian” age, even falsity is mediocre. And people live in fear of getting thrown out of the mediocre and mendacious system.
Havel argued that, in a “post-totalitarian” society, the way to rebel is simply to stop pretending to believe. You do not need to lay out a thorough political criticism or to announce a new doctrine. You should simply engage in—here was his second idea—the practice that he described as “living in truth.” Some of the first people to “live in truth” in the post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia of the 1970s were the rock musicians. The whole point of rock music, or a certain kind of rock music, is to puke at sentimentality—which is to say, at hypocrisy and lies. The rock musicians in the 1970s entertained that idea, and Havel was among the first people to organize a defense campaign on their behalf, after they came under persecution. He understood that a post-totalitarian regime could not survive if anybody at all took to speaking truth, above all from a public stage with crowd-pleasing electric guitars. Truth-speaking on any topic whatsoever was sooner or later going to lead to truth-speaking on political themes, and once a few undeniable observations had entered the general conversation, how was society going to keep up the pretense of belief?
His third idea was the fuzzy one—the idea about the multiculti new god, or the something-or-other “above,” or the capital-B Being that he drew from Heidegger and did not want to be associated with Heidegger: the idea that I tried to talk about during my moment at the Castle. This was always the least fashionable of his ideas. Now that he has died, I think I see the pertinence of this last and fuzziest of ideas a little more clearly. Havel was frightened by atheism. In his eyes, communism was atheism’s apotheosis. Communism led everyone to focus on material circumstances and to dream of improving the circumstances, and to dream of nothing else. For why should anyone dream of anything more than material improvements? More does not exist. Such was atheism’s message. To pine for a new automobile made sense, but there was no point in contemplating the state of your soul.
Communist despotism in the “post-totalitarian” period depended on people drawing this kind of distinction—between the reality of material things and the non-reality of things having to do with the soul or with Being. So long as everyone adhered to materialist principles, the Central Committee could get along without firing squads. The regime stayed in power merely by manipulating the distribution of products and privileges. You wanted a Skoda? You mumbled the communist slogans, and you avoided mumbling anything else, and after a few years of reliable obedience your own name would ascend to the top of the waiting list, and—oh greatest of all conceivable joys!--a Skoda would be yours.
Truth-telling, by contrast, required a belief in something that seemed to you preferable to material things—a more that was better than a car, therefore something for which you might willingly sacrifice your chance of getting a car. Your own personal dignity was something to consider. But you needed to be able to explain, at least to yourself, what was so great about your own dignity. Havel’s capital-B Being, whatever its provenance in Heidegger, was at bottom a retort to Marx, who had famously proclaimed that “life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life,” meaning material life.
Nor was this a problem merely for the unfortunate populations who might live under a communist dictatorship. The Western-style democracies boasted of rule of law, human rights, democratic elections, market economies, and so on. Havel reminded everyone that these institutions, for all their charms, are “technical instruments,” useful only for achieving other purposes; and it was still necessary to acknowledge and refine and choose among the other purposes. In his estimation, an acknowledgment of other purposes required a notion of the transcendent.
It is interesting to glance back at a lecture that Havel delivered at Stanford University in 1994, collected in The Art of the Impossible. The lecture offers Havel’s response to Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory, which Huntington had presented the year before as a response to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History.” Havel’s response to Huntington was mixed. Havel considered that in the past there had been many civilizations, but the modern world had replaced the many with a single global civilization. Mass communications made everyone a participant. He granted that different cultures had gone on displaying their various traits, such that, when he visited Greece, not so distant from the Czech lands, he was struck by the difference of traditions and histories. In this respect his quarrel with Huntington over the notion of “civilizations” was semantic, with Havel substituting “culture” for “civilization.” He was happy to speak about what he called “the basic values of the West,” meaning a democratic market society with human rights. He looked on the “rapid dissemination” of the Western values as “the only salvation of the world today”—the best guarantee of “human freedom, justice, and prosperity.”
Only, he could understand why, in different parts of the world, the spreading of these particular Western values might arouse skepticism and hostility:
The main source of objections would seem to be what many cultural societies see as the inevitable product or by-product of these values: moral relativism, materialism, the denial of any kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal, a profound crisis of authority and the resulting general decay of order, a frenzied consumerism, a lack of solidarity, a selfish cult of material success, the absence of faith in a higher order of things or simply in eternity, an expansionist mentality that holds in contempt everything that in any way resists the dreary standardization and rationalism of technical civilization.
He blamed the democratic world for what he called “its limited ability to address humanity in a genuinely universal way.”
As a consequence, democracy is seen less and less as an open system that is best able to respond to people’s basic needs; as a set of possibilities that must be continually rediscovered, redefined, and brought into being. Instead democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that can be exported like cars or television sets, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not.
In other words, it seems to me that the mistake lies not only with the backward consumers of exported democratic values, but in the very form or understanding of those values at present, and in the climate of the civilization with which they are directly connected, or seem to be connected in the eyes of a large part of the world. And that means of course that the mistake also lies in the way those values are exported, which often betrays an attitude of superiority and contempt for all those who hesitate to accept the offered goods automatically.
Havel figured that a more spiritual concept of democracy would help to resolve what he called, in a key slightly lower than Huntington’s, the “conflicts of cultures.” The whole point of his multiculti god was to look for a spiritual language that was not going to be tied to any particular religion, and therefore could address everyone. Then again, he did not want to leave everything in the hands of the multiculti god, either, or in the hands of capital-B Being or the whatever-it-might-be. He considered that individual and personal responsibility came first. “Consciousness precedes Being,” he told the U.S. Congress in his famous speech of 1990, in clear indication that here was not an American politician. “For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humbleness, and in human responsibility.” You have got to think for yourself, in short.
Do these remarks of his on spiritual questions and personal responsibility and democracy promotion add up to airy nonsense, and nothing else? I think that world events during the last few years have been kind to these remarks. Historians have spent hundreds of years predicting the decline of religion, but we are not right now living through a decline of religion. In any case, Havel’s eloquence, like Jefferson’s, was chiefly as a man of action, and only secondarily as a thinker; and the fuzzy ideas about Being or the multiculti god plainly contributed to the eloquence of his actions.
Religious ideas are usually said to be an argument against what is called “relativism,” or the idea that nothing in particular should be regarded as absolutely important. In one respect, though, the ideas that Havel liked to entertain did promote a kind of relativism, and this was in regard to his own life. If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk. Havel seems to have understood pretty clearly that his own life was not the greatest of all possible values. In 1983, when they carried him off in handcuffs to the prison hospital because he had refused to request a pardon—at that particular moment his lungs had trouble breathing but his brain seems to have had no trouble recognizing that his own continued place on earth was not his highest goal. If he had come to a different recognition, would the rest of his life have spoken to us as eloquently as it does? He was one of the greatest and most heroic figures of modern times, or maybe of all time, but he was a great and heroic figure because his own thinking gave him the courage to risk not being anything at all.
Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the February 16, 2012 issue of the magazine.