Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011: He Had Things to Tell Us If We’ll Listen

Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident, former Czech president  died today at the age of 75. His obituary is all over the media. My favorites are the Christian Science Monitor’s, Vaclav Havel:  Remembering the Czech President, Playwright, and Peacenik   David Remnick’s, Postscript: Vlaclav Havel, 1936-2011 in the New Yorker online.

I have always believed there is a seamless line between art and politics (excluding Hollywood hacks, HuffPo progs, and Thomas Kinkade). I’m not sure if art or poliltics came first for me, but they have always been one in the other.  Mississippi Freedom Riders, Tuli Kupferberg, Yippie! the early Yoko Ono, Merce Cunningham, Charlotte Moorman, Norman Mailer, Gene McCarthy,  Gore Vidal, Beckett, Ionesco, Big Bill Haywood, The Velvet Underground, Randolph Bourne, Gilbert Seldes, Alfred Nock.  Even Thomas Jeffrerson and Beethoven are part and parcel of my political package tied up in a big red ribbon by Emma Goldman. So, it’s not strange that I came to Havel through theatre, not politics.  I’m hardly an expert on him so I won’t try to write about him.  I want, however, to post a couple things–or rather point you to them. 

I am particularity fond of Havel’s essay,  Totalitarianism  and Stories,  (April 1987), which weaves art and politics–the “story”and its negation–or as Havel calls it, its nihilization–in the totalitarian state  For those of us who have lived under a totalitarianism,  (even as I did in its death throes in the Soviet Union) his essay makes perfect sense. Important for us, is the essay’s  relevancy to the corpo United States today.  On the micro level, it is relevant to adoptee rights and how and why the corporate state and its special interests hold on to its control of our documents and identities. It’s what happens when nothing is left for them to do  Remember that: when there is nothing else for them to do . They’ve lost.  

I’m tempted to post the whole essay here, but it’s too long for a comfortable blog, and there may be copyright issues.  Instead I’ll excerpt a little bit below with a link  to the English translation.

Havel wrote: 

Visitors from the West are often shocked to find that for Czechs, Chernobyl and AIDS are not a source of horror, but rather a subject for jokes.

I must admit this doesn’t surprise me. Because totalitarian nihilization is utterly immaterial, it is less visible, more present, and more dangerous than the AIDS virus or radioactivity from Chernobyl. On the other hand, it touches each of us more intimately and more urgently and even, in a sense, more physically, than either AIDS or radiation, since we all know it from everyday, personal experience and not just from news~ papers and television. Is it any wonder, then, that the less menacing, less insidious, and less intimate threats are relegated to the background and made light of?

There is another reason for the triumph of invisibility. The destruction of the story means the destruction of a basic instrument of human knowledge and self-knowledge. Totalitarian nihilization denies people the possibility of observing and understanding its processes “from outside.” There are only two alternatives: either you experience it directly, or you know nothing about it. This menace permits no public reference to itself.


Totalitarian power brought bureaucratic order into the living disorder of history and thus effectively anesthetized it. In a sense, the government nationalized time. Thanks to that, time encountered the same sad fate as many other nationalized entities: it began to wither away.

As I’ve said, the revolutionary ethos in Czechoslovakia has long since vanished. We are no longer governed by fanatics, revolutionaries, or ideological zealots. The country is administered by faceless bureaucrats who profess adherence to a revolutionary ideology, but look out only for themselves, and no longer believe in anything. The original ideology has become a formalized ritual that gives them legitimacy in space and time, and provides them with a language for internal communication.

Oddly enough, it is only recently that this ideology has begun to bear its most important fruit, to manifest its deepest consequences.

How are we to explain this?

Simply: by the age and the deeply conservative (in the sense of preserving) nature of the system. The further it gets from its original revolutionary fervor, the more slavishly it clings to all its constitutive principles, which it sees as the only certainty in an uncertain world. Inevitably, through its own mindless, automatic motion, it gradually transforms those principles into a monstrous reality. The ceaseless strengthening and perfecting of totalitarian structures has long since come to serve only the naked self-preservation of power, but this is the best guarantee that what was genetically encoded in the original ideology will flourish undisturbed. The fanatic whose unpredictable zeal for the “higher cause” might threaten this automatic process has been replaced by the bureaucratic pedant whose reliable lack of ideas makes him an ideal guardian of late totalitarianism’s vacuous continuity.

The phenomenon of totalitarian nihilization is one of the late fruits of an ideology that has already gone to seed.
Frank Zappa & Valcav Havel

On a very different note, Havel’s relationship with Frank Zappa. 

“Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground.  I thought of him as a friend  Whenever I feel like escaping from the world of the Presidency, I think of him.” Zappa and Václav hit it off immediately. 

Zappa was appointed as “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism”. Czechs treated Zappa as a national hero, and he was even talking about applying for citizenship. Meetings were held with Zappa, Havel, his finance ministers and the Ministry of Culture and Trade. Frank had some ideas about increasing their tourism viability by converting some old castles into hotels and dealing with airlines to get more visitors into the country. There was also talk about credit cards and television shopping networks, both new concepts in Czechoslovakia. The main question was how to get western goods and services into the country. 

Two weeks later, US Secretary of State James Baker re-routed a trip through Europe to visit Václav Havel. At the time, Czechoslovakia was applying for badly needed aid from the US Government. Baker’s message was short and simple: Havel could either do business with the United States or he could do business with Frank Zappa. It would seem Baker had a bit of an axe to grind, since Zappa had insulted his wife, Susan Baker, before a Senate Committee hearing in Washington DC back in 1985 regarding censorship of rock albums and the PMRC. The PMRC, or “Parents Music Resource Center”, sought legislation for censorship of rock records. In the Senate hearing, Zappa referred to Susan and the others in the PMRC as “a group of bored Washington housewives”, and it would seem James Baker had not forgotten the insult. Zappa’s career as an international trade ambassador was over nearly as fast as it had begun.

Vaclav Havel & Lee Reed at Columbia

And this little story about a night out on the town with Havel, Zappa, Madaeline Albright, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. It can’t get any stranger that this.

Madeliene Albright and Lou Reed? Even more scary: US aid to the new Czech state was contingent on Havel’s shooing away Frank Zappa?  So much for the Cold War!

Havel at Columbia has a collection of video interviews with Lou Reed about Havel.

 Elegie from Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Band by Plastic People of the Universe

banned in Czechoslovakia 1973

One Reply to “Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011: He Had Things to Tell Us If We’ll Listen”

  1. Thanks Marley. Havel is one of my heroes. Here is my favorite quote from him, sent by a friend when I felt hopeless about my reunion:

    “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world . . . Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.

    Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons . . .

    Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather and ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is.

    Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

    Vaclav Havel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *