The Magazine

Rebel with a Cause

Vaclav Havel from dissident to president

Nov 6, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 08 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
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Worse, at least a part of Havel's claim to intellectual fame looks, in retrospect, far less certain than it once did. Havel's plays have not stood the test of time. Once, the fact that they seem a bit like a juvenile attempt to out-Kafka Kafka could be politely ignored: Merely to stage one was a political statement. Now, however, with their wooden characters, each one representing a social type -- the Communist Official, the Bourgeois Intellectual, the Dull Conformist, the Rebel -- and their heavy parody of bureaucratic language, they seem tedious. Here are a few lines of dialogue from The Garden Party, written in 1963:

Secretary: You are now at the main entrance B13. You can buy here a general ticket which entitles you to move freely throughout the whole area of the garden and to visit almost all the events organized within the framework of the Liquidation Office Garden Party.

Clerk: There is, for an example, an informal chat with the Head of the Development Department about new liquidation methods, taking place in the area around the Little Pond --

Secretary: An entertaining Quiz programme on the history of the Liquidation Office, taking place in Summerhouse No. 3 --

Clerk: Or the programme of humourous stories from the liquidation practice of Section 5 which have been written down and will be narrated by the Head of Section Five. . . .

Secretary: And in which you yourself can participate, provided you have sent the exact text of your story together with a health certificate and a permit from your Head of Section to the Secretariat of Humour and to the Ideological Regulation Commission at the latest two months before the date of this Garden Party.

And so on, and on.

For these reasons and others, John Keane's recent biography of Havel -- the first substantial book about the Czech president to appear in English -- doesn't try to whitewash any of Havel's flaws. Subtitled "A Political Tragedy in Six Acts," Keane carefully catalogues the man's physical decline and paints a devastating, almost luridly melodramatic portrait of the Czech president. Havel seems, by the end, like a man clinging to power, hungering after lost youth, engaged in a bitter, losing fight against death. Keane even quotes Adam Michnik, the Polish polemicist -- and Havel's friend, a co-member of the class of 1968 -- asking Havel, "What will you do, how will you feel, when the clapping stops and the hissing and heckling begins?"

Answers Keane, "Perhaps the only person suitably qualified to reply, if only he could, was the figure of death on the enchanting medieval clock in Prague's Old Town Square."

Yet those who consider Havel a disappointment at best, a failure at worst, generally miss a few things about him. For one, out of that whole, promising generation of Central European dissident politicians, he was the only one capable of summing up their activity into a piece of coherent political philosophy. He was indeed a mediocre playwright, but his plays were bad because they were too obviously political.

His famous 1979 essay, however, "The Power of the Powerless," isn't hampered by that flaw. Clear and concise in an almost Anglo-Saxon fashion, it is also just about the only political tract written by the 1968 generation that actually had any international influence and merits re-reading. By contrast, the writings of Miklos Haraszti (a Hungarian of comparable glamour) now seem dated: His book, The Velvet Prison, will be relevant only to historians of Hungary. The same is true of Michnik (perhaps the only Pole of comparable fame). Michnik's most celebrated essay -- a tactical argument in favor of reconciling the Polish Church and the "Lay Left" (in order to fight communism) -- doesn't have relevance anymore even in Poland, where the Church and the "Lay Left" (led by Michnik) are again at loggerheads.

But "The Power of the Powerless" sums up the theory of resistance to totalitarianism in a way that is relevant not only to Central Europeans but to anyone living under a regime that tries to control every aspect of its subjects' lives, from work to school to leisure. To fight such a state -- and to live an ethical, moral life -- Havel promoted the notion of "living in truth." This did not necessarily mean going to demonstrations or waving banners. Instead, Havel advocated living one's everyday life as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible.