Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Vaclav Havel's To The Castle and Back

In one of a series of grand revolutions that swept over Europe in 1989, the Czech playwright Václav Havel, then the most prominent dissident in his country and indeed one of the cogent critics of totalitarianism in the world, was swept into Prague Castle on the wings of what came to be called the Velvet Revolution. It was a fairytale conclusion to a lifetime of difficult and often lonely political opposition that had included several years in prison.

But if that moment was romantic, the years that followed, and which are described in Havel's new memoir To The Castle and Back – one short term as president of Czechoslovakia, and the two full terms at the helm of the Czech Republic – were mostly prosaic. The man who previously had followed the path of his conscience and had freely spoken his mind now entered, half-willingly, the world of bureaucracy, diplomacy, suits and neckties, compromise, caution, acronyms, and rhetoric – entered the massive precincts of Prague Castle, one of the oldest and largest seats of a head of state in the world, "almost literally a city within a city" – a site whose architecture seemed designed specifically for murky and furtive conduct. "Just think of those long corridors! They actually seduce one into a kind of life in the corridors of power, invite one to invent and spread rumors, to weave intrigues." To The Castle And Back might be read as an account of idealism in politics as tempered by the push and pull of worldly forces: of the castle of the self in the castle of power.

Havel’s book is actually a tripartite collaboration between himself, his long-time friend and translator Paul Wilson, and the respected Czech journalist Karel Hvizdala. The work is not one continuous narrative, but a selection by Havel of notes, memos to Castle staff, and diary entries between 1993 and 2005, interspersed with long, thoughtful answers to probing questions by Hvizdala.

This makes for a highly appealing structure in which, as in politics, profound and mundane concerns are thrown at each other. Here the President can be heard making a grand point about democracy as “a relationship to the world and to society, a way of thinking” or voicing fears that the Czech Republic "would forever remain in a sphere of dubious quasi-democracies, teeming with populists and nationalists"; there he is found arriving to the conclusion that “We need a longer hose for watering”, or asking “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?”, or stating, "I'm sending a percel of shirts for Mrs. Ouskova." Havel’s memos to the staff emphasise the quotidian and practical aspects of politics, and his replies to Hvizdala the larger shape of his thought and the range of his concerns.

Here, by way of illustration, is a question by Hvizdala about the European Union, which was established in 1993 and which the Czech Republic joined in 2004, alongside other formerly Communist states who had existed for several decades behind the Iron Curtain of USSR-led communism:

Hvizdala: The old member states have contributed significantly to the development of the new members who are all less evolved because of long years of communist rule. Do you think that we can ever pay them back? What do you say when you are reminded of this subsidization?

I think that we have an opportunity to pay them back in a certain way already, and one can even see situations in which we are already doing this. I'm thinking about our political voice. The European Union occasionally still suffers from the old European disease, which is the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one's eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement or even of accommodation, vis-à-vis totalitarian systems, that is determined by economic interests. Some politicians, those who have not experienced fascism or communism, are incorrigible in this regard. I think that the new members of the European Union, who have a relatively recent experience of totalitarianism, are perhaps duty-bound to take a more principled position – should it occasionally be necessary – and to monitor the European Union in this regard, or educate it. It's in everyone's interest. Accommodating evil has, so far, never forced evil to retreat, or to become more humane; on the contrary, it has always made life easier for it. In the end, when confrontation came, the price that everyone had to pay was infinitely higher than the cost of a firm stance.
Unsurprisingly, one of the main themes of To The Castle and Back is man's struggle with language, and also a writer's love of ordered and precise language – indeed the durability of language in a world of transient things. Caught up in the drudgery of statecraft, he muses, "How wonderful it is, by comparison, to be a writer! You write something in a couple of weeks, and it's here for the ages. What will remain when presidents and prime ministers are gone? Some references to them in textbooks, mostly likely inaccurate."

Among the tasks that Havel is seen taking most seriously is his speechwriting: a recurring issue of these pages is the pressure of composing speeches for all kinds of occasions. “For many years now, my weekends have more or less all been occupied with the writing of speeches," he is found complaining in 1998. "It's awful." Elsewhere, he reveals why the composition of speeches take so much out of him: "I try to write speeches as if they were short poems. They have to have a beginning, a structure, an end, their own melody, energy, and drama. Otherwise it’s impossible.” And at the close of the book we find this beautiful meditation on language:

The beauty of language is that it can never capture precisely what it wants. Language is disconnected, hard, digital as it were, and for that reason, but not only for that reason, it can never completely capture something as connected as reality, experience, or our souls. This opens the door to the magnificent battle for expression and self-expression that has accompanied man down through history. It is a battle without end, and thanks to it, everything that is human is constantly being elucidated, each time somewhat differently. Moreover, it is in this battle that man in fact becomes himself. As an individual, and as a species. He simply tries to capture the world the world and himself more and more exactly through words, images, or actions, and the more he succeeds, the more aware he is that he can never completely capture either the world or himself, nor any part of the world. [...] It's a Sisypean fate. But it can't be helped: man will carry the complete truth about himself to the grave, though someone, in the end, will know that truth after all: if not the Lord God, then at least the great memory of Being.

"I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe that the moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal." These words late in the book contain the essence of Havel's thought, and if Indian readers find them familiar, it may be because they so closely resemble the thought of Gandhi, who, like Havel, sought to restore the spiritual and ethical dimension in politics, and whose thought, like that of Havel, achieved an extraordinary balance of idealism and realism. Havel, like Gandhi, insists that external change is meaningless without a change within; his observation, in his book Letters To Olga, that
The importance of the no­tion of human responsibility has grown in my meditations. It has begun to appear, with increasing clarity, as that fundamen­tal point from which all identity grows and by which it stands or falls; it is the foundation, the root, the center of gravity, the constructional principle or axis of identity. . . . It is the mortar binding it together, and when the mortar dries out, identity too begins irreversibly to crumble and fall apart
would have been unquivocally endorsed by Gandhi.

Havel’s place in history, grand themes, distinctive organization of his material, fidelity to language, powers of self-scrutiny, and commitment to "living in truth" make for a work that should become a classic of political literature.

And here are links to enough essays by or on Havel to keep you going for a couple of days: "Kicking The Door", an essay published in 1979 ("The strange thing happened then: I became suddenly furious..."); "On The Temptations of Political Power", a speech given in 1991; "A Word About Words" ("thanks to the miracle of speech, we know, probably better than the other animals, that we actually know very little, in other words, we are conscious of the existence of mystery"); "The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World"; "A Farewell to Politics"; "Stories and Totalitarianism"; "Politics and Theatre" ("A friend once said that politics is 'the sum of all things concentrated.' It encompasses law, economy, philosophy, and psychology. Inevitably, politics is theatre as well...In a theatre, our consciences are touched but responsibility ends when the curtain drops. The theatre of politics makes permanent demands on us all, as dramatists, actors, and audience") "Civil Society and Its New Enemies" ("Human beings are not only manufacturers, profit makers or consumers. They are also – and this may be their innermost quality – creatures who want to be with others, who yearn for various forms of coexistence and cooperation, who want to influence what happens around them")"Edvard Beneš: Dilemmas of a European Politician"; "Redefining The West"; "The Intellectual and Politics"; "The Spires of Renewal"; "Politics and Conscience"; "What Communism Still Teaches Us", and lastly, perhaps Havel's most famous essay "The Power of the Powerless".

And here is an old interview with Havel conducted by Michael Bongiovanni "in semi-clandestine conditions at Vaclav Havel's home" in June 1989, shortly before the Velvet Revolution ("What we want, here and now, are simple, elementary things. Without reference to any ideological framework, beyond all ideology. We aspire to a share in the basic values of life, those which simple common sense and elementary human dignity demand we should be entitled to."), and another interview from 1993 published in the literary magazine Artful Dodge. Also, here is an essay called "Exit Havel", written by David Remnick on the occasion of Havel's departure from office in 2003. The philosopher Michael Hodges and the political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain usefully discuss Havel as a "performer of political thought" here.

And some old posts on books by or about politicians: Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope; Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose, and the memoirs of General Pervez Musharraf.

No comments: