Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)

Václav Havel, one of the most profound statesmen of recent times, has died at age 75. He started his career in drama and first became famous as a playwright. Because of his active support of Czechoslovakian freedom in the Warsaw Pact Invasion, his works were banned from stage in 1968 and to support himself ended up having to take a job in a brewery. He wrote a play about this experience, and other plays as well; although no one could stage them, people all over Czecholslovakia copied them and read them in secret. He became one of the founding members of the Charta 77 group and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. He was imprisoned several times, once from 1979 to 1984. Things turned when he became one of the leading figures of the Velvet Revolution; on December 29, 1989, he was elected president of Czechoslovakia by the Federal Assembly, which was confirmed by popular vote in June of the next year. One of his first acts as president was a general pardon for the imprisoned, arguing that the corruption of courts under the Communist regime meant that none of its verdicts could be trusted. (It was an act for which he was severely criticized.) It was he who withdrew Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw Pact. He opposed the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, but when it was a done deed, he became president of the Czech Republic. He was also a cancer survivor.

He was not a perfect man, but in everything he sought to live according to his motto, Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate. We are less for having lost him.

Every story begins with an event. This event-- understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logic -- initiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.
(from Stories and Totalitarianism)


  1. Catherine Hodge9:51 PM

    One of our houseguests this weekend was a historian who specializes in the nastiness of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In speaking of Vaclav Havel, he related a joke that was popular in the region in the time of the totalitarian regime, illustrating the differences between Poland and the Czech Republic.

    The Czech dog and the Polish dog meet up at the border, each dog crossing into the other's country.
    "Why are you going to my country?" asks the Czech dog.
    "Oh, I want to get some things I can't find in Poland," replies the other. "Some good food, maybe. Some stockings for the wife. But why are you going to Poland?"
    The Czech dog says, "I just want to bark."

    We were in Prague in 1999 and stayed in a hostel in the basement of a large hotel. It had been a prison in Communist days, and we were told that Havel had been there. The hostel still had the huge metal cell doors, but they'd all been painted pink. The place was known as "The Pink Prison", and was remarkably comfortable for a hostel, even considering that there were five of us staying in one room, in bunkbeds. Our major regret was that we had black and white film in the camera, so our pictures don't reflect the utter absurdity of the pink prison doors.

  2. branemrys11:04 PM

    It says something about Eastern Europe that it is unsurprising to find a hotel that was once a Communist prison.


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