Since 1990 Václav Havel has been for me endlessly fascinating. First, I heard him quoted in a lecture. A few months later I read Disturbing the Peace, which derives from an interview with him in the late 1980s. The clincher came when I read these remarks made to a joint session of the U.S. Congress a few months after his election to the presidency of Czechoslovakia:
The only genuine backbone of all our actions—if they are to be moral—is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged.
I was stunned. How long has it been since similar words were spoken by a head of state to a parliamentary body of another country? When did anyone publicly call our nation's politicians to be responsible to anyone but the particular interests of pressure groups or the more appropriate interests of the public? Responsibility to "the order of Being" that can and will judge them and us? Bracing stuff! I was hooked.
As I read more about who this president was and where he had come from, the mystery of his words became both more explicable and more obscure. Here was a man born into the utter confusion and tragedy of a nation under the heel of Hitler's boot, a nation that, when Havel was ready for university, would not allow him an advanced education because he was just a "bourgeois brat." But this brat with ingenuity and drive teamed with others his age in an informal group that called itself the Thirty Sixers (for their birth year), quietly talked radical politics, and hung out with older dissidents. In the army he wrote a humorous play that spoofed the military and delighted his buddies.
He followed up on this spontaneous discovery of ability in drama, became a worker in an "off-broadway" theater in Prague, wrote, directed and performed absurdist plays reflective of Ionesco and Beckett, twitted the state-approved writers, defended writers and musicians unjustly imprisoned, and wrote a brilliant political essay, "The Power of the Powerless," that brought down on him the power of the powerful. He linked himself with major dissident figures like philosopher Jan Patocka, along with whom he drafted Charter 77, calling for the Czech authorities to honor the commitments they had made to human rights.
The increasing volume of his dissident voice landed him in prison on numerous occasions. From there he wrote to his wife what must be his major literary and philosophic accomplishment, Letters to Olga, which, being cleverly cast in obscure syntax and diction, got past the censors, and circulated in samizdat. Havel's fame as both playwright and political gadfly grew at home and abroad so much so that, when the time was ripe (much of that ripeness produced by Havel himself), he became an obvious choice for president of his country. Already an internationally recognized playwright, he quickly launched himself on the international political scene, speaking to parliamentary bodies in Europe and North America and to universities around the world. Without formal university education, he has received numerous awards and honorary degrees.
Since Havel has achieved distinction in all three phases of his life—dramatist, dissident, politician—one might imagine that his life is an open book. Not so. The only previous attempt at a biography is Edá Kriseova's Václav Havel, an "authorized biography" written quickly after Havel became president and at Havel's request; it bears all the marks of both haste and uncritical devotion. Moreover it leans heavily on what Havel himself has already said in Disturbing the Peace, a book based on an interview with Havel before the velvet revolution in 1989. I welcome, therefore, the attempt by John Keane, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy and professor of politics at the University of Westminster, to fill in many of the details of Václav Havel's life and to set that life in the context of recent Eastern European history and the Czech and Slovak culture. In Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, Keane fills in hundreds of missing details that bring Havel into clearer focus. We learn, for instance, about his family, his father's political views, his mother's love for books, his brother's scientific and philosophic pursuits, and his uncle's eccentric life. And especially for readers like me, we learn about the Czech and Slovak cultural and historical background. Keane gives us a sense of what it was like to live under the erratic totalitarian rule of Nazi thugs; to sense the relief when the Russians liberated Czechoslovakia and then the tragic grief of the quickly imposed Soviet system; to taste the growing freedom that came with the Prague Spring of 1968 and then the utter despair that followed the August appearance of Russian tanks in Prague and the violence that followed. We learn what "normalization" meant when Alexander Dubcek's communism with a human face was quashed.
Since not all of Havel's plays exist in English translation, those of us who do not read Czech or have access to unpublished mss. can appreciate, for example, Keane's summary of Havel's version of The Beggar's Opera, performed only once in Czechoslovakia, after which the authorities made life miserable for both performers and those in attendance. We already knew about Havel's extramarital affairs, but Keane gives more information and tells us about Olga's affair as well. Beyond our prurient interest in mere gossip, Keane gives us details of some of Havel's illnesses, especially the more recent ones, and attempts to reveal some of the personal and psychological dimensions of his life that are hidden to the public.
All this is to Keane's credit. But there are serious weaknesses in his work, many of which derive from his stance as a biographer. I know from experience in trying to understand the person and character of those whom I do not personally know but whose works I have read exhaustively and am teaching to others that understanding a person is the hardest job a scholar ever has. People are too complex for anything more than a tentative assessment. But some explanations are more on target than others. And all explanations are predicated not just on the intelligence of the explainer but the perspective from which that explanation comes and the rhetorical forms in which it is expressed. On both of these scores, Keane, I think, stumbles.
Let me take the rhetoric first. Keane explains that his account is factional, meaning, he says, that his story involves selection and interpretation. So far so good. But just what this means remains vague. He also says that he tells his story by means of tableaux vivants that, first, place the details of Havel's life in the context of broader events, and, second, "have the 'cubist' effect of producing deliberately broken narratives that warn readers from the outset that the stories told here are 'fabricated' by certain—but changeable—points of view." Keane succeeds at both, but the result is a narrative that is not always sufficiently tied to dates and times. Moreover, some of his "context" is not just historical, political or cultural but sentimentally "moral." Keane the wise pundit sprinkles throughout the narrative a half-dozen or so inane, overwritten "set pieces" on such themes as war (p. 65), friendship (p. 183), courage (pp. 263-66), temptation (p. 318) and, the worst offender, death (pp. 494-505), about which more later.
This punditry is, of course, easily forgivable, I hope. But less forgivable is the perspective from which these tableaux vivants are written. Keane says he wants to "heighten readers' sense that his [Havel's] actions in the world are understandable as tragedy" (p. 8), thus the subtitle of the book: "a political tragedy in six acts." It may be that the tragedy is to see Havel's life as a tragedy whose last act is already written. In the final chapter, "The Gift of Death," Keane describes in gory detail Havel the chain smoker's most recent health problems—removal of a colostomy, performance of his fourth tracheotomy, bronchial pneumonia, removal of a cancerous tumor, electrical shocks to his heart to restore normal heart beat and blood pressure, removal of half of one lung and so on. Then Keane meditates on death, unaptly representing the Christian concept of death as "a blackened and lonely event filled with sobbing, brave speeches, dirge, mourning loss" (p. 494). Keane lets his imagination run:
Each day of his life saw him lose ground. His body gradually gave him the slip. One by one, sometimes obviously and otherwise discreetly, his organs took their revenge upon his power by detaching themselves from his body. It was as if they escaped from him and no longer belonged to him—that against his own orders his heart and lungs and bowels turned traitors, committed acts of indefinable treachery that were impossible to denounce or arrest, since they stopped at nothing and put themselves in no one's service. Such treachery threatened to turn him into a flesh-and-blood ghost and forced him in turn to reconsider his strong yearning to ignore death (p. 501).
In essence, Keane has Havel die before he dies. What could enter into the head of a biographer to do this boggles the mind. But I do have one suggestion, and not one kind to the biographer. Keane cannot bring himself to accept the sincerity of Havel's call to responsibility. Keane sees Havel first and foremost as politician, not as many would a dramatist accidently become president or a moralist who really acts (albeit while admittedly stumbling) on his own sense of morality. Keane seems too intent on cutting Havel down to the one-fits-all size of the stereotypical politician. Havel may not be as good as the myth of Havel would have it. But he is not as bad as the biographer become muckraker would make out.
So who is the real Havel? No one save that Being to whom Havel calls us to be responsible knows. But let me end this review with my take on Václav Havel. I see Havel as a man with a philosophy that is significantly integrated into his own active life. The core of that philosophy—which Keane barely mentions—is the notion of a supreme Being who appears to Havel bearing all the characteristics of a theistic God but whom Havel refuses to identify as the God of any particular theistic religion and whom he neither worships nor commends others to worship. The main function of this Being is to form an absolute transcendent foundation for what are two of Havel's most repeated themes: responsibility and living in truth. His challenge to the U.S. Congress to such responsibility is the key to both his character and his political action.Havel is also a man of great existential uncertainty, one who, on the one hand, lives in the world that Kafka so graphically depicts in The Castle and The Trial, a world in which right and left, up and down, are never determinate, and, on the other hand, has implicit and profound faith that behind this world is a Being that makes sense of it all to whom we are responsible. He has a faith, probably too much faith, in the fundamental goodness of human nature as it gets its roots from the non-technological Lebenswelt, a peasant "life-world" that is lived close to the soil. He distrusts power, especially his own power; he has not, I think, lost this distrust even when he finds himself occasionally succumbing to its corrupting force.
And here is where Keane and I part company. Keane cannot imagine a basically "honest" politician. I can. His politician is the tragic hero who rises to power only to fall. My politician writes comedies; absurd comedies on the surface, but, like his own absurdist plays written decades ago, absurd comedies that assume that a rational, moral order lies just behind the stage and makes what happens on the stage truly humorous because the audience senses in its ethical gut the presence of the rational and moral.
In reviewing Keane's biography in the Literary Review, Anne Applebaum says, Havel is "deserving of a better biography than John Keane's slightly peculiar one, which insists in perceiving his life as a terrible tragedy." I agree.
James W. Sire is the retired editor of InterVarsity Press and the author of The Universe Next Door. He is currently working on a book on Václav Havel as the "intellectual conscience of international politics." His Habits of the Mind: The Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling will be published by InterVarsity Press this summer.
Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts was
published in the UK last year by Bloomsbury and will be
published in the U.S. in May by Basic Books.
See more biographical information about Vaclav Havel on his official site, CNN, PBS's Online Newshour, ABCNews, Britannica.com, The Economist, and Civilization magazine.Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.comBooks & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:An Open Letter to the U. S. Black Religious, Intellectual, and Political Leadership Regarding AIDS and the Sexual Holocaust in Africa
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