If your conscience is clear, you’ve nothing to worry about. Your innocence will be proved, but you have to fight for it! I believe that if one doesn’t give way, truth must always come out in the end.
Maria in Václav Havel’s Vyrozumení (The Memorandum) (1966)
In certain countries, theatres do not merely hire half-starved performers to act out the writings of half-starved writers. They also launch revolutions. The activity on the stage of a theatre assumes a force that moves beyond its confines, seeping into the barracks and at stages, rumbling parliaments and party rooms. This took place in Hungary in the anti-Stalinist movement of 1956, led by such figures as those of the Petőfi circle who proved so convincing they even won over state agents who had been deployed to gather information on their activities. The intellectual formula was replicated in 1968 and 1989 in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Central European wit, bolstered by ethics, has also showed a tendency to be lethal – at least to authority. It is, what the Hungarian writer George Mikes characterized so aptly when looking at Yiddish humour, a ‘minority giggle’, the humour and absurdist expose of the oppressed. Ideas subtly expressed can be disabling weapons of the most dangerous sort.
The theatre of the absurd became one of the most formidable expressions of that sentiment, and in Czechoslovakia, it was led by the late Václav Havel. In Havel’s own words in a 1986 interview with Karel Hvížd’ala that form of theatre was:
the most significant theatrical phenomenon of the twentieth century, because it demonstrates modern humanity in a “state of crisis,” as it were. That is, it shows man having lost his fundamental metaphysical certainty, the experience of the absolute, his relationship to eternity, the sensation of meaning – in other words, having lost the ground under his feet.
Havel himself cut his teeth at the Theatre on the Balustrade in the Prague of the 1960s, producing characters who knew ‘the phenomenon of embarrassment’. With The Memorandum (Vyrozumení) performed there in 1966, he critiqued with relentless savagery the perversions of a bureaucracy obsessed with language and the elimination of errors within it. In the play, the all-encompassing new language to be introduced is that of Ptydepe, one built on supposedly watertight scientific principles that will eliminate the prospect for all confusion. The catch behind the language is the need for an enormous apparatus to affect it.
The language of dissidence has its assortment of contradictions. For one, it often seems futile, seemingly playing permanent catch-up an establishment that already poses the answers in advance. In that sense, Havel was right to suggest that a populace can deserve its own unsavoury regime – to a certain extent – given a degree of compliance. Even the critic can surrender to the very same authoritarian tendencies he or she assails with public conviction.
For all the hagiographic tributes that are bound to, and have already accumulated in number, it would be fitting to remember the intense complexities of Havel’s life, be them personal and political. In the 1980s, when it came to vying for the title of most popular dissident, a seeming contradiction in terms, Havel was busy in the background undermining his rivals with sinister relentlessness. As Slavoj Žižek reminded readers of the London Review of Books (Oct 28, 1999), ‘when a potential rival emerged, doubtful rumours would start to circulate about the rival’s links with the secret police.’ Indeed, he proved to be a very skillful political operator, negotiating the Velvet Revolution with effect and purpose.
But Havel’s contradictions go beyond that. We see in Havel two images, that of the triumphant dissident who railed against the cynicism of decaying bureaucratic socialism, and the individual who, as Žižek put it, ‘babbles about the anthropic principle and the end of the Cartesian paradigm’, a being who embraces ‘New Age ruminations that aim to legitimize NATO military interventions.’
Indeed, Havel began to fetishize the human rights program as the ultimate panacea, suggesting its almost deistic origins independent of political manipulation. To combat the intransigent Serb leader Slobodan Milošević over his heavy-handed actions in Kosovo, it was imperative that ‘evil must be combatted and that force can be used in combatting evil if it becomes truly necessary’ (Ottowa Citizen, Apr 17, 1999).
In his address ‘Kosovo and the End of the Nation State’, delivered before the Canadian Senate and House of Commons in Ottowa on April 29, 1999, he stated his virtual religious belief in human worth as something that was divine, ‘while the state is a human creation’. Enter then, the age of imperial humanitarian interventions that are, ironically, enacted by those very humanly fabricated nation-states he found distasteful and repressive.
To get a better sense of Havel unplugged, one could do worse than have a go at John Keane’s Václav Havel: Political Tragedy in Six Acts (1999). At the core of the philosopher politician lies an ethics that will itself mimic the very object it unmasks, ridicules and unsettles. Havel’s courage and role in history should not be doubted, but nor should the fallibility of his mission go unnoticed.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com