Sunday, September 20, 1998
By Ashok Chopra
IF English literature concerns itself with what it means "to be" something or someone, European literature deals with what it means "not to be" something! to be in flux, in change, in metamorphosis. This leaves the English with little taste for ideas disguised as literature and the Europeans even less for creative work without any theories to support it. Generally speaking, there is almost no public role for the literary intellectual in England, unless he is also a novelist, poet or playwright, whereas in Europe a writers imaginative writing often seems to be not much more than a handy way to drawing attention to ideas. The hero in Albert Camus The Fall remarks, "it always seemed to me that our fellow citizens had two passions: ideas and fornication." In the heart of Europe Czechoslovakia even the latter had to have something a little abstract about it.
In this column I am referring to the works of Vaclav Havel whose central place in modern Czech thought and his power as a writer, derive not so much from his originality as from tradition: he represents a direct link, a continuity, with the noblest strand of Czech thought, its democratic traditions or rather, its commitment to democratic and humane principles even when those principles seemed hopelessly lost. They also derive from his way of writing. His special power as a writer is his capacity to see things from below, from outside the purview of power and advantage and particular interest.
First, Havel the playwright. And here one has to look at Temptation one of his most talked about plays, and a classic in its own right.
Like all contemporary East European writing that is written at home and not in exile, it is "double-think, double-talk" that expresses the artistes "consciousness of importance" against the faceless monster. Temptation is a small play, loosely based on the legend of Dr Faustus, that gives an account of his life in an academic institution in East Europe. The cast too is small The director, his deputy, a disgruntled scientist, Dr Henry Foustka, the Mephisto figure called Fistula, and a few office secretaries. The director, a deeply corrupt party hack, runs the research institute as if it were a department store. The deputy director is constantly scrapping and kow-towing to his boss but curses him behind his back. Dr Foustka is totally disgruntled with research and turns to study the theory and practice of torrid love affairs. Fistula eggs him on but turns out, predictably, that he is working for the secret police. The denouncement takes place. Dr Foustka is "exposed" for his unscientific temper but gets another chance to "correct" himself before being sent off to be the supervisor of a car parking lot.
With some grimly amusing dialogue and some bizarre love scenes, the play has some carefully plotted obviously pointed action. It is plotted and pointed because the whole purpose of the play is to expose the machinations of the socialist state.
As a political play, Temptation exposes the totalitarianism of a socialist state the same wind of bureaucratic hamhandedness that exists everywhere the "sub-text" of the play is individual seeking to defend himself by heroism, or compromise, or convictions. This comes through sharply in some of the exchanges between Dr Foustka and Fistula who sums up the pre-eminent place of the state in the modern world. "To lie to a liar is fine, to lie to those who speak the truth is permissible, but to lie to the very powers which furnish us with the ability to lie and to ensure that we do with impunity thats really unforgivable." As for him, he loads man with a multitude of unrealistic commandments and so he has no alternative but to forgive from time to time. Others, on the contrary, liberate man from these impossible commands and as a result of they do not have the need, the opportunity or ultimately the ability to forgive. Even if they had it, they could scarcely forgive someone who goes back on the agreement that opens up all this boundless freedom. The entire world would collapse if they were to do that. The truth of the matter is, that only by undertaking to be faithful to the authority that gives us this freedom can we hope to be freed.
It is this play if the individuals motivations and the scope of freedom to follow ones convictions within the play that gives strength to Temptation.
Temptation is against psychologising and the false humanities, against scienticism and the abuse of everything natural. The play is based on fear. The greasy Fistula does not even want a soul that badly, and the coward Foustka is afraid for his position in society, which he confuses with life. Fistula cannot take him seriously; he is a devil, but he is also Czech, raised in a henhouse somewhere, plastered with chicken droppings. Nothing is sublime in this play; every thing is discredited, common and devalued. At times Fistula, seemed like a devil; at times an angel. In many ways its an unsetting play. It is very difficult for one to see to the bottom of its depths depths that open, unsettle and tempt everyone of us. "This is how great literature should be; it does not forgo witchcraft; it is witchcraft. The writer has purloined something from a treasure board guarded by angels or devils. He has entered the forbidden cave, and no writer escapes punishment if he enters this cave. To write a genuine work is hard experience for a writer. Once the writing is complete, there follows a loss of meaning and a feeling of emptiness. For example, they had to watch over Virginia Woolf whenever she finished writing a book, to prevent her from harming herself. Once they did not watch over her. She filled her pockets with rocks and walked out into the water until she drowned." Such examples are plenty in the world of literature.
Havel came into the limelight with his earlier plays The Garden Party and The Memorandum both inspired by the theatre of the Absurd. The Memorandum, to this day, remains his most widely performed play. And, also the one which best shows off the hallmarks of his gift: the fascination with language: the invention of an absurd society raised only notch or two above the world of state bureaucracy; "the absurdities pushed to absurdity compounded by absurdity and yet saved from mere nonsense by their internal logic. And, not least, the playfulness with which it is done, the almost gentle refusal to indulge a sense of grievance, the utter lack of righteous or petulance the same quality, in fact, which was to distinguish Vanek plays years later." In The Memorandum we are a monolithic state organisation attempting to replace the existing vernacular with a synthetic language ptydepe, that will iron out the ambiguities and imprecision's of everyday speech. But where true Absurdism posited a meaningless universe, Havels aim was "the improvement of mans lot through the improvement of mans institutions."
According to Milan Kundera, one of the greatest living Czech authors in exile: "Suffocating under art conceived as educational, moral or political, Havels theatre returned autonomy to art and beckoned it to take again the path of freedom and creativity. Though one cannot conceive of Havel without the example of Ionesco yet he is not an epigone. His plays are an original and irreplaceable development within what is called the Theatre of the Absurd. If Ionescos absurdity finds its inspiration in the depth of the irrational, Havel is fascinated by the absurdity of the rational. And if Ionescos theatre is a critique of language, the totalitarian regime made such a parody of language that Havels general critique of language became at once a demystification of concrete social relations... The real sense of Havels absurd plays from the 1960s was precisely the radical demystification of the vocabulary. These plays show a world where words have no meaning, or meanings different from accepted sense, or still again are screens behind which reality has disappeared.
Havels plays may have been defined as absurdist and surreal, but that is to misunderstand the surreal nature of the then Czechoslovak police-state: Kafkaesque, perhaps, is all appropriate adjective for the native land of Franz Kafka himself. Havels plays are entirely real in their absurdity. He combines a total commitment to social freedom and individual responsibility with an extraordinary ironic detachment. In both his plays and essays, he shows a remarkable gift for analysing the dilemmas of the diffident in a repressive society. He is both participant and observer.
Immediately after Temptation, Havel wrote Slum Clearance. It opens in concerted medieval castle somewhere in Europe, where a conference is taking place. Gathered together is a group of architects, town planners and government officials. The action of the play concerns itself with the professional intellectual, ideological and sexual concerns and conflicts of the participants. The result is a witty observation of the mores of those determined to improve the lives of others, whether they like it or not, as well as a profounder metaphorical examination of the relationship between the nature of society and the needs of its members.
Havels plays favour settings that have a Kafkaesque non-specificity: Neither eastern nor western, nor Prague nor Paris. "He cleaves to the theme of the individual seeking to defend itself by compromise or by humour against the chicanery of impersonal powers." He is fiercely intellectual and if you do not respond to the ideological argument in the dialogue, you have missed half the point. And this despite the fact that Havel has mostly been deprived of theatrical experience till recently, he could never see his plays rehearsed or performed. But he always had the vernacular experience. He lives in his own language.
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