Sunday, September 27, 1998
By Ashok Chopra
TIME and events have enriched the ironies that Vaclav Havels writings contain. Wit, humour and intellectual exuberance are as engaging as ever. His political autobiography Disturbing the Peace coupled with his letters to Olga "leaves no room for controversy about Havels place in the moral pantheon of our century." The two volumes offer a real inside into Havel the writer, the essayist and playwright for he reflects on literature, art, society and much else.
First, Disturbing the Peace which is part political philosophy, part history, part aesthetics, and finds its unity in the personal qualities that catapulted a lonely dissenter, ostracised as an enemy of the people, into prominence as the reluctant President of is country: modesty, tolerance, inner grace, courage, discriminating intelligence and, above all, strength of principle. In it he talks very little of himself. In and out of Czech prisons about which he says virtually nothing except when he talks about "the obvious and hidden mechanisms of totality..." of the state juggernaut and how it tries to become the engineer of human souls. Having gone through it all he should know, how the mechanisms of the state tries to control the mind (and memory, and therefore history, too) and how writers get marginalised or simply run away abroad. The key debate is between himself (who stayed put in Czechoslovakia despite state repression and opportunities of going abroad) and Milan Kundera (who couldnt take it and went away to Paris).
Kundera raises the basic question about the capacity of the writer to influence political change through civic action. Looking back into Czech literary history all the way down from Tomas Masaryk through Joseph Kapek and down to contemporary Czech writers like Joseph Skorvecky, Ivan Klima and so many others, Kunderas question goes to the heart of the matter. Literature was a lost cause in a world full of Kitsch and consumerism and therefore why write when nobody wants to read anymore. Havel concludes, but typical of his generosity (can you be really generous without having spent seasons in hell?) he believes that the writer must live in truth even if it means incarceration and ridicule. Like all European writers, Havel talks about "the mysterious ambiguity of human behaviour in totalitarian conditions", and how even the worm turns when the time comes.
For Havel, then, the most important thing for a writer or for that matter any artist is to take risks, to be the expressions of discontent. Total honesty or Living in Truth was all that was of importance and this quality had to be supported, even when it came from pop music and jazz. So, for Havel, John Lennon and the Rolling Stones were among the great figures of the twentieth century.
Not being just one of the crowd is the key to Havels protest because it is the crowd or totality that is becoming the "assault on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and dignity." Havels sense of crises is global "because totality was spreading its tentacles throughout the world" from consumption to repression, from advertising to manipulation through television. To combat this totality and to resist it was the artists main function today and the function could only be performed through old-fashioned values of honesty and by being "as radical as reality itself" or by describing a situation so truthful that the reader can no longer evade it.
Is there a way out of the crowd? For Havel, it is the Theatre of the Absurd. But unlike Beckett, Ionesco Jean Genet, the absurd is the political and philosophical concept as much as an aesthetic one. Illusionistic theatre is a hoax, and escape from contemporary reality, what theatre should do is not to be positive or instructive, soothing or explanatory but to show up reality in all its stark nakedness or simply as The Truth. Says Havel: "Personally, I think, theatre of the absurd is the most significant theatrical phenomenon of the twentieth century, because it depicts modern humanity in a state of crisis, as it were. That is, it shows that 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.
"This is a man for whom everything is coming apart, whose world is collapsing, who senses that he has irrevocably lost something but is unable to admit this to himself and therefore hides in vain. He waits, unable to understand that he is waiting in vain: Waiting for Godot. He is plagued by the need to communicate the main thing, but he has nothing to communicate: Ionescos The Chairs. He seeks a firm point in recollection, not knowing that there is nothing to recollect: Becketts Happy Days. He lies to himself and those around him by saying hes going somewhere to find something that will give back his identity: Pinters The Caretaker. He thinks he knows, those closest to him and himself, and it turns out that he doesnt know anyone: Pinters The Homecoming. These plays are often inspired by quite trivial, everyday situations, such as a visit to friends: Ionescos The Balk Soprano, The Lesson.
"These are not scenes from life but theatrical images of the basic modalities of humanity in a state of collapse", says Havel. "There is no philosophising in these plays as there is in Sartre for example. In their meaning, however, they are always philosophical. They cannot be taken literally; they illustrate nothing.... They tend to be decadently joking in tone. They know the phenomenon of ruthless embarrassment.... They can be seen as outright comedies. The plays are not nihilistic. They are merely a warning. In a very shocking way, they throw us into the question of meaning by manifesting its absence. Theatre of the Absurd does not offer us consolation or hope. It merely reminds us of how we are living: without hope. And that is the essence of its warning. Absurd theatre is not here to explain how things are. It does not have the kind of arrogance; it leaves the instructing to Brecht. The absurd playwright does not have the key to anything. He does not consider himself any better informed or any more aware than his audience. He sees his role in giving form to something we all suffer from, and in reminding us, in suggestive ways, of the mystery before which we all stand equally helpless."
The Russian master Anton Chekov once said that writers must occupy themselves with politics, only in order to put up a defence against politics. Probably this was never more true than today but given the significance of the individual in a mass, consumerist society, could literature be the countervailing force against the inequities of contemporary politics? If it doesnt, what should the writers role be today? Very simple according to Havel:"to tell the truth.... to act as an outsider and irritant, chief doubters of systems, of power and its incantations. "For Havel, "values, too are facts" and therefore, even at the point of "being ridiculous... of ruthless embarrassment" the writer must speak out because that was the only hope of rescuing man from a further slide down the slippery scope to nowhere.
In 1979, after several years of harassment, detentions and surveillance Havel was sentenced to a four-and-a-half years of hard labour. In prison he was allowed to write to his former wife Olga, once a week. Olga died last year. He used the opportunity to express his profound reflections on theatre, society and philosophy. In fact, the letters cover both life and death and everything in between. The result is a marvellous book Letters to Olga.
What makes it particularly compelling is the incidental detail of prison life the elaborate rituals that surround the drinking of tea, toasting the New Year in with a foaming glass of soluble aspirin and the intense personal detail of his relationship with his wife: As a present, he makes her a piece of jewellery out of dried bread. Above all, the book is a self-portrait of the writer. There is Havel setting himself tasks for his years in prison: "... Three. To write at least four plays. Four. To improve my English. Five. To learn German at least as well as I currently know English. Six. To study all of the Bible thoroughly..." There is Havel fretting about his health, about his friends outside. And regularly resounding through it all, is his determination to remain a writer, though he is allowed only four pages a week and each word he chooses can endanger the whole work.
Havels prison letters are unlike anything else he has ever written. They were not, as most of his other non theatrical writing has been intended to stir up discussion around a specific cultural and political situation. A critic once suggested that the letters might also be read as a novel of "character or destiny". The hero starts out on a quest, determined to withstand any test fate puts in his way. But he soon discovers that the reality is worse and different, than he had imagined and the nature of the quest undergoes a subtle change.
He masters the mysteries of this strange way of writing and transcends the physical difficulties that go with it only to find himself locked in an even more primordial struggle: He must discover the meaning of his life and match it from the jaws of nothingness. His existence, his very being depend on it. Havels letters climax in a dramatic spiral of pure thought mingled with an experience of almost religious intensity. Lets have a look at what Havel has to write about his release from jail:
"One evening, which I shall never forget, just as I was getting ready to go to sleep, into my cell there suddenly stepped several guards, a doctor and a woman official of some kind, who informed that the District Court of Prague 4 was terminating my sentence. I was flabbergasted and asked them if I could spend one more night in prison. They said it was out of the question because I was now a civilian. I asked them what I was supposed to do now, in my pajamas? An ambulance was waiting to take me to a civilian hospital, they said. (I was running very high fever since few days). It was a shock to hear the doctor suddenly calling me Mr Havel instead of just Havel. I hadnt heard myself addressed that way in years... Released from the burden of prison but not yet encumbered by the burden of freedom, I lived like a king... The world beginning with loved once and friends and ending with doctors, nurses had fellow patients showed me its kindest face. I had no responsibilities, only rights. I was no longer in prison, and at the same time, I did not yet know the post prison depression suffered by a returnee who is suddenly cast loose into the absurd terrain of freedom. But the beautiful dream had to end. The day came when I had to step back into the world as it really was... and Ive been moving along its uncertain surface ever since."
Havel has experienced society from the bottom up which in turn has been the most valuable bit of education for which he is always grateful both to his bourgeois ancestry as well as to the regime... for he was always in favour of socialism in the sense of nationalisation of major means of production.
(To be concluded: The first part of this article was published last week.)
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