The first President of Czechoslovakia, T G Masaryk, was a world-famous writer and philosopher. Thanks to his international standing and to his towering personality, Masaryk was able to put his country where it belonged on the cultural map- namely, at the heart of Europe. Vaclav Havel has repeated the achievement, helping the Czech experience to reassume its central place in the European imagination. His writings belong to the corpus of dissident literature, but their relevance has not dwindled since the collapse of the Communist regime. Indeed, the importance of both the plays and the essays increases, as the Communist experience fades from the European memory, and new forms of impersonal order and unaccountable government spread their shadow across our continent. Although Masaryk wrote and published freely, and received the accolades of academic, literary and political establishments, none of his writings has retained the penetrating relevance of ‘The Power of the Powerless’, of the Letters to Olga or of the intimate theatre through which Havel explored the psychological traumas of our time.
A central theme in Havel’s writings, and one that recurs throughout the tradition of modern Czech literature, is that of personality – its fragility, its cost, and its need for renewal. The impersonal, the scientific and the objective besiege us from every side, tempting us with the vision of man the machine. Systems of government, forms of entertainment, whole cultures arise from the mechanised approach to human life, and exert their fascination even over those who strive to resist them. Kafka wrote presciently of this; so too did Capek, inventor of the word ‘robot’. So too did Masaryk. But the question of personality took on a new complexion in the wake of the Second World War.
The triumph first of National Socialism and then of Communism imposed an almost intolerable penalty on those who aimed nevertheless to ‘live in truth’, as befits a free and accountable being. And the new currents of philosophical and literary reflection seemed to cast light on this. Those currents had their source in a Moravian-born philosopher, Edmund Husserl, and were channelled into the Czech literary underground by Jan Patocka. It is to Patocka that we owe the idea that inspired the catacomb culture: the idea of the polis as a form of personal order, dedicated to what Plato called ‘the care of the soul’. This idea of political order sought expression through Charter 77, which called for the re-establishment of legal order, and through VONS, the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted, of which Havel was the spokesman, and for this he served a lengthy prison sentence.
Havel took the idea with him, too, into the most famous castle in Central Europe – a castle which had been stripped of its furnishings by its porcine incumbents, and which was little better, in 1989, than a barracks, with mangers for the humans, and luxury troughs for the pigs. Although his countrymen often claim that Havel has, in recent years, lost contact with them, this complaint too belongs to a tradition: the long-established habit of cynical grumbling that finds expression in Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik. In fact Havel has assiduously worked to enhance the international standing of that ‘faraway country of which we know nothing’, as Chamberlain notoriously described it. Within days of his leaving office he will be recognised for what he truly is: a heroic figure who has conferred lasting benefits on his country.
In anticipation of his retirement this month I sent a few questions to the President, and they are printed here, together with his replies.
Mr President, it is your unique achievement to have been an internationally recognised figurehead if your country’s dissident community before the collapse of Communism, and a long-serving head if state thereafter. In what way did your experiences as a dissident prepare you for your subsequent political role?
First I would object to the label ‘figurehead of our dissident community’. True, I was perhaps the most famous among the dissident community, and maybe also an integrator, who tried over long years to bring very disparate groups together. All that may be true, but I wouldn’t call myself either a figurehead or a leader. In executing my presidential functions I have been able to make only minimal use of the experiences that came to me then. I suddenly found myself in an entirely novel situation, with a completely unfamiliar type of responsibility, another kind of administrative task; apart from a certain elementary experience of human psychology, I was unable to make much use of my dissident experiences. Had I known that I would one day be President, I would have prepared myself in quite a different way.
Do you ever feel nostalgia for the old dissident community and its ‘life below ground’?
I cannot say that I feel any direct nostalgia – the one thing that I miss, in this free society, is the kind of solidarity, the shared accountability, the willingness to risk one’s skin for others, that came with the unremitting threat levelled against dissident society. With the loss of that threat people no longer felt the presence of a conmon enemy, or the inescapable need for mutual support.
In ‘The Politics of Conscience’, first published in the West in 1985, you warned against the momentum of ‘anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power’, which was driving the personal conscience from the heart of politics. Would you see things in the same way today?
I see things as the same; indeed, I would say that they are worse than they were.
In your plays and essays you are often critical of the way in. which scientific or pseudo-scientific categories have gained possession of the modern soul. What is the alternative?
Heidegger wrote a famous sentence: Only some god can now save us. I am not the one to know what god it is who can save us. But certainly the technocratic impetus within modern civilisation is enormously dangerous. Maybe it is necessary to seek out, support and broaden whatever alternative anchorage we might find in a transcendental awareness. But how this is to be done, and who is to do it, I don’t know; and I don’t rule out the possibility that it will require great shocks and catastrophes before people recover what they have lost.
It seems to me that your thought has been strongly influenced by Jan Patocka. Which elements of Patocka’s thinking have been of the greatest importance to you?
I knew Jan Patocka from the mid-Fifties and valued his work and his writings. It is possible that in one way or another he influenced me, possible me rely that I harmonised with him. In any case I should say that most of all it was his personality that fascinated me. Patocka was a man able to converse intelligently with anyone, even someone semi-literate, about the basic questions ofbeing, and in the most gripping manner for hours at a time. It was something unbelievable. As a personality he was radiant, with a peculiar glow of his own.
You are unique among elected heads of state today in being a major literary figure. How important has this been in the eyes of your countrymen?
I don’t know, but I do know that it has been an enormous complication for me, since I cannot read out the speeches that the people in my office write for me, even should they be of the highest quality and politically impeccable. I can only read speeches in my own handwriting. This means so much torment, so many labour pains. I was not in the habit of writing to a timetable, whenever and whatever is ordered. I was used to writing only when I had an idea. The dictatorship of writing to order, and even more imperatively, being forced to repeat things that I have said a thousand times, is a great burden. I bear it; but I reckon that being a writer is no kind of preparation for politics.
Charter 77 was a landmark in the struggle against Communist totalitarianism. How much of its spirit has been preserved?
A certain kind of friendship still exists between most of the Chartists, even though some have returned to their original occupations, others have become involved in mutually antagonistic party politics, and others still have been forgotten or sidelined. In spite of those things, I should say that a certain sense of connectedness, of friendship, prevails among us. But to that I should at once add that, although the Chartists with their kinds of opposition were an absolute minority in totalitarian society, it is possible for a minority to awaken the sympathy of more people than their numbers represent. And often it seems that the Chartists, even when they haven ‘t left politics for whatever reason, are not all that welcome in politics. It is as though they are perceived by the others, who in the past behaved like the majority, as a reproach.
Many visitors to Prague in the Eighties, who made a point of entering the cultural catacombs, came away inspired by their encounter with a society seemingly devoted to things of the mind. Was that experience an illusion?
Yes, residence in the catacombs, the underground, the flight into some sort of peculiar ghetto was no escape, but it helped to deepen interest in the timeless, so to say philosophical, aspect of things. When I recall the interest and impatience which greeted the writing and distribution in samizdat of texts that were entirely theoretical and philosophical, I reckon that being cut off from the majority society had an important part to play.
What, in your view, is the best thing that has happened to your country since 1989?
The best thing has not been any once-off event. In my view the best consists of the good sides of a continuous process. If l had to name the concrete individual events, then undoubtedly I should mention the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, our entry into Nato, and our invitation to join the European Union.
Do you regard accession to the EU as presenting Czechs with a challenge, a threat, or both?
I see it as a challenge, a necessity, and certainly not as a threat.
The castle in. which you have lived for the last decade is part of, and also overlooks, the finest and best preserved city in the region – a city which is without compare as a cultural monument. How important has this been for you?
On coming to reside in the Castle thirteen years ago, I worked to make it into an open and democratic space, although at the time it was the central seat of the police force, and the Castle had never been open in the way it is today. I count that as my success; on the other hand I have known a great many failures in my attempts to bring culture to the Castle. I have often bee n disappointed, many things didn’t succeed, whether through failure of will, through someone putting a spanner in the works or through lack of money.
With which living writer in English do you have the most affinity?
Unfortunately I have not been able to follow literature as l would have wished, and not only English literature: Czech literature too. Nevertheless I have some good friends among English writers, and among them I would give first place to Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.
Do you regret the split between the Czech and Slovak Republics? Could it have been avoided?
Possibly it could have been avoided, but in any case, as I said in my New Year Speech, with the passage of time I have come to think that it was a good thing that it happened. Paradoxically, it brought us together more than it divided us.
Your play ‘Largo Desolato’ presents a matchless portrait of a dissident driven to exhaustion by a role that is impossible to fulfil. Did you ever have the same response to your new role as President?
It is by no means the first or the last time that I have, in my plays, foretold my own fate. It is not that I am some kind of Pytho, endowed with a special prophetic power. It is rather that it is in the nature of art, and of dramatic art in particular, to touch on fundamental ways and mechanisms of being, which recur and repeat themselves. Many of my plays, which might at first sight appear to be straightforward responses to Communism, have been performed in the most various countries in the world, where Communist conditions are unknown, and people have found in them another content, closer to themselves. Many of my plays are even performed in our country today, and people find in them something that speaks to them. Recently I saw my play Audience, which I had judged to be maximally incomprehensible to young people; nevertheless the theatre was full of young people, who laughed at every other line. I don’t mean to boast, but this is simply the nature of art. And likewise with Largo Desolato; there I predict many of the situations in which I have found myself as President.
In the Seventies and Eighties, many of your country ‘s leading writers and thinkers – Kundera, Skvorecky, etc – decided to go into exile. You stayed behind, and were harshly punished. Why?
Why? Half because I felt a certain obligation towards a task begun, and it struck me as wrong suddenly to leave it, and half simply because I am a Czech stick-in-the-mud [literally, ‘packet’], who finds it difficult to imagine living permanently elsewhere, and moreover without the possibility of return.
Will you, in retirement, return to writing?
Naturally I would like to write something more, but never again under orders, never with instructions and never with a deadline.