The Poet in the Castle: How Vaclav Havel Occupied Before it Was Cool
Photo Credit: AFP
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When I first arrived in Prague in 1994, just five years after the bloodless Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel, the English instructor from the school where I would be teaching picked me up at the airport in a vehicle sporting every color of the rainbow and wires like a giant insect's antennae. “Do you like it?” he asked brightly. “I built it in my garden with stolen parts from Germany.”
I’d never seen anything like it. I hopped in and we chugged and lurched our way to the furthest corner of Sudetenland, my new home.
November of that year saw the first conference ever held on the commercial potential of the World Wide Web in San Francisco. But in this isolated land, perhaps for the last time in history, a young American could travel to a European country and feel utterly removed from home. There were two telephones in my village, both frequently out of order. The tongue-tripping Czech language ensnared me in risible mistakes, such as the time I wandered around a bar asking if anyone had seen my vagina (the word is close to that for coat).
Rumburk was poor – the deprivations of communism held fast, though the just- around-the-corner prosperity promised by capitalism had made eager converts. Rats were occasionally raised for food, and the mushrooms were radioactive. The roads were usually choked with mud and lined with Romany hookers who serviced loud-mouthed East German day-trippers. A petty mafia ran a brisk drug trade, the don of which brought his blonde moll to my apartment one day, who flung her mink on my couch, lit a cigarette, and explained, “You my English teacher.”
It was spectacularly dysfunctional. It was wonderful.
The former Communist apparatchik who headed my school muttered “prase” when he met me, the Czech word for “pig.” As in capitalist pig. Some, like he, were highly suspicious of the excesses of the West, and resentful of lost influence. But most folks ranged from shyly curious to openly embracing of my Western-ness, sharing with me their love for the Beatles and an alarming devotion to the “cowboy” Ronald Reagan, widely credited with catalyzing the fall of communism.
Over an exquisitely cold winter I read books, heaps of them, diving into Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, (arguably the greatest anti-war novel ever written), and, of course, the essays and plays of Vaclav Havel. Through these works, I came to know the Czech brand of black humor, that wry and searing sensibility that permeated everything from newspaper reports to puppet shows. Having been crapped upon repeatedly throughout history, and intimately familiar with every flavor of bureaucratic incompetency, political hypocrisy, military brutality, the Czechs managed to transmute their despair into comedic defiance and a kind of fierce humanity.
No less than forty thousand young Americans had by this time made the heart-stoppingly beautiful Czech capital their home. Like me, these young Gen Xers, who were not yet called Gen Xers, were enthralled by a country where historic events unfolded in real time and beer flowed cheaper than water at home. We loved to look up from Charles Bridge to see a sight unique among European capitals, a grand castle which served as the residence of the president dominating the skyline.
Havel was an inspiration to revolutionaries everywhere. “Havel to the Castle!” had been the rallying cry of his supporters, for whom the occupation of the physical space of Prague Castle by a man who had accomplished a journey from prisoner of state to head of state was highly symbolic. Here was a man of the people -- a man who set resistance over passivity, intellect over brute force, and freedom over totalitarianism -- guiding a new democracy from the turrets of a medieval fortification.
The phrase “speaking truth to power” is bandied about by many. But Havel actually did it. He looked into the hypnotic gaze of an elaborately structured and brutally executed political ideology and said, “To hell with this.”
Havel was a liberator, a man of courage who started the Charter 77 human rights movement and suffered imprisonment rather than take orders from dictators. For me, having languished through eight years of Reagan’s vacuity, witnessing a philosopher and a champion of the arts, theater, and literature leading a country was as delightful as it was improbable. To many young Americans, Havel was impossibly cool, inviting the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa to the Castle and making our own U.S. politics appear hopelessly stupid (President Clinton was at that time getting the famous blow jobs in the Oval Office).
After winning the presidency, Havel constantly battled his prime minister, current president Vaclav Klaus, a right-leaning, "free market" economist known as the “Margaret Thatcher of Central Europe” and famed for his insistence that human-driven climate change is a communist conspiracy. Havel was intelligent enough to see that market capitalism was something to be approached with caution, and he resisted the rapid, full-throttle transition pushed by Klaus (and the American government). He would go on to battle his nemesis over the privatization of state-owned enterprises and other causes that showed at times a mistrust of the economic ideology that was being imported so vigorously. He was also often naïve about the forces of the market – though he was a fast learner – and some would argue that he capitulated too quickly to American-style liberalism that did not fully appreciate the destructive aspects of the neoliberal economics that have caused such enormous inequality. He got behind the Iraq invasion, clearly not a high point of his normally sound judgment.
But he remained a dissident -- a person deeply opposed to the repression of culture and the arbitrary use of power. Words set down in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” can speak poignantly today to the Occupy movement and its resistance to unbridled capitalism and captured political systems:
“Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
Having ploughed through these mystifications, Havel told his people that they did not have to ingratiate themselves to their oppressors. He also told them plainly that there would be hell to pay for resistance -- lost jobs, children yanked from school, and prison bars. But living the truth was worth it, and he was willing to pay the steep bill. After the Prague Spring in 1968, Havel was banned from theatre and forced to work in a brewery. His political agitation earned him relentless harassment, constant surveillance, and repeated stays in prison. His longest stay, from 1979 to 1984, is recorded in Letters to Olga, his then-wife.
Havel’s motto was: "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate." May it ever be so. And may Vaclav Havel rest in peace.