Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
by Freerk Boedeltje, San Diego State University
In the midst of Communist Czechoslovakia it was not unusual to have trials against political opponents. They carried the name of ‘dissidents’. Dissidents were not necessarily intellectuals, academics or other elites. A dissident was simply anyone who was doing what he feels he must do even though this resulted in a confrontation between ‘him’ as individual and the collective of the Communist Party. The dissident is one who cannot be silenced or changed, nor can he conform as this would lead to an internal conflict with what he feels in his heart. In other words, the dissident doesn’t mirror the Communist ideal image. An image that was represented by the bronze statue of the liberated worker visible on every square in every village in Czechoslovakia.
In the 1970s, Charta ‘77 emerged as a platform of resistance against the Communist Party. Not so much political resistance, but resistance through expression, music, art, film and playwriting. They were first and foremost a collective of artists, and artists have no other choice than telling what they feel within. This was Charta ‘77, and Vaclav Havel was one of its main pioneers. He was a writer, a dissident and above all a philosopher. It was 1979 and the dissidents of Charta ‘77 were found guilty of ‘undermining the Czechoslovakian Republic’. The president of the court in Prague, Mr. Antonin Kaspar, sentenced Havel (who was regarded as main motivator of Charta) to four and a half years of imprisonment.
On 14 March 1981, Havel’s wife Olga received a letter: ‘This feeling of gloominess that gradually regains possession of me…in which I get caught by a mood of desperation because the time passes by and get killed by everyone, also by me…This feeling of emptiness develops sometimes in a general bad mood in which it seems that things have lost their meaning…Personally I consider this mood as a sort of chink through which the nothingness penetrates Men, the nothingness, this new face of the devil’ (1989a). His imprisonment between June 1979 and February 1983 granted Havel an insight to the true nature of an oppressive system. He realised that he committed a crime by taking the role of being an individual in which he undermined the required level of obeying the collective ideology.
He was sentenced to prison for the first time in 1977, and these years were long, dark and cold. Havel’s social isolation made him feel desperate at times and he suffered from physical difficulties as he was set to do heavy physical work. He was allowed to write, but only for short selective moments. His contact with the world was Olga, and her letters were taken from him after reading. Here, between the four grey walls, Havel accepted his deprivation of external freedom, but refused to accept his normalization by letting them take his internal freedom.
During the 1970s and into the 1980s, Havel had made extensive studies on what he called the ‘lie’ of the system. His work on the ‘lies’ in politics appeared in his essay ‘The power of the powerless’ which emerged first in October 1978. He introduced the term ‘post-totalitarianism’ and deconstructed the ideological consequences of living in the ‘lie’. The lies manifest themselves through a false political ideology backed up by a web of contradictory legislature. Havel writes that ‘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’ (Havel, 1978). The true humiliation is done through the annihilation of all expression in favour of a void.
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In all these years, all Havel had were words. In his essay ‘A word about words’ (1989b), Havel mentions ‘peace’ which in his view can both be humble and arrogant. He expressed that the beginning of everything is the word. The word ‘peace’ can easily change from a humble word to an arrogant word; however, it is much harder to change an arrogant word back to a humble word. He voiced a thousand times the urge to keep fighting against arrogant words. The true revolution for Havel was the power of the word. The word was for him the only authentic response. He writes ‘the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response. Only against this background does living a lie make sense: it exists because of that background’ (1978). The authentic response is a state of becoming; it is always present and creeps under the visible layer of society.
Havel believed that authentic response is most visible in individual initiatives as they demonstrate a humane and social alternative created by expression and free thought. If he urged for self-realization he also urged for modest and unconditional expressions that under no circumstances are inauthentic or oppressive which made him suffer so much. He writes: ‘the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love. I believe in structures that are not aimed at the technical aspect of the execution of power, but at the significance of that execution in structures held together more by a commonly shared feeling of the importance of certain communities than by commonly shared expansionist ambitions directed outward. There can and must be structures that are open, dynamic, and small’ (1978).
Havel’s urge for authentic response gained political significance in 1989 when he became president of Czechoslovakia. Political leaders around the world made Havel overnight a hero who symbolized the liberation of the East from the burdens of Communism. There he found himself in the spotlights that at times seemed to make him feel uncomfortable with his role as public figure. In a speech addressed to the French people, President Francois Mitterand spoke in the early weeks of 1990: ‘Europe is returning to its history and its geography’ (quoted in Heffernan, 1998: 225) and Havel’s return to Europe became the symbol of a united Europe. Havel’s deepest motivations were still embedded in words. He carried the responsibility which the people of Czechoslovakia had given him when they voted him for president. He carefully and patiently advocated the values of democracy, human rights and equality in the turbulent transition of his country. His deepest vision was Czechoslovakia’s return to Europe through EU membership. This was in the early 1990s, but this time Havel noticed that words have a different meaning in politics that were able to destroy what has been built. The words used by European politics were maybe not lies, but they seemed at times false promises. Havel wrote in his 1994 article ‘Europe: Five years later’: ‘Reviewing the past five years from the perspective of our hopes and expectations, we must admit that we reckoned our integration into the family of European democracies would be faster…For Central Europe appeared in a queer situation: after the breakdown of bipolar Europe, the countries between the European Union and Russia feel caught in a vacuum…Today we know even more: if the new European order is not created by democrats, it will be created by someone else: by the populists offering pseudo-securities or warriors waving nationalistic flags. We have had and still have a historical chance to define new Europe; reviewing this chance now, with a lapse of five years, I must say it has materialized only very slowly and rather in the form of words than deeds’ (1994).
Havel eventually must have realized that politics and power games are inevitably connected with its very own unique operating system. Havel was largely incapable of dealing with the excesses of capitalism that brought renewed inequalities, unemployment and social divisions. He supported all US military actions since the first Gulf War and the Czech Republic’s ‘return to Europe’ became one of various speeds. Again he spoke out: ‘I do have to stress that it will not suffice to keep knocking on the Western doors and emphasizing that we share the same values, that we too are Europe and that we expect greater broad-mindedness, higher speed and more courage (though we could do with more courage, higher speed and great broad- mindedness) from the European Union’ (1994). As we know the EU kept Havel away from full membership for an extended period of time.
Much has been written about Havel’s changing public role from dissident to politician. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2006: 149) wrote that Havel’s ‘authentic ethical stance has become a moralizing idiom cynically appropriated by the knaves of capitalism’. Žižek’s argument is that any politics sooner or later turns into a lie, whether it is communism or capitalism. Deep inside Havel must have been aware of this trap, as he must have been aware of his sometimes impossible situation as politician when his words sounded inauthentic to many people. His image of dissident hero who became president haunted him like a ghost. Jiri Pehe, his former adviser, wrote that ‘Havel became a symbol of something he couldn’t live up to because in many ways, people projected into him their ambitions’, which could only fail in the unbalanced transition to capitalism. Unlike some of his critics, I however believe that his politics were not so much opposed to the Communist regime as they were concerned with a deep sense of responsibility for the values he believed in. He never forgot what any oppressive system was capable of and found the inner-strength of overcoming his shyness to speak up for solidarity and democracy despite the disappointments with the new system.
During his life Havel never stopped writing. His words never got tired. Deep inside he felt that authentic response to truth and love, to modesty, to his playwright hero Brecht and to other dissidents whom he stayed friends with. Maybe that loyalty is called courage. Vaclav Havel died on 18 December 2011 at the age of 75.
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Havel, V. (1989a) Letters to Olga. New York: Henry Holt and Company
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Heffernan, M. (1998) The Meaning of Europe: Geography and Geopolitics. London: Edward Arnold
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