More on Havel: Keane’s Biography, Žižek’s Review

John Keane imagined Havel’s funeral in 1999:

Prague would double in size. As he lay in state in the old Castle of the Bohemian kings above the city, a queue some miles long would spring up. Mourners would wait all day, and all night, to see his body for the last time. The day of the funeral would be a public holiday. Hundreds of thousands of people, dressed in black and clutching flowers, would be seen lining the route taken by the cortège on the way to his final resting place. Huge black banners would fly from every office; his photograph, draped in black, would crowd every shop and news—stand and public place. Shared feelings of embarrassment would hold words back. Half-buried or forgotten anxieties about death would collectively resurface; fantasies of personal immortality would temporarily weaken. Around the graveside a forest of microphones, tripods, cameras, pads and pens would suddenly spring up. Obituaries, many of them written long ago and updated several times already, would appear in all four corners of the earth. Millions of words would he uttered. Many hundreds of different and conflicting points would be made. The words of the dead man (as Auden said) would be modified in the guts of the living. It would be said that he was a good man, a great man, a hero of the century. Harry S. Truman’s remark that a statesman is a dead politician would be confirmed. Loud sounds of grinding axes would also be heard.

In his LRB review of Keane’s book, Žižek writes:

The source of Havel’s tragedy, however, is not the tension between the public figure and the ‘real person’, not even his gradual loss of charisma in recent years. Such things characterise every successful political career (with the exception of those touched by the grace of premature demise). Keane writes that Havel’s life resembles a ‘classical political tragedy’ because it has been ‘clamped by moments of … triumph spoiled by defeat’, and notes that ‘most of the citizens in President Havel’s republic think less of him than they did a year ago.’ The crucial issue, however, is the tension between his two public images: that of heroic dissident who, in the oppressive and cynical universe of Late Socialism, practised and wrote about ‘living in truth’, and that of Post-Modern President who (not unlike Al Gore) indulges in New Age ruminations that aim to legitimise Nato military interventions. How do we get from the lone, fragile dissident with a crumpled jacket and uncompromising ethics, who opposes the all-mighty totalitarian power, to the President who babbles about the anthropic principle and the end of the Cartesian paradigm, reminds us that human rights are conferred on us by the Creator, and is applauded in the US Congress for his defence of Western values? Is this depressing spectacle the necessary outcome, the ‘truth’, of Havel the heroic dissident? To put it in Hegel’s terms: how does the ethically impeccable ‘noble consciousness’ imperceptibly pass into the servile ‘base consciousness’?

Žižek notes that Havel’s support for the NATO campaign is rooted in falsehood masquerading as truth:

The predominant form of today’s ‘politically correct’ moralism, on the other hand, is that of Nietzschean ressentiment and envy: it is the fake gesture of disavowed politics, the assuming of a ‘moral’, depoliticised position in order to make a stronger political case. This is a perverted version of Havel’s ‘power of the powerless’: powerlessness can be manipulated as a stratagem in order to gain more power, in exactly the same way that today, in order for one’s voice to gain authority, one has to legitimise oneself as being some kind of (potential or actual) victim of power.

He concludes:

This, then, is Havel’s tragedy: his authentic ethical stance has become a moralising idiom cynically appropriated by the knaves of capitalism. His heroic insistence on doing the impossible (opposing the seemingly invincible Communist regime) has ended up serving those who ‘realistically’ argue that any real change in today’s world is impossible. This reversal is not a betrayal of his original ethical stance, but is inherent in it. The ultimate lesson of Havel’s tragedy is thus a cruel, but inexorable one: the direct ethical foundation of politics sooner or later turns into its own comic caricature, adopting the very cynicism it originally opposed.

2 thoughts on “More on Havel: Keane’s Biography, Žižek’s Review”

  1. Zizek's review is one of the best I've read, and on this issue, he is more probing than almost anyone (I mean, in identifying a sort of cynicism and detachment as the key to the functioning of ideology–really in every society). But I think that Zizek is at his weakest here as well. I'm reading William's Shame and Necessity, and an important thesis in that book is that shame (something he thinks we share with the Greeks and nearly every human culture) requires an internalized other, to whom one measures oneself, and who is not reducible either to concrete or bare others (for example, Achilles doesn't care what his slaves think) but nor is it just a stand-in for one's own moral voice; it is a genuine other. Williams' point reminds me of Freud's Ideal Ego (or ego ideal–I forget which–the one that's not the superego). Anyway, Williams argues that having such a voice in one's head is just what it means to be ethical, and to be part of a concrete, particular community. Now I see this point as relatively continuous with Zizek's, but where Zizek detects something sinister lurking here (the ideology of late capitalism), Williams finds something much more benign and hum-drum, and with this, I'm with williams. Where this becomes manifest, and where Zizek goes off the rails, is in thinking that only an ideologically twisted person like Havel could support the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia.

    1. As is usual, Zizek over-interprets everything, but his basic point (which isn't even his) is part of a paragraph I didn't quote:

      "…by an attempt to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Nato triggered cleansing on a larger scale and created the very humanitarian catastrophe it wanted to prevent. A deeper paradox involves the ideology of victimisation: when Nato intervened to protect Kosovar victims, it ensured at that same time that they would remain victims, inhabitants of a devastated country with a passive population – they were not encouraged to become an active politico-military force capable of defending itself."

      I believe this consequentialist point has largely been affirmed by commentators on the Kosovo intervention. The time to invade was during the 1992 ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the NATO air strikes were a belated and poorly-thought out mea culpa for that earlier inaction.

      What's more, it was the failure to fully integrate that critique of militant humanitarianism that led to the Left's support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem is not simply having a voice of conscience: the problem is always listening to what the voice says without invoking other voices and considerations.

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