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.
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.