Václav Havel: To the Castle and Back

Peter Levine’s post on Havel’s 1992 speech in Poland reminded me that I had planned to do some writing about Havel before he died. The New York Times titled his obituary “A Melding of the Artist’s Politics and the Politician’s Art,” and yet it focuses only on his writing career and offers not a single observation about his practice of “the Politician’s Art.” Given the outpouring of vitriol against Christopher Hitchens, perhaps you’ll excuse me if I spend a moment criticizing rather than praising the Czech Republic’s former president.

The line in Havel’s 1992 “Advent Speech” that has always troubled me is this one:

What was essential was something different: the courage to confront evil together and in solidarity, the will to come to an agreement and to cooperate, the willingness to place the common and general interest over any personal or group interests, the feeling of common responsibility for the world and the willingness personally to stand behind one’s own deeds. Truth and certain elementary values such as respect for human rights, civil society, the indivisibility of freedom, the rule of law these were notions that bound us together and made it worth our while to enter again and again into an unequal struggle with the powers that be.

There’s something poetically seductive about his call to “confront evil together and in solidarity,” to be bound only by “Truth and certain elementary values.” Yet I’ve always thought that his promise that the dissidents would overcome ideological and technological politics was an empty one.  I think that Havel’s life gives us some insight into why this promise remained unfulfilled and unfulfillable, “easy to say but difficult to do.” In short: his politics was rooted in the sense that the spiritual dimension that “transcends” politics, but this really means it runs away from politics.

Indeed, this was the subject of his later book, To the Castle and Back, where he tried to explain how he had approached politics during his presidency:

Politics—as an area of activity that demands general support—requires, more than anything else, that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment, how what follows comes out of what went before, and why everything has the kind tempo that it has. But as I’ve already suggested, politics, by its very nature, resists that kind of understanding. It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail, and everyone recognizes that at once. But for the most part that’s nor how it works. Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes. It seems to me particularly important, therefore, that politicians have an elementary dramatic instinct, that is, a sense of how to make distinctions between various acts or events, how to order them, stack them up, give them a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.

Just think about what this means: “It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail.” This is a romantic sense of the political world: policies are stage-dressing for the operatic play of great personages in the public sphere. Can you blame the Czech media for deeming Havel a dreamer? He never really succeeded in giving his policies “a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.” Certainly we need dreamers in the world, but I’m reminded of Zizek’s line:

There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.

Havel’s poetry never inspired genocide, it’s true. But his spiritual approach failed to prevent ethnic cleansing just when it was needed most: the 1992 dissolution of the political union between Czechs and Slovaks.

As I said, “transcending” politics is really a kind of “flight from politics,” and the “Velvet Divorce” is just one more piece of evidence in favor of that claim. Havel resigned rather than oversee the dissolution, so he certainly stuck to his principles, though I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as “confronting evil.” (It seems more like what Arendt called “inner emigration.”) But the seeds for the dissolution were sown before the fateful election in 1992: dissolution was fueled by heavy nationalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric against pro-federation politicians.

None of this was Havel’s fault, exactly, but this was a moment that called for a poet to “sing the nation-state” rather than a politician to try to lead it. What’s worse: it was the end of transfer payments to Slovakia that allowed the Czech Republic to enjoy a decade of unalloyed growth:

The end of the so-called penezovod (“money pipeline”) — regular transfer of subsidies to Slovakia — meant further fiscal saving amounting to 7 percent of the national budget (25 billion koruna, close to $1 billion).

As a result, while the Czech Republic traded on its highly-educated workforce and Prague tourist attractions, across the newly-minted border, Slovakia was not so lucky:

Unemployment has climbed to 15.1 percent, even though virtually no restructuring or privatization of industry has taken place under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Inflation stands at 22 percent and is forecast to grow. The gross domestic product of Slovakia last year declined by 3.5 percent from the 1992 level.

That, I think, is the real legacy of successful dreamers: their dreams always come at someone else’s expense. “Here and there” Havel’s ineffectual policies “succeeded or failed.” But mostly, they failed. When they needed the artist, Czechoslovakia got an artless politican. When they needed the politician, they got the artist’s principles.

As a playwright, Havel certainly had a sense of the dramatic, and I think he was on to something when he insisted that bureaucracy and administrative efficiency threaten to render the political boringly inaccessible:

A basic danger facing politics in the modern world is that it will appear to be hopelessly boring, a gray, dull, daily administrative grind, enlivened occasionally by a scandal or pseudo-scandal that is forgotten as soon as it’s over; in other words, something that has no point, and thus no thinking behind it. Naturally,  it’s in the general interest to confront this danger.

But I can’t say that Havel’s failures give me much hope for a new era of dramatic “nonpolitical politics.” Havel got lots of mileage out of paradoxical rhetoric, but I don’t think he got much good policy out of it, precisely because “politics… requires that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment.” Havel’s plays were absurdist dramas that successfully undermined the legitimacy of totalitarianism, but he never learned how to “transcend” irony and absurdity. He never developed a sincere political project that could make this absurd world a little bit more habitable.

If anything, Havel gives us a clue to the lengths we will go to dramatize political events, to identify and reify one great personage to take responsibility for the efforts of millions. I’m sorry he died, but I wish the remembrances were as mixed and honest as they have been for Hitchens: the continuation of these great conversations seems a better memorial than stick-figure heroism.





4 responses to “Václav Havel: To the Castle and Back”

  1. @peterlevine Avatar

    I basically agree with this although I think it's a little unfair to depict the Velvet Divorce as akin to ethnic cleansing and to regard as it as blow to Slovakia. It was peaceful, consensual, and driven to a large degree by Slovak nationalism. (That was my sense when I visited Slovakia just a year after.) I'm also not sure that Havel thought "policies [were] stage-dressing for the operatic play of great personages in the public sphere." Maybe, but I thought he wanted a more participatory politics, more embedded in everyday life and culture. The problem with policy is not its distance from grandeur and poetry but its distance from authentic human life.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      Thanks Peter. Slovakia has since recovered, but it's clear that at the time the majority of Czechs wanted dissolution and only a third of Slovaks wanted it. We can blame that minority of Slovaks for being nationalists and anti-Semites, which they were, but it took a majority to make it happen.

      I understand the distinction you're making between "grandeur" and "authentic human life," (I think Havel distinguished "normalization" from "the politics of the everyday" in much the same way) but I'm not sure that we ought to let the distinction stand: "authenticity" is a poet's way of valorizing the quotidian. I'm reminded of Heidegger's discussion of van Gogh's shoes: in valorizing it, the poet fails to let it be ordinary. In much the same way, Havel sets out the goal of having politics connect to everyday life, but doesn't actually make the connection.

      I suspect that there's something like a hard and fast rule that what Arendt called the "revolutionary treasure" will always be lost. That doesn't have to be a bad thing… the problem is when political life is overcome by an ineffectual nostalgia for that lost treasure rather than an attempt to create something new, if perforce more boring.

  2. @peterlevine Avatar

    That analogy to Heidegger/van Gogh's shoes has left me pondering all day–really interesting.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar


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