Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Powerful Writing That Helped Change History

VACLAV HAVEL'S "Open Letters" traces a history of revolt against unprincipled power - and absolute conviction in the force of words to change history.But his volleys are not restricted to the "aggressive fanatics, notorious careerists, incorrigible cowards, and incompetent upstarts" who hastened to power behind Soviet tanks in 1968. Post-totalitarian communism, he writes, is just an extreme case of a more general malaise, as deeply rooted in the West as it was behind the Iron Curtain. Readers interested in these letters, essays, and interviews as a "profile in courage" will find sure traces of the qualities of thought that inspired Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. For example, Havel's urgent letter to Alexander Dubcek calls on the deposed Prague Spring leader to openly repudiate the country's new Soviet-backed leadership, thus salvaging from the country's reform experiment "the only thing that can now be salvaged: self-respect." "You would not be forgotten, even were you to live in isolation, and your very existence would be a mote in the eye of all careerists attempting to profit from the occupation," he writes. Dubcek said nothing and faded quietly away. The role of public integrity that Havel urged upon Dubcek, he assumed himself - with all the ordeals and victories he anticipates in this letter. Havel's words were hand-copied, mimeographed, passed on by word of mouth. His prison writings, "Letters to Olga," will be read for generations. By contrast, there is little tenderness in the letter to Communist Party boss Gustav Husac, who directed the purges following the Soviet invasion. "True enough, the country is calm," he writes. "Calm as a morgue or a grave, would you not say?" What appears to be a smooth consolidation of power by the new leadership is based simply on fear, Havel writes. It produced "endless dissimulation," mental sterility, petrified dogmas, a world of prohibitions, limitations, orders, indignities, spiritual passivity, and depression. Havel's account of the trial of a group of underground musicians introduces his thoughts on dissidence. Behind a "facade of judicial thoroughness" in this trial, Havel sees "an impassioned debate about the meaning of human existence, an urgent questioning of what one should expect from life, whether one should silently accept the world as it is presented to one and slip obediently into one's prearranged place in it, or whether one has the strength to exercise free choice in the matter ... to resist in th e name of one's own human convictions." The cultural show trial came to a predictable conclusion - in favor of the official line. But, Havel writes, it was curiously not depressing, because of "the very awareness that we were participating in a unique illumination of the world." Is the reason so many people proved so adaptable to living a lie, he asks, linked to "the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity. With their willingness to surrender higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization?" The solution Havel offers to his besieged countrymen, "to live within the truth," gradually emerges in these letters and finds clearest expression in his essay "The Power of the Powerless." Living within the truth is a moral act precisely because you pay dearly for it, and it is not self-serving. The conviction that truth is stronger than a lie, that thought can topple naked power, that there can be a metaphysical dimension to rational thought runs throughout the remaining essays. An equally striking theme is his understated concern for the mental condition of his persecutors, caught up in impersonal power and fear, and entangled in the "web of their own prestige." In the end, the enemy in this book is not communist hacks and lackeys. It is the "total unity of total pretense" that bound them together; the lackey mentality that takes "orders in silence from an incompetent superior" and seeks escape from every personal responsibility; the "gray monotony that stifles all individuality"; the "musty inertia that excludes the transcendent." The enemy is all that blunts the "human, moral, and spiritual potential and civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy," Havel said in his first speech as president after the revolution. This analysis of political struggle gives a hint of how Havel could take over power without prompting revolt and panic among party regulars. It also sends a message to the West. Spiritual vitality is not only crushed by tyrants who fear an original thought. It is also challenged by materialism and consumerism. Ironically, when the moral choices are stark, the sacrifices evident, the ethical issues Havel raises are clearer than they may be in a shopping mall. For Western readers, the question becomes not how to live in truth under dictators, but how to live in truth without them?

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.