Václav Havel today
By Sean L Hanley, on 21 December 2011
The challenge, suggests Tim Beasley-Murray, is to make the death of Václav Havel not only the cause of sadness and commemoration, but a new(s) story of ‘the art of the impossible’
Václav Havel’s essay of 1987, The Story and Totalitarianism’, opens with the following anecdote:
‘A friend of mine, who had serious problems with asthma, was sentenced for political reasons to several years in prison. In prison he suffered greatly because his cellmates were smokers and he could not breathe properly. All his requests to be transferred to a cell of non-smokers fell on deaf ears. His health was seriously in danger, indeed his life was at risk. An American woman, who found out about the situation, wanted to help and telephoned an acquaintance, the editor of an influential newspaper, asking if he might be able to write an article about the situation. The editor replied, “Ring me when he’s dead.”’
Czechoslovak asthma isn’t enough of a story for the Western editor. ‘We are not worthy of attention because we don’t have stories and we don’t have death. We just have asthma. And who wants to hear our stereotypical coughing?’ Totalitarianism, Havel argues, neutralizes the drama of stories and it makes everyday suffering into something normal and unexceptional.
Now that Havel is dead, it is worth asking what sort of story his death makes. Havel’s death is the cause of great sadness, in Prague and around the world. And yet, long expected and undramatic, it does not appear to be much of a news story, rather one of the final melancholy pages of a certain chapter of history. (In addition to Havel, this year has seen the death of a number of his comrades in dissidence and power, including Jiří Dienstbier and Jiří Gruša. That is to say: a generation is passing.) That mortality is kind to no one and has no respect for goodness and reputation is shown by the swift and unceremonious way that Havel’s death was replaced on the front pages by the death of another, very different sort of political leader.
Havel’s insight into the relationship between power and stories does not hold for totalitarianism only. One way that all regimes, totalitarian or not, legitimate themselves is by conferring the appearance of normality on suffering, injustice and inequality. Power says: ‘there’s no story here; this is just the way that things are.’ As thinker, writer and reluctant politician, Havel sought to revive and cultivate the power of stories everywhere. He insisted that one must write about asthma, ‘not despite the fact that people are not dying of it, but exactly because they are not dying of it’. In so doing, he was instrumental in co-writing the most miraculous and unexpected story that Europe has ever heard: the story of citizens taking back power for themselves.
What is happening in the world today, the asthmatic wheezing of a bankrupt capitalist system, is not normal and not natural. As the achievements of sixty years of peaceful cooperation in Western Europe – and twenty years of similar working together of West and East – are threatened by an economic and political crisis no one seems to be able to solve, Havel words in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ are as relevant they were in 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia: ‘Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible.’ Concepts and practices like adhocracy, anti-politics, but above all a renewal of a democratic sense of responsibility, may be needed more than ever in a world where traditional politics seem so ineffective. (It is encouraging to see elements of these ideas and ways of doing things – although one must perhaps express this with reservations – in the ‘Occupy’ movement, in the Arab Spring, and in opposition to Putin in Russia.)
The challenge, then, is to make Havel’s death not only the cause of sadness and an opportunity for commemoration, as a great man passes in history, but also to make it a story: a new(s) story that would tell – in Havelian terms – of ‘the art of the impossible’, of ‘the rehabilitation of human uniqueness, human action and the human spirit’, and that would put freely acting men and women at its dramatic centre. A story of Havel today.
Tim Beasley-Murray is Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture at SSEES.