Havel and the Ideological Temptation

On June 17, the Washington Post ran a story about a 2018 Halloween party at the home of cartoonist Tom Toles. A woman named Sue Schafer attended in blackface, with a nice business suit and a name tag that read, “Hello, my name is Megyn Kelly.” That October, Kelly had made this remark on the air: “When I was a kid, [blackface] was okay, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.” Her show was canceled soon after. What was Schafer thinking? And how did this episode end up in the Washington Post?

Such material, I thought to myself, belongs in an absurdist play by Václav Havel—the great playwright-dissident who rose to become president of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of Communism in 1989. Apparently, Schafer thought it would be both funny and clever to dress up as a white woman, in blackface, who hadn’t actually appeared in blackface but had expressed a wrong opinion about blackface. Did it occur to Schafer that once in costume, she’d actually be in blackface? Schafer was no doubt playing a role—someone in-the-know with enough self-assurance to make fun of the benighted Kelly and thus assure her place on the side of the angels. Once in blackface, however, Schafer would be playing a very different role from the one she intended. She’d only be a white woman in blackface! “The Halloween Party,” by Václav Havel, would explore the strange psychology of the person who intends to play their social role—a role that depends for its integrity on the identification of those others responsible for all social maladies—and the social mechanisms that grind her down as she becomes “othered” in her quest for a place of comfort and respectability in an atmosphere devoid of forgiveness.

Havel the Playwright

As David Gilbreath Barton reminds us in his new biography Havel: Unfinished Revolution, Havel was a highly successful playwright before he was a dissident or a politician. His plays were one way of exploring what he called the “crisis of human identity.” Havel was an early practitioner of what the international theater critic Martin Esslin deemed the “theater of the absurd”—although Havel would put his own very particular stamp on this genre. For Havel, “the sensation of absurdity is never . . . the expression of a loss of faith in the meaning of life. Quite the opposite: only someone whose very being thirsts for meaning, for whom ‘meaning’ is an integral dimension of his own existence, can even experience the absence of meaning as something painful, or more precisely, can perceive it at all.”

Barton points out that 1965 was a crucial year for Václav Havel. His play The Memorandum became a hit, following the highly successful The Garden Party the previous year. Martin Esslin came to Prague and lauded Havel as one of the great playwrights of Central Europe. Havel published his first book and came to the attention of Lincoln Center in New York City as well as a television station in Germany that was interested in making a documentary. He was also contacted by Czechoslovak state security (StB) agents who hoped to recruit him. During one meeting Havel’s characteristic politeness made them suspect he might welcome their advances and even agree to work for them. The security files note that Havel told them their meetings would be “good for his literary enterprises.” The StB agents missed the irony in his remark. Barton’s book is full of interesting details like this.

Nineteen sixty-five was also the year that Havel became embroiled in a controversy around the literary magazine Tvář and the Writer’s Union that housed it. Havel joined both the editorial board of the magazine and the Union that year. Tvář was outside of the establishment—an “island of freedom” according to Havel. When the magazine came under attack, reform communists tried to defend the magazine from their more orthodox and strident masters. One reform communist suggested that if only the editors of Tvář would explicitly identify or classify themselves, that might decrease the level of suspicion between the party and this journal. As Havel recalls his thinking then in Disturbing the Peace, “Such a thing can only be suggested by someone who subscribes to an ideology and believes that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it must therefore subscribe to another ideology, because he can’t imagine anyone’s not subscribing to an ideology.”

The Communist Party ideology demanded a self-forgetting and offered its adherents the merger of their very selves with the verdict of History.

Havel stressed the importance of this incident, calling it the beginning of his “involvement in cultural and civic politics” and leading to his becoming a “dissident.” Indeed, if one looks at the speech he gave at the Writer’s Union conference that year (later published in essay form as “On Evasive Thinking”), one can see him exploring the distinctive features of ideological politics which would occupy his thinking for much of the 1970s and 1980s. At the outset of the essay he notes that a stone window ledge had recently detached itself from a building on a street in Prague, killing a woman. There was some public outrage following this event. Soon an article appeared in the official press which noted that the falling ledge was terrible, that the criticism was justified, but also how great it was that such criticism was permitted and how much progress the society had made in so many areas of life. Finally, the author challenged readers to disentangle themselves from the local and the petty in favor of the grand questions of mankind.

Havel identified a familiar pattern here. The ideological discourse of the communist regime always demanded a certain “contextualization”—an abstraction that blinded one from the particular and concrete realities that must be faced in favor of a vague and formal declaration. Ideological language becomes ritualized language. Such language no longer serves its proper function of naming reality, but merely serves as a marker for how things must be seen and described so as to justify the rule of the Party.

Havel the Dissident

Just as Havel the playwright is relevant to the current self-destruction of individual identity and the eager embrace of the social role and “ally” mentality, so Havel the dissident is relevant to our embrace of ideological politics. This parallel is surprising given that the content of the current ideological temptation is somewhat obscure. But Havel’s critique of ideological politics had less to with the specific content of the doctrines than with its formal character or mode. This is precisely why Havel’s critique remains so instructive—for there can be no mistaking that the mode of radical politics today is ideological in the sense that Havel (and others such as Milosz or Solzhenitsyn) identified it. For Havel, the comprehensive doctrine claimed to be rooted in History and was characterized by an inner logicality that was almost mechanistic in its specification of when and how human action must conform to theory. It offered a fundamental and complete break with the benighted past—indeed, that past must be negated to make room for the coming of the new order. Participation in such a movement demanded a self-forgetting and offered its adherents the merger of their very selves with the verdict of History.

The ideological politics of Havel’s day enjoined people to pretend that the socialism that was promised by the Party was in fact being realized. The ideological politics of our day demand that we see our liberal democratic order as so far beyond repair and so enveloped in injustice (racial, gender-based, etc.) that only revolutionary action can save us. The first demanded that people see their present reality in the fantastical terms of a socialist world of equality, fraternity, and perfect justice. The second demands that we see our present reality in terms of a dystopian vision of racial domination and violence which implicates everyone and everything. While the murder of George Floyd is a terrible injustice, there is no evidence that scores of unarmed black men are being murdered by police officers every year. Yet there is evidence that blacks are treated differently by the police in non-violent interactions. To what extent is this the result of racism? What sort of policy interventions are an appropriate remedy for this problem? These are complex questions that won’t be asked much less answered if our discourse remains at the level of “systemic racism” and “defund the police.” As Havel put it, “When we lose touch with reality, we inevitably lose the capacity to influence reality effectively . . . We live in a time of struggle between two ways of thinking: thinking evasively and thinking to the point.”

Barton tells the story of Havel’s dissident years well. He emphasizes the importance of Havel’s 1975 open letter to Gustav Husák (the General Secretary of the Communist Party). Sometimes this event gets downplayed due to the birth of Charter 77 two years later, but the letter was crucial in allowing Havel to regain some self-confidence and purpose after the stultifying atmosphere of the early 1970s. Readers learn about Havel’s connection to the underground band The Plastic People of the Universe and their trial in the fall of 1976 that sparked the creation of Charter 77. Havel thought the regime’s attack on these young musicians was noteworthy because it “could become a precedent for something truly evil: the regime could well start locking up everyone who thought independently, even if he did so only in private.”

Barton spends one chapter discussing the three and a half years Havel spent in prison due to his involvement in VONS, or the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted, a sister organization to Charter 77. Barton mines some of Havel’s remarkable prison letters, later published as Letters to Olga. Many of these letters contain Havel’s philosophical reflections on a variety of topics—some of them connected to the themes of his plays and essays. Havel’s portrait of the “fanatic”—from his letter of January 22, 1983—has clear resonances today:

Such a person is unhappy: he is always enthusiastic, and at the same time permanently disappointed; he is ever the naïve optimist, and yet ever in danger of being cast into the abyss of deepest skepticism by an external accident. He is capable very easily, very quickly, very emotionally, and without the slightest inner reserve, of devoting himself to a cause (and of condemning energetically everyone who does not share that devotion), but he is just as capable, the moment things begin to go wrong, of turning away from the same cause and succumbing to the pessimistic view that nothing makes sense.

The fanatic, for Havel, is ripe for conversion to an ideological project but is equally likely to succumb to what he calls “existence-in-the-world.” Here human beings live a kind of hedonistic, consumerist existence, surrendering themselves to an ultimately unsatisfying materialism. They are therefore always susceptible to the attraction of an ideology that offers to give their empty lives purpose and meaning.

Barton’s treatment of Havel’s presidential years is relatively short—about 30 pages in a book that totals just over 300. He does address the crucial and interesting question about the relation between dissident Havel on the one hand and President Havel on the other. He notes that some authors portray Havel as a reluctant president—pushed into office by events but someone who otherwise would never have sought political office. Others have suggested that the reluctant president was a kind of ruse used by Havel himself to hide his ambition. Barton suggests neither portrayal is quite accurate. He writes that Havel “enjoyed the presidency and he also resented its seductive hold.” Here Barton seems to follow one of Havel’s previous biographers Michael Žantovský. Havel always thought of himself primarily as a writer and did not—according to Žantovský—long for the presidency. The latter notes, however, that “in the reality play of his life, through his writings, his courageous resistance to the communist regime, and his sacrifice in spending five of his best years in jail, he set the stage in such a way that when the final act arrived, the logic of the piece inexorably led him to assume the leading position. He finally ‘fell’ into his role.”

Barton’s book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on this remarkable, and very much still relevant, writer, thinker, and statesman.