01 April 2013

The Art of the Impossible

I have unrestrained admiration for Václav Havel.  When I married my husband, I began a campaign to name one of our future sons Havel in his honor (he's tentatively committed - yes!).  That is not a joke.  Why do I admire him so much?  Is it because he was a famous Czech dissident? a playwright? a playwright who then became the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)? Or was it because his words have inspired me and given me a new way of thinking? Ding ding ding ding.  

As a playwright, he was a thoughtful man and even more thoughtful about his words.  Though I had read his version of A Beggar's Opera before, it was shortly after his death that I came across a book in one of my favorite Chicago book stores, Myopic BooksThe Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice is an anthology of Havel's speeches as the Czechoslovakian president.  It includes a plethora of speeches, from his New Year's Address to the Nation (Jan. 1, 1990) to his acceptance speech for the Indira Gandhi Prize (Feb. 8, 1994) until his speech at the Academy of Performing Arts (Oct. 4, 1996) in Prague.  It holds 35 speeches that largely center on the morality of politics, politics generally, the existentialist crises we face as humans, the deep seeds of hatred and tribalism, what it meant to be in post-communist Europe, and the future of Europe on the world stage and on its own turf.  He spoke from his experience as a dissident in a totalitarian system that tried to suppress his burst of truth.  He is famous for the saying, "living in truth", from his tale of the greengrocer, but he had much more experience and thoughtful analysis to share than that story alone.

He reflects on his life in communist Czechoslovakia with solemnity and a splash of comedy.  In many respects, the system was outright absurd, but the difficulties of the system were moral in nature.  Friends that would avoid even saying hello for fear of reprisal (GWU, Apr. 22, '93), choosing between what is true and what would keep life bearable, and rendering speech meaningless were among the symptoms of the greater malady.  An unapologetic idealist, he shows compassion for people who sacrificed the greater good in order to continue their families' lives while also skewering the populace for willingly lying with the regime.  He never forgets to remind the people dancing on the Wall that they were the main reason it existed in the first place and that children rebelled against the lies told by their parents, meant to protect those same children (Unite Nations World Summit for Children, Sept. 9, '90).  He floods light into that perplexing period of time and places the history of CEE in context, both in history and the future.  His speech at the Conclusion of the Month of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Czech Republic (Oct. 13, '95) has a stripped down understanding of the ugly atrocities committed there and his speech, "The Anatomy of Hate" at the Oslo Conference (Aug. 28, '90) has some of the most beautiful philosophical and theological discourse I have read.

However, he is not limited to explaining his experience to western audiences--he lectures them on their responsibilities, mourning the simplicity of the Cold War era, and poorly practiced democracy.  What I love so intensely about Havel is that he does all of that without sounding malicious or smug.  He simply brings the truth to the table and it's presented merely as the state of things.  He pontificates on the role of intellectuals in politics (in short - you belong there, working to build the world), the trappings of power (special services are necessary, but alienating), imbuing a sense of collective responsibility in politics, and the moral choices politics faces.  His speeches on the nature of politics, the ideal way it should be practiced, and the potential we have to change the world through the political arena were mind expanding for me.  My favorite speech on this subject was at The Sonning Prize (May 28, 1991) because he talks about how the role of a politician can alienate him from his original purpose.  He discusses the role of media and its incestuous relationship with politics and politicians, holding them up to the ultimate responsibility of shaping the world we live in.  If you have ever felt cynical about this facet of democracy, this book will rain optimism and hope on your soul.  I have never felt so moved about something that evokes such ire.

I will not say Havel was a perfect man and that is precisely why he is so compelling.  He was perhaps a little too judgmental and principled to work perfectly as a politician and he always appeared most excited to pen his speeches, which he readily admitted was his favorite part of the role.  His greatest strength was the ability to quietly ponder and deeply think through quandries and find the kernel of truth, the ultimate goal, in the quagmire.  This book has inspired me to name a child after him, and that is a testament to the power he puts into his words.  I hope that the child named in his honor really takes the inspiration to heart and yearns to live in truth.