Almost universally hailed today as an intellectual visionary and transformative political leader, Vaclav Havel actually struggled to live up to both of those expectations, an essay in honor of the man appearing in The Nation reminds us. He was something of a reluctant crusader, and took an approach rather nearer to postmodernism, preferring to critique “automation” by inverting maxims, dissecting social situations, and showing the absurdity of totalizing state power. His approach to philosophy came not out out of one easily-identifiable school but was more eclectic:
I approach philosophy somewhat the way we approach art, Havel once confessed. Despite his lack of method, he took a reading of Heidegger and a handful of homegrown metaphors and set forth in his writing powerful ideas about politics, truth and human nature. Havel believed that under communism and capitalism, people are threatened by what he described in his 1984 essay Politics and Conscience as the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman powerthe power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.
This did not make him nihilistic or even anti-traditional, though his sharp eye for linguistic laziness and intellectual deception did impart a sort of existentialist tinge to his faith. It also led him to support a nonideological, bottom-up ‘antipolitical politics’:
The last horizon might be called God, though Havel didnt insist on the word. He did, however, insist that responsibility establishes identity. Responsibility is the knife we use to carve out our own inimitable features in the panorama of Being, he wrote. In Havels case, he came to a critical sense of responsibility through the ambiguous letter he wrote in 1977, appealing for release from jail. The authorities had claimed that it represented an abandonment of his dissident commitments, and although that hadnt been his intention, after long self-questioning he nonetheless acknowledged the failure as his own. We all tried to talk him out of it, one friend later recalled, but as another explained, once Havel was convinced that the error was his, he set out to provoke the police to arrest him again, which they did. Much of his special charisma in the dissident movement stemmed from this decision to get rearrested. He acted as if such a sacrificein atonement for a failing that few people blamed him forheld meaning, thereby reclaiming the power to determine the meaning of his life, even in his errors.
Whether all is really lost or not, Havel explained in one of his letters to Olga, depends entirely on whether or not I am lost. He meant the proposition to be true of everyone. He believed that change would come to Communist Czechoslovakia when ordinary people across the country began to insist, as he did, on living fully human lives. His faith in the effect of this antipolitical politics was like his faith in art; though such a politics is hidden, indirect, long-term, and hard to measure, he was sure it would prevail.
Read more of Caleb Crain’s fine essay here .