Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011 December 18, 2011

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Playwright, dissident, Velvet Underground fan and the first president of the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel has died at age 75.

"Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not."

“There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side,” Havel once said, even though he himself was an intellectual who wound up — astonishingly, gloriously — on the winning side.

As a dissident in a repressive system, he saw little reason to hope that the side of freedom would ever be the winning side. But he also saw hopelessness as “the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

In 1975, life in Soviet Czechoslovakia certainly seemed hopeless and absurd, yet he wrote this:

A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the lid will no longer hold and will start to crack. This is the moment when something once more begins visibly to happen, something truly new and unique … something truly historical, in the sense that history again demands to be heard.

Fourteen years later, something truly new and unique, beautiful and revolutionary happened. And Havel went from being a dissident to being the president of a democratic republic. (Havel, like Nelson Mandela, was also wise and humble enough to provide that essential service that many post-revolutionary leaders are unable to provide: he left office at the end of his term.)

This is from his New Year’s Address to the Nation in 1990:

Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community. … You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems — human, economic, ecological, social or political.


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  • This probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, as he’s been ill for a long time, but it’s a surprise.

    D***. He was a wise man, and a good man, and the universe is a dimmer, darker place now that is no longer in it.

  • vsm

    Two public supporters of the invasion of Iraq died of cancer over the same weekend. I’m guessing Havel will be remembered in a much better light than the other one.

  • Apocalypse Review

    Huh. I hadn’t known that about Havel.

  • Lori

    Yes, sadly Havel’s ideas took a turn for the worse in the later years of his life. That doesn’t change the good that he did earlier though.

  • Igbrooks

    Most of the people who cited human rights as a reason to invade Iraq were cynically trying to defend the indefensible.  Havel lived under dictatorship and fought it from within.  He made the catastrophic error of thinking that nothing could be worse for the people of Iraq than dictatorship, but understandably so, and perhaps on the day of his death we should do him honour for the decades he spent in nonviolent resistance to evil.

    I can’t recommend his essay The Power of the Powerless (1978) highly enough.

    Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human
    beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while
    making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of
    something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive
    their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious
    modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves…It is a veil behind which human beings can
    hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their
    adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use,
    from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an
    alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the
    highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked
    in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory
    function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims
    and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the
    system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.

  • Anonymous

    didn’t know him, wish I had.

  • Ceri

    As a citizen of the former German “Democratic” Republic, he was a personal hero of mine. He inspired millions of us to go out to the streets and demand our democratic rights as The People.

  • BBC Radio 4 decided to disturb their schedule for a retrospective on Vaclav Havel. I’d not been aware of him. There’s so much about even very recent European History I just don’t know.


  • Jenora Feuer

    Commentary from a Canadian diplomat who had met him and talked to him through his Czech wife:

  • I’m ashamed I’d never heard of him before.  He sounds like he did much good in his time.

  • Anonymous

    Between Kim Jong-Il, Vaclav Havel, and Chris Hitchens, it’s like the good, the bad and the ugly on the obituary pages these days.
    Havel was a great leader, one of the true lights of the post-68 dissident movements. His plays are pretty good too if you like theater of the absurd. I read one that was a communist-era take on Faust (Temptation I think it was called). Wonderfully funny and poignant.
    It may be less impressive, but he also managed the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia (which he opposed) without bitterness or long-term recriminations. In itself that’s impressive.

  • Joshua

    I’ve been to Prague, it’s a truly wonderful city.

    What I learned there shows their revolution to be a most wonderful and powerful example of non-violent political resistance.

    I was told that when Soviet soldiers occupied Prague, the locals engaged in non-violent resistance, including just asking the soldiers “Why?” in Russian. The occupying force was so demoralised it had to be entirely replaced in less than a week.

    Even today, participants in the revolution get free public transport. I though that was a nice touch.

  • FH Ambassador, Western Europe

    You will want to watch featuring Vaclav Havel as a key thinker of the documentary film. “Through interviews with renowned psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo, leading expert on psychopathy Professor Robert Hare, former President of Czech Republic and playwright Vaclav Havel, authors Gary Greenberg and Christopher Lane, professor Nicholas Christakis, among numerous other thinkers, we have delved into the world of psychopaths and heroes and revealed shocking implications for us and our society. “