Always the Optimist

Václav Havel's transcendence of politics.


The anti-politics politician.

The recently deceased Václav Havel — Czech writer, political dissident, and first president of the Czech Republic — wrote some very funny plays. Living through the dark times of communist Czechoslovakia, Havel was committed to keeping a sense of humor. Laughter, he felt, was not just an antidote to misery, an escape; it was a way to distance oneself from misery, if only to gain a little perspective. This is the function of satire. Satire asks us to reflect on meaning, to ask ourselves what is truly meaningful and what is not. What do we take seriously because it is serious, and what do we take seriously because we’ve stopped asking questions?


These funny plays of Havel are generally classified as belonging to the Absurdist tradition, alongside the works of Pinter, Albee, Stoppard, and Beckett. In the West, Havel’s plays have represented all that is ridiculous and empty about communism in particular and bureaucracy and authority in general. Havel first came to international attention with The Garden Party. The play revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Pludek, who have middle-class aspirations for their two sons, Hugo and Peter. Dismissing Peter as a bourgeois intellectual, the Pludeks turn their attention to Hugo, who pleases his parents by becoming chief liquidator of the Liquidation Office. Hugo is told that the task of the Liquidation Office is to liquidate the Inauguration Office. Unfortunately, the Liquidation Office is also slated to be liquidated, and if it is liquidated it cannot liquidate. The capable Hugo finally becomes head of a new institution, the Central Committee for Inauguration and Liquidation, the purpose of which is liquidating liquidation. Because Hugo is intelligent and organized, he quickly adapts to his various bureaucratic roles, learning to speak the platitudinous, vacant language spoken by his fellow functionaries. At the play’s end, Hugo’s identity is completely lost. Even his own parents no longer recognize him.

Havel’s next play, The Memorandum, fully established him as a theatrical voice for Eastern Europeans living under the absurd logic of communism. The Memorandum begins in the office of Josef Gross. Gross is the managing director of the office, though what he manages, or what the office does, it is hard to say. It’s a day like any other. Gross is reading his mail when he comes upon a memorandum written in a language he does not understand. He is then informed by his secretary that the memo is written in a Ptydepe, a new language that has been introduced by the deputy director Jan Ballas, without Gross’ knowledge or consent. Ptydepe, it is explained to Gross, is a more efficient and reliable language for the office because it is more redundant, ridding language of unwieldy similarities and also emotional connotations. All words, for instance, must differ from words of similar length by 60 percent. Gross at first protests against the introduction of Ptydepe, but is later convinced by Gross that Ptydepe is best for everyone. Nonetheless, Gross still does not understand Ptydepe, and spends the play in an exasperating attempt to get the memo translated. First he needs permission. He is told to get authorization from the graduate Ptydepist, and then, actually, from the Chairman, who, it turns out, does not herself have authorization. He asks a secretary named Maria to help him, but she tells Gross that while she can translate the memo, she does not have the proper permit to do so. And the whole time, of course, Gross is being watched by George, the staff watcher. In the end, Ptydepe is replaced with another new language, Chorukor, and then it is agreed that everyone will, in fact, go back to the mother language. Then everyone goes to lunch.

In his 1990 book Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huizdala, Havel wrote: “The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning — in other words, of absurdity — the more energetically meaning is sought.” Glimpsing into Havel’s biography, it’s easy to understand his interest in the absurd. Born into a wealthy, intellectual Prague family in 1936, the rise of communism in then-Czechoslovakia cancelled many of the privileges that would have been afforded to the young Havel. Because of his “bourgeois” background, Havel was prevented from attending university. He worked for a time as a lab technician, and then studied at a technical college before serving in the Czechoslovak Army in the late 1950s. But all the while, Havel maintained an interest in literature. He began to write in earnest and involved himself in various literary circles. In the 1960s, he got work in a theater as a stagehand and began to write his own plays. After the Prague Spring reforms were crushed in 1968, Havel became increasingly immersed in the political struggle against communism. His arrest in 1979, and his life as a public dissident in Czechoslovakia, ran parallel to his life as an internationally known playwright. Soon, Havel became the world’s most visible Czech dissident. And after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this privileged-yet-disenfranchised, famous artist and political revolutionary became president of Czechoslovakia. He resigned in 1992 only to be elected president again the following year — of the newly created Czech Republic.

In the decades that followed, Václav Havel, the playwright turned politician, became one of those go-to public figures when someone needed a voice of authority on freedom and revolution. Yet Havel’s guidance rarely focused on either politics or aesthetics. The problem of creating real and lasting societal change, was, for Havel, a moral dilemma. And absurdity was the path through this moral problem. Havel did not see absurdity as something that people in power impose on the powerless. He did not see the absurd as that which is devoid of purpose, as Eugéne Ionesco said. Havel saw absurdity as a fact of life, and the embrace of absurdity — the experience of meaninglessness — as the necessary condition by which we find meaning. Modern man, he wrote in Disturbing the Peace, needed to descend the spiral of his own absurdity to the lowest point. Only then could he look beyond it, only then could he discover real meaning. Pace the quote above, the deeper we are willing to experience true absurdity, the more energetically, the more deeply will we seek meaning. It is wrong to say that Havel’s plays are a critique of “systems” and authorities and illogical bosses and the tedium of office life. Havel’s plays are a critique of us, of all of us, those in charge and those under charge, who created all the absurd and meaningless structures of modern society we lament on a daily basis, feel so oppressed by, and yet refuse to change.

“Lie” is a word Havel used often in one of his most discussed and influential essays, 1978’s “The Power of the Powerless.” He wrote:

In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife.

For those who haven’t read the essay, or haven’t read it in a long time, it might seem that the “powerless” in the title refers to those suffering under communism, the masses, or perhaps all people who are in a power struggle against authority. But the essay is much more existential and much less political than that. For Havel, the modern world was in spiritual crisis. “As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it,” he wrote in Disturbing the Peace. The modern project to make humans more powerful — more in control of our environment, of nature, each other — resulted, rather, in a loss of power, a loss of meaning. And the deeper we experience the absence of meaning, “the more energetically meaning is sought.”

This is the point when individual people, lacking purpose and alienated, become susceptible to ideology, to placing their trust in an anonymous Power that offers them comfort, even if that comfort is a lie. It’s not even necessary that people believe in the lies they are told; they merely need to behave as if they do, to conform to its logic. In return, the lie offers not merely a new politics; it offers a new mythology, a new identity, a new language, a new metaphysics.

That willingness to float down the river of pseudolife is a problem common to all individuals, and is not reserved for the powerful or the weak or the doltish. “Individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” To prove his point, Havel makes the main character in The Power of the Powerless a greengrocer — an innocent shopkeeper, who only wants to sell us fruit and vegetables! The greengrocer is a prototype of the average person who longs for meaning and allows his moral vacuum to be filled with easy, empty ideology.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

It’s important to note the way Havel chose to specifically critique “unification.: In the ideological fight against communism waged by the dissidents of the Eastern Bloc, the idea of unity — solidarity — was the weapon of choice. True solidarity, versus the false solidarity of the communist regime, was the basis from which change would spring. And yet, Havel wrote the word “unity” almost as if it were a dirty word. The reason is plain: Havel understood well the way “unity: was also used as a slogan of communist ideology. Indeed, all authorities declare a comforting message of unity. This is the primary function of ideology, he wrote. 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.”

Havel felt that the whole world, East and West, was caught in a conflict “between an impersonal, anonymous, irresponsible, and uncontrollable juggernaut of power” posing as a harmonic universe, and “the elemental and original interests of man as a concrete individual.” When human beings experienced a loss of “superpersonal moral authority,” they no longer saw themselves as part of a true unity — a universal unity. Conformity took the place of responsibility. Science in the 20th century had shown us something in the universe greater than ourselves, but it offered no direction. “Today,” he said in a 1994 speech in Philadelphia titled “The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World,” “we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. The same thing is true of nature and of ourselves.”

A deeper sense of individual responsibility toward the world would only be awakened in people when they directed themselves toward some kind of higher moral authority. In other words, unity and freedom will not be achieved unless people undergo a metaphysical transformation. This is what differentiates real unity from totalitarianism.

Václav Havel’s emphasis on the “moral reconstitution of society” is perhaps the most revolutionary, and most overlooked, aspect of his legacy. As an icon for Western Left intellectuals, the religious implications of a moral revolution caused some understandable discomfort and confusion. But Havel mistrusted a social unity based solely on politics, and rejected the idea that politics would remedy the crises of modern civilization.

Havel once said that the true dissident is not interested in power, has no desire for office and does not gather votes. It’s an ironic statement coming from a future president. The absurdity of his own rise to power has been pointed out numerous times, first and foremost by Havel himself. And yet, whether or not he lived up to his own values as a politician, Havel always felt that the role of a leader should be no different than the role of a dissident — a leader should simply be a voice for the people. The only kind of politics that makes sense, said Havel, is one that is guided by conscience. Political institutions should be open, dynamic and small, rather than closed, inviolable and huge. “It is better to have organizations springing up ad hoc,” he wrote in The Power of the Powerless, “infused with enthusiasm for a particular purpose and disappearing when that purpose has been achieved.” In other words, institutions are best when they serve a specific purpose, and are not a replacement for community. And they are best when they place moral concerns before political ones. Without addressing the spiritual needs of people, without focusing on real human relationships and personal trust, democracy was likely to be just as absurd as communism. In this, Havel was much more radical than most of his post-democracy peers, at least intellectually. He was a politician who saw good politics as a result rather than a solution.

In his heart, Havel was always an optimist. The profound downward spiral into absurdity at the core of the greengrocer’s — and society’s — crisis was also their greatest hope. “Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” You could say Havel’s philosophy of change was based less on the “power of the people,” and more so on the power of the person.

On the day of Havel’s death, Czech novelist Milan Kundera said, “Václav Havel’s most important work is his own life.” There’s a moral there somewhere, one that Havel would have appreciated very much indeed. • 23 December 2011

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at