Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

19havel-1324209341879-articleInlineIn the Associated Press, via the NYT:

Mr. Havel left office in 2003, 10 years after Czechoslovakia broke up and a few months before both nations joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.

Shy and bookish, with wispy mustache and unkempt hair, Mr. Havel came to symbolize the power of the people to peacefully overcome totalitarian rule.

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” He famously said. It became his revolutionary motto which he said he strove to live by.

His death reminded me of this exchange in the NYRB. First, Joseph Brodsky:

I’ve decided to write this letter to you because we have something in common: we both are writers. In this line of work, one weighs words more carefully, I believe, than elsewhere before committing them to paper or, for that matter, to the microphone. Even when one finds oneself engaged in a public affair, one tries to do one’s best to avoid catchwords, Latinate expressions, all manner of jargon. In a dialogue, of course, or with two or more interlocutors around, that’s difficult, and may even strike them as pretentiousness. But in a soliloquy or in a monologue it is, I think, attainable, though of course one always tailors one’s diction to one’s audience.

We have something else in common, Mr. President, and that is our past in our respective police states. To put it less grandly: our prisons, that shortage of space amply made up for by an abundance of time, which, sooner or later, renders one, regardless of one’s temperament, rather contemplative. You spent more time in yours, of course, than I in mine, though I started in mine long before the Prague Spring. Yet in spite of my nearly patriotic belief that the hopelessness of some urine-reeking cement hole in the bowels of Russia awakens one to the arbitrariness of existence faster than what I once pictured as a clean, stuccoed solitary in civilized Prague, as contemplative beings, I think, we might be quite even.


For ordinary people in your country of birth, any change aiming at a freer system, at freedom of thought and action, was a step into the unknown. Thanks to your moral strength and talent, you and a relatively small number of other authors continued the work of the great Russian poets, novelists, and essayists of the nineteenth century, and of that handful of irrepressible artists with names like Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Babel, Zoshchenko, and even Pasternak and others.

You longed for freedom, and you won it. When your friends, both intimate and distant, saw you go off to prison to pay for that victory, they might well have said that they were in no danger of experiencing the inconvenience of freedom. Perhaps they gained some dark satisfaction from that.

By contrast, Czechs and Slovaks enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom and democracy in the late nineteenth century under the Austro-Hungarian constitutional monarchy, and even more during Czechoslovakia’s First Republic. The traditions of those times live on in family life and in books. Thus, though the renewal of freedom is difficult and inconvenient in our country too, freedom was never a completely unknown aspect of time, space, and thought.