Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell

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The room, on the corner of a dark basement hall, proved cozier for me than it had for Havel. The quarters were Spartan but clean. A fresh coat of baby-blue paint, the thermostat overcompensating for the Czech winter, and a plaque noting its most famous guest were all that distinguished the hostel from its previous incarnation. Writing such essays is what landed Havel in the cell; reading them is what drew me there. That he penned his heretical thoughts to paper brought both of us to the same place but under very different circumstances.

Marx and Engel’s manifesto seemed more curio than current. Often it was only by placing the polemicists’ lines in the past tense that they made sense, e.g., “A spectre was haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” If the trust-fund revolutionaries felt subversive writing their manifesto, I felt subversive reading it where their followers had turned a house of God into a house of horrors.

Havel, on the other hand, spoke eerily of the present from the past. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” he noted in one timeless passage. “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.” Considering the freewheeling nature of present-day Prague, “The Power of the Powerless” reads at times as prophecy. “The specific nature of post-totalitarian conditions—with their absence of a normal political life and the fact that any far-reaching political change is utterly unforeseeable—has one positive aspect: it compels us to examine our situation in terms of deeper coherences and to consider our future in the context of global, long-range prospects of the world of which we are a part,” Havel wrote in 1978. “The fact that the most intrinsic and fundamental confrontation between human beings and the system takes place at a level incomparably more profound than that of traditional politics would seem, at the same time, to determine as well the direction such considerations will take.” Such confrontations toppled the regime in the next decade. “For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant,” he concluded. “What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?” Havel daring to dream a different reality helped to bring it about.

How liberating to study the game plan for the powerless defeating the powerful from a decommissioned Communist clink!

A prison is a place so terrible that its inhabitants will do anything to get out. A hotel is a place so inviting that people pay to stay there. The transformation of the room I read from symbolized the transformation affected by the transformative personality who once stayed as its unwilling guest. What had been a dreary nation caricatured as the epitome of Eastern Bloc backwardness on a famous Saturday Night Live skit is now a tourist magnet for sophisticated Europeans who marvel at all that architecture, history, culture, and commerce. Havel, among so much else, alchemized a Communist dungeon into a cash-cow tourist trap. Somewhere Marx is frowning at this irony just as Havel had smiled at it.

Václav Havel is dead. One need only visit a free and vibrant Prague to appreciate his life.

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  • Anamah

    Thank you Daniel, your article is a beautiful way to learn about Vaclav Havel life; you paint an emotional picture of the horror of the Communist regime and the Vaclav victory shining for ever in the freedom of Prague. So revealing!

  • JeromeBurg

    Had life not taken me to Prague in 2006 to write global lesson plans with a group of Apple Distinguished Educators, I would still be ignorant of the contributions of Václav Havel and the inspiration he provided for the Velvet Revolution. To not be aware of such heroes at the global level is the new provincialism.
    But, to my dismay, and as a grand example of irony, while I was reading this article, the advertisement placed in the middle of both pages of this story was promoting Ann Coulter, a prime example of Havel's, "If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth…,”

    • Supreme_Galooty

      Interesting. The same two ads in MY case were for Swing Away can openers – which I had previously been looking for online. Were you browsing Ann Coulter? And why the dismay? And I don't understand your concept of irony. What's your beef with Ann Coulter? I know she drives liberals crazy. Is that it?

      • JeromeBurg


  • WilliamJamesWard

    I think reading Solzhenitsyn is necessary to have a grasp of what Vaclav Havel
    was enduring, Russia was the homeland of the oppressors and spread the life
    of less than human reality within Eastern Europe. Socialists and Communists
    are still looking to return the time of the midnight knock at the door and the
    danger is coming out of the UN………………………………………..William