Disturbing the Peace

It’s hard to imagine a more improbable — or appealing — modern statesman than Václav Havel. His election as the new president of Czechoslovakia in December 1989 ended 40 years of Communist rule — and catapulted the self-effacing playwright onto a global stage. Until then, Havel had repeatedly insisted that he was only a writer, a moral witness, an amateur philosopher — anything, in short, but a ”politician, in the sense of someone who takes on the practical task of organizing a better world.”

Readers interested in learning more about this most reluctant of political heroes will find no better place to begin than Disturbing the Peace. Originally circulated surreptitiously in Czechoslovakia in 1986, the text grew out of a set of written questions, many quite probing, composed by exiled Czech journalist Karel Hvízdala. havel tape-recorded answers to these questions and later refined and expanded them with Hvízdala’s help. Since its inception, the work has had a considerable reputation in Czechoslovakia. In December 1989, it became the first legally published book in the new Czechoslovakia.

It’s easy to see why. The hybrid format — a combination of memoir and interview, surveying Havel’s career and challenging him to clarify his convictions — gives the playwright a perfect platform for expressing his paradoxical blend of self-deprecating courage and self-conscious humility. Less freighted with metaphysical musings than his important Letters to Olga, composed in prison between 1979 and 1982, the book offers a much clearer — and quite winning — account of Havel’s life and ideals.

As the child of a comfortably bourgeois family, Havel grew up in an intellectual milieu marked by antagonism to Marxism and a reverence for liberal humanism. While earning a reputation as an avant-garde writer in the ’50s, he ”slipped into the company of those who were working on the borderline between what was permitted and not permitted,” periodically stepping over the line to protest the cultural policies of Communists.

In 1968, he watched in astonishment as events unfolded not just in Czechoslovakia but also in the United States, which he visited that year. Fascinated by the ”bare-footed boys and girls walking around New York with chains around their necks like some aboriginal Christians,” Havel was even more surprised by the sudden flowering of demands for freedom in Prague. He forged one conviction in that tumultuous year that he never has abandoned: ”None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible.”

Unlike many of his Eastern European peers, who are nationalistic but also eager to embrace Western institutions without modification, Havel sees himself as a kind of cosmopolitan Cassandra, drawing attention to injustices that are global in scope: ”If our national fate depends on anything,” he remarks, it is not on”our Czechness,” but rather on ”how we acquit ourselves in our human tasks.” These ”human tasks” he approaches as an unapologetic utopian. His ultimate political aim is not just the resurrection of representative institutions but the creation of democratic ”clubs where people could refine their opinions, get to know each other personally, and seek to determine who among them would be the best to administer the affairs of the polis.”

When eh speaks this way, Havel knows he will strike many readers as a hopeless romantic, ”an eternal dreamer, foolishly struggling for some ideal or another.” His career raises all over again the hoary question of what, if any, constructive role utopian idealism can play in contemporary politics.

Havel concedes that drafting manifestos and petitions often seems futile, ”an attempt by their authors to show how wonderful they are.” Still, however futile or even counterproductive in the short run, struggling to do what is right, in his view, remains an indispensable precondition of freedom from oppression. And, as a matter of historical fact, in Czechoslovakia after 1968, quixotic gestures like Havel’s marked ”the beginning of a process in which people’s civic backbones began to straighten again.” The result, of course was the peaceful democratic revolution of 1989.

Can we conclude, then, that history has vindicated Havel’s brand of idealism? Not necessarily. Among other things, one wonders what will become of his lofty aims and larger utopian vision now that he has entered the world of realpolitik. Czechs and Slovaks are already at loggerheads over the division of power under the new regime. How will Havel cope with such conflicts? Will he prove able to carry out ”the practical task of organizing a better world?” It is too soon to say. But after finishing this unusual overview of an admirable life, one hopes that he will find some way to beat the odds again. A-