Václav Havel, playwright, dissident and president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic successively, was one of the most inspirational human beings to have walked the earth in our time. I met him once when he received a group of visiting scholars at Prague Castle, and have long been aware of the seminal role he played in the history of his own country and as a thinker who grappled with the deepest challenges of the modern world. But I had not had an opportunity to contemplate the full range of his achievements before reading Michael Zantovsky’s extraordinary Havel: A Life. It is a book that affirms the validity of the genre of biography, for it aims not so much at compiling the details as grasping their meaning as a whole.
Through Zantovsky’s skillful presentation we gain a glimpse of what it was like to be Václav Havel. It approaches the form of “the story of a soul.” We are privy to that inner unfolding by which Havel became Havel. This is no mean feat and it is possible only because Zantovsky shared so closely in the great drama. As a fellow participant in the Velvet Revolution that accomplished the transition from communism to democratic rule in Czechoslovakia, Zantovsky had a front row seat. But beyond that he was a friend of Havel and went on to serve him as spokesman, press secretary and adviser during his presidential years, and eventually as Czech ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. Yet the work is remarkably free of any inclination toward hagiography or score-settling. It is a biography that presents its subject in all his laudable features and in his undeniable limitations. It is almost a work of confession, as the best such exercises must be.
A large part of the credit for that unwavering scrutiny goes to Havel himself. He submitted to scrupulous self-examination, admitting his failures and often asking forgiveness for them (as he did in the last act of his presidency). Like Augustine in the Confessions, Havel knew that his life stood before eternal judgment. The time for self-serving excuses is past. All that remains is the sifting of the truth or falsity of what has been done. Among his last writings is a reflection on his “preparation for the last judgment, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden.” Had he lived up to the responsibilities that had been placed upon him? The question runs through Havel’s life as its guiding thread. Without becoming a secular saint and while retaining many of the character flaws to which he was prone, he nevertheless found his way to the truth of existence and staked his life upon it. This was what made Havel a beacon of authority in an environment largely deprived of it. His country exercised an outsize influence on the world scene so long as it was led by so powerful a witness to truth.
Zantovsky’s narrative follows the process by which Havel came to realize that responsibility for the good was his alone. Beginning with his early years and following through his military service, it recounts how the suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968 propelled him into the role of a dissident. Without seeking confrontation and wary of the excesses of a moralistic stance, Havel gradually worked out the means by which the powerless might confront the powerful (to invoke the title of his most famous essay). The opportunity came when the Helsinki Accords made the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia signatories, along with the Western states, to a treaty that included the pledge to uphold human rights. Havel and his associates realized that they possessed a legal wedge by which to open a space for freedom. Thus was born the Charter 77 document (after the year) whose individual signatories demanded that their government uphold the guarantees to which it had recently bound itself. Leaving behind the fantasy of “Socialism with a human face” of the Prague Spring, the Chartists were inexorably pointed toward the full recognition of liberty of the person as the only adequate basis for humane government. After multiple arrests and interrogations, Havel eventually served five years in prison. Others, including the philosopher Jan Patočka, lost their lives.
Throughout it all Havel was buoyed by his involvement with the theater, especially in its avant garde and absurdist modes. A guiding inspiration was the famous Czech novelist Franz Kafka, whose depiction of a man arrested and tried for a crime of which he is never informed seemed uncannily close to the world Havel inhabited. His response was to invoke the shade of Kafka and attempt a recovery of meaning in an absurdly constituted universe. Havel’s own plays often take the irreconcilable contradictions of political and bureaucratic mandates as their principal theme. Echoes of such famous satires as Catch-22 and The Good Soldier Švejk abound. The plays were only occasionally performed in his home country but met constant success abroad, thereby also alleviating an otherwise precarious economic existence. Western audiences saw them as part of the theater of the absurd with which they were already familiar in the work of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and others. While his plays were more political, Havel took as his theme the situation of modern man adrift in a universe no longer transparent. In line with the presentation of the city to itself in Greek tragedy, contemporary theater seems in Havel’s hands to play a similar role. The dramatist assumes a public responsibility.
But the truth that could only be presented indirectly through the clash of characters could also be meditated upon more directly. Havel followed this discursive path in a series of luminous essays and reflections that continued to the end of his life. In this genre he displayed a remarkable level of philosophical penetration. Without professional training, Havel had acquired an impressive grasp of contemporary philosophy. Echoes of Heidegger are frequent. Yet where the latter made reflection on Being primary, Havel took reflection on responsibility as his focus. Like Emmanuel Levinas, who talks about responsibility in the face of the other, Havel favored the priority of ethics over ontology. The astonishing result is that he thereby found his way back to metaphysics or an account of Being.
Without becoming a believer, Havel edged ever closer to the idea of God. He knew that his own moral resolve drew upon depths beyond his individual consciousness. He sought to communicate something of that reawakening in inviting Pope John Paul II as one of the earliest visitors during his presidency. He also developed a close rapport with the Dalai Lama, who introduced him to the notion of meditation. Havel, despite his Bohemian associations, had much in common with both of them, but it was in welcoming the pope that he uttered his most memorable confession of faith. “I strongly believe that your visit will remind us all of the genuine source of real human responsibility, the metaphysical source...of the absolute horizon to which we must refer, that mysterious memory of Being in which each of our acts is recorded and in which and through which they finally acquire their value.”
Of course not all of Havel’s official engagements reached that exalted level. They were also interwoven with the frustrating grind of politics and its internecine battles. Yet even there, Zantovsky demonstrates, President Havel kept his focus on the larger picture. He presided over the breakup of Czechoslovakia that was mitigated only by the acknowledgment it was less acrimonious than it might have been. He was crucial in promoting the expansion of NATO membership to include the countries of Eastern Europe, and he paved the way for their accession into membership in the European Union. Strategically these were initiatives of lasting significance for the continent. Havel understood the brief historical window that made them possible, for it would later close definitively.
His considerable moral suasion was the pivotal factor that overcame endemic political inertia. In a similar way he played a pivotal role in lending support to the American-led war on terror, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever his shortcomings as a pragmatic politician—they became increasing evident as his popularity waned—he never lost sight of the responsibility of the leader for the ultimate good of the community. Václav Havel was a true European, who understood that the project of European union could succeed only if it stood for something larger than the pursuit of self-interest. It could not define itself in opposition to America but must embrace its responsibility for the modern world it had brought into existence. His own life had exemplified the way.