Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Revolutionary Spiritual Praxis

Paul Wilson, translator of several of Václav Havel’s works, including his celebrated Letters to Olga (1983/1988), and one-time member of the underground band, The Plastic People of the Universe, has an eloquent and moving remembrance in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books:

[….] “[Havel’s] vision [was] based on a democratic politics underpinned by a strong civil society and rooted in common decency, morality, and respect for the rule of law and human rights; a politics that sought to transcend racial, cultural, and religious differences by articulating a ‘moral minimum’ that Havel believed existed at the heart of most faiths and cultures and that would provide a basis for agreement and cooperation without sacrificing the unique gifts that each person, each culture, and each ‘sphere of civilization’ could bring to enrich modern life. [....]

Like many great Czechs before him, Havel insisted on the importance of truth, but with a difference. ‘Truth and love,’ he was fond of saying, ‘must prevail over lies and hatred.’ He was often ridiculed for what seemed like a Hallmark sentiment (‘Why love?’ people asked), but he defended the slogan by referring to one of his greatest insights: truth, by itself, is a malleable concept that depends for its truthfulness on who utters it, to whom it is said, and under what circumstances. As a playwright, Havel turned this insight into a dramatic device: in most of his plays, the main characters constantly lie to one another and to themselves, using words that, in other circumstances, would be perfectly truthful. Truth by itself is not enough: it needs a guarantor, someone to stand behind it. It must be uttered with no thought for gain, that is, in Havel’s words, with a love that seeks nothing for itself and everything for others.*

We are close to religious territory here, and indeed, in the week of leave-taking in Prague, I heard many discussions about Havel’s true beliefs. Was he a Catholic and, if not, was the high mass in St. Vitus’s Cathedral the right way to send him off? Yes, replied some, he had been raised a Catholic and been confirmed as a young man. Sister Veritas said she felt that Havel was “with God” more profoundly than many observant Catholics, but she admitted that he had neither asked for nor received the last rites before he died. One of his last conversations was with the Dalai Lama, whom he considered a spiritual guru. But in the circumstances, such questions seemed inconsequential, even scholastic. Havel was a deeply spiritual man who expressed his spirituality, if that is the right word, almost entirely through his actions in the world.” [….]

Hat tip to Mark Edwards, who let me know of this essay (I’ve yet to receive my hard copy of the NYRB) in his latest installment at Concurring Opinions: “Vaclav Havel, Part V: Prison, Torment and Temptation.”

Image: (Courtesy of the NYRB) Tomki Němec—Václav Havel visiting Ruzyně Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990.

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