Monday, October 05, 2015

Wendy Willis on Michael Zantovsky's Biography of Havel

Wendy Willis, reviewing Michael Zantovsky's biography, Havel: A Life, refers to Havel's life as an "An All or Nothing Gamble: Václav Havel and His Spiritual Revolution" (Los Angeles Times, September 30th, 2015), and here's the crux, a letter Havel wrote in defense of "the rock band Plastic People of the Universe," who "were arrested, tried, and convicted for aggravated hooliganism":
Many other writers and artists signed on to Havel's letter, arguing that a threat to speech somewhere was a threat to speech everywhere. But Havel's reaction to the trial was both deeper and more nuanced. It was both personal and metaphoric:
It does not happen often and usually it happens at moments when few expect it: something somewhere snaps and an event - thanks to an unpredictable synergy of its own internal prerequisites and of more or less random external circumstances - suddenly oversteps the limits of its position in the context of habitual everydayness, breaks the crust of what it is supposed to be and what it appears to be, and suddenly discloses its innermost, hidden and in some respects, symbolic meaning.
From that point on, Havel was on a collision course with Czech authorities, resulting in several arrests and prison stays, the longest extending from 1979 until 1983. As Zantovsky characterizes it, rarely has a political movement been born requiring "nothing more and nothing less than staying true to oneself."
So . . . "something somewhere snaps" - what does this mean? Havel gives an example, as Willis explains:
The example Havel uses is a greengrocer who daily, dutifully displays a window placard provided by the authorities that says: "Workers of the world, unite!" As Havel describes it, everyone knows that the placard is unlikely to be reflective of the greengrocer's own feelings or ideas, nor is it a genuine attempt to persuade passersby of anything in particular. Rather, it is a signal of compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: "I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace."

And still, Havel imagines another future for the greengrocer. What if the greengrocer "snaps" and stops putting out the sign? Yes, Havel knows that the greengrocer will be punished by the authorities, that the "anonymous components of the system will spew the greengrocer from its mouth." But he also imagines a more exalted role for him. By refusing to post a sign that is meaningless to him, the greengrocer rejects the lie on which the totalitarian system depends. He destabilizes everything.
That is the crux, the point at which someone refuses any longer to live hypocritically and insists on living within the truth . . .



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