Monday, January 30, 2012

Paul Berman on Václav Havel's "screwy ideas"

Václav Havel

The New Republic has an article on one of the political figures I most respect by one of the journalists I most respect, Paul Berman's "Democracy and the Human Heart: Václav Havel, 1936-2011" (January 26, 2012). Both are practical men who take -- or, in Havel's case, took -- ideas seriously. Oddly enough, Havel's seriously meant remarks about God could sound rather loopy, as in his musings to Berman during a 1997 interview:
A new god, he told me, would most likely be abstract and multicultural -- a god who brought together Allah, Buddha, Christ, and so on.

Berman himself refers to Havel's "screwy ideas" on a multicultural god, and even though Berman cites one of Havel's advisors as having used this expression to describe the concept, he doesn't appear to reject the label. Multicultural deities aside, why was Havel interested in such theistic views at all? Berman offers an intriguing explanation:
Now that he has died, I think I see the pertinence of this last and fuzziest of ideas a little more clearly. Havel was frightened by atheism. In his eyes, communism was atheism's apotheosis. Communism led everyone to focus on material circumstances and to dream of improving the circumstances, and to dream of nothing else. For why should anyone dream of anything more than material improvements? More does not exist. Such was atheism's message. To pine for a new automobile made sense, but there was no point in contemplating the state of your soul.

Communist despotism in the "post-totalitarian" period depended on people drawing this kind of distinction -- between the reality of material things and the non-reality of things having to do with the soul or with Being. So long as everyone adhered to materialist principles, the Central Committee could get along without firing squads. The regime stayed in power merely by manipulating the distribution of products and privileges. You wanted a Skoda? You mumbled the communist slogans, and you avoided mumbling anything else, and after a few years of reliable obedience your own name would ascend to the top of the waiting list, and -- oh greatest of all conceivable joys! -- a Skoda would be yours.

To counter this materialist atheism, Havel sought a useful language:
The whole point of his multiculti god was to look for a spiritual language that was not going to be tied to any particular religion, and therefore could address everyone. Then again, he did not want to leave everything in the hands of the multiculti god, either . . .

Even if he didn't say so, Havel may, like me, have found theism nearly as frightening as atheism, for even prior to 2001, in an address to the US Congress in 1990, Havel said:
"For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humbleness, and in human responsibility."

Or, as glossed by Berman:
You have got to think for yourself, in short.

Berman then offers a fitting tribute to Havel that shows how the man's 'screwy metaphysical ideas' led him to greatness, and there's an interesting irony Berman notes:
Religious ideas are usually said to be an argument against what is called "relativism," or the idea that nothing in particular should be regarded as absolutely important. In one respect, though, the ideas that Havel liked to entertain did promote a kind of relativism, and this was in regard to his own life. If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk. Havel seems to have understood pretty clearly that his own life was not the greatest of all possible values. In 1983, when they carried him off in handcuffs to the prison hospital because he had refused to request a pardon -- at that particular moment his lungs had trouble breathing but his brain seems to have had no trouble recognizing that his own continued place on earth was not his highest goal. If he had come to a different recognition, would the rest of his life have spoken to us as eloquently as it does? He was one of the greatest and most heroic figures of modern times, or maybe of all time, but he was a great and heroic figure because his own thinking gave him the courage to risk not being anything at all.

This reminds me of a lengthy conversation that I recently had with a friend over coffee. We were discussing the big issues. God. Values. Mortality. Civilizations. Not in any particular order. He noted that he would fight for his values. I asked why. "Because they are mine." The conversation took a twist at that point, so I didn't get an opportunity to pursue that a bit further, but the next question, clearly, is this: "Would you fight for them to the death?" There has to be a sense in which my values are worth defending beyond the fact that they are mine. If that is all, mere possession, then why not trade those values in for other values if one's life is at stake? Surely my life is more important to me than my possessions, for without life, I possess nothing. The fact that one would be willing to die in defense of one's values implies that one places the values above one's own life, which means that one holds these values to be transcendent, and that they therefore give life meaning even after one is gone.

Havel seems to have thought so, anyway, and his screwy ideas made his life of lasting value.

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