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Václav Havel

I’ve never had it in me to be a good groupie, to anyone. Yes, of course I greatly admire some public figures, but too much fawning just feels embarrassing. Nor have I been prone to exaggerated overt mourning when a person of note or a celebrity dies. Again, yes, there have been exceptions. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in my youth was traumatic because it was the first attack on my innocence regarding my home country. Many more would follow. The assassination of Harvey Milk left me furious and even moved me to participate in the candlelight vigil in San Francisco. The death of Kurt Vonnegut left me feeling empty. How could there be no more novels? And yes, I was saddened by the death of Steve Jobs but I certainly did not stand vigil outside my nearest Apple Store. This is all to say, I was somewhat surprised by my following of Václav Havel and even more surprised at how deeply I was moved by his death.

Of course, I never met Havel nor saw him in person. I almost did. When Roberta and I visited Prague soon after the Velvet Revolution we entered Wenceslas Square, which is actually a huge boulevard, and found 300,000 people gathered there. The first thing I saw, besides the people of course, was an overturned Soviet tank. They had turned a tank onto its side! How did they do that? We were unaware, however, that at the top of the Square, standing on the steps of the huge museum, was Václav Havel giving a speech. We had no idea what was going on and left to visit the Jewish cemetery. Imagine that.

I did, however, go to his “places.” I went to the Magic Lantern. Timothy Garton Ash in an eulogy to Havel said this about the Magic Lantern: “…there in the Magic Lantern, in 1989, he became the lead actor and director of a play that changed history.” Unfortunately Mr. Ash did not tell us which of Havel’s plays he was referring to. Nonetheless,  I was in the Magic Lantern in 1989. I went to the Café Slavia with a copy of the Lidove Noviny, which I could not read, under my arm. I stood looking up at Havel’s family apartment in Prague for far too long. And perhaps most important, I went to his local pub for drinks and a meal. Perhaps I sat at his table, drank his favorite beer! Well, as I said, not much of a groupie. A second rate groupie?

I did read his words: Towards a Civil Society, Letters to Olga, Living in Truth, Open Letters, Disturbing the Peace, Summer Mediations, and The Art of the Impossible. I read his plays: Audience, Protest, Unveiling, Redevelopment or Slum Clearance, The Garden Party, The Memorandum, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Mistake, Temptation, and Largo Desolato. (Could it be that Timothy Garton Ash was referring to Temptation?)

Havel was, despite my almost natural skepticism and cynicism, quite encouraging, if not moving. He wrote of the death of ideology, which while somewhat premature still made sense in his context. He used notions of morality and spirituality when speaking of the social and political realms. He was as condemning of Western Consumerism as he was of Eastern Communism, in his mind both exhibiting a crisis of integrity and spirit in human society. He assumed that he was elected to tell the people he worked for the truth, not lies. Imagine that. A few quotes will make the point.

From Living in Truth:
Is it not true that the far-reaching adaptability to living a lie and the effortless spread of social auto-totality have some connection with the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity?

From Disturbing the Peace:

Absurd theatre does not offer us consolation or hope. It merely reminds us of how we are living: without hope. And that is the essence of its warning.

From Summer Meditations:

Yes, our polices – foreign and domestic – must never be based on an ideology; they must grow out of ideas, above all out of the idea of human rights as understood by modern humanity.

From Temptation:

Have you ever thought that we would be quite unable to understand even the most simple moral action which is not motivated by self-interest, that in fact it would appear to be quite absurd, if we did not admit to ourselves that somewhere within it there is concealed the prerequisite of something higher, some absolute, omniscient and infinitely just moral authority, through which and in which all our actions gain a mysterious worth and through which each and every one of us constantly touches eternity?

From his January 1, 1990 New Year’s address:

For forty years on this day you heard, from my predecessors, variations on the same theme: how our country flourished, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding before us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

On 1990 New Year’s day President Havel appeared before the people at the entrance to the museum and spoke of the changes that were needed to create a just and moral society. He declared that the enormous creative and spiritual potential of the nation was not being used sensibly, that, in fact, the nation was not flourishing. The economy was obsolete, education was second rate, and the environment was contaminated. And it did not stop there. They lived in a morally contaminated atmosphere as well. Freedom and democracy demanded participation and, therefore, responsibility by all. The horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy had inherited would cease to appear so terrible and hope would return to their hearts, if only they could see and understand the opportunities before them. He insisted there was reason to hope, but that people would have to feel again, think again, live again. And why not, they were free.

 Of course it could not last forever and as it turned out, it did not last that long. Almost immediately Václav Klaus appeared on the scene and the two did battle right through the Velvet Divorce. While it is true that democracy is all about opposing views and compromise, the war between the two Václavs seemed less then fruitful. And in his personal life Havel made the mistake of marrying a younger woman, Dagmar Veškrnová, less than a year after his first wife Olga died of cancer. His adoring public, seemingly forgetting with ease his years of harassment and imprisonment and his role in insuring the revolution was indeed velvet, turned on him. As is the way of our times, or so it seems, small men and women replaced him. But while his voice and his actions did last, they were were worth our attention. When I was in Prague I bought a poster of the man, took it home, had it framed and hung it on my study wall. Like the man, it too was eventually replaced by a picture of a photograph of Ernesto (Che) Guevara hanging in a humble Cuban home. However, when I heard of Václav Havel’s death I found the framed poster, dusted it off and hung it back on my wall. Here it is.

Along with the poster, I pulled my Prague travel journal off the shelf and read through it, just to remind myself of a better time. What follows is an excerpt from the journal.

From my Prague Journal ~ August 1989

Roberta and I entered a Prague park with leather bag over my shoulder and began looking for a bench. We were tired from the flight and just wanted to sit, rest, and wait for our host in peace. I saw a bench across the grass and so stepped off the paved walkway to take the shortest route to my rest. Just as I stepped onto the grass an old man shouted at me. I stopped, turned, and looked at him. In righteous indignation he yelled again, this time pointing at the pathway and then the grass in exaggerated movements. At first I didn't understand what he was so worked up about. Then it dawned. In a moment of civic pride, he was telling me not to walk on the grass.

I looked at the long way around to the empty bench and then at the grass, only to discover that there really wasn't any. Before me was a patch of weeds, dirt, and dog shit. I looked again at the old man.

"You're kidding," I said.

He didn't understand me, of course, but started shouting once more, now waving his cane in the air. I was too weary for a fight, but not for the walk, and it was his city after all. I took the long way around. When I finally sat on the bench and looked back at the old man, he sat triumphant, his companions nodding their approval at his victory.

It was just after the Velvet Revolution, the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion, the first such anniversary in freedom. Despite the fact that the city was overrun by tourists, there was still excitement in the air. There was hope and a passion for the possible around every corner. We were in the park waiting to meet a man kind enough to let us stay in his home. He and his wife lived in a large flat near the city centre. As it turned out, the flat was on Pstrossova not far from President Havel's flat. 

Our host met us about three in the afternoon and we walked to his flat, which was in a huge grand old building. We entered into a large dark and filthy hallway through large wooden doors. Everything was covered in plaster dust. He explained, in his broken English, that the entire building was being re-wired. The city was in the process of changing its current from 120 to 220 voltage to conform to Western European standards. Czechoslovakia was entering the modern world of capitalism and free market freedoms.

At the end of the hall was a large staircase and a small lift, which seemed to belong in an old movie. We took the lift to the third level. As I watched the building pass by the iron grid of the lift's door, everything I saw seemed ancient, though I learned later the building itself was only eighty years old.

His flat was large with high ceilings. On the walls were unusual works of art. Plants were placed here and there. There was a stereo with turntable, but no tape or CD player. A small television, black and white, sat on a book shelf. Books and vinyl records dominated much of the space. Tall and narrow doors opened onto very small balconies.

The room in which we stayed was also tall and narrow, and very comfortable. I dropped my bag on the bed and stepped out onto the small balcony. The city street below was busy and noisy. Across the street was a woman sitting by her window staring at me. She would be our constant companion while in that room. She seemed never to leave her window, not missing a moment of life below her. There was an accident on the third day of my stay. I rushed out onto the balcony when I heard the crash and there she was, at her window watching the entire scene. She saw me and, acknowledging our relationship, laughed, pointing to the people and cars arguing below. I laughed too and shook my head.

On that first day our host took us around the corner to what he claimed was the oldest pub in Prague. It seems people had been brewing and drinking beer there since 1499. I was impressed. We entered and walked through the building into a large open patio. All around the patio were trees, tiled roofs, large picnic-like tables, waiters rushing around with large trays and huge glasses of beer, and, of course, people. On the edge of a roof sat a grey cat quietly observing all below. We drank Flekovsky Cerny Lezok 13, a rich dark beer brewed on the grounds. We didn't actually talk much, but got to know each other nonetheless.

He was one of the most pleasant people I have met. Tall, slender, always dressed in jeans and a loose blue shirt. He walked with confidence. There was always a smile on his face, and he seemed permanently excited. Many of the people I met in newly exposed Prague still wore somber communist dispositions and faces. A smile seemed hard to come by, especially in the shops where your presence was an absolute annoyance. Things would change. The face of Prague and its people would change. But my new found friend was, even then, eternally pleasant and hopeful. His equally smiling playwright president would have been proud of him.

That night, after his wife had returned from work at the Italian Embassy, he made a large omelets and we shared a quiet dinner. She was a brooding intelligent person, at least so she seemed to me at first. As the days passed her face softened into smiles and her spirit revealed itself in numerous surprising, delightful, and challenging ways.

After we had finished our meal and cleared the table (dishes placed in the sink for later), a friend from the floor above came down for Turkish coffee, schnapps, and heated conversation. This upstairs friend was a cellist and passionate about everything. His playing and his passion seemed somehow mysteriously connected, though I am quite sure not all cellists are so extrovert. The next day Roberta and I went upstairs to his flat and listened to him play. On his wall was a large Christ figure, crucified, but with no cross. It was Christ crucified in mid-air. Crucifixion without wood and nail. Painless crucifixion. Imagine that.

It was a wonderful time that first night, the four of us speaking of revolution, music, plays, the possibility of the emergence of new moral politicians, societal structures, economics, and the valuing of all people. We spoke in German, English, and Czech as we drank strong muddy coffee around a polished round table. Our hosts were supportive of their new playwright president while the cellist was not. It was an event of social significance watching and listening to them. It was revelatory and revolutionary. Though the communists were officially out, the fabric of society had not changed, not really, and the men of wealth and power who had held power, still held power, seemingly always would hold power. It was society's fault, the president's fault, the people's fault.

“They say, 'The people are angels' because it was the people who caused the revolution. But they are not, they are not used to building new a society." She spoke into the centre of the table, eyes gazing beyond space and time to, where? She continued to explain that the fabric of society had to change, and so too did the people. No, the cellist corrected, the people had to change and only then would the fabric of society change. Either way, the three all agreed, something had to change. There was numbness and blindness everywhere.

The next day, August 20, 1989, with a misty drizzle saturating the air, 200,000 people gathered in Wenceslas Square to listen to the one moral politician, who used to write plays of the absurd and essays from prison, deliver a speech. It was the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of a Prague past, the first anniversary in freedom with 220 volts running through the city's veins. In the middle of the boulevard a Soviet tank had been overturned and the people climbed over its now defeated shell. Amazingly, Roberta and I didn’t know he was at the far end of the huge boulevard so we never saw him!

That night we went to Havel's pub, which is to say the president's local near his family flat. There I was told that the dissident playwright sat in this pub with others talking about society, spirit, ethics, and freedom, the very things he would be responsible for encouraging in the unbelievable future. The story goes that when he was arrested, the cook was also fired as a dissident, for she too spoke of the impossible possibilities of dreams. When the prisoner became president, his first official act was to give the cook back her job. Or so I was told with the beer flowing and the angels drinking and eating in the new air of freedom. Whatever you say about history and storytelling, it was a great story. When I met her she was fat, happy and very busy.

In the morning we bought a copy of Lidove Noviny and went to the Café Slavia, the café frequented by Havel himself. As I sat over coffee, surrounded by the layers of years that people had been meeting in that café, I wrote in my journal.

The flat, the pub, the arguing, the muddy coffee, the stories, the president, and the people who are angels. I must never forget this Prague, because it will never be the same again. Already the city has been turned over to the tourists coming from lands of freedom and democracy, and will soon be turned over to free market ideologues.

Copyright © 2011 Dale Rominger

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