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Who was the real Havel?

Among the many Eastern and Central European dissidents, only a few got such popularity in the West as he did. Once a political prisoner, he was chosen to be the President of the state. Many saw this as the incarnation of one of the Europe's oldest topoi - the philosopher on the throne - he was one of the key figures of the Autumn of Nations, a pioneer of the reintegration of Europe, and a laidback, long-haired rock fan and playwright at the same time. A venerable pundit or an old, complaining preachy dreamer? Who was Václav Havel really?

Discussing Havel and his legacy is an indispensable task to make up for the bitter lesson of the 20th century. As he used to say: "no error could be greater than the failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are – a convex mirror of all modern civilisation and a harsh, perhaps final, call for a global recasting of how that civilisation understands itself." Totalitarianism "has not appeared out of thin air;" it's an effect rather than a cause. Without comprehending Havel, "learning from our own European history" remains impossible. That's why from the variety of narratives we decided to emphasise what has often been neglected by the media but is ultimately crucial. We'd like to present Havel as a political thinker, a philosopher for the European crisis.

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons (PD)
Politician, philosopher, playwrite, rock fan or a dreamer? Who was the real Václav Havel?

Make politics (very) personal

First of all, Havel was not the kind of political philosopher who proposes some certain ideal political system or clear justification of authority and law. In some ways he may appear to be very similar to the Socrates who emerges from Plato's dialogues. He does not pose "a question about socialism or capitalism." He saw such categories as "thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused," and ultimately "beside the point." Havel wasn't interested in institutions, socio-technical tricks or the sufficient execution of power. He sought the individual; that was his fundamental assumption. It was perhaps his first and the last question: how can an individual immersed in history rescue his or her own humanity and then affect history? Therefore the crisis Havel refers to is by far more complex, because it's not confined in the formulas of political technology but concerns the foundations of modern society. It cannot be resolved by traditional means. He claims that it demands a profound change of thinking and a reaffirmation of some of the lost "subjective illusions," "forgotten awareness" that "endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence" which is indispensable to a meaningful community.

"Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being"

Havel used to blame the modern, technological civilisation. However, his was not some naïve, escapist condemnation; he rather tried to point out some specific aspects of modernity that seem to make a man less human and paradoxically provided a world that is more vague than enlightened.

Along with the scientific worldview came false rational objectivity. Man became arrogant and while he supposed he had freed himself from the old myths, it was actually taboos that he had liberated himself from – or rather he had become "alienated from himself as a being."

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Photo: Martin Kozák (CC)
Havel's contribution to peace and human rights won him many awards, including the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the International Gandhi Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many others.

As modern man began to examine the world as an objective observer, he somehow lost his personal attitude to it. When he started to describe the world using only scientific measures (and insist that this is the only possibility), he decided "to deny it, deframe and degrade it and, of course, at the same time colonise it." Havel seemed to say that we deprived ourselves from the world that was "the realm of our inimitable, inalienable, and non-transferable joy and pain," a world of "tangible content" that was provided by "pre-speculative assumptions," "pre-objective experience of the lived world" that our less enlightened and less rational ancestors had bequeathed by a word of mouth.

"Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us." Modern man is accustomed to negate, to doubt, and to find rational, objective justification. He negated ("disinherited" himself from) his ancestors' knowledge as some immature, childish stories. Nevertheless, at the same time he "lives in the conviction he that can improve his life because he is able to grasp and exploit the complexity of nature and the general laws of its functioning." The "man outside nature" ignores it with a conviction of objective, external superiority. Havel gives an example from his homeland, depicting the failed communist modernisation of Czechoslovakian agriculture: "With hedges ploughed under and woods cut down, wild birds have died out and, with them, a natural, unpaid protector of the crops against harmful insects. Huge unified fields have led to the inevitable annual loss of millions of cubic yards of topsoil that have taken centuries to accumulate; chemical fertilizers and pesticides have catastrophically poisoned all vegetable products, the earth and the waters."

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NEXT ISSUE 01.10.2014

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