Vaclav Havel died Sunday at home. I’ve admired Havel from afar, ever since those heady days in December 1989 when the nonviolent protests in Prague ended more than four decades of communist rule and Havel was named president. A country that would name a playwright, an artist, to head its government had to be a good place. (And it is a wonderful place, and a wonderful culture, but that’s for another day.)
As I read of his passing, it made me feel negligent. Over the years since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, I’ve read scattered bits of Havel’s writing, an essay or two here, pieces of commentary. They have always bespoken a man living thoughtfully and living well (as in, “trying to live a good life,” as opposed to “living richly,” although those don’t have to be distinct). I’ve admired his spirit, albeit a bit ignorantly. I’ve admired the way he was compelled to be involved in and true to his native place, even when totalitarianism made that inconvenient and difficult. It seemed to be a moral imperative, living truthfully.
His life and his words speak out even in elegy. I was reminded of this one in a post by Jim Fallows of the Atlantic: In 1995, Havel gave the commencement address at Harvard. Without using the term globalization, he talked about the singular culture that was emerging in big cities and centers of culture around the globe. At the same time, he said, this was only a thin veneer over the “sum total of human awareness,” most of which was ancient, very local, often at odds with the global culture that was emerging. This contrary tendency was increasingly demanding to be heard, culturally and politically.
“It is my belief that this state of affairs contains a clear challenge not only to the Euro-American world but to our present-day civilization as a whole. It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multi-cultural and a multi-polar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co-existence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side. Yet such a code won’t stand a chance if it is merely the product of a few who then proceed to force it on the rest. It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization. If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of the skin, the way Coca-cola ads are – as a commodity offered by some to others – such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.
“But is humanity capable of such an undertaking? Is it not a hopelessly utopian idea? Haven’t we so lost control of our destiny that we are condemned to gradual extinction in ever harsher high-tech clashes between cultures, because of our fatal inability to cooperate-operate in the face of impending catastrophes, be they ecological, social, or demographic, or of dangers generated by the state of our civilization as such?
The whole thing is definitely worth a read. What stands out as I reread this now, and has often stood out in Havel’s essays, is his humility and empathy, all the more remarkable and powerful given his own life. He began producing plays in the 1960s, but after the Warsaw Pact countries crushed the Prague uprising in 1968, the words he wrote were dangerous, including the Charter 77 document. Havel knew what it was to be one of those voices demanding to be heard. In the commencement address, Havel expressed his uncertainty as to whether the world’s cultures were up to this task. He certainly devoted a lot of his life to this effort.
Jim Fallows, as he always does in situations like this, has some wise thoughts as well, including noting that Havel never won the Nobel Peace Prize, a glaring omission when we scan the winners over the past 22 years since the Velvet Revolution.
UPDATE: Love this comment in a tribute from Esquire blogger Charles Pierce:
In his honor, may I say, as loudly as I can:
Ronald Reagan Did Not Win The Cold War.