Václav Havel was laid to rest last month. Since his death, Czechs and others from around the world have been slowly saying goodbye to a man who profoundly inspired them and whose moral presence the world desperately needed. We began to comprehend the immensity of our loss and recognized Havel’s great gift to us: not only the courage to hope and to see a future brighter than the present, but also the promise that politics can be humble and honest — that politics can be humane.
The gift of a humane politics is a project Havel began but of course never finished. He gestured at it, but this humanity can always only be gestured toward. Like all ideals, it is unachievable by our flawed and finite selves, the imperfection and vulnerability of which Havel understood so very well. But humane politics, our inheritance from a great and kind man, is worthy of our reflection and, ultimately, our support.
On the morning of Dec. 21, three days after Havel’s death, my mother and I — along with thousands of others — followed behind Havel’s body with hushed voices and solemn steps, from where he had lain in the Old Town, across the Charles Bridge and climbed to the Prague Castle. As Havel’s casket was moved from the hearse to a horse-drawn military caisson — the same used for Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk— the procession spread into the square beneath the palatial gates, awaiting the final leg of Havel’s journey before his state funeral.
The morning had begun gray and dim, but the clouds momentarily receded before a brilliant winter sun. The tones of Chopin’s “Marche funèbre” drew closer, and, just as Havel’s casket reached us, the sky once again darkened and an icy rain began to fall. We spontaneously began to applaud. Even those who might have thought applause has no place at a funeral clapped. People jingled keys in remembrance, a wonderfully apt reversal of a symbol of the Velvet Revolution: “Goodbye, it’s time to go home” was the old saying reserved for the Communists in 1989. This was an authentic, human moment, Havelian in its theatricality, rebellion and ironic play.
Havel would be the first to admit that he was not a systematic thinker. While he had no formal higher education in philosophy or literature, Havel did possess an innate, brilliant intuition for the world and its hidden dimensions.
Perhaps of all of his writings, the essay “The Power of the Powerless” is his finest, an exemplary articulation of modern ideology’s inner workings. If nothing else, the salience and insight of this text will be Havel’s greatest intellectual legacy, all the more so in our contemporary supposedly postideological world. For Havel, the insidiousness of ideology lies in its playing with a person’s desire to be given easy answers. In so doing, however, ideology frees one from thought and thus from responsibility. The ideologically paralyzed person is demoralized, living in a lie.
Havel’s work captured the concrete acts that ensnare individuals and societies in ideological cruelty or hypocrisy. He wrote of a woman killed by a falling stone window ledge, her fate brushed aside in the Communist press by emphasizing the dignity of the collective human mission over mere individual matters. He described the ridiculous but ideologically essential posturing by the greengrocer putting his “Workers of the World — Unite!” sign among his vegetables. In a political climate that denied freedom of speech, Havel sought to preserve his and others’ freedom of thought, to peel back the ideological layers of received values, to exercise — amid the grayness — some form of moral responsibility.
Havel reminds us that a democratic legal order must be coupled with a robust moral order, an ever-evolving set of civic virtues that tie the individual to his community. Havel’s politics was small and personal. It was, in this sense, ill suited for larger democratic processes or modern republics. But it was always an ideal to be incorporated in the judgment of existing systems. We might disappoint in our efforts to be democratic and humane, but we could do so intelligently. We could learn, as Beckett wrote, to “fail better.”
The articulation of this guiding ideal took on a charming form in Havel’s skilled literary hands. Through his language and his sincerity, he reintroduced us to our own dreams of better things to come, to dreams we once had for ourselves.
Václav Havel’s absence will be felt, and he has left us at a time when we are ill prepared to be without him. Let us hope, then, that we will for a long time to come continue to call to all he has left of himself among us. After all, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” was always only a beginning. Going forth, let us embrace it as our own.
Paul Linden-Retek is a third-year student in the Law School.