Vaclav Havel, an appreciation

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Dec. 19, 2011 at 10:02 AM
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PARIS, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- In a lifetime in journalism one meets many famous people and political leaders of great power and presence. But among the Clinton and both Bushes and Gorbachev and Yeltsin and Thatcher and Blair and Schroeder and Kissinger and Sharon and Netanyahu and Gadhafi, Vaclav Havel stands out as unique.

This was in part because he wasn't a politician. He was a playwright and poet, a philosopher and rock 'n 'roll fan, and author of some of greatest letters ever written from prison. And since that category includes Martin Luther King and Gramsci, the Marquis de Sade and St. Paul, it's a tough group.

He was also a genuinely sweet and decent man, always patient and courteous and ready with a quick, disarming smile, even in the time when he was trying to give up the cigarettes that finally killed him.

He had that gift of being able to live fully in the moment, to focus completely on the person he was with, the conversation he was holding, the thought that he was exploring.

The surroundings disappeared under the force of his concentration. Whether at his summer place at Hradecka or in the Presidential Palace, or sneaking a cigarette behind a curtain in the East Room at the White House with Lech Walesa or in some international forum, the grand settings disappeared like so much stage furniture in one of his plays.

I remember one lovely fall afternoon out in Madeleine Albright's farm in Virginia, the smell of barbecued ribs on the air, and we sat on benches at a wooden table and he talked about words and language and what they meant to him, and the utter obscenity of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for words he had written in a novel.

It was a conversation, not an interview, and I wasn't taking notes but when I saw him again in Prague I asked him about one phrase, "words as arrows," that had stuck in my head. He sent me the transcript of a speech he had made at some award ceremony in Germany when he had confessed his complete inability to comprehend what spell Hitler's demented words had cast on an earlier generation of Germans.

He concluded: "Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful -- lethal, even. The word as arrow."

The words we wrote and the words we live by, he said on that Virginia afternoon, were our closest connection to immortality and to the infinite. It is by words and with words that we will be judged.

I recalled the echo of his speech to a joint session of Congress, when he had stressed the need for all human beings to understand their "Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success. Responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged."

He did not shy away from the implications of the mystic and the spiritual that such words carried. It was not simply that he insisted on a personal morality being an essential part of true politics but also that some of the most potent words were the most ethereal, the hardest to pin down and to define.

"We don't always find it easy to recognize truth," he told me once at his summer house. "But we can certainly come to recognize lies when we hear them paraded endlessly before us."

Paraded as they had been in that squalid Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia when he was its leading dissident, its best-known political prisoner and its most dangerous foe, simply because his plays skewered it at the very point at which it was most vulnerable; in the lies on which it was based and the arrogant abuse of words and language it employed to them.

His best plays are about this misuse of words by a totalitarian regime. "The Garden Party" is about the attempt by a bureaucracy to create a new content-free but ideological language and "The Memorandum" is about the use of a new language that has been invented to be emotion-free and the way those who use become spies on their fellow workers.

"Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate," was his motto and he tried to live as he wrote. But to try to define him in such philosophical terms misses the essence of the man, his sense of fun, of the ridiculous and the sheer joy he took in rock 'n' roll and the way he loved to talk about music.

I had told him once of the time when, based in Moscow as a journalist, I had every year on the anniversary of John Lennon's death gone up to a wintry esplanade overlooking the city from the university to take part in the annual wake of vodka and tinny cassette recorders and massed singings of "Imagine" that was our commemoration.

"I was in prison when I heard Lennon had died and it moved me more than the death of JFK. He was a part of me, part of all our generation, we children of the '60s," he said.

I recall now that it was during that Virginia barbecue because Barbra Streisand was there with him, taking in every word and pretending not to mind as the cigarette smoke drifted into her hair.

But a child of the '60s he was, an admirer and friend of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed (it was no accident that the author of the Velvet Revolution had found a kind of liberation in the music of Reed's Velvet Underground), and I recall his excitement at getting the Rolling Stones to play at the Prazsky Hrad, the great castle of Prague.

It was the arrest of the underground Czech rock band Plastic People that inspired him to draft Charter 77, the symbol and driving force of the non-violent, humanist and democratic revolution that eventually triumphed over one of the more putrid regimes of Stalin's wretched empire.

"I do not believe that certain values and ideals of the sixties have been discredited as empty illusions and mistakes," he writes in "Letters to Olga," "though it is a history of repressions, murders, stupidities, wars and violence, it is at the same time a history of magnificent dreams, longings and ideals."

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